Villains and Villainy: The Choice to Be Evil
By Mike Brogley
A while back, during a discussion by the Hoyt’s Huns Commentariat on character motivations, our hostess, the lovely and talented Senhora Dona Sara Hoyt, saw a comment of mine on villains, villainy, and choice, and asked me to expand on my thoughts a bit as a guest post. Being both naturally long winded (ask my lovely wife) and a fan of anything allowing Sarah more time to write her books, I agreed.
Our discussion that day was on the topic of bad guys, villains and villainy, and what goes into making a character’s villainy believable. I’ve certainly read stories and seen TV and movies where the character designated as the villain is identifiable because he’s in effect wearing a black “I ARE A VILLAIN!” t-shirt. In silent westerns the identifying item of clothing was the black cowboy hat, while in young-lady-tied-up-on-the-tracks melodramas the villain was generally the guy with the stooped posture and the large waxed mustache. Given the limitations of these early movie formats, shortcuts like these served as a quick way to let the audience figure out who they should be rooting for so the action could commence.
Written fiction gives more opportunity for the author to go past simply describing what is happening, and readers expect a more insights into just why that fellow wearing the black hat is so invested in continuing to do bad things which our heroes must oppose. When the villain’s actions make sense, the hero’s challenges are more challenging, heroic setbacks are more believable, and heroic accomplishments are more satisfying.
In the Commentariat discussion the villainy of one Darth Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker, Dark Lord of the Sith, Galactic Overlord, right hand man to and eventual assassin of the Emperor of the Galactic Empire, was brought up as an example. An examination of the Darth Vader character works for our exploration of villainy on a couple of levels, both because he was drawn so well, and because he was drawn so poorly in the extended Star Wars saga. We’ll get back to Darth in a bit, but first let’s talk a bit about villainy in general.
By definition, something is wrong with a villain. The choices they make are not the “correct” choices with which society in general would agree. Something has shifted the structure of beliefs they use to decide what to do that yields an altered value system, leading to actions – betraying trusts, harming innocents, causing unnecessary pain – that are generally recognized as “bad”.
So what makes a well-rounded characters’ villainy believable? And how can this be done while also avoiding muddying the writing to the point that our villains become more sympathetic and likeable than our heroes, since, to paraphrase what Sarah has said, that way leads to deep, deep mud indeed.
In real life, ‘experts’ have been trying to understand what makes people do evil for a very long time. Explanations including possession by demons, curses by angry gods, and spells cast by evil magicians or witches standing in threes around a big pot were popular in the past, Modern experts have a similar range of explanations. At base, all of these explanations fall into two broad categories: Nature – that the person who performs some evil action has some innate characteristic, flaw or fundamental void of character that causes them to do bad things, or alternately prevents them from being able to distinguish between good and evil so they can choose to do good; or Nurture – that the person’s environment, education or upbringing led, lured, or forced the person to their eventual acts of evil.
My default answer to any “Choose A or B” question is always “Both,” and I think that applies to this question as well – aspects of intrinsic “flaw” as well as environmental factors both undoubtedly contribute to a person committing heinous acts.
Sometimes a person who commits evil is just broken. A number of articles from a few years back explored the use of Dr. Robert D. Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, Revised (PCL-R), a commonly used screening tool in the diagnosis of psychopathic individuals. People with psychopathic characteristics are highly impulsive, lack empathy, anxiety or guilt, and effectively lack any conscience (here’s a good blog post on this topic). Using the PCL-R test, researchers document a general adult population incidence of psychopathy of 1 in 100 in males and 1 in 300 in females. Then they looked at prison inmates, where the proportions were significantly different: 1 in 5 prisoners in the general prison population are diagnosable as psychopaths, and 1 in 2 violent offender inmates are diagnosable as psychopaths - fifty times the ratio in the general non-prison male population. Obviously there is a connection between this particular fashion in which people can be broken and crime.
We should just give this test to kids and preemptively lock up anyone with a certain score or higher indicating psychopathic characteristics, right?
Not so fast, cowboy. Not all psychopaths become criminals: Those same articles revealed that PCL-R testing of corporate CEOs yielded a ratio of 4 in 100 as diagnosable psychopaths, a rate four times higher than found in the general male population. Obviously if clinically psychopathic individuals can attain and sustain the heights of corporate governance, these people can by definition be fully functioning members of society.
I couldn’t find any testing results along these lines for government employees or politicians, alas. Wouldn’t that be an interesting PhD. dissertation?
And recall, half of violent offenders are not diagnosable as psychopaths, yet they still committed the violent acts that sent them to prison – these folks who are not lacking in empathy and conscience nevertheless acted in ways presumably equally as evil as those diagnosable as psychopaths. To return to our character study, aspects of brokenness can inform the basic makeup of the character, but there has to be more involved to enable our villain to choose villainy.
Fundamentally broken characters can certainly make interesting villains (Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, or Joker in The Dark Knight), interesting supporting characters (Tovera, Adele Mundy’s personal aide in David Drake’s RCN/Lt. Leary series), and even interesting heroes: In researching for this article I came across a compelling argument that James Bond – a manipulative person, very good at lying, who kills easily with no compunctions – could be a psychopath. And yet Bond is in the service of good.
What about these characters drives why they choose the paths they do?
So let’s go back to one of the primary mainstream cultural references on heroism and villainy, the Star Wars movies, and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. In the first trilogy (episode IV – A New Hope 1977, episode V – The Empire Strikes Back 1980, and episode VI – The Return of the Jedi 1983), we don’t really get a lot of insights into the Darth Vader character, certainly not in the first movie. George Lucas consciously patterned his movies after the serialized cliffhanger adventures, and as such he started out consciously using the shorthand tropes of that form and built from there, mostly in surface details: Vader wears black, chokes people, and ends up killing the hero’s mentor and tries to stop the hero from succeeding in his first quest. In the later movies we learn that Vader works for the head evil character, the Emperor, who is not attractive and talks in an evil voice, and at the Emperor’s direction Vader does more evil things – he tortures prisoners, chokes annoying subordinates to death over the phone, and chops off the hand of the hero, Luke Skywalker, Vader’s own son, while trying and failing to get Luke to change sides in order to set up something of a family villainy business. In the end Vader becomes un-evil, kills the Emperor, saves Luke, and dies. There’s lots of adventure derring-do by the heroes along the way, and unfortunately Ewoks as well, but we only get a very short character journey for Darth Vader and not much about why Vader is evil.
George Lucas has talked about using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as a major basis for the story progression in Star Wars, and his first trilogy concentrates on the character journey of Luke Skywalker. Luke starts as an innocent, endures trials and challenges, identifies and faces his fears, in the end chooses to remain good, which leads to the defeat of his opponent and victory.
But what about Darth Vader’s path? We had to wait twenty two years after the first movie for George Lucas to tell us more, until he released the first installment of his Star Wars prequel trilogy (episode I A Phantom Menace 1999; episode II Attack of the Clones 2002; episode III Revenge of the Sith 2005). This trilogy is all about Anakin Skywalker, the person who will eventually become Darth Vader. It starts out with Anakin as an overly cute 9 year old blonde slave kid with a severe midichlorian infection who Yoda tries to blackball from entering Jedi training, who by the second movie has become a whiny teenage Jedi Knight trainee with problems avoiding interactions with his protectee that Jedi HR would find very troubling, and by the third movie he’s a combat veteran Jedi Knight with a secret: Anakin has secretly married his prior protectee in major violation of Jedi regulations, and she’s now pregnant. Anakin’s effort to protect his wife and unborn child lead him into making his one fateful choice, when he intervenes to prevent the arrest of soon-to-be-Emperor Palpatine by the Jedi, and thus Anakin’s fate is sealed. Then Anakin changes his name to Darth Vader, kills his wife because George Lucas, and falls into hot lava.
George Lucas wrote Anakin’s character in the prequel series as a victim with only one choice: whether or not to stop Palpatine’s arrest. Anakin’s choice to stop the Jedi and join Palpatine at that pivotal moment is the net result of all the forces (no pun intended) acting on Anakin, from his birth as a slave, to his adoption and training as a Jedi, to his courtship and secret marriage. And even then Anakin doesn’t really get to choose – his tragic history has already made the choice for him, and once this choice is made, Anakin/Vader’s future is fixed.
This is predestination, and I have a problem with that. Choices matter, and one bad choice that a character may be driven to make cannot predefine all the rest of the character’s choices as they go on living their life. Only a set of values that make those (evil) choices the right choices can do that.
So Anakin, raised as a Jedi paladin from the age of 9, gets stuffed into the Vader suit at age 25 or so. Suddenly he’s 6 inches taller and speaking with James Earl Jones’ voice. He becomes by Imperial HR job description a full-fledged Evil Overlord, second in power only to the Emperor in the new Galactic Empire they’ve created. Anakin has made his one fateful choice and… That limits him how?
What’s to prevent Anakin from choosing to be Imperial Super-Nice-Guy Darth Vader, painting his suit white with a My Little Kitty logo on his chest and travelling across the Empire, spreading cookies and candy to all the kids on colony worlds he meets as he fulfills his Imperial mandate? Sure, he might have to make a few hard choices, but he appears on Imperial holoTV all the time to make sure all Imperial Subjects know how he feels their pain, how much he cares about their problems, how hard he’s working to keep all Imperial Subjects safe and happy?
In other words, what prevents Anakin Skywalker from acting as a good guy in the twenty-something years between the end of episode III and his death at the end of episode IV? The one fateful choice theory just doesn’t work for me – destiny is fine as an explanation by lazy historians after the fact, but when Anakin is standing there trying to decide what to do next, he has to have something more complex than “Oh, that’s right, I forgot; I’m Evil!” to drive his decisions.
Perhaps he regrets his one fateful choice. Certainly regret can play a role – there’s not a much more powerful emotional driver than regret over past choices. But I can’t see regret alone as driving anyone to consistently choose to do bad things. I think most people, and thus most believable characters, deal with regret without constantly referring to any one fateful choice in their past as the determining factor for everything they choose to do from that point on. Being consistently evil is a lot of work. Consistent evil must have enormously strong underpinnings to keep villains from just quitting and planting a garden.
Characters need a consistent internal structure of values and beliefs that justify the choices they make, every day, day after day. One weak moment, one poor decision, one slip of the tongue, one fateful choice to support one mentor over another, just doesn’t rise to that level. Villains, like every one of us, make a whole pile of choices every day, over and over again, for years on end – and as they just choose to consistently do evil things, the reason they continue to make those choices have to make sense.
There is a maxim that everyone is the hero in the story they tell themselves in their own mind. In Vader’s mind, the story he tells himself must build a framework of assumptions and practical guidelines to support the daily choices – throttle this annoying incompetent admiral here, choke this diplomatic courier captain whose throat he finds in his grasp there, torture Han and Leia to lure Luke into a trap the next day – that the rest of us call evil, but in his value structure those evil choices are perfectly justifiable, and in fact are the correct choices for Darth Vader given his objectives, beliefs, and value system.
Now George Lucas didn’t show us this level of insight – we never saw R2-D2 plug into the Death Star’s network, happen across Darth Vader’s personal storage allocation in the Death Star Storage Cloud, and copy Vader’s private journal including his personal mission statement – but hey, we’re creative here, let’s synthesize something that makes sense. Imagine this as one of those pop-up holograms that R2 occasionally emits:
The Republic was a failure. I fought and nearly died in the Clone Wars, and we came close to losing over and over again. Only through the efforts of my Master, now Emperor Palpatine, and through no help of the Jedi, did we eventually create the Clone Troopers that enabled us to defend the Republic and have any chance of winning. Then, when we’d nearly won, the Jedi tried to arrest Palpatine and take over!
And don’t get me started on the Jedi – those weak fools with their endless rules and constraints, limiting what powers to use, what relationships to have, what actions to take – as if concepts of good and evil matter when what is needed to protect civilization is clear! I had to break their rules just to have a normal life and marry my wife! And then the Jedi betrayed the Republic and Obi Wan tried to kill me, even dragging Padme into what should have been an honorable duel between the two of us, causing her death and that of my unborn child! I lost both my legs and my remaining arm to that sanctimonious fool, but he couldn’t bring himself to finish the job, and failed to kill me. He was weak – they all were. The Jedi were a cancer on galactic society, and they had to be exterminated, root and branch. There was no choice.
The Empire has been the guarantor of Peace and Order across the galaxy ever since the Clone Wars ended, and I will use any power, destroy any being, do anything to prevent another descent into chaos like that from happening again.
Anyone who stands against the Emperor stands against civilization, and I stand for civilization as its protector. That service is all I have left. Thanks to Obi Wan and the Jedi, the Empire is the only legacy that I can leave behind.
With that story running through Anakin’s head, his actions over the next twenty years make sense. Leveraging his training as one of the protectors of the Republic, he allows nothing to stand in the way of the protection of his legacy. Anakin’s belief structure sustains him until he is hit with a series of shocks – His son is alive! And he has a daughter! The Emperor plans to include him in the next Imperial Downsizing! His son is about to die! Can this be what he committed all those evil acts, sacrificed everything he was, to protect? Can he allow his son be murdered in front of him rather than challenge Palpatine?
With our statement above as the mental background, that’s a pretty good story.
I was going to keep talking (ask my lovely wife) and touch on the implications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to a character’s motivations, and the usefulness of the concept of a decision chain in looking at a character’s progression into villainy, but perhaps I should refrain and wrap up here.
Building a good character, especially a good villain, requires that the character is believable, and building a coherent (if twisted) mindset that clearly explains how that villain can justify to themselves continuing to consistently act within their particular manner of villainy over time will pay dividends across your story, especially in how these well rounded villains in turn will help flesh out your heroes.
Maybe you will even find out that, once well rounded, your villain has something of a mind of his own, and your story will become richer still.
And if that happens, that’s cool – a story with depth, and challenge, and development, and interesting people, some of whom try to kill other interesting people, for various interesting reasons, not all of which are clear all the time… THAT’s the kind of story I like to read.
Thanks for your time, and thank you Sarah for the opportunity to play in your sandbox.
Mike Brogley is a nascent writer, photographer, pilot and 25 year semiconductor industry veteran, currently between jobs and actively searching in the Silicon Valley job market, so if you know of an opening in marketing or program management, shoot him a message. Otherwise, just be glad he’s helping Sarah take a day off from the blog so she can write more shifters and darkship thieves and musketeers and stuff, as we all know how much we all want more of that, even if she won’t say “moose and squirrel”.
Mike comments on According to Hoyt as FlyingMike.
Alces et Sciurus mori debet!