Writing: Villains and the Subjective Nature of Evil


For the Greater Good: What About Your Villain?

Your story has a hero. Now it has to have a villain.



I’ll share something with you, kids. I’m not, nor have I ever been, a big supporter of the classic Good vs. Evil thing. Nor am I, for that matter, a fan of the anti-hero, the noble villain, etc.–we’re not playing D&D here. There is no chaotic good, no lawful evil. These archetypes, useful though they might be in summing up a character in a few words, do not actually exist.

You’ve considered your plot carefully. You know all the holes in your literary poke cake, and you know precisely which ones needs to get filled with the blueberry pie mix of villainry, the lemon custards of heroism. You know, in short, that you need a hero.

However, ask yourself this question first:

What do your characters think about all this?

People, in the rare microscopic amount of time they spend thinking about whether they’re on the side of good or evil, usually go with good (yes, even the worst people). Even those sensitive bitter bastards who call themselves anti-heroes and think they’re all rough and tumble do things for reasons they consider worthwhile. If they, for some reason, don’t think of the reason as worthwhile, there’s a human tendency to justify however hard you need to to remain the hero of your own story.

Consider: a man leaves his family one day without a word of warning. He never sees his young child or wife again.

Despicable, no?

And yet plenty of people have done it. They might lie awake at night thinking about it, but not everyone does. And even those who do have to get coffee in the morning, wash up, give big work presentations, deal, in short, with the day-to-day. There are photographs of this man in which he’s smiling, photographs with his friends, who probably think he’s a pretty good guy. (This concept is called the banality of evil, and if you’re interested you should totes mcgoats google that).

Note: this doesn’t mean evil doesn’t exist. Oh, buddy, it does. There’s plenty of evil in this world–but where you see it depends on who you are, and where you’re looking.

In short: the nice barista who slides you a medium even though you asked for a small might beat his wife. Your favorite professor might not’ve paid taxes in fifteen years. The pleasant German gentleman you met on a cruise in 1968 might have been a member of the Nazi party during the second world war.

These people have done evil things–but you might not see them. Evil isn’t universal, and it isn’t glaringly apparent to everyone around. And these people might justify their actions in pretty convincing ways–the former Partei member was just doing what a good patriotic German would do. The wife-beating barista has a really mean wife. Your tax-evading professor reads a lot of Thoreau. Everybody has reasons for doing the things they do–reasons for being the people they are.

Whether or not this person is a hero or a villain depends largely on how your main character sees them. And how ‘good’ your main character is, of course, relies on how they react to the evil thing suddenly exposed–is your MC horrified, upon finding out that sweet old Dr. Zimmer was in the SS? What does your MC do about it? Does Dr. Zimmer regret his actions, try to atone for them? Does this change your MC’s view of that character?

Either way, a character who commits an ‘evil’ action will do these things, just like the good guys:

1) Try to justify the action. Hitler probably had some pretty good reasons for doing what he did. At least: they seemed good, if you were Hitler. Hitler did some good things for the German economy, and it made a lot of hungry and war-torn Germans all right with his, erm, less nice ideas. A lot of people a lot more qualified than me have written books about the how and why of the Third Reich, so I won’t attempt to go into that here, but you can see how personal interest can justify a lot of truly evil things.
2) Have friends and be nice to people. You don’t get very far in the world if you’re shitty to everybody. Even Hitler had friends and a lady who loved him. Give these people justifications and your story is halfway to rolling already.
3) Do the occasional non-shitty thing. A person who time after time takes the evil road is just as boring as a milksop hero who always takes the good. Besides, people don’t work that way–if you keep a character on one path of justification, his actions are eventually going to benefit somebody. Again: Hitler’s crazy ass did some good things for certain segments of the German population. Does this make him any less of a villain? No. But he wasn’t a villain to everybody all the time. Nobody is.

I want to make it perfectly clear: I am not, in any way shape or form, saying evil doesn’t exist. If evil hasn’t touched your life, you’re a lucky person. But it always does to remember: evil, just like anything else in life, is terrifyingly subjective. What might’ve been a low dark blow to you may benefit someone else. The oncoming horde of dark barbarians is someone else’s noble army. Their merciless general is someone’s dad. Their evil sorceress queen in her fortress of darkness keeps their tax rates pretty low, and the constant wars keep her citizens wealthy and well fed.

So, what makes a villain different from a hero?


And that’s about it.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, I know, but it’s a rather important one in writing. You are, after all, the manwomanperson with the silver tongue–your characters are, almost exclusively, what you portray them as being. Never take this power lightly. Jesus, it’s one of the most terrifying things about writing.

For more thought-provocation on the matter, try googling why people don’t tip. (A note, if you aren’t American: American servers by and large make far less than minimum wage, and are expected to make up the difference in tips at the end of the night). You’ll get some great examples of justification there.
And, last thing, a writing exercise for you:

Write a story, any length, in which your main villain is the hero of the story. Note–not just the viewpoint character. Make me root for her. Make me want her to win. Tell me, in short, why this character does what she does.

Thank you, and good night.

7 thoughts on “Writing: Villains and the Subjective Nature of Evil

  1. I’ve already touched on the subject of goodies v baddies; I could write a PhD on this subject. Your task at the end of this post is complete. My last novel has had several beta readers turning themselves inside out trying to figure out why the main character was an assassin writing a love story on her mobile phone. ‘Where’s the conflict?’ one asked. The novel had 350 pages of the stuff, but I suppose because the story wasn’t split 50 – 50 with goodies and baddies they couldn’t see the conflict.

    I’m not sure I agree with the idea that there’s no such thing as evil, probably because the word is loaded with religious connotations. When I look at the world I see trouble arising out of self-interest, rather than evil, unless evil is a judgement in hindsight. However, you are right in saying ‘evil’ is a relative term. The old cliche applies: ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’

    I think the fun is trying to make a villain so charismatic that the reader can’t help but like them. And I suppose, at the end of the day, that makes the writer the villain for bringing out the worst in people!

    1. Oh, there’s definitely evil in the world. I’d never say otherwise. But I think evil is a result, rather than a way of being or even an intent–evil, for me at least, is something that happens when a person justifies an unforgivable and harmful thing enough to do it anyway. Self interest is often that very justification.

      The writer is always the villain. After all, someone has to like the antagonist enough to make them believable in the first place, right?

      1. ‘Evil is a result.’ I can agree with that. And if only more authors liked their antagonists enough to make them believable. I wonder if Dan Brown uses a dart board to choose his antagonist’s tics and habits!

      2. It’s the old Bond villain style of antagonist for a new age: not sure your villain has enough character? Give him a white cat and a crazy scar.

  2. I can’t possibly agree more. Stories with some big bad evil for the sake of evil ‘guy’ can be pretty annoying. It’s one of the reasons I never took to the wheel of time. Stories can be super compelling when the bad guy is just a guy or gal, whatever, who wants something different than the MC. As you pointed out, you only need to look as far as real life to see that. A real world example has been in my face over the past few weeks. It has never been so obvious to me that people do bad things (I’m talking about non-violent bad), but it doesn’t make them evil -stupid? Well, maybe, but not evil. That situation might even make a good book, really.

    I’m working on a project that explores this idea largely to see just how far I can push it, I mean personally. It’s certainly done elsewhere. For a famous example, look only as far as Game of Thrones. There you have a compelling story where the majority of conflict comes from people who have different perspectives, rather than straight-up good vs. evil.

    1. I’ll be honest, Dave. I agree with you…but I think ‘Big Bad Evil for the Sake of Evil Guy’ needs to be the tagline on my next book. 😛 Love it. But yeah, people are just people–even Hitler, biggest villain of the modern age, didn’t think of himself as a villain.

      Y’know, I’ve never really gotten into Game of Thrones, in spite of everybody I know telling me I should…maybe I’ll actually click the ‘buy’ button my cursor has hovered over several times now.

      1. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t make it past book 1. It’s well written and the characters excellent, but it starts out with 3 or 4 separate story lines. I concluded that I’d wait until the last book came out before I try to read the entire series. The story makes for much better TV, really.
        Also, ++Awesome if you use ‘Big bad evil for the sake of evil guy’ That will be a book I read.

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