Boo Frickin’ Hoo: The Sob Story

Why would anyone ever do what is evil? That’s the question that makes villains interesting, isn’t it? For some of us, answering this question goes the route of behaviorism: something must have made them that way. No one is just born evil.

Of course, in the age-old debate of nature vs nurture, the answer remains a little bit of both. No one is born evil, and no one can be forced into evil by their circumstances. The thing to remember is that people have a choice; bad things don’t produce a single outcome. Just look at the stories of the Holocaust, which brought out the absolute best and worst of those involved – both Nazi soldiers and imprisoned Jews. There were those who gave away their bread to those who were sick and dying, even though they’d still die, and that healthy man might have a chance to live if he kept his bread. And there’s the father that stole bread from his son to live. When bad things happen, the victim always has a choice.


Takei was a child when the US put all the Japanese in, let’s just admit it, concentration camps. How he’s chosen to deal with that misfortune (to put it lightly) is to do everything in his power to keep from seeing that happen again. He didn’t let it affect his TV career. He didn’t let it affect how often he smiles and jokes around. And he doesn’t allow it to be an excuse to hate anyone – instead, he looks to decrease hatred.

And it’s not just a choice of rising above the challenge or becoming a supervillain. There’s embitterment, grudges, lingering anger, denial, learned helplessness…mortals are complex beings.

So to me, the sob story is usually the easy way out for making a villain. As usual, the sob story is sometimes appropriate, or just how the story is. And as usual, in deciding whether or not it’s appropriate for your story is based entirely on whether or not you’re being lazy. If you throw a series of unfortunate events at your villain to make him bad and call it a day, that’s lazy. But if you are mindful about why these things happened to him and how he reacted and think about who he is as a person that meant he reacted the way he did, that’s too much work to call lazy.

Consider contrasting your villain with your hero. If your villain was orphaned and had to steal to survive, and -that- is why he’s a villain, how would that same scenario affect your hero? Is that really such a bad situation that it forces anyone who endures it to become evil?


Must be the case since there are a grand total of 0 characters who have ever been both an orphaned thief and a heroic protagonist. Zero, I say!

Okay, something more horrific…they were a slave as a youth.


I’m positive there have never been a huge multitude of heroic protagonists that are/were slaves! I mean, look at Slave 23 here – he became Hoenheim and Hoenheim always referred to himself as a monster! (Which of course had nothing to do with guilt over something out of his control.)

Okay, but what about those who were forced to do something truly traumatic, like kill someone or something?

After all, zero percent of heroes ever deal with complex gray moral issues which result in their figuring out who they are as a person and what it means to be a hero and therefore villains who have bad things happen to them and then say that they are what the world made them are totally justified.

It is entirely okay for a villain to react poorly to a past trauma and become a villain because of it. It is also okay for a villain to try and justify themselves with the past trauma. It is not okay for you, as the writer, to justify them as well, for two reasons: two wrongs never make a right. Never. And if you make your villain a simple, determined creature who is pushed along his destiny by cause and effect, you make a weak creature the antagonist, and that’s bad.

People blame their circumstances for who they are all the time, and that’s just who they are as a person. So again, if your villain is who he is due to a sob story,  and he blames his circumstances, make sure you develop that. But always remember he chose what he did, he chose to react that way. And he is choosing to ignore his own faults and blame those around him.


In Justice League, Lex Luthor gets incurable blood poisoning from carrying around a piece of kryptonite in case of Superman. On learning this, he bellows at Superman, “Are you happy  now, Superman?” and blames Superman for his poisoning, refusing to acknowledge it was his choice to do crime and be at odds with the hero, and his choice to carry around the kryptonite. Certainly, Superman didn’t put it there. 

So while I think the far, far scarier villains are the ones who just choose to do evil, who aren’t remotely products of their circumstance, bad things happen to everyone and a sob story is plausible. Just remember that we always have a choice.

About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
This entry was posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Boo Frickin’ Hoo: The Sob Story

  1. Reblogged this on Writing of Whitney Danielle and commented:
    I know I’ve posted today already but this post about villains is awesome.


  2. “It is also okay for a villain to try and justify themselves with the past trauma. It is not okay for you, as the writer, to justify them as well…” This is exactly why I could never write a novel. Okay okay also the laziness is a factor but THIS TOO. Whenever I read a book, I ALWAYS feel for the villain and secretly root for them. My favorite characters are villains that come around and end up not like good, but at least okay- like Jaime on Game of Thrones. If I wrote a book I would entirely justify the villain’s perspective.

    This is probably why I never kill a mosquito- if they bit me I just let them finish up their meal and go about their business.


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