Villains: Evil and Otherness

Typically, science fiction conventions will offer a panel discussion on villains. Writers and readers love to talk about the bad guys. After all, more often than not, they’re more interesting — not to mention sexier — than the good guys. Of course they’re attractive. They’re dark, dangerous, edgy — in other words, forbidden fruit. Even Jane Austen’s naughty boys have a certain intoxicating allure.

Bad guys are also likely to be complex in interesting, tortured ways, and to be charismatic and cunning, but with fatal flaws that prevent them from being heroes. They possess the capacity for grandeur, except for… But you know all this. You’ve read the rewrites of classics told from the point of view of the villain. You know every villain is a hero in his own story, it’s just that his goals don’t align with those of the protagonist, but none of them get up in the morning and say, “Evil! Evil! Rah-rah-rah!”

I’ve been thinking about why we keep coming back to having villains, as distinct from flawed heroes or misunderstood monsters, in our stories. Aha, you say, to provide conflict, to place obstacles between the hero and his goals. Sure, you say, because there are really only three plots: Man Against Nature, Man Against Man, and Man Against Himself. (I think this is an oversimplification, and I’m not at all sure it’s true, but the point is that conflict between characters is one of the enduring themes in story-telling.) Once upon a time, all you had to do was put a man on a black horse or in a black hat, give him a mustache and a name with too many consonants, and everyone would understand that he had no socially redeeming qualities (and bad dentition). Later, it became desirable to give him a few aspects to admire, and to play around with expectations. Then it became fashionable to portray him as not-really-bad, but wounded or misinformed or warped by his culture. Science fiction and fantasy, not to mention the whole of English literature, abounds in examples.

If we want a character (our hero, protagonist, viewpoint person) to have to struggle against something outside himself, we create an obstacle, a menace. No matter how we deck the obstacle-character in nifty-stuff, his or her function remains the same: to make things difficult. The more dangerous, resourceful, and recalcitrant the obstacle is, the more dramatic the conflict. Who wants an obstacle that is sympathetic, compassionate, reasonable, or helpful? Courage and intelligence are fine, as long as they’re in the wrong cause. But kindness? Loyalty? Humility?

I think we do the same things in our minds with our villains that we do with our real-world enemies. We selectively enhance those characteristics that make them less like us and hence, less understandable. Less human. We transform them, we demonize them, and eventually we see them not as fellow men and women, but as “the other.” We eliminate all possibility of an “I-Thou” relationship, substituting an “I-It” of the most pernicious kind.

In many ways, I prefer Chthulu to human villains. It’s absolute and terrifying and utterly incomprehensible. I wonder if the original vampires — not the sexy, angst-ridden, sparkly ones — were so scary because they had the outward semblance of humanity, but their nature was antithetical to life.What’s even scarier is when we start thinking about “those people over there” in the same way.

Then there is the problem of evil itself. Whether or not we begin with a belief in a universal force of corruption and harm-seeking, we will surely create it in our own imaginations by this process of turning an adversary into “the other.” But aren’t there people — and characters — who do terrible, terrible things? Aren’t they evil? I think we use the word in different ways. If I said Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin were evil, I would mean that they caused such horrendous suffering and committed such heinous crimes that words fail me. It’s shorthand for horror so great it will take generations to heal.

Evil in story-telling, on the other hand, can be a force in its own right, the distillation of everything that makes the hairs on your neck stand on end and your mouth turn dry; there is no reasoning with it, no way to bargain with it or earn its respect. None of the things that are important to us — integrity, generosity, fidelity, altruism, for example — avail against its implacable, relentless power. It will overcome and corrupt us no matter what we do. This is, I think, the shadow that has haunted Western civilization for a long, long time. If I picked any particular era, I’d have half my historian friends on my case, so let it rest as “a long time.” My point is that it’s influenced how we see those obstacle-characters, and how we distort the enemy-of-the-moment.

Regardless of our politics, as writers it behooves us to be mindful of how we portray our antagonists. I’m not suggesting that all quarrels can be resolved with a little touchy-feely therapy and a cup of tea. We want our protagonists to have something substantial and competent with which to strive, and we want the consequences of failure to be terrible indeed. But that doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate hateful stereotypes. If you want your hero to wage a battle against Evil Incarnate, then make Evil Incarnate truly inhuman. If, on the other hand, you want your antagonist to be human, then make him or her gloriously human.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.

The image is Lucifer, from Cathédrale Saint-Paul de Liège, Belgium, by Guillaume Geef, mid-19th Century. Photo by Vassil.

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Villains: Evil and Otherness — 10 Comments

  1. Your thoughts on inanimate objects as ‘bad guys’? .. the asteroid in ‘Armageddon’ for example. The characters in the movie responded to it as though it was a living entity, (maybe it could’ve been, but Bruce Willis wasn’t going to have any of that!) the evil enemy to be destroyed.

  2. I don’t know about that. Yes, I believe in rounded villains, and redeemable villains, and characters whose chief claim to be villains is that the narrative voice plainly has it in for them. But there are people who will pretty much do the rottenest thing they can to Others, for variably wide definititions of Others, any time they can and because they can.

    You say: we must not make monsters of human Others. I agree only with this reservation: that just about any of us are capable, for a number of perfectly human motives, of becoming genuine monsters precisely through failing in that thing, until most of the common humanity is gone and little is left but a sort of self-created gebbeth, which is really Other because it has made everybody else a detested Other for it.

    If I could become one of those – and I could make a pretty good guess at how it would happen to me if it happened – who am I to deny the possibility of the same fall to a character who may have passed through worse places with worse friends than I have?

    My main objection to such already-consummate villains is that they are really very boring and disgusting, and require extra work by the author to persuade me that they are even dangerously competent. Now, a mostly-regular or even a great human being falling into that abyss, or just putting on their gebbeth suit for their daily chores: that’s horror!

  3. I think of Hitler, Stalin, et al as evil because they displayed no consciousness of the wrong they were doing. Anyone who thinks their way is the only way is inherently inhabited by the demon of ego and a lack of soul or conscience, IMO. That they’re human makes them wicked far beyond any meteor or inanimate object.

    But as a romance writer, I prefer to pit my characters against human obstacles, not evil. The world is filled with real obstacles to which I can relate much better than demons. It’s a genre difference, I think. In my urban fantasies, the evil wears a human face, but like Hitler, has no conscience. So, yes, I think that’s the definition of horror.

  4. I think one of the most horrifying sort of things is when you realize that the evil is not an Other at all, but is in fact in your group, in your family, in your home. It can be a much more every day sort of thing, and realizing someone is so faithful to their ideals that they might as well be blind-deaf-and-dumb to reality is terrifying. And it’s a terror I feel every day when I listen to the radio.

    I was rereading one of my MSes the other day, and worrying about this exact topic. One of the main themes I was trying to engage with was ‘seeing the Other as people.’ Even if the Other is horrifyingly shaped, even if they eat humans, marry their sisters, commit atrocities for the sake of *Science!*, they are not unworthy of compassion. But I’m not sure if I actually pulled this off. I might have only said, ‘well, if they are a little weirdly shaped (but don’t look like dead bugs or anything), and if they stop eating human flesh, and if they’re only weirdly obsessed with their sisters and don’t actually marry them, and if their science doesn’t involve sawing the limbs off of criminals, then they’re okay.’

    This was not my intended message. 🙁

  5. If that guy over there designates me as Other, and persists in treating me in a not-human way, then I think that argument and discussion may be excluded. Can he talk to not-persons? And at that point, force may be called for. The great example of this for our time is Osama bin Laden, a person who clearly could not be reasoned with.

  6. I’m reminded of that moment in Robin McKinley’s SUNSHINE where the heroine is thrust into a chamber with a very hungry vampire who looks at her and says, “Remind me that you are a rational creature.” He is no less dangerous, but in that moment the game changes.

    I think there’s a difference between characters/entities which do horrendous things because they are intrinsically evil, and those that are evil because they do horrendous things. The end result — said horrendous things — may be the same, but the psychology is different. We end up with stereotypes — the squinty-eyed, voracious Japanese of WWII era propaganda, the barbaric hordes of Native Americans of 1950s Westerns, the avaricious, scheming Jews of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (which, as a proven forgery of Czarist Russia, bears as much relevance to reality as the previous two images).

    Fiction affects the way we look at the world, so I think it behooves us to be mindful in how we feed into “us = human; them = depraved/evil/subhuman” ways of thinking. If we craft an antagonist to be a Hitler or a Stalin or a Jeffrey Dahmer, we can do so without tapping in to the stereotyping process.

  7. Yes, it’s the difference between the “stereotyping process” and the “accurate typology of human evil” that can get gnarly.

    Playing off thoughts introduced by Cara and Brenda, it occurs to me that one recurrent feature of evil behaviour is the denial of one’s own agency. “He gave me no choice.” “God Himself condemns her.” “It’s them or us – that’s just the way it is!”

    Brenda, I don’t think of bin Laden as Other at all – only as someone who was both uncommonly wicked and – separately – a deadly enemy. More empowered Gollum than bargain bin Sauron. If I lived in Middle-Earth, killing the character who drank blood and crept through windows to find cradles would be just fine with me too, whether or not I pitied him more than I hated him. And I did pity him.

  8. No no. We still think of Bin Laden in our varied ways — we are free to do so. He, himself, thought of us as Other, an opponent that it was okay to attack in any way manageable. Since there was no reasoning with him, he was properly put down like a rabid dog.
    As long as discussion is possible at all, then there are possibilities. That’s why the tortuous and ineffective MidEast Peace Process still is a sign of hope, even though it has spent decades going nowhere. Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.

  9. Brenda: Since there was no reasoning with him, he was properly put down like a rabid dog.

    Whereas I think he was properly slain like an implacable enemy, and part of the reason I stress this distinction is because I personally cannot afford to think of unreasonably hateful people as rabid dogs, lest other folk’s skulls pile up far too quickly inside my own. There is too much of the Great Leveller in my make-up for me to indulge it. Example:

    It seems not to be very hard, in any given small town or district, to fill a fair-sized room with scum from thirteen to thirty whose chosen recreation seems to be hounding – individually, en masse, and occasionally to death – some particular Designated Victim, like an old mentally disabled guy or a young crippled girl or somebody else who gives off appropriate vulnerability vibes.

    A long time ago and in a very small way indeed I’ve run afoul of such gangs myself, and my default – my just – reaction to this peculiarly vile species of bully is, “For Chryssake somebody bust out the wasp spray, already!”

    And then, or rather later, I consider what a very large proportion of the world’s population would behave similarly to somebody or other I cared for, given a convenient opportunity or incentive.

    No. I can be trusted to shoot a man, I think, when everything else is wickeder or madder. But not to turn him into a dog or a wasp or a virus first, even if in his small secret heart he might almost as well be. I can’t trust myself for that, at all. If I did, I shouldn’t trust myself for the shooting, either.

    In fiction, I could turn him into that and nothing more, and make it true by fiat. So – I have to be mighty careful about doing so, to say the least of it.

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