A friend sent me an article about mindflayers in D&D and an analysis on what the lead designer Mike Mearls said about the tremendously evil creatures ability to garner empathy, or at least sympathy. The short of it was that the mindflayers were once an empire that fell and are now the last of their kind, viewing themselves as refugees, struggling desperately to regain the glory and purpose they once had, and while Mearls suggests that this is where sympathy comes in, author Cameron Kunzelman suggests that it’s trying to borrow from a basic fantasy trope set up exemplified in Aragorn, of the lost ruler fighting against bad odds to reclaim what is his, and how it’s not a fair comparison because the mindflayers are unequivocably evil and it’s dangerous and ugly to validate their struggle that way and that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is trash.
There’s a lot to dissect here, but I’ll start off with that I generally agree with Kunzelman. There are, as the title of his article suggests, villains who just do not deserve sympathy. Mindflayers are one of them, because they’re a type of people who believe in metaphorically and literally eating the minds of others, enslaving them with mind control, and abusing the crap out of their slaves. They’re not good people (if, frankly, you wanna call them people at all). They are, as I said, unequivocably evil. You can paint anything you’d like to as sympathetic – even murder and rape and torture can all be painted that way – though, to use D&D terms, they’d still have to beat the will save of anyone looking at them ‘cuz some of us will refuse to see it that way regardless of how it’s presented; we will not devour garbage, not if you arrange it in a smiley face, put a garnish on top, or add a side of fries…erm, you can paint anything you like as sympathetic but that does not mean it deserves sympathy. Some things are just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, the end. Trying to look at it differently is not an interesting moral quandry.
And that’s why if ever presented with this bs about, “Oh, but the mindflayers are saaad refugees who are the last of their kind struggling to recover from a mortal blow! Would you really snuff out a species?” I have no problem whatsoever saying “yes” – after I’ve already stabbed the mindflayer, of course, as per Overlord List #7. I mean, if I got a chance to destroy all of any given gross parasite after ascertaining that it wouldn’t be a dramatic detriment to the ecosystem, I totally would. Heck, if I got the chance to obliterate any particularly unpleasant aspect of mortal existence, I absolutely would. In D&D, that’s gonna include mindflayers.
Honestly I find the idea of sympathizing with a fallen overlord race super bizarre. Like, the fantasy plot we follow is sympathizing with the Gith – the primary race the Illithids enslaved – as they overthrow their cruel (and abusive!) masters. Why on earth would we want to follow the reverse story? You could find entertainment in reading a story about the rise and fall of an overlord, but…if you don’t have that end part, your story is a tragedy.
But here’s where I disagree with Kunzelman. He suggests that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is a bad device since it does the whole garner sympathy for the devil thing. And you can use it that way, I guess. But that’s not the point of the device. The point is that when you’re writing a villain, that villain is probably a person, even if just barely a person like a mindflayer. And that person is going to have motivations and how they view those motivations changes if nothing else the flavor of the villain dramatically. It’s the difference between arguing with an internet troll and someone who absolutely believes their position is correct. It’s the difference between someone who acts out of hatred and someone who acts out of vengeance and someone who acts out of perceived righteousness. People don’t usually purposefully pick something wrong because it’s wrong and it doesn’t necessarily make your villain any more horrible or terrifying if they do. Honestly, usually someone who thinks they are right, that they are the hero, when they are demonstrably demonic, is more terrifying than someone who just admits they’re awful because of how hard the former will fight – and that’s the difference between someone fighting for something they want, even if they know they have no claim to it, and someone fighting for something they firmly believe is absolutely theirs and they deserve it and it is morally wrong for any other outcome. The point isn’t to make sympathy for your villain – it’s to flesh them out and understand – but disagree – with them.
Kunzelman brings in modern day white supremacists (who are often (always?) also Neo Nazis) as why granting the objectively evil figure sympathy just for existing is a dangerous idea. Let me propose that if you’re writing a Nazi, you can write them as just an evil person who wants to kill “inferior” races and control others, but you won’t be writing a person, you’ll be writing an idea with a body. A person justifies themselves, and they probably do it by thinking they’re right. Nazis are still people, even if they suck, and if you want to write them well, you’ll remember that – because part of what makes them suck is that they are people and people should behave better than that.
You don’t have to sympathize with evil to understand it, and understanding doesn’t have to shift to sympathy. It shouldn’t. In the case of mindflayers, I’m happy to take the time to better understand them. Unlike goblins, they’re not just some monster with a rudimentary culture that maaaybe I shouldn’t kill? No – I understand that they think they are right, that they believe they are the rightful rulers of the universe, that it is their destiny, their birthright, and they’ll do anything to fulfill it. They are the heroes of their own story, the forsaken leaders – I understand their perspective, and that way, I understand why I have to kill them.