The Villain’s Journey

Hi. This was pre-written. I’m off the ‘Net at the moment, so please be patient if it takes a while for comments to be released from moderation. One of the other Mad Geneii has to do it for me. Thanks!

So, everyone and their literature teacher talks about the hero’s journey, and Joseph Campbell, and nods to Karl Jung in passing and then reaches for the checklist.

What about the villain? Why does he or she do that? And how did she end up like that, anyway? She was such a sweet kid.

I’m a bit of a mis-match for this topic, because I don’t do villains well or often. I do antagonists. A spoiled brat who enjoys beating up on smaller students, the Traders’ Elders’ Council intent on enforcing their rules and ensuring species purity, a force unseen that is killing mages and ruining trade, the society mother from H-ll… all of those are more antagonists than villains. The closest I may come to an out-and-out typical villain is the head of security in Language of the Land.

What makes people become the bad guy? “He had a bad childhood and grew up underprivileged. Society has failed him, so it is no wonder that—” Screeeeeeech! Crash! That was your reader colliding with the all-too-beloved trope that gets trotted out in the courtroom and on the page a little too often these days. Let’s try again. Why did Bob the Baddie decide that being a mean, nasty SoB was the optimal life path for himself?

There are probably as many answers as there are people, and with a few exceptions, most villains have absolutely rational self-justifications for turning cute animals into sausage just to make their neighbors squirm. That’s what is important to keep in mind: the villain has a good reason for his actions.

He could desire revenge on an individual or a system, or to his way of thinking, he’s looking for justice. It could be for a slight, it could be for the deaths of his family or his lover, but he wants to even the score and possibly get ahead as well. If the system destroyed his world, then the system has to go and he’ll replace it with his own version.

Desire is another very strong motivator. Bob the Baddie wants recognition of his brilliance, but no one will elect him to office and those-who-think-they-know refuse to pay attention to his ideas. Or he wants power in order to make the world better because he knows the secret to an orderly, peaceful, and happy society. He wants to marry the woman who just happens to be engaged to the leading general of the king’s armies. She doesn’t want him, or doesn’t even know that he exists.

What motivates a hero? Flip that over. In Western Christian theology, there are Seven Deadly (or Mortal) Sins that are the really, really bad ones. They have changed over time, but generally the list includes: pride, acedia/sloth, lust, greed, wrath, envy, gluttony. Their inverses are the seven cardinal virtues: humility, faith, hope, charity, temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude. The sins are the virtues gone to an extreme in many cases. Humility taken too far (see the humble-brag, or when I was in college, one-downing each other over who had more financial aid) becomes pride. Of all the sins, pride is often considered the worst, with the others drawing from pride. Even despair, which was on very early lists, could be seen as being so prideful that the person was certain that her sins were so bad that even G-d couldn’t help her.

So if a hero is motivated by a love for Mankind, your villain is either the most selfish bastage on the known planets, or also loves Mankind and wants what he is absolutely sure is best for them. It’s just that his idea of best is rather different from the rest of the population’s desires. Your hero loves a wonderful woman. The villain loves an idol of the woman, and when the real woman fails to live up to his idealized version or tries to leave him, he kills her to preserve his perfect love.

What struggles and growth does the bad guy go through? What forms him? What are his reasons? How does he struggle, where does he shine? Think of the hero’s journey and try that for the bad guy.  In Language of the Land, the villain struggles to preserve the society that she is certain the gods ordained and that is the best for the people of the queendom. She’s a loving mother and a faithful wife, she cares deeply for her family and takes care of her subordinates so long as they do what they are supposed to. She has no tolerance for misuse of power, but she also has no qualms about torturing the innocent or destroying individuals and families if she thinks they are a threat to the system. In her mind, all men are inferior and borderline incompetent because of their excessive emotional and hormonal responses to things. There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule like her husband and sons, and her assistant, but the rule is the rule for very good reasons.

I mentioned an exception to the general rule. That exception is someone who is criminally insane. Not “crazy like a fox, more cunning than ten ordinary men” but “bugnuts, out-beyond-the-Oort-Cloud” crazy. Think your chaos evil antagonist, someone who kills and tortures because the voices in her head tell her to, or because she’s absolutely certain that MI-6 is out to get her because she knows that King William the Eighth is an android replacement for the true king. But even the Joker has reasons for what he does, albeit warped and twisted and seriously sick. I’ve only seen that kind of character done well once, and it creeped me out so much that I can’t remember the short story’s author or title.

I personally find antagonists easier than villains. I’m more interested in the protagonists growth and struggles than in the mustache-twirling bad guy. That might change. Or it might not.



  1. Is the twist ending when the villain is defeated and the hero finds out that King William IS an android?

    1. Bull. I’ve know more than one. And they were the most terrifying bastards I’ve ever met. They looked evil full in the face, and goodness full in the face and spit in the eye of good and DELIBERATELY chose evil. And I’m sick to death of the ‘the villain is the hero of his own story!’ and ‘No one is a villain in his own story’ tropes. No, there’s a fair few out there, some of them petty little thugs some of them above mentioned terrifying bastards who know they’re evil and either revel in it while mouthing all the right words to convince the suckers (their words) they’re heroes in their own minds. They don’t want to be heroes, they delight in being villains. They are evil because the LIKE IT. They may have other reasons for the individual targets they pic, but they are not villains or evil because of their targets. That is not the source of their evil. What they do springs OUT OF the evil, it is not the cause of it.

      1. Must agree. Some people choose evil. We’ve seen a lot of that with #MeToo. They don’t make very good villains though, because they’re predictable. They will do what tickles their kink every time.

        The more villainous villain is the guy who -hates-. That guy is capable of anything. He will use his brain to come up with “just punishment” for the people he hates.

        1. I say again: Not in my experience. Some are predictable, but far too many aren’t because their motives aren’t things people understand. Hate drives the EASY ones. Hate is simple. Hate is PETTY. The ones that look you in the face and say “If you walk me past that man I will kill him.” Even though they’re in handcuffs and know they WILL be forcibly stopped to their own detriment. They’re predictable as hell. I spent a fair amount of my time in Iraq predicting them.

          The villianous villian was the little old man sitting there playing chess, talking about the grand kids he has and the people he murdered in the same fond tones. Some of the people he killed he hated. Some he didn’t. He enjoyed the former a bit more, but that wasn’t why he chose what he chose.
          Hate was literally flavor text to him. And he wasn’t the worst of them.

          1. I must say, I’m pretty happy to have never seen that. Bad enough reading about it.

      2. I have always read that line with C. S. Lewis’ take. Which is that no one does evil for evil’s sake. At minimum, they expect to get something out of it. Like power, or pleasure. And power and pleasure are good things.

        In other words, if somebody does evil things for no reason at all, he’s either insane or a writer’s sock puppet. Even men as truly evil as you describe have some reason for what they do.

        He may kick puppies and drown kittens because he enjoys their suffering. He might even do it because he hopes to get something from the demon he’s sacrificing them to. But he doesn’t do it in bitterness of soul, tormented by sympathy which he sternly suppresses. Because he’s a villain, and this is the wrong thing to do.

        1. I say again. I have MET such people. Where it is the evil that matters. What, specifically, they choose may have other motives, but that motivation is just flavoring. It’s NOT the driving force. And no, they were not insane. They were, quite possibly, the most sane, rational individuals it has been my misfortune to meet.

      3. I really dislike even suggesting it, because the vast majority of those who will not reject it out of hand already thought about it, but…maybe the driving force of evil isn’t human. Not in the sense of “they’re innocent victim” or however you want to call it, but that they’ve got a demon. (Traditionally, most demons have to be “asked in”, though not in the movie vampire sense– more the deliberately opening the door for it. Like sex making babies, but evil. )

        I’ve been lucky enough to not have encountered anybody where there is just FREAKING WRONG NO NO NO to the evil, but people whose judgement I trust have.

        1. I can say with absolute certainty, in one case, yes and let’s just say it was a case of alliance not possession. That man took number 1 slot of ‘scariest evil dude’ over the one I described above.

          There’s a reason I’ve asked y’all for information about tangling with demons in the past.

      4. Theodore Dalrymple’s Life on the Bottom has another sort of villain: one who simply disconnects his moral judgments, which he makes freely about everyone else, and his own actions. At which point one starts muttering about grave vincible ignorance not mitigating guilt.

    2. The really bad guy doesn’t care whether he is a villain or not. He thinks he can rewrite the Rules defining good and evil to please himself. His good is the only good. He likes crushing the pasty, scamming the marks, or twisting arms to get his way. His background doesn’t cause his evil, although it may color it. It is his selfish disregard of others except as adjuncts to himself that makes him evil.

  2. My overarching Bad Guy is really, really good at his day job, which is basically emperor of the galaxy (well, most of it). He made order from the chaos of civil war, and generally things are better than before. So most people have nothing against him, and loyalty runs high. But having effectively absolute power has become a comfortable habit, so what Leto wants, Leto takes, with scant regard for anyone else’s tender sensibilities (tho sometimes he makes a token effort) and since he enjoys it, that descends into outright Evil. So when you do come into his personal radar — you’re screwed. Which is how the protagonist got shocked out of his deathwish spiral and forced to grow up. 😀

    But far as I know (not like Leto talks to me much) there’s no childhood trauma or other lame excuse. Unlike a secondary bad guy (loved by no one), who acts out a revenge fantasy (and winds up hoist by his own petard).

  3. > decide

    My mom worked for the state foster care system after I moved out. She got kids from newborns to eleven or twelve.

    Quite a few of them, even as toddlers, were destructive, manipulative, sly, thieves, and vandals. Before they could even *talk.* I referred to them collectively as “Damiens.”

    I’d always thought “born bad” was folk exaggeration, but those kids showed that there was an underlying truth there.

    My dad put his foot down on those and said they had to go. Some of the older ones were already setting fires…

    Your villain doesn’t necessarily need some event to turn them bad Some people are that way to begin with.

    1. Early childhood can be a very formative time for behavioral modeling. Plus, there are fairly persistent mental tendencies that show a lot of continuity over one’s life.

      What it comes down to is that, after what ever age range you want to consider, conception to six months, birth to six years, the cohort has a distribution of preferences and personality types. Society is a result of combining ‘natural’ tendencies with persuasion, and kinds of persuasion are not uniformly persuasive across all personality types. Some societies are more effective at persuading or coercing people away from evil choices, and tend to be better. Some are less effective, and tend to be worse.

    2. Neurology is a thing. Brain damage can happen early, including in the womb, and we don’t really know the extent that brain structure controls complex behaviors. My guess would be probably a lot.

      But, we also know the brain is plastic, and changes depending on environment, experience and also the will of the person whose brain it is.

      So while people may very well be born anti-social, or a-social, or just plain Odd, that doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. Redemption!

    3. You meet kids who are that way before they can talk, and usually you find out that they had Very Bad Examples. But you are right; some kids just get pleasure from being bad.

      There are people with a gift for retraining bad kids, but it takes a lot of discipline and love, individual attention, and some shrewd psychology. Nor does it always work.

  4. I was born this way.

    Seriously, I have been consistent over long periods of time with regard to certain mental tendencies. Profound changes in some areas, but it is remarkable how much of ten year old me was in five year old me, or fifteen, twenty, etc…

    I reject special rules for specific groups of people based on mental tendencies precisely because of this experience. Even if equivalent allowances were being made for me, and that is not what anyone is purposing, it would still be bad policy. Bizarre mental qualities are difficult to objectively measure.

    I am drawn towards evil in some specific ways, and drawn towards good in other specific ways. At times in my life I have seen two paths I could travel, and deliberately picked one over the other. I also make choices by default, drifting into behavior that shapes my future through habit.

  5. I did a villain for one of my books which some readers have claimed made their blood run quite cold. He was an intermittently charming sociopath (the older brother of the heroine) whose tendencies were first hinted at by revealing a taste for tormenting animals. (later, women.) I based him on a couple of recent notorious sociopaths, but also on a person who I knew personally, and who scared the heck out of me. This woman was one of those congenital liars, initially charming and open-seeming, who lied as easily and readily as she breathed — and what was really scary, was that she was also most vengeful and completely, utterly self-centered. The whole world revolved around her – and she would casually destroy anyone whom she perceived as standing in her way.

    1. I’ve known people like that woman you mention. Thankfully a very, very few. To them they don’t really ‘lie’, they’re merely saying whatever version of the truth best serves their ends when they say it. And they wouldn’t have to do /that/ if you would just do whatever they want without question. So in the end it’s really YOUR fault they lied to you.

  6. One of the most frightening villains I’ve ever encountered is Prince Red from Samuel Delany’s “Nova”. Interestingly enough, he combines the “product of his environment” and the “chooses to be evil” types.

    He inherited a fantastic fortune and great power (the owner of the company that has a monopoly on manufacturing interstellar drives). He was also born with a birth defect–he is missing an arm and has a mechanical one, in a universe where medical technology has made such things very rare. A couple of flashbacks to his past show how his father both spoiled him and made him very sensitive about his missing arm by constantly insisting that no one ever mention it.

    So one can understand why Prince Red is such a bastard, but he’s also clearly way past the point where understanding him allows you to forgive him. His upbringing pushed him in a particular direction, but it’s clear that at some point he chose to embrace that identity.

  7. Riffing on Macguire’s novel, Stephen Schwartz has Glinda say, “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”

    1. One thing I love about the musical adaptation is that it makes it clear: Elphaba’s extremism in following her convictions is in a very real way just as damaging to her cause as anything the Wizard or Morrible do. Only Glinda (flaky as she initially is) is able to work for real change.

  8. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    It’s funny, after all these years of putting words to paper, I never really analyzed the difference between antagonists and villains. Nor did I really consider motivations for bad guys. After reading this, I can definitely point at K’hul and say, yeah, he’s a pain in the ass, but he’s not a villain, he’s an antagonist. Historian on the other hand, jumps off the cliff into true villainy. Yes, that continues on into Book III.

  9. The documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” has some rather interesting and eye opening interviews with members of the early 80’s Miami drug trade.
    One of the more interesting people interviewed is Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, one of the main hitmen for Griselda Blanco.
    He’s very charismatic, interesting, intelligent, and a pure killer- but not a psycho. For instance, he refused his orders to kill the children of one of his targets, and kept his men from doing so.
    The interesting thing is that he points out that he came from a good family, but “was a bad boy from the very beginning.”

  10. Well, from watching too much ’70s TV, I can tell you the predominant motive of villains is “the money” with a handful of radicals who are lashing out at “the establishment”.

  11. I’ve just read your Cat Among Dragons series, and I have to take exception to your classification of the Traders’ Elders’ Council as antagonists rather than villains. A bunch of people willing to use rape and torture as an execution method for the simple crime of being born with the wrong genes are out-and-out villains, no question about it.

    1. I think the argument for gruesome punishment is that most people need the lesson “don’t do that” taught to them in a way they don’t forget.

  12. I always have trouble with villains, writing and reading. Evil is *boring*. I’ve tried to play with “want to be good, can’t”… But it’s not terribly satisfying if they don’t eventually manage to overcome the baser self. Just bleh.

    I feel like the only person in tge world bored to tears by Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he’s got some fun superpowers… But at the end of the day he’s a man who wants to convince everyone he’s smarter than they are. And can kill them with his brain. *yawn*

    (I do have a soft spot for blue-and-orange-morality and unapologetic narcissism. Just… Don’t even try to convince us this guy has a point. Just make it all terrifyingly internally consistent, and completely alien. I dunno why I like this version better. I just do.)

    1. Just… Don’t even try to convince us this guy has a point. Just make it all terrifyingly internally consistent, and completely alien.

      I’d guess you like it better because trying to show how they’ve got a point is generally boring and ends up with either the author having to Word of God an important variable in a way that doesn’t work, or just hand-wave.

      It’s like trying to write someone smarter than yourself, but without the ability to do the trick of building up what you’d need to know to figure it out, then remove half of it.


      Hannibal strikes me as someone trying to make the Joker into the Batman with a lot of extra gore, and a pretty boring motive. (“How DARE you not recognize how awesome I am?!?!” /yawn/)
      At least the Joker (best example, animated Batman, voiced by Mark Hamill) had the “I want to be amused” motive, and got as pissy as a little kid when something messed up his plan.

      1. I forget where I read it, but I recall that Hannibal’s creator was shocked and disgusted with the people who wanted him to be a hero/protagonist. He said something to the effect that Hannibal was a twisted sociopath, and why would anyone see that as heroic?

        1. I’ll buy it; he seemed a lot more invested in his actual heroes, and flailed a *lot* in Hannibal. Trying to play to the appeal without understanding it, maybe? It… well. Yeah.

          (He had good heroes, though. I mean, admitting I cut the end of Hannibal out of my personal canon. But still.)

  13. For me, probably the most terrifying villain in SF literature, I keep returning to Marc DuQuesne in Doc Smith’s Skylark series. He was brilliant and honorable — he always kept his word, saved the heroes repeatedly, and, aside from the desire to rule the Universe, had lots of really good qualities.

    His motivations were clear, and his behavior was quite rational. and he was probably the most dangerous enemy in literature.

    1. *gets the giggles* Was poking around for a good source for the first couple of books, ran into a goodreads review that complained the almost 100 year old book he read because it’s a foundational work for scifi had too many cliches…..

      1. that’s like the people in my Kurosawa class who said that Judo Sugata had every martial arts movie cliche.

      2. If you haven’t read every bit of Smith you should get your hands on, you should. And I enjoyed Ryk Spoor’s version of DuQuesne in the Arena books.

        I have a rough outline way back of the line for a fanfic where Smith’s DuQuesene basically plays a beneficial role. (This is post canon, and Seaton et al. do not play a role.)

  14. I tend to prefer cardboard cutout villains, but I also prefer single point-of-view stories, too. Or at least single-side pov. That’s why Pam’s Empire of the One was such a difficult read (but I must say, that kicked off a great story arc). I could barely stomach the guild guy in Star Dogs. If there is ever a story from the pov of Ash’s prison guards, I have no desire to read it.

    I guess I’m saying that I don’t want to see the villains back-story. Their actions, from the good-guys’ pov, are sufficient.

  15. I was going to argue that the biggest difference between heroes and villains is that heroes have principles. They both have goals, but the heroes have principles they won’t violate, even if it makes their goals harder to achieve. (E.g. no killing children.) In a lot of stories, I think this really is the big distinction.

    But there are a few stories that blow this up. Stories about honorable enemies are (in my opinion) actually some of the best. In these stories (and probably only in these) can you honestly claim that the villain is the hero of his own story.

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