I Wanna be Evil

by Sarah Hoyt

Crossposted at According To Hoyt

Yes, this is a variation on a theme.  Having told you how happy I am with Avengers’ heroes and with the idea of it as Human Wave, I must confess I find its villain… well…

Now before you throw things at me, kindly remember I didn’t see any of the setup movies.  My commenters have informed me there’s material I should see in the Thor movie, particularly the deleted scenes.  I believe them.                    

Also, as further excuse, I do realize that Avengers is a comic book based movie.  We’re lucky to get heroes that make – at least some – sense.  A villain who wants to rule the world is just par for the course.  Particularly a villain who wants to rule the world and is open about it.

Let’s make it clear right now that I much – MUCH – prefer this to the “tortured” villains of the seventies, victims of society or whatever it was they were, who really were the true victims and to be mourned.

Not that I blame the seventies for ruining villains in American storytelling (this, like the rare occasions in which I do prefer something Portugal does to something in the US is one of those times you should make a note.  It’s pretty rare.  Having turned eight in 1970, I hold the seventies responsible for most pathologies of literature, fashion and movie making.  Yes, I do have proof.  An age that enshrined bell bottoms was clearly a nexus of evil.  PARTICULARLY elephant bells – a style known as “looks good on none.”)

No, I think what makes most villains of American – not Loki, who, at least is genuinely villainous, if somewhat simplistic as presented in the movie – storytelling a lot of “fail” is two fold.  First, we are a nation of rejects.  Either us or our ancestors came here because we were either not wanted, not successful, or hated wherever we were.  Add to that that we are – by necessity – a society with no uniform outer (or even cultural – to the extent cookery and dress are cultural) characteristics, it’s no wonder we developed a pash for the under dog.  And it’s impossible to start telling a story with a twisty villain without starting to wonder if he’s an underdog.  What made him that way?  How come he has such a need to hurt and/or dominate?  

The second reason is sitcoms.  Or perhaps pop psychology to the extent that it permeated television writing at the time Americans got a TV in every home.  Within the confines of the sitcom, which had to come back every week, with more or less the same cast, it was impossible to have a Loki who just wants to enslave humans.  Your evils had to be smaller and even your villains had to be somewhat sympathetic, so people would continue tuning in.  To this day I’m completely flabbergasted by how easily sitcom disputes are settled, by having everyone “see” why the “villain” is “doing wrong” out of misconceptions or some justifiable sense of victimhood.  As pop psychology has become discredited, the solution seems to be to make every sitcom character unbearably stupid or completely insane.  (I loved Friends which I discovered just before 9/11 and was the first sitcom I watched in decades – mostly in reruns.  Perhaps love is too strong a word.  I spent weeks after 9/11 dumbly sitting in front of the TV, alternating between the news, reruns of friends, and Buffy.  I didn’t want to think and reading was to much like thinking.  But perhaps because of that I STILL have a soft spot for the series.  However, fair is fair.  If those people existed, ALL of them should be heavily medicated, if not actually in a padded cell.)

The problem is that we tend to translate things we see regularly as “truth” in our back brain, and I think most Americans in generations – three? – that grew up with sitcoms don’t even realize that they’ve been tricked into thinking there is a definable pop-psychology reason at the back of every horrible action and nasty villain.

I’ll say this for Americans – in this case, Americans by upbringing and heritage and therefore somewhat excluding me (to the extent I wasn’t raised here.  Including me to the extent I had enough American TV and movies to have a veneer of it.) – Despite the barrage of “poor him” villains, they prefer really honest-to-goodness bad guys.  Movies in the seventies did better abroad than in the US (possibly because pop psychology and also the idea they’re victims – mostly in their own minds of the US, but I don’t have the time to go into that – are really popular over there.) and there is a reason “make my day” entered the vernacular.

Also, Heinlein, with honest to goodness villains – no?  Did you read the psychoanalysis and cure within three pages of Wormface? – was way moer popular than the “psychologically deep” stories of the present.  (There were other reasons.  I’m not saying that’s the only one.)

The thing is that we know what good villains are.  Shakespeare had a lot of good villains.  Except for Hamlet, where we’re never absolutely sure WHO the villain is and which, yes, is “deep” and possible to analyze back to front and front to back in about ten different ways, (I suspect that Shakespeare had just been given Prozac, or possibly Freud by a time-traveler.  Shud up you.  I’m an SF writer.  I can come up with this cr*p if I want to.  And yeah, Hamlet is WORTH IT in a way, but it is not [unless severely cut to eliminate ambiguity] a “popular entertainment” template.  And if ALL of Shakespeare’s plays had followed that model, we’d now be going as we do about Marlowe “Uh, I guess people really liked blood on stage.” [A lot of Marlowe’s plays follow that template, and both sides are equally unpleasant so you just want them all dead.  Something I note Shakespeare ended up giving in to in Hamlet.])

I mean, think about it… The Scottish play?  Love of power, until he is “in blood steeped so far”; do you really care what Regan and Goneril’s reasons were?  While I agree with Agatha Christie’s character in the moving finger that “they must have been twisted inside by their crazy old father” in the end, they chose their bed and MUST lie in it.

Heinlein too does not give in to the temptation to rehabilitate his villains or make their actions completely explicable.  We might understand what drives Bella Darkin, but though she’s rendered rather pathetic in the end, she’s not rehabilitated, much less made into a kind of Worthy Victim.  (For those who do not have their Heinlein at their fingertips, this is The Door Into Summer.  Yes, there are other examples.  It’s too early and I am insufficiently caffeinated.  You’ll just have to deal.)

I’ll add that using a cliched villain like Loki (well, we know he’s bad, because we know Norse Myth) is not only infinitely preferable to “everyone has his reasons” villainy because it allows you to cheer for the good guys and throw orange peels at the villain – it is preferable, also, because it saves us from that ultimate bane of inept storytelling villainy when “suddenly” an otherwise good character “goes insane” and starts being evil.  This might have receded in popularity or I might have stopped seeing so much of it because I’ve learned to pick my books better.  But there was a time I almost gave up reading mysteries because of its sister/cousin plot of “the murderer is a mass murderer who is insane.”  Usually, mind, because his childhood was so bad, creating a more sinned against than sinner thing.

But, Sarah, you say – you use the “the villain has reasons and can be rehabilitated thing” with Red Dragon in the shifters’ series and partially the horrible childhood with the Mules in the Darkship series.  Yeah, okay – Sarah drums fingers on the desk.  You, readers who exist only in my head, are entirely too mouthy, you know that? – but look, Red Dragon has been established as not the sharpest knife in the drawer in DOITD – er… well… he’s not actually so much dumb as young and terrified – I DO kill the other two guys.  And the Great Sky Dragon remains a villain throughout, if a complex villain because much of what he does is cultural.  but cultural is not the same as excusable, only explainable.  The same goes for the Mules and their lousy childhood.  While they ALL have a lousy childhood, some go on to be admirable, or close to it, and some are the scum of the Earth.  I don’t mind presenting (at least partial) explanation for villainy.  I think that makes it more satisfying, frankly.  BUT it’s never a complete explanation.  The complete explanation MUST in the end ALWAYS be volition.  The character has CHOSEN to do evil, and therefore no matter how many explanations, punishment (in various degrees) is always in order.

The opposite type of villain is ENTIRELY anti-human wave because it trivializes evil, and by doing so taints us all with its brush.  It sounds profound to say “in their circumstances, you’d have done the same” but again it is one of those false-profound pronouncements, like saying that poverty causes crime.  Many criminals are poor and MIGHT have been pushed into their path by poverty, (I maintain this is very hard to tell, because ultimately criminals lie.  And if they spy a way to make themselves sound like victims and turn moral judgement away, they WILL.  Look, I grew up in a village that was dirt poor by American standards, and where most people didn’t have keys to their doors.  My grandmother’s kitchen door was open summer and winter, and if she were out this could only be ascertained by my going in and calling her.  Now the village is infinitely richer and people have iron bars on every window.  If I had to pick a reason I’d say it was because in the sixties we didn’t KNOW we were poor. [We were better off than past generations and no one was starving.] Now they know they’re ‘poor’ in comparison to what they see in movies – particularly the glitzy movie-millionaires’ lives.  This makes the root cause of crime ENVY, not poverty.  Yes, this is my opinion.  Again, deal.)  On the other hand there must be millions of people in the world who are poor – even dirt poor – and are scrupulously honest and trustworthy.  To view poverty as the root cause of crime is to make every one of these poor but decent human beings into a villain in potentia, and, thereby, to splatter every human with evil.  To justify the villains to the extent of making them entirely understandable and “I’d be the same in the same circumstances” makes all of humanity loathsome.

So, what would be my rules for villains properly done?

1- Your villains must be evil.  I don’t mean they should come on stage twirling their moustaches (though this is effective if they are female!) and stating how evil they are, but this (a villain like Loki or Richard III in Shakespeare) is by far preferable to the softly wounded villain who can be fixed with sudden insight and who is more sinned against than sinner.  (If you find yourself thinking “root causes” drop it.)  And BOTH are preferable to the “And then the good guy went insane” villain. (If you think this is a clever, never before seen twist, you HAVE to read more.)

2- Your villains must be powerful.  Again, unless you’re doing comic books or something that echoes of it, or a send up of that type of storytelling, please stay away from “You must give me a billion dollars or I’ll destroy the world.”  If your villain doesn’t have a piranha tank, you can’t pull this off.  Remember that.  (An exception here is that it’s perfectly allowable for the villains’ henchemen to be STUPID – because, if the guy is really, openly evil – or evil enough – WHO would work for him?  Which brings us to point three.)

3- Evil is seductive.  Look, kids, the only way that Avengers could resolve the “if this guy is truly so evil, openly evil, why would good people work for him?” conundrum is the “heart shot” thing.  Mind control, in other words.  This is okay for a certain type of book, in a certain type of circumstance.  It can’t – however – be used everywhere.  And “he’s a mesmerizing speaker” is ONLY part of the explanation.  Yes, I’m going to make an argument ad Hitlerium.  Sorry.  But there it is – as memorable a speaker as he might have been or as his contemporaries convinced themselves he was (this is always hard to judge. Social pressure CAN convince people of this stuff) – he got honorable people to do what was patently evil.  He did this by SEDUCING them via their envy, their respect of authority/military authority (which was insanely well developed in Germans of the time), their resentment over WWI, and the economic instability.  He seems openly evil to us, but he didn’t to his contemporaries because he SEDUCED them.  He was one of them, and he knew where to push.  Yes, the evil has to be obvious to your readers – but your characters CAN be justifiably blinded.  If you find yourself thinking “he was mesmerized” see if you can do something better with it.  We should be able to feel the attraction of the villain.  (Again depending on the type and size of the story.)

4 – Your villain should always be as strong as your main character, then a bit more.  If your main character is good with swords, your villain should be good with swords, and knives, and have a concealed firearm somewhere about his person.  Bambi versus Godzilla is a great movie, if Bambi has gotten squished flat the first time, had some armor designed, has sharpened his teeth into points, and is back this time for Bambi Versus Godzilla, This Time It’s Serious.

5 – If your villain has serious enough problems to cause him to become a satisfyingly evil SOB, they can’t be solved by his realizing he’s done wrong.  You can – with a long series, and increments – bring him there in maybe ten, twenty – fifty? – books.  BUT then you have to ask yourself “how could he live with himself after that?” and “What form of crazy atonement must he undertake?”  And THOSE are satisfying plots.  BUT if you just pat your villain on the back and he breaks into tears and confesses his misdeeds, he’d best be two years old… or a minor henchman tool (even if he seemed to be the main villain up till then.  This is doable.)

6- Death before rehabilitation is something to put over your desk, to look at when dealing with villains, but if you MUST rehabilitate, kindly – PLEASE – remember that barring divine intervention (I’m not arguing that one) people don’t change in the space of a breath.  And even with divine intervention, (again, so not arguing) the changed villain will still have the characteristics that led him to the dark side.  If he was an intransigent enforcer for the villain, he’ll become the same for the hero – not necessarily a bad thing, mind, but he’ll be stiff and a bit doctrinaire.  This also means he can be led into temptation again, by the right villain-disguised-as-hero.

6 a) If you wish to give depth to your villain, remember most of us have the vices of our virtues.  Take me.  I’m driven (mostly insane.)  While this means I can work a lot, it means I can… work a lot, which means I’m not the best at my personal life and must be very grateful my husband and sons understand this particular insanity.  I can see someone whose virtue is, say, his moral rectitude deciding to eliminate a population that falls short of perfect.  And remember THAT while being true can serve as a screen to hide a lust for power.

7 – There MUST be a choice.  At some point, the villain decides to do what should have been patently evil to him FOR A REASON.  His reason doesn’t matter as much as his choice does.  HE/SHE CHOOSES TO BE EVIL.  (And hence, there must be punishment.  Which fits the crime.   If the crime is stealing cookies, killing the villain is probably over the top.)   For hereditary evil – say hereditary evil rulers – at some point they have to choose to CONTINUE evil.  Again, it should be obvious they chose it, they can’t just drift.  EVEN if the villain lies to himself about having a choice, there is always a choice, and it must be clear to the reader.

(As usual, of course there are SOME exceptions to these rules, and some are even good.  They just take exceptional ability to pull off and might only apply in one cave.  Also, your mileage may vary.  These are my beliefs on villains and evil.  You might prefer soft fuzzy evil that purrs, in which case you should meet my cat D’Artagnan.)

17 comments

    1. it helps, Pam — in art terms, since I know you do that too — to heighten the contrast. Darken the darks, lighten the lights. It makes the whole thing stronger. Don’t be afraid of strong tints. Yeah, even in comedy.

        1. Intenses it up in writing too. G-d, I’m day dreaming of going away with five or six or ya’ll and staying in a house somewhere for a week, write all day, have critique sessions all evening — with wine, natch. Maybe someday.

            1. Ah, if I might be so bold, Amarillo, TX has an active writers’ support group (leans towards romance and westerns but hey), lots for families to do, some decent places to stay, and is about 1/2 way. Or if you really want to get away, Black Mesa B&B in far western OK is a great place, lovely scenery and stunning breakfasts. And hummingbirds.

  1. Of course a villain has to be evil! Otherwise, he’s just an antagonist. (I like pointing at the first season of Naruto. Naturo is the protagonist, Emo Boy Sasuke is an antagonist, and the people trying to kill them are villains. Works pretty well for drawing a distinction.)

    1. yes. That’s about it. I’m really really getting tired of opponents who are neither. They do evil things, but “it’s not their fault” — gag.

  2. So… something more like… they do evil things, but they think they have a darn good reason.

    Instead of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, there seems to be a rather pervasive notion that good-intentions define what is good.

    So what is evil then? Evil intentions? But evil rests, from time to time.

    Those that abuse you for your own good never rest, and they don’t suddenly realize they were wrong all along, or get their “problem” fixed and stop being evil.

    (Shamelessly paraphrasing and mushing ideas together.)

    1. Evil is treating other people like objects. No, it’s not complete, but I’ll take it from pratchett.
      I’m having serious issues tonight. NOT doing well. stoopid stomach flu. Going to bed now.

    2. Oh, and Synova, send me your address again? I might throw in a vamp book too. (Have fifty of them. Have to do SOMETHING. They cancelled second, so I’m not breaking a leg promoting.) Next week T-shirt give away. (YAY)

      1. I tried to email it and my email bounced. It’s Julie Pascal, twelve jennifer, sandia park, eight seven Oh four seven.

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