Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Evil

Welcome to the second post in my Building a Better Villain series. Today, we discuss the topic of evil, or, more properly pronounced, “eeeeeeeeeeeeevil”

It is not difficult to guess that a great deal of time playing D&D is devoted to the struggle of Good vs. Evil in all their capitalized meaning. Indeed, much, if not most of action-oriented fiction and media addresses this most elemental of struggles.

This is not the first time I have posted on the nature of evil in D&D. In fact, I recommend you check out my post V is for Verisimilitude from last year’s A to Z challenge.

Today, I would like to focus on how villains come to be perceived as evil, and how that may differ from the way they perceive themselves.

As a child of the 80s, I was brought up in a media environment saturated with super-simplified heroes and villains. The bad guys in my childood cartoons were generally motivated by one thing. They wanted to be bad. moustache twirling, fist-shaking, cacklingly bad. Villains like Cobra Commander, Skeletor and Megatron reveled in their own nastiness. Heck, Skeletor even had a sultry sidekick named “Evil-Lyn!” What were her parents thinking!? Did Mr. and Mrs. Lyn expect her to become a veterinarian!?

This simplified form of evil for evil’s sake works fine for kid’s shows, but I prefer a deeper, more nuanced approach to my villainy. Unfortunately, the D&D rules seem geared to perpetuate the ultra-simplified worldview that one who commits evil acts is evil to the core. Characters, creatures and even entire races are given an alignment that includes criss-crossing axes of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic. By a strict reading of the 3.5 edition rules, anyone/thing of evil alignment radiates an aura of badness that anyone with the right spell can detect... like paladins... judgmental pricks.

My problem with this is that real evil... the absolute worst kind of people do not believe they are evil when they commit evil acts. Let’s start at the top. Hitler, who is arguably the paramount example of evil in the 20th Century (or at least the most well known) was not motivated by a desire to kill millions of innocent people. He was motivated by a desire to restore his country to glory--taken by itself, not such a bad goal. When the means to achieve that glory involve the genocide of 6 million people, that goal becomes just about the most evil thing anyone’s ever done.

The more believable and more sinister form of evil boils down to evil means to attain an otherwise good or at least understandable end. This adds an element of discomfort for the heroes attempting to take down that villain. Maybe some part of them understands the baddie’s perspective. A villain seeking to attain an otherwise noble goal is also much more likely to draw followers to his/her cause. “Hey, how about joining me for some good ol’ evil” just doesn’t have the power to sway most people. Now, the “goodness” of the goal does not have to be completely altruistic. A villain might be motivated by an elevated sense of self preservation--a seemingly reasonable, if selfish goal. The important thing is that they believe their actions are justified.

So, when creating a truly dastardly villain for a book or game, think about their motivation. Why do they want what they want, and why are they willing to commit such horrendous acts to get it? A vampire tearing a rift between the material realm and the plane of shadows to protect his family from possible annihilation by sunlight is a stronger villain than one who just wants to scare the crap out of people and make them sad/dead.

Here are some other examples of villains with strong motivation:

  • Frank Hummel (Ed Harris’ character from the Rock) - To draw attention to the injustice done to his men. <-- One of my all time favorite villains... and he's from a Michael Bay movie!?
  • Eric Lensherr (Magneto) - To prevent a second holocaust committed against mutants
  • Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in Die Hard) - Personal Comfort / monetary gain
  • The Six Fingered Man from the Princess Bride - Intellectual Curiosity
  • Joan Crawford as depicted in Mommie Dearest - Maintain order and control (actually, in popular media, this seems to be a very common motivation for female villains of the overbearing mother-figure variety.)

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

Update: On my morning drive I heard a radio piece about the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. In a discussion about their rock opera, Jesus Christ, Super Star, they mentioned something that really illustrates what today's post is about.

Rice says what eventually made it a yes was a brainstorm: the idea of telling the story from Judas Iscariot's point of view.
"It's logical that he might've been worried about the man that he admired, and had joined, [that he] was kind of getting out of control," Rice says. "In the Bible, there is absolutely no motivation for Judas, other than that he is sort of a 100 percent figure of evil. And it seemed to me that that was probably not the case."


  1. For anyone familiar with Babylon 5, I think you could reasonably add Ambassador Mollari in there--evil for the sake of regaining Empirical Glory. Although, more accurately, Mollari is (at least at first) a patsy. There's ultimately a bit of redemption for him, especially when (like a child on Christmas morning) he gets what he has always wanted, but realizes that it's not what he thought, and realized what he's lost to get it.
    But for at least one or two seasons of the show there's a strong argument to be made as to his "eeeee-vil" (as in the froo-its of the dev-il).

    1. Gotta admit, I never saw Babylon 5. Though I did almost put Gaius Baltar from the BSG remake on the list.

  2. I'll add Cersei Lannister with strong motivations, to see herself and her children on the throne. She's so much more complex than that especially when we see more of who she is when she finally gets her own POV. Giving the villain a POV is a fairly strong mechanism for adding layers. Having said all that, Hans Gruber remains my favorite villain.

    1. Yes! In fact, George Martin, as frustrating as his writing can be, is really good at getting you to identify with and/or like characters you originally hated.

  3. And now I'm picturing Hans Gruber singing "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Tired brain is tired -- and weird.

    1. Aaaamazing. Also, my Catholic upbringing/schooling periodically caused me to morally provoke myself with the realization that Christianity would not exist without Judas's betrayal and/or the story of such.

  4. wow. amazing post Sporkchop. I love it. I think that HRG (Horn Rimmed Glasses aka Bennett) from Heroes is a perfect example of this very concept, especially in the first season.

    Keep the great posts coming Sporkchop.


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