Since the presidential debates are tonight, I thought I’d do a little writing lesson on villainy. Take that how you choo-choo-choose.
The best villains are heroes in their own minds. They are complex. They are people with loves, hates, hopes, dreams, desires, and friends as well as enemies. They have heart, for evil without heart is weak and can be, from a philosophical standpoint, destroyed by the idea of “what’s right.”
“I want to rule the world and enslave mankind!” or “I’m all about killing puppies!” are so clearly evil that the ideas themselves can be soundly countered. After all, only a madman wants to rule the world and enslave its people and it is universally understood that killing puppies is bad. Villains with no motivations beyond the generic lack of understanding of right and wrong are almost always unappealing.
Now, a villain who legitimately, 100% believes what he’s doing is the right thing to do for all parties, the best thing to do in a given situation, a villain that can convince me his reasoning comes from an honest, sincere place . . . that is the interesting villain. Even in comic books and movies, characters like Ultron and Thanos, I would argue, are more complex than their desire to kill everyone.
Ultron, after all, believes mankind is a great, multi-headed monster. Every time he takes a human life, he believes he’s doing the right thing. He believes he is making the world a better place. Occasionally it is difficult to argue with him.
Thanos, so enthralled by the idea of Death, wants only to make her happy, he wants to give her the gift of trillions of lives. He puts Death’s happiness above everyone else’s. In fact, to a certain degree, by bringing people closer to Death, he believes he is giving them a great gift, for when he is done with them, they are nearer to Death. That, dear readers, is a crazy complexity.
Or, if we’re talking comics, you really don’t have to go any further than Magneto.
I disagree with his actions, but I understand his motivations. This is one villain (of many in the world of comic books–Deadpool and Harley Quinn, I’m looking at you) who have been so well-liked by fans that they have actually become something akin to heroes.
Look, it’s simple really. A villain you can empathize with, that shit is crazy, crazy good. A villain that is nothing more than a generic evil, that’s, frankly, lame. Even everyone’s favorite serial killer, Jason Voorhees, has a sympathetic back story to make viewers at least in part understand his anger.
So, writers, if you’re out there in writer land, trying hard to come up with a profound villain, an evil for the ages, if you will, do your best at making them good. It’s a paradox, I know, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The devil’s greatest trick was convincing mankind we needed the word “paradox.”