The question of the week is what makes a ‘good’ villain in a story. The answer is basically easy:
But of course, there is more to it than that. Does a villain need a backstory? Do we need to know that the villain is, indeed, villainous, or what made him/her that way? Does that change our perception of the term, ‘villain’?
Many stories hit you at or near the end with a change in the motives of the characters. Seldom is the ‘bad guy’,(or gal), obvious. We no longer see the scheming cloaked, mustachioed villain who hasn’t a decent bone in his body, nor do we see the evil witch or vamp who is set upon the ruination of the story’s virtuous heroes. If we have that perception, we are often treated to a softer side of them later in the story. Often they are not as evil as we were led to believe and end up actually being a great help, even if it means turning over a new leaf.
The older I get, the more experience I accumulate, the more trouble I see in the people around me, the more I understand the reasons behind people’s behavior. I will often pull someone aside who has a problem with another person and explain WHY the other someone is behaving in the manner that upsets them. I am also often accused of making excuses for the ill-behaved, so I now preface my remarks with, “This isn’t an excuse, but it is the reason”. And there is a difference.
Years ago there was a study done in England of severe alcoholics and complete teetotalers. Nearly every one of them gave the interviewers the same line: “What else could I be? My father was a drunkard.” I’ve known people who were nasty to everyone only because they had been treated so badly that they had no reference on how to relate nicely with others. Then I have known people with Dickenesque childhoods of unimaginable abuse and/or neglect that are unfailingly kind and helpful to others because of the ill treatment that they have received. Do we need to know what makes our villains tick?
It depends on the story.
Does every villain need a backstory? No. We don’t always know why anyone does anything in real life. If a backstory in the mind of the writer helps to flesh-out the person and help the character be consistent, fine.
If flashbacks or prefaces in the villain’s life help the story along, all well and good, but if it drags or washes the drama out, no. Did revealing the backstory ruin Star Wars? Yes.
There has been a real turn in writing over the last few decades that shows a redeeming side to every villain. People are human and have foibles, no one is perfect, so therefor, one is expected to believe that no one is completely evil. My grandfather would paraphrase a quote and say: “If you live with a person you will neither idolize nor despise them”, but …really? Writers have been offering us some pretty unreasonable changes-of-heart in some of the most evil of characters. Why is it all right that Darth Vadar decided that enough was enough only when it came to his son? He is back to grace in Jedi Heaven and in everyone’s hearts…after all the cold-hearted persecution, torture and murder of innocents. Really?
If Goring/Himmler/Hess/ Goebbles had saved their sons from the S.S. and helped to bring down Hitler at the end, would we all love them? Forgive and forget? Embrace them? I don’t see that, no matter that we may have found that even one of them couldn’t save his mother and lost his true love to death. [Cue the violins.]
I like a decent ending to most stories, although there are some great tragedies, I have to admit. Those often involve bad things that happen to good people. I like to see an otherwise decent human being realize that the horrid behavior is out of control because of their jealousy, greed or want of revenge. I still hate to see the bad guys win. Happily-Ever-Afters don’t have to be about evil becoming good, just about good being victorious. The laughing ends to stories where someone has ruined the hard-earned future happiness of others is painful to me, whether they brought about a death, stole the family survival money, caused a love to be lost or the like; we’ve all seen and read such stories. Redemption is one thing, but a “that’s just the way he is and we love the scoundrel” attitude is far from uplifting to me.
Most soap operas and many of the most popular series on prime time have ill-defined villains. Just when you think they have crossed the line on either side, whether it be to be overcome by evil or what seems to be a complete conversion of heart to goodness, they revert to the other way and back again so many times that it will make your head spin. This formula is being over-used in even the best shows and I’m getting more than a little annoyed.The stories could use a few really good villains, not ‘really good’ ones.
Not-really-evil or evil-person-becoming-saintlike endings usually leave me scratching my head or feeling cheated. There is nothing wrong with someone evil getting their just desserts, be it through exposure, ruination or even death. I don’t see that as a bad thing, as long as there is virtue in the story and the ‘good guys’ win. Not all villains need an excuse for their behavior, even if they have a reason. There is a difference.
How do you feel about my ideas on villains? Please let me know below.