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