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Evil By Nature

  Approximately sixteen yonks ago, I discussed what makes a good villain. One of my main points is that a fully fleshed bad guy needs to have a coherent back story, one that the reader will look at and understand and still end up rooting for the goody-two-shoes. Now, this isn’t to say that every villain should be able to take home the Oscar for most tragic origin (that is a category, right?), but you really do need to account for decades worth of growth and development.

  As is the case when people don’t appreciate my mighty brain meats, someone immediately disagreed. They said that a good villain is categorically bad so that it makes the hero seem more heroic. His big heavy-hitter in this regard was Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. You know, the disembodied eye that desperately needed Visine and a PR department. I will even concede (as I did before) that Sauron works in that narrative to a limited extent – an amorphous, disembodied evil to rally against, but little else.

  To put it bluntly, the person who prefers simplistic villains is an absolute cretin because Sauron’s main motivation can pretty much be summed up with “is evil.” Sure, I’m oversimplifying things because that’s what I do, but if you can come up with a tidier summation based on his creepily intense Wikipedia page, I’d love to hear it. Seriously, a recurring theme is that he lusts for order and control, so he subverts free will for that purpose. Or, as I just implied, he’s just a dick because that’s the fastest route to power. Oh, sure, you can argue that the corruption of man and other such silliness warrants some kind of in-depth analysis, but it’s all just so corny. At the end of the day he’s just Satan’s infernal eyeball, and while I can praise the single-minded devotion, I don’t buy that he’s some be-all-end-all villain.

  He’s especially not a villain whose posters you want your antagonists hanging on their walls. The big problem with that is that your heroes are the default for your reader – you don’t have to make them complex or endearing or even interesting, because the only alternative is literally that planet’s incarnation of the devil. And to be fair, we’ve only really got Tolkien’s word that the guy is basically Lucifer. I mean, he is the god of the disaffected parts of Middle-Earth or whatever that not-Europe was supposed to be. As Cracked pointed out, he could very well be a charismatic leader of the underclass and a threat to the inbred monarchies running the joint. I mean, read some of those points: the Elves used Orcs as target practice? Fuck those guys right in their elongated ears. Orcs are sentient, and I refuse to believe in a world of genetically determined evil, because only horrible assholes do that. This is the inherent flaw of making your bad guys unrepentantly bad – you can make your heroes boring or psychotic, and the reader is stuck with two equally unattractive options.

  To put this is a different way, the prequel trilogy of Star Wars is chock full of protagonists making really stupid decisions and in general acting like a load of fuckwits. The future emperor is made out to be this be-all-end-all evil force, but the only thing he has going for him is that he is the only person operating with an IQ above single digits. And unless George Lucas was trying to show us the threat of intelligent people in a room full of idiots, there’s a pretty big problem with this story. There’s no one we can relate to because all the ‘good guys’ are morons and we can only sympathize with them because we know before the first movie even starts that Darth Sidious is a bad guy. A bad guy who knows he’s evil.

  But this needlessly long introduction is just getting in the way of what I’m just kind of sick of: it is that really stupid idea that bad guys know they’re bad guys. The good-versus-evil binary is all so clean but quite stupid. Evil is a relative concept; it always has been and always will be. The idea of equality between gender and race is something that I highly value, yet there are cultures of worthless dipshits who think otherwise. I’m not advocating for trying to meet awful people half-way, but humans almost never think of themselves as bad and we need to get past thinking that.

  Going back to Star Wars, I always had trouble swallowing the whole light side/dark side binary the second it tries to step out of the limited focus of the first three films. I understand that there is a lot of middle ground explored in the impenetrable expanded universe of fiction, video games, movies, comic books, beach towels, and collectible Pepsi cans, but all it does is hurt the original story. There are two sides, one inherently good and the other inherently evil. They fight, and good wins. It’s a story that works perfectly for a small trilogy of fun sci-fi adventures, but falls into shambles once the scope is pulled back.

  Even if we were to limit the investigation to the original trilogy, though, there are some cracks that start to show. Han Solo (my favorite character) is a smuggler – a rogue who makes a fortune getting illegal cargo from one place to another. I’m sure he transported his fair share of drugs in his time – does this make him good or evil? You can argue it makes him a good guy, because the Empire is bad, but he works for gangsters and other ‘evil’ types. If we have this simple light/dark dynamic, where is Han, other than awesome? He certainly doesn’t think of himself as evil or good, but a rogue looking out for himself and his walking, shouting carpet Chewbacca.

  It becomes even worse when you’re trying to make an entire universe. The light side Jedi are all militant, dogmatic zealots – don’t believe me? Why do they always carry their lightsabers? Are you telling me that a peaceful Republic is so tumultuous that they need to carry their day-glo broadswords with them everywhere they go? Who, in their right mind, would fuck with a Jedi considering they all dress like they’re on their way to a karate tournament? They’re just as bad as the dark Jedi, only they tend to be foot soldiers rather than leaders. Plus, they demand emotionlessness to the point where love – you know, that thing that is supposed to make us human – is taboo. So in the end, they’re not even good – they’re robots programmed for one task, “true neutral” in the most direct sense. And you know what? This could work if the stories were about how divorcing yourself from love makes you weak. Yet this is lost – if anything, love is the reason why everything falls apart.

  And the dark Jedi are just asshats who have a lust for power. But they can love – unusual, don’t ya think? And I mean, I get it. Love can lead to loss which can lead to despair. But this is such a minor point in the overall series that it loses any effectiveness. Yet, the biggest point I have here is why the hell would anyone want to be a dark Jedi? Only someone insane would check off “evil” in the Jedi questionnaire, because it guarantees you would be hounded from one end of the galaxy to the other. Sure, you get some power, but both light and dark Jedi seem to be equally matched in terms of strength. So one side offers ‘dying alone and unloved’ and the other one offers ‘bring your daughter to work day’ – which is really the bad side?

  But the biggest overall point here is that in his reign as emperor, why doesn’t Sidious reclassify the Force? Why doesn’t he become light side while Obi-Wan and Yoda are renegade, dark lords? He’s running the fucking show, and he doesn’t realize that being evil kind of hurts his public image? In reality, Lord “Sidious” Palpatine would give himself a title like “Consul,” declare himself a true light Jedi for his role in purging the hiding-in-plain-sight dark Jedi of the Temple, and give Darth Vader a new, off-white paint job and send him on good will tours throughout the galaxy. Sure, you could argue that it was all a part of his plan, but then his plan is stupid considering everyone knew that Darth Vader was a fucking Jedi.

  And then there’s Harry Potter, which does the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love Potter just as much as I love the original Star Wars trilogy. But it baffles me that Lord Voldermort, during his various attempts at taking over the magic world, doesn’t rename the Dark Arts something along the lines of “Defense Against Muggles” or “Retributive Arts.” Nope – it’s the Dark Arts. What do you expect out of the Dark Lord, something that I always assumed people who fought against him called him behind his back. Nope – it’s something he calls himself, because he is an asshole.

  I mean, considering how quickly the magic world turned on Harry, it shouldn’t have been too hard to rehabilitate Lord Voldermort into Uncle Voldy, snake-nosed defender of children.

LOVE UNCLE VOLDY!
How could you not trust your children with this man?

I mean, how the hell did he even manage to get people to start calling him that to begin with? It would be like the creepy goth kid in class demanding you call her “Lady Ravensbane” with a serious face. That and Dark Lord and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is something your enemies come up with after you’ve killed a ton of them, and something you try to downplay the second you’re in power. Unless you’re a really big fan of Hastur the Unspeakable.

  Of course, there’s always the idea that Voldermort is insane, and that works up to a point. I mean, a crazy person can always get a handful of idiots to follow them. But Voldermort doesn’t come across as foaming-at-the-mouth nuts. He’s a cold and calculated killer, with unbridled hate at his family and himself for being of mixed decent. He fears death to the point where he cuts his soul into pieces to keep the Grim Reaper at bay. He is a master chess player, always thinking of moves in advance and trying to game the system. Now, it could be that he loves the fear generated by his dopey nicknames and he requires that fear to maintain power, but then the guy just wasn’t thinking ahead and I’ve given him way too much credit.

  And then there’s Slytherin, the Hogwarts house named after a dude who betrayed everyone else and whose graduates always seem to end up betraying everyone. Or just acting like dicks. And even though they do occasional produce cowards instead of murderers (hello, Slughorn), their propensity for evil is so great that they are asked to sit out of the Battle of Hogwarts. At that point, no one should ever be surprised if a Slytherin does something awful, since they mostly turn out evil anyway. Why not condemn the dungeon and send them all to Hufflepuff? It isn’t like they’ll turn the bastards away.

  Then again, Harry Potter is a wonderful story, and just because Magic-Hitler is an unrepentant asshole who enjoys being an asshole isn’t enough to ruin it. The point I’m making is that a ‘real’ Voldermort, just as a ‘real’ Sidious, would never describe himself as evil or the ‘dark’ anything – brutal dictators like Stalin and Hitler never referred to themselves as evil, they found a way to convince the average Joe that their neighbor was the genuine threat.

  Even on the completely supernatural side of things (because Jedi and wizards are apparently my ‘realistic’ alternatives here), I find it outright impossible to believe that Sauron – if he’s actually evil – would actually be alright with being referred to as a ‘dark god’ of anything. You’d think he’d appear to one of his orcs and tell them to knock that shit off because he’s totally a god of light and that’s why they have to flatten the unbelievers. Or he’d send emissaries to the disaffected communities of man and convince them of his divinity. That sanctimoniousness is far more dangerous than evil people being evil and reveling in it – it gives them the dedication and drive to continue doing it. The simple binary works when you are satirizing it – Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw’s Mogworld is a great example of this, or you can take a bite out of this if you are itching for something now. Or this, even.

  At the end of the day, though, I want my villains to be just as dynamic as the heroes. The most effective villains are the ones you could almost see yourself siding with, because it shows the audience how they might slide into that role easily. It keeps us on our toes. And more to the point, I would like my heroes to use force if they have no other alternative – other avenues of diplomacy have failed, and open hostilities are a last resort. If the enemy is unreasonable, then there’s no point in trying to be rational fucking people. It reduces the story to a bunch of five year olds having a punch up with all the emotional and intellectual capacity such an argument has.

  I’m not saying that authors have to shy away from it, it needs to serve the narrative. The story being told trumps everything, and if you sacrifice something because you need to have it your way, you’ve failed your audience. And making a villain straight-up evil serves in a limited scope, not every bad guy is just Satan in a different sport coat. A lust for power or a bad plan is not tantamount to being possessed by evil spirits. Thinking that way is how we get politicians who froth at the mouth in desperate attempts to paint their opponent as inhuman.

  Now, if we do end up having someone running for office under the unironic title of “the Evil Candidate” or something equally stupid and sinister, I will happily rescind this post. Well, happily isn’t the word for it.

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