Maybe Things Are More Complicated: The Complicated Villain

I am currently working on a novel outline for a book about angels, demons, and a psychic. A string of mysterious deaths occurs, the psychic is pulled into the homicides, and there is supernatural agency at work.

I am working on laying out cause and effect streams for all the major characters and seeing how the threads interact. This has lead me to thinking about ambiguity in fiction, villains, and portraying character.

I have written about villains in the past in a post titled “The Best Types of Villains.” I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in that post. I discussed various types of villains such as the inexplicably evil villain, the type of villain who manipulates situations, men portrayed as villains because history is defined by the conquerers, the out of control child villain, and the sociopathic villain who spreads his doctrine to others.

Villains are much better when they are portrayed with depth. This brings in ambiguity. For instance, if a character is just simply someone who vandalizes for the sake of destruction and the reasons for their destroying things is never explained this is a type of inexplicably evil villain. Perhaps the character puts caltrops on the road because it makes them smile to see people’s tires blown out. The sheriff’s deputy who has just been hired is put in charge of tracking down the one planting the caltrops. This is not a very compelling story.

Yesterday I was in a group of folk, some of whom have done street art and some taggers. In the past I created public chalk murals with the intent of spurring thought and discussion. I don’t entirely understand tagging– spray painting one’s symbol or tag. To me the tagging doesn’t inspire thought in anyone else or serve anyone other than the tagger. I was asking why someone would tag and continue to tag to the point of it being a felony charge. I could understand the thrill the tagger might get from doing something against authority, surreptitiously defacing property in plain sight, and having a level of notoriety swirling around them, but ultimately what they are doing holds little ambiguity.

So, let’s change these stories slightly. What if the person planting caltrops is trying to prevent the sometimes legal and sometimes illegal deforesting of old growth forests? The caltrops are still against the law but perhaps so is the felling of some of the trees. Who is the villain? In the situation with the tagger, what if the the story were set in a police state where people were oppressed and each incidence of tagging gave the populace hope? Who is the villain?

The story of each character always has its own unique perspective. The determination of who is the villain might be subtle and the character of the characters has to come through via showing and not telling.

Here is a scene portrayal. I hope it holds ambiguity and relays what I am talking about.

The male character sighs and shakes his head. He says, “I can never count on you for support. I just wanted a relaxing conversation. A little distraction. Some time away from everything. I am so stressed out. I really wish I could count on you, but you always just think of yourself and what you want. You don’t really care about me.”

The female character, crying, says, “I do care about you. A great deal. I am trying. It’s just your dream. The dream you just told me. Why did you tell me about it?”

“What about it? It was just a dream,” male character says.

“But you said it was about having a love affair and then breaking off with the woman. Why did you bring it up?”

“See. You don’t care about me. You don’t care about that I am sick and stressed and have a stressful day tomorrow. You bring this up to talk about when it is late. And you know how hard it is for me to talk about my dreams and such. This is all about you. About what you want. You want to be in a relationship but you don’t care about me. Just don’t care. And I cannot count on you,” says the male character.

Who is the villain? The woman who is asking about the dream the man has just told her that is about a love affair being broken off? Or the man who is condemning the woman for reacting to the dream he has chosen to tell her about when it is late, he is stressed, and he is feeling sick?

Villains can be the same stuff of heroes, it is just a matter of perspective. A man can be creative, brilliant, well-educated, working in a field for the common good, and articulate and at the same time manipulative and selfish. He can believe he is virtuous all the while he is making decisions and hurting those around him. He might do this while feeling justified or placing the blame elsewhere. The downfall of a human being is rarely so clearcut as to be a simple decision on the part of a person to be “bad.” The nature of a situation or the stated character does not make someone exempt.

If an angel allows the murder of four girls by a priest and tries to put the blame on another innocent person, are they virtuous just because they are an angel?

If a demon tries to prevent harm to a human, are they still evil? What if it is so the demon can possess the human? What if it is so the human won’t be damned? Is the demon truly evil no matter what?

People are complicated. Situations and motivations can be complicated. The cancer patient may seemingly evoke sympathy, but what if he is ultimately merely manipulative and just happens to have cancer? (As in the television show “Breaking Bad.”) The widowed mother who needs to support her children may evoke sympathy even as she sells marijuana, but what if she has always been a selfish, wild-child? (As in the television show “Weeds.”)Villains whose actions and motivations are ambiguous help us to explore our dark side. They help us to learn and see the everyday situations that might arise to cause a person to make less than virtuous decisions. Fully fleshed out villains are always ambiguous and more interesting.

The Best Types of Villains

I think villains come in a variety of types and the best types of villains are those who do more than tie pretty Pauline to the railroad tracks and then stand back while twirling their waxed mustaches.

There is the type of villain who is inexplicably evil and does horrible things because he/she is an insane monster. These are the serial killer type of villains. Kevin Spacey played a brilliant serial killer in Seven named John Doe that would be a good illustration of this type of villain. Serial killers get a selfish pleasure from stalking, hurting, and finally killing their victims.

There is the type of villain who manipulates the situation and may believe that what they are doing is the right thing all the while that they victimize others. Con-artists, heart breakers, and abusers are of this type of villain. The people who send out phishing schemes and bilk the elderly of their retirement money might illustrate this type of villain. Another example would be the emotionally abusive boyfriend who always manages to selfishly twist the interpretation of events to benefit himself, doesn’t have the emotional maturity to be able to handle the pressures of relating to a woman in an adult manner, and inflicts harm upon someone who tries to love him. Businessmen who justify making decisions because they feel an obligation to their stockholders even though they know the decision will harm others would fit into this category. Watch the Yes Men Take Over the World if you do not think that such business men exist.

Some villains are only villains because they are on the wrong side of history. Attila the Hun is one such villain that springs to mind. In reality while Attila the Hun invaded across Asia and into Europe, he was a very skilled leader. I am sure that the Celts would have written a different version of Julius Caesar than what we all believe.

Two truly frightening types of villains are those that are in some ways opposites. The villain who is like a child and is out of control, cannot see the value of the lives of others, and violently reacts is very horrifying to watch. Lil’ Ze from the City of God would illustrate this type of villain. The opposite of this type of villain is the sociopathic bad guy who knows full well what he is doing, uses the emotions and motivations of others, and very intentionally spreads his doctrine in such a way as to inflame things and cause others to do violence for his benefit or according to his plan. Adolf Hitler and Jim Jones spring to mind as examples of this type of villain.

A more complex villain is much more interesting. If the character has ambiguities and is someone that is multi-faceted then the reader can sympathize with him or her and this makes the story have much more impact. A villain is not necessary to a good story, only a conflict is necessary. However some of the best characters are the villains and they are the ones driving home the themes. Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner utterly upstaged Harrison Ford’s character and brought home the point that he just wanted to live and be free as any other man.

Heath Ledger’s Joker caused organized chaos in the Batman’s world, but the chaos showed the motivations of people and the meaning behind accepted thoughts. He did what he did intentionally and made a mockery of anyone who would think to sympathize with him because of the disadvantages of his past.

Villains can be those characters that cause us to look inside ourselves and examine our own shadows. Would we act more virtuous in the same situation? What choices might we make? They help us to define ourselves as human, who is within our culture group versus who is other, and what constitutes the bounds of humane. The darkness of villains illuminates what is most bright about humanity and how evil we can be.

The Best Villains

Villains are tough.

I don’t mean tough as in hard to harm or able to endure– although many are. I mean in the sense of creating a good believable villain. A bad guy who is just bad is one dimensional and not terribly interesting. If there are no ambiguities or reasons for why the bad guy is doing what he is doing it is just random. The villain is left a caricature of bad and can come across as not as effective. His or her villainy is without motivation or passion. It is also hard to care about the hero’s plight and struggle if the villain is one dimensional and appears as not a serious threat.

Consider the Wicked Witch of the West. She kidnaps Dorothy, she sets the scarecrow on fire, and she threatens to drown Toto. And those monkeys of hers are seriously scary. And she lives in a monstrous scary castle with enslaved guards. When I was a kid she and her flying monkeys terrified me. At first glance, the Wicked Witch of the West comes across as some personification of evil. She is willing to go to extreme ends to get the ruby slippers. She appears one dimensional.

But the Wicked Witch of the West is not one dimensional. Dorothy dropped a house on her sister and then Glinda the Instigator magicked the ruby slippers onto Dorothy’s feet. Those slippers and whatever powers they hold are not Glinda’s property. Or Dorothy’s. Further, from the Wicked Witch of the West’s perspective no court in the land of Oz is going to give the Wicked Witch of the West justice in the instance of Dorothy killing her sister. The Wicked Witch of the West has plenty of motivation to try to pursue Dorothy and get her sister’s shoes. Gregory Maguire in his book titled “Wicked” turned the story of the Wicked Witch of the West around and considered her in a sympathetic light. The designation of villain may be more a matter of perspective.

Voldemort is another big time bad guy. He kills Harry Potter’s parents and terrorizes the world of the Harry Potter books. He would have killed Harry but Harry was protected by his mother. Obviously a guy who attacks babies is pure evil. He appears at first as the one dimensional He Who Must Not Be Named.

But consider that Voldemort’s humanity is taken away at every turn initially. His name is not to be spoken. He has no body. As the Harry Potter series unfolds Voldemort becomes more human both in the flesh and in terms of what is revealed about him. His campaign to control the wizarding world and the muggle world grows as his humanity grows. He becomes scarier as the reader learns of his childhood and background. He was a child wronged who had great talent, intelligence and power and he grew into an adult who wanted to control the world. Voldemort does what he does not because he is simply evil. He is pursuing his course of action from deep conviction and desire. And hurt.

One person’s villain can also be another person’s hero. Vengeance and hurt are only two possible motivations for a character to be a “villain”. What if the “villain” is a disenfranchised group who has been excluded from resources like food? What if the villain fights the hero of the story to claim a stake out of need? Yes, the hero is being attacked, but perhaps it is out of desperation or necessity. How many times in history did not only the spoils go to the winner but the ability to claim virtue and designate oneself as the culture hero group? The Romans did this. They considered all other groups to be “barbarians’. The Romans were the heroes of their own history.

The best villains have a certain degree of ambiguity about them. If seen in the right light, there is something to sympathize with about them or what they are doing. This makes them more of a threat and more believable.


Mirror, Mirror


What causes a villain in a piece of fiction to be indelibly stamped upon the memory of a reader? Who are the notorious villains who worm their way into the psyche? What makes them reappear in daydreams, wandering thoughts, and nightmares?

In the movie Unbreakable, the character of Elijah Price who is otherwise known as “Mr. Glass” explains that in the comic book universe there is always a polemically paired hero and villain. The area of the hero’s strength is the weakness of the villain and vice versa. Because one exists the other exists. In the movie, it is easy to feel sympathy for Elijah who is exceptionally fragile because of a rare bone disease that makes it easy for his bones to break. You feel for him when he is shown to be taunted by the other children, when he does not want to leave the apartment for fear of breaking, and when he does venture forth because his mother rewards him with comic books. I have always had incredibly conflicted feelings for the character of Elijah Price. In the comic book universe he never chose to be afflicted with his bone disorder or to be a villain. He never chose to be the opposite of Bruce Willis’ David Dunn character who is unbreakable and the hero. Elijah Price has made more of his life with the deficit of his disorder and lived far more heroically than David Dunn who shies away from the gift of his abilities and is in a dysfunctional marriage. Elijah Price is the one who searches for and creates meaning. He is proactive and a heroic agent who shares his enlightenment. And defines himself as a villain and derails trains in the process of looking for his destined other half.

Villains can be mustache twirling, black hatted bad guys who tie limp damsels to railway tracks for no other reason than the sheer fun of it, but really they are there to provide the conflict, create the story, and illuminate the hero in his glory. Judas Iscariot was essential to the resurrection story. Harry Potter was in many ways created by Voldemort. Dudley DoRight would have been nothing without his arch nemesis Snidely Whiplash.

Shakespeare was a master at creating memorable villains. Would Othello’s weaknesses have come forth without Iago’s plotting? Was MacBeth a hero or a villain? He conquered a weak king and brought his strength to the throne but then was undone by his love of power. What of Shylock? Was he a simple villain demanding a pound of Antonio’s flesh or a rich and proud man of the Jewish faith who could no longer bear the discrimination heaped upon him? Was Tybalt a villain for killing Mercutio? Was Romeo a villain for killing Tybalt?

Villains are the heroes of their own stories. They have their own motivations and histories. They cause stories and they move stories forward. They define heroes. They are the mirrored image of the heroes and one cannot exist without the other. The point where the hero and the villain divide into two identifiable personalities is the point where the conflict and the story begins. Just as heroes can be inspirational, villains can make one stop and reflect. Villains offer the chance to meditate on one’s own beliefs and morality. Can you identify with them and, if so, does this make you uncomfortable? If it gave your life meaning to help you rise above your affliction would you become a villain? Could you sacrifice your reputation and your love for a friend by betraying them? For what gold? What if it helped them to achieve a greater destiny? If the only way to attain prominence and rise above a powerless social status was to become a criminal, would you? Could you handle the power of absolute rule? Would you be able to set aside anger and a sense of injustice and accept losing after years of being downtrodden?

I believe that what gives villains life is when they are created fully and sympathetically and we can relate to them and their circumstances. I believe they are memorable and haunt us quite often because of the tragedy of the choices they make and because often if we lived in their skin we might make the same choice. The knowledge or denial of this gives them life in our minds.

Villains: What is the nature of evil?

Stories are spun from elastic band-like tension. Conflict is the axis upon which a story revolves. The conflict may be internal — one of ideas, conflicting responsibilities, or emotions. The conflict also may be external. At this point in our history, it appears as though literary form requires depth to our conflicts. There is no such thing in modern literature as pure evil.

Consider that our comic book heroes and their nemesis have all acquired complex characters and bad guys no longer simply do things because they are evil. Villains have to have tortured pasts that give rise to unique obsessions and the desire to inflict harm. Even in our everyday reality, serial killers no longer are simply an evil walking the streets. They are former abused children whose sense of humanity has been severed and hence they take a gruesome pleasure in killing and inflicting harm.

Recently, as in last summer, I reread Paradise Lost. Despite the difficulty of the text, it is by far one of the most glorious pieces of literature ever written. And the passage where Lucifer rallies his forces in hell is stunningly beautiful. Lucifer is seductive. His words are a flow of sensuous poetry.

Evil has to have an allure. Or it has to have some complexity. Or it simply isn’t believable because it is lacking real power. Perhaps, in a different age when the audience for written works was more trusting and wanted to believe and be swept away by the adventures of written stories, evil could be without depth. However, now it has to have more life than that depicted by wide brushstrokes and the designation of villain.

This leads me to thoughts of what really constitutes evil. I do think evil walks the streets. But it is not a personification. It is choice. The choice of those who would choose to do harm.

I do not think carelessness is evil. Selfishness can be depending on the circumstance. Thoughtlessness is also grey.

Is a person who robs automatically evil? No. It’s complex.

Is a person who hits another automatically evil? Not necessarily. Again, it could be complex.

In addition to the the choice of the person committing evil there is also the evaluation of others and the context of the situation.

What to your mind makes something evil? How would you construct an “evil” character?