The Best Villains Aren’t Evil

At least, not in their own minds.

No matter the genre, the best villains are the ones who have realistic motivations for what they do. We may not, from our external vantage point, agree with those motivations or the goals they engender, but we can at least understand them.

Some villains are simply villains because they like doing evil things. Psychotics are rarely memorable because they are usually so one-dimensional. Of course, there are exceptions (like the Joker or Hannibal Lector), but they’re compelling because of their well-crafted personalities, not their evil-for-its-own-sake motives.

Many villains are simply greedy or power-hungry. They desire wealth or dominance for its own sake. Such villains could be interesting characters, but their primary motivation is too simplistic to become really top-notch villains. Emperor Palpatine was a much more interesting character in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi because we still weren’t sure about his ultimate motives. Mystery adds to interest. The Star Wars prequels really cut him off at the knees as a character (on top of all their other flaws), because he was reduced to simply wanting to be in power for the sake of being in power, no matter how interesting and convoluted  the plot was that brought him there. Why did he want to become Emperor? Who knows? He just wanted to. A decent motivation would have given him (and, indeed, all of the prequels) a lot more “oomph”.

The best villains, I think, are the ones who call themselves heroes. Think of the absolute best villains from literature, movies, and comics. Michael Corleone doesn’t really like having to do the horrible things he does; in fact much of his interest as a character is derived from his inner struggle against the things that his family honor and tradition forces him to do. Magneto considers himself a hero, and so do many others, because he’s fighting against oppression of his fellow mutants (real or imagined). He’s willing to become exactly that thing which he fears and hates most, and a lot of his own interest as a character derives from his inability to see that truth. He’s a hero in his own mind for advocating mutant supremacy, and considers others villains for advocating non-mutant supremacy.

Darth Vader fits into that last category. Regardless of what most of us think of the Star Wars prequel films, it did establish him as a hero-in-his-own-mind; he went over to the Dark Side in order to save his wife and unborn child. He wanted to end the Clone Wars and bring back peace to the galaxy. In his own mind, those were noble motives that could make up for the horrible actions that were needed to bring them about.

Adolf Hitler (at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law) considered himself a hero as well, as did millions of Germans in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The salvation of Germany was enough of a motive that any action in furtherance of that goal could be forgiven. In an alternate universe where the Axis won World War II, its leaders would sleep soundly not because they were chortling about all the misery they had caused, but rather because they knew in their hearts that what they did was necessary in the furtherance of the greater good. At least as they perceived that good.

In RPGs this holds true as well. The goblin king who raids the village just to enjoy the wails of the women and the burning of the huts is bleh. The goblin king who raids the village to steal the cattle and collect any silver that might be squirreled away is at least understandable. The goblin king who exhorts his followers to wipe out the humans before they can do the same to the goblins, as a pre-emptive strike against what is considered an implacable foe that has spawned generations of bad blood, becomes almost sympathetic.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

10 thoughts on “The Best Villains Aren’t Evil

  1. A show with a really good villain progression is Deadwood. We see a series of powerful ruthless men come into town, and as the new ones get more powerful and ruthless, the established ones, by some trick of the light, end up with our sympathy because they are the underdogs.

  2. I've never seen Deadwood, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer tried to do the same thing with Spike.

    Unfortunately, it didn't quite work, as Spike went from ultra-cool ultra-bad guy (albeit one I would have to put in the middle of my own scale; he didn't have much motivation other than "I want to kill another Slayer") to a pretty pathetic character at the end, pining for Buffy's love. I think they were going for sympathy, but it just didn't work.

    I've heard good things about Deadwood, though. Have to check Netflix.

  3. I would say, Ivan, that Noisms is actually agreeing with my point, concerning regular villains; what he calls "evil 1". If you re-read his post, you'll see that.

    What he talks about with his "evil 2" is creatures with motivations that are beyond mortal ken (the Lovecraftian ideal). That is not at odds with my own post, it simply is addressing something different.

    I might go so far as to say it's irrelevant to my own post, as such creatures, with such alien motivations, aren't really "villains" in the same sense that a Magneto or a Joker are. Their motives are about as scrutible as the motives of a tsunami; they aren't meant to be understood so much as dealt with.

    So please don't fault me for not addressing something that wasn't the point of the post in the first place.

  4. I have to disagree with the you are coming at this. I think rather it should that the most interesting villains aren't purely evil. The best villains is kind of debatable. The Joker is the prime example of a villain who has no other motivation other than to do evil. As you pointed out, there is Joker, Hanniba. But there are others, including Cobra Commander, Sauron, and Arwan come to mind.

    Also, I think you are confusing propogand with right and wrong when it comes to Hitler (who quite frankly is a bad example for what you are writing about.). No one believes they are ver thevillain, except in fiction. Some better examples would be Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Robespierre in the French Revolution.

  5. I think that you purposefully worded it this way to catch attention, but what I take as the point is astute. To take one important moral thinker as an example, Thomas Aquinas believed that a human's choice was always oriented towards the good. Even when sinning, the choice was oriented towards the good in the sin. If an evil person doesn't fit this description, then they seem to lose their personhood and slip over into simply being a monster.

  6. It's fair enough to say that Noisms' discussion of evil characters not at odds with yours.

    I guess my point was that I think your three categories of bad guys are all equally mundane –category 1 of Noisms' construct.

    This is not to say that I don't appreciate a quality bad guy in any of your three categories, but I don't think any one of the three is better or more interesting than the others.

    Sorry to make my first comment on this blog a negative one (this blog is on my RSS feed because it's generally good/interesting!)

  7. I entirely agree. Which is why I dropped alignments from my campaigns some time ago. Leaving the only "evil" in my campaign demons and such creatures that are, by definition, the embodiment of a metaphysical concept.

    And the first two season of Deadwood, excellent. The third sort of losses the plot though.

  8. BTW: If you want to discuss something unrelated to the topic at hand, feel free to send an email. The address is off to the right. Way off-topic comments are subject to deletion.

    We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post.

  9. We toyed with this in the game I developed with a friend of mine. Basically we chucked alignment and went with a sliding scale of morality (right and wrong) and virtue (causing pain). It's a huge gray area for most complex villains. They have motivations and reasons for what they do that may be different than others, but that doesn't invalidate them – just puts them at odds with the rest of the world. 🙂

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