Hello minions! Er, readers!
I was toying with the idea of making some posts be Evil PSAs about things like bullying, smoking, nuclear fallout, and other things with which we are faced every day. In trying to decide how to do these PSAs, I considered the tag line “Evil has standards, too”. In the end, when I do the PSAs, that’s not going to be the tag line but I DID want to discuss the topic because it’s so easily forgotten.
The thing about evil standards is that it feels like an oxymoron for most people. Evil is surely completely immoral, and standards would suggest some form of morality. If standards are “my standards for my minions are big and brutish and none too smart”, then the idea that evil has standards is not so bizarre, but when that sentence is changed to “my standards for my minions are clean-cut teetotalers who also abstain from other drugs”, the whole situation becomes a little weird again. Are not all villains cigar-munching, swearing, drinking, puppy-kicking, sludge-dumping, backstabbing jerks? Those things are all at least vaguely evil, if not just bad for your health, so surely an evil person enjoys them.
The inherent problem is that should you think that, you are not thinking about a villain, you’re thinking about the general concept of evil. Villains are individuals and each individual has standards of some sort. Consider actual, real-life criminals. Many of them DO have standards. A petty thief is not likely to be okay with murder. A murderer may be disturbed by the idea of child abuse, even if said murderer would be okay with abusing their adult victims. Think – surely you’ve heard that a pedophile better keep quiet why he’s in prison or else the chances of the other prisoners beating him up will be really, really high? Even criminals of brutal crimes cannot approve of sexual abuse on children. Are criminals villains? That is debatable, and not what I want to discuss here, but I hope the example has opened your eyes a little. Villains aren’t usually amalgams of all things evil, but people. And people have things that are important to them.
Of course, TvTropes (from whom I took this image) would like to suggest that the ‘evil has standards’ idea is a tool for pinpointing or highlighting what is truly evil. This is true, and it can be a tool for such, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here.
When your character doesn’t have any standards, they become less human because only a complete monster has no standards. Or someone who is totally deranged, perhaps. Remember how complete monsters and totally insane people are really hard to write? That’s because they’re no longer relateable as humans. No-standard villains are completely despicable, but real people are, as I’ve said before, more interesting. And they can still be completely despicable.
Consider Hitler. What with his perpetrating a genocide so big it’s more properly called a holocaust – in fact, THE Holocaust with a capital H – there’s no question to his being a real-life evil overlord. Yet, there are a lot of interesting little tidbits about Hitler that turn peoples’ heads because it seems impossible he could have possessed such traits. Things like the fact he was a vegetarian. People believe Hitler was pure evil, so he could not possibly have the tiny goodness or whatever of vegetarianism. But Hitler, contrary to some popular belief, was not Satan incarnate. He was just a human. And as a human, he had standards. And some of his standards were…er…well, good by some non-Nazi ideals.
Even when you have a broken character, a psychotic character is likely to play by a different but very strong set of rules. Perhaps your crazed murderer does have the rule he can’t kill children, because he believes that innocents shouldn’t be killed, but no one is innocent – except children, who haven’t had a chance to understand the world well enough to lose their innocence. My psychotic character is a pretty big fan of slow torture mixed with psychological warfare, and has no problem with child victims – but he is adamantly against rape. He views rape as an ultimate evil and will even actively fight the act, which he does at least twice, once in directly defying his master’s orders by murdering a band of loose-moral mercenaries his master had hired to capture a young girl, and once in spending copious amounts of time in plotting against a higher-ranking minion who was a dreaded womanizer, ending in said minion’s carefully crafted death. Is this psychotic character still a bad guy? Well, part of the reason he risked his neck for the young girl was because he was particularly territorial about her, since she was a past torture victim of his. He does also murder swaths of school kids. So I’d say he’s still a pretty bad guy. Sort of. It’s complicated.
Tell me now, are you maybe little intrigued? And tell me this – what sounds more interesting about this guy of mine, the story of his relationship with this young girl, his murdering of school children, or the story of how the womanizing minion found his death and what part my psychopath played?
Even if your villain doesn’t exactly have standards – my overlord doesn’t exactly, because he loses a lot of individuality in his grab for power that brought him to overlordship, and he kind of is an amalgam of evil (I did say they’re usually not!) – even if he doesn’t exactly have standards, you can still give him a sense of propriety. This is exactly what I’ve done with said overlord. He didn’t care his right-hand man was a womanizer – but if that got in the way of business, my overlord became angry. Evil for the sake of evil is not always the best choice for a villain.
What about the womanizer? What standards does he have? Or propriety? Dearest minions, I have been very, very careful to not explicitly ban you from writing a horrid monster who has no morals. But you have to master the rules before you can break them, and you must be careful to use monsters only when appropriate. Which yes, is to say the womanizer does not have morals or even a sense of propriety. But then, he’s not a particularly interesting character – just a huge jerk everyone despises, including myself. He’s probably my least favorite brainchild and I usually don’t like to talk about him. The other two I’ve mentioned are far more interesting.
You can make a person a person by personality and not standards, but only to a degree – standards indicate depth and it’s quite difficult to make a three-dimensional personality without even touching standards. (Sure, say challenge accepted – I’d love to see your results.) I’m not certain it’s possible at all. You can have a character who no longer has any morals and perhaps keep it interesting, but I don’t think you can start off with a perfectly immoral character and go by personality alone.
And if you can – I wouldn’t recommend it.
I’ve demonstrated, a bit, how I do this craft, how I remember standards in my own villains. Let’s end with a writing exercise – try to either create a new villain with specific standards, or discover the standards of a current villain – or add them. Consider everything from environmentalism or membership with PETA (which would automatically give your villain extra villain points too) to what we’ve already discussed with abhorrence of certain actual criminal behavior. Maybe your villain supports building more parks for kids or more after-school activities that keep them out of trouble because he knows it’s too late for him, but he can prevent other children from going through what he went through. Maybe he helps run a homeless shelter because he remembers his time with his parents, trying to seek somewhere to stay for the night, being turned away, and he has a soft spot there. We see all too often the hero dash across the street to save the kid from an oncoming car – why not see the villain do that? After all, evil has standards, too.