I have seen an idea proposed where you are playing a video game and it starts out like the typical adventure but then you, the protagonist, are slowly forced to make harder and harder and grayer and blacker decisions until you realize that all along you were the villain. When I first saw the proposed idea, it was in a tumblr meme and the reposts were very excited about it.
Why is a videogame like that such an exciting idea? Really, why? I want you to think about that question, not just read it, assume it’s rhetorical, and move on to the rest of the article.
Did you think about the question? Goodness, minion, go back and think about the question like I told you to! (By the by – I’ve actually played such a game. I can’t tell you what game because obviously that would spoil the ending. But I was kind of left staring at my computer screen wondering, WHAT HAD I DOOOONE!?)
We’ve already said, quite a few times, that motive is everything. This is so much the case that if your villain’s motive is stupid, chances are good that your villain is, too. If his motive is cliche, chances are that he’s cliche too. So how does one go about picking a good motive?
I think the best way is to remember that most people at least try to be good. Even more people think they are right. A moron usually doesn’t realize he’s a moron; a villain probably has a hard time recognizing he’s a villain, until it’s far too late. Starting out with a character who is bad and knows he’s bad and wants to BE bad without careful execution will lead to a character without a whole lot of substance to him beyond his eeeeviiiil. He’ll be just like a rice cake, which is essentially crunchy air – except the air is eeeeviiiil. When you remember that your hero is only as good as your villain, you’ve just made the standard for all of your characters crunchy air. That’s even less solid (if only slightly more nutritious) than cardboard. The bottom line is, you’ve got to be careful with that kind of villain.
So how does a villain try to be a hero and wind up on the other side of the spectrum? Let’s talk about some common examples:
Motive: Villain wants to take over the world.
“Because the world’s a mess and I just…need to rule it.”
(Dr. Horrible, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog)
“Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure for freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
(Loki, The Avengers)
“You don’t understand…you don’t know what I do for mankind. I was your god, even if you couldn’t see it. By killing me, you have doomed yourselves.”
(The Lord Ruler, Mistborn)
These whys…actually still sound kind of sinister. Let’s break them down further.
For those of you familiar with Dr. Horrible’s blog, you know that Dr. Horrible has a problem with society. He has a wonderful juxtaposition with Penny, who is trying to fix the problems bit by bit, like the story of the boy throwing starfish back into the sea (You know, an old man sees a young boy walking along the beach where the high tide has washed up millions of starfish and the boy is throwing them back and the old man says there’s too many for the boy to make a difference and the boy picks up another and throws it back and says “made a difference to that one” – That story?) which is usually all one CAN do. But that’s not good enough for Dr. Horrible. He needs to fix the world. The whole world. It’s in terrible shape, there’s poverty and hunger and wars and – well, it’s a mess. And someone has to clean up that mess. And that person would probably have to rule the world to clean up the mess. Therefore, “The world’s a mess and I just…need to rule it.”
And now Joss Wheadon’s Loki. We could analyze why he thinks humans need to be ruled, but I think his desire stems more from the events in the first Thor movie: Loki tried to prove himself as an adept ruler to his father and instead fell off of Rainbow Bridge. Then there’s fact that Thor, who doesn’t even really want to rule, is in line to be king and absolutely NOT Loki, who would like to rule – well, that situation is always a burn. And when you can’t rule your own kingdom, you find some other kingdom to rule, right? Absolutely. How else will you prove yourself as a ruler? How else will you achieve your birthright? Loki’s actions may not be heroic to us – as “pesky” as that whole freedom thing is, we kind of like it and would like to keep it thank you – Loki’s quest is something of a “show them, show them all” and something of a coming of age quest. And that makes him the hero of his own story. Birthrights, after all, are serious matters. Just look at the Israeli-Palestinian war.
(If there’s still no picture here it’s because there’s no official art of The Lord Ruler and I didn’t get around to sketching him out myself. But you’re a writer, use your imagination. If you haven’t read the book, he’s fair-skinned and dark-haired and sinister and sober-lookin’.)
And then there’s The Lord Ruler. I’ll try not to spoil too much if anything, but if you haven’t read Mistborn and you’re planning on it, which you should be, you may consider just skipping this paragraph. The Lord Ruler may have only appeared in book one, but his grasp reached well through book two and even into book three. In a way that the reader won’t be able to see until the end of The Hero of Ages, The Lord Ruler was right to say that he was god in that he had literally shaped the world and ran his affairs as such to prevent a greater evil from destroying everything. He seems like a hateful person, punishing the skaa too severely, keeping them oppressed, but that was part of the system he had in place for peace. Also, since the skaa’s ancestors had been troublesome to The Lord Ruler before he became as such, it does seem only fair for him to punish them (y’know, from his point of view). And since The Lord Ruler is immortal – well, punishing them forever is in order. But he was protecting the world, even if he wasn’t doing a fair job of ruling it. And that, one has to admit, is a fairly noble goal. After all, many heroes do save the world from destruction.
Motive: Purge [heathens/X race/group/specific individual]. Why?
To use my overlord self as an example, I’d purge all the stupid people. My goal is noble because everyone can agree that stupid people are the absolute worst.
But hopefully you can already see a few problems with my “lofty” goal; the biggest is probably that ‘stupid’ is an arbitrary term. Even if I were to define it as I would intelligence, intelligence is a construct and not actually a real, tangible thing. It cannot truly be measured, and nor can stupidity. What is stupid to one person may be brilliant to another. And let’s not forget that we all have stupid moments. So while the idea of only dealing with smart people all the time is nice…it’s impossible. And who am I to judge, anyway? I’m not free from the ‘everyone’ in having stupid moments.
Everyone who wants to purge a people want to do it because they think they are right to do it. The world would be better off for it. The Jews often get the short end of the purging stick for daring not to be Christian, the obviosuly only good and correct religion allowed to exist (obviously. Despite the fact that oppressing someone is the opposite of what Christ told His followers to do). And I’m willing to bet also because people found them strange. The world will be a better place when there’s no strangers, of course. Whatever the reason, the mentality is always that the world will be better. Religious, racial, gender, intelligence – the purger thinks they are making the world a better place. In reality, they’re just a douchebag who thinks they can set themselves up as some kind of God to judge the lesser mortals below them. (Wait, did I just call myself a douchebag? Hm.)
As for purging individuals – that’s usually revenge taken too far. Consider Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther series. His personal vendetta against Inspector Clouseau evolves from personal hatred to an actual entire evil scheme to hold the world hostage for the death of Clouseau. Dreyfus believed the entire world would be better off without Clouseau as well. He was probably right, too – but then, we all know someone like that, don’t we? “Good” people just don’t purge other people.
And then, of course, you have the martyr villain. Those guys are interesting. They don’t think they’re the hero – or at least they will not claim to. There’s plenty of examples for this one, too, but we’ll just talk about The Operative from Serenity. He pretty overtly states to Mal that the cause he works for is trying to make the worlds better – all of them – and then that he has no place in this perfect universe because of the blood on his hands, because of the kind of person he is (has become?) to work for this goal.
While The Operative is saying he’s no hero, he’s still claiming to be the cause of the better worlds. Basically all martyrs do just this, claim to be villainous, but only because they have to be to forge a good world. They use omelet logic – you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. Someone has to be that person. The martyr will be the bad guy and do it, for the good of all. However, even though this type of villain claims to be a villain, they’re still, in reality, claiming to be a hero, because they’re a martyr.
There are villains who are not martyrs who do not claim to be heroic. They may be a complete monster or just an amoral or immoral person who doesn’t have the pretense of good. There’s Heath Ledger’s Joker who did not claim to be a good person – and believed no one else was, either, that it was all just pretend. But that’s just it – most people at least think they are good, so these villains who are bad to the core and know it should be instituted with care. They’re harder characters to pull off, and when they’re not well done, they’re just a sign of laziness on the writer’s part more than anything.
So remember, your villain is probably the hero, even if the tragic hero, of his own story because, as my husband says, “Most people want to be good, but they suck at it.”