Every trope follows the ebb and flow of trends. They are often privy to generational cycles and are reflections of wider societal trends.
On the subject of bad guys and villainous characters you can see how societal trends shift. In the 50s the bad guys were enemy polities as a stand-in for Russia or Nazi Germany, in the 60s-70s we realized how broken our institutions were due through the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and Nixon, in the 2000s… well you know. Now our bad guys are often either tragic fallen heroes or environmental terrorists going “too far”.
It has become a maxim for new writers to create bad guys with complex moralities, sympathetic backstories and understandable motivations (It is just the methods you disagree with. Bullshit, if you could, you’d be doing the same thing).
I have grown worn with this advice and the characters it creates.
So while I have written bad guys with dark, complex and sympathetic back stories, I have also written some real pieces-of-shit who do bad things because that’s what they do.
Look at the world around us, the villains of our world aren’t these tragic figures or fallen angels. The monsters of our world are simple selfish, narrow-minded, gluttonous, greedy creatures often armored in privilege and power.
I’ve never understood societies obsession with Psychopathic killers (Criminal Minds, Mindhunter and various murder documentaries). I know why people like it, but I’ve never understood it. Though I did love Hannibal.
Here’s the thing about those guys, the shooters, the killers; they aren’t these tragic figures. They were disturbed individuals with usually pretty simple motivations. The cops just didn’t care or weren’t effective. A recent tweet by Overly Sarcastic Productions summed it up in the following thread;
There’s an interesting split between fiction and reality when it comes to the portrayal of evil. Fiction loves evil genius masterminds, but real-world evil people are usually just so self-centered that they don’t consider other people worth NOT hurting – no genius required.-R
Our bad guys aren’t tragic stories, they are evil little monsters. Fueled by hate, radicalized by lies online and given opportunities to express their violence by weak societal commitment to address their issues and their avenues for violence.
The desire to create bad guys with understandable backstories is a reasonable place to start. Treating your bad guy as another protagonist or the hero of their own story is still good advice. There have been a lot of bad tropes coming out of this methodology that runs counter to what we should actually expect from our villains.
The worst of these tropes are the “Environmental Terrorists” found in most mainstream blockbusters. Characters who see our world crumbling around us and will be the ones who will do the “hard thing” to save us all.
The problem with these characters is it always frames the heroes as protecting the status quo AND THE STATUS QUO IS WHAT IS KILLING US. They never give a counter argument or offer a solution to the problem, they just react in horror “YOU’RE KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE.”
I don’t actually hate this trope because it is a perfect reflection of our world. We know the world is ending and the systems in place are both unwilling and unable to do a goddamn thing about it.
I do think there are better versions of this; the first Kingsmen: The Secret Service (because the end of the movie DOES involve the actual solution: killing the world’s aristocracy” or Pacific Rim and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (because giant monsters, but also monsters as manifestations of both familial grief and environmental decay).
And yes, there is Thanos. The penultimate villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I do think Thanos is an exceptionally well created villain, both through the performance but also the conception of the character. He’s not just an Malthusian eco-terrorist. He’s also a tyrant, a conqueror and a religious prophet. He is an abusive father who is so completely deluded himself into believing he is the hero and no one else understands. A suffering father-figure who is the “only one strong enough to do the hard thing we need.” A character deconstruction we sorely needed given how pervasive this characterization is for male action protagonists and I think that was the point.
He is the ultimate villain because he is the crystallization of all these tropes. He’s all of the 2010s bad guy tropes done as well as possible. And I tend to to think it works.
Infinity War framed Thanos as a bad guy who is certain he is on his own Hero’s Journey. The advice that keeps leading people to write these types of bad guys is crystallized with the Mad Titan. The best part? In Deadpool 2, Josh Brolin satirized this archetype with Cable. Here we have one actor portraying both a perfect version of this trope, but also the parody.
When writing your villains consider the Banality of Evil. From Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Ardent, when writing about Nazi War Criminals on trial. The men who committed such monstrous acts weren’t deranged, psycho or evil, they were just men. Men who did a job. Men who had families, loved ones and passions, who also committed genocide. The horror isn’t what they did, the horror is how they did it. They shrugged their shoulders and pulled the trigger. Consider the history of Residential Schools in Canada or Slavery in the United States. People were doing their jobs, waking up in the morning, shrugging their shoulders and committing atrocities.
So, in conclusion, yeah, you can write your villains any way you want, but please consider that sometimes evil is just evil. It’s not bad writing to have something that is simply evil. It is, in all honesty, more realistic.
I hope you found some enjoyment in this, or at least some useful thoughts.
If you’d like to read more, check out my previous blogs. If you’d like to see some of my own fiction writing, please check out my weekly flash fiction.