Ask GV: Avoiding Villain Decay

We’re continuing last week’s answer to Aywren’s question about avoiding antagonist decay. Nice long one, what more can be said?

So now we know what causes turning good among our kind. That’s pretty simple. Before we go on, I’m going to introduce you to some concepts that might prove useful.

The first is justification: in particular, self-justification vs. world-justification. Self-justification is a pretty simple concept; you think you’re right because of X, Y and Z factors, usually having to do with the world around you. World-justification is a more product-of-circumstances thing; because X, Y and Z happened to a character, his responses to it seem perfectly reasonable.

In general, the perceived evil of a character depends on the balance between her self-justification and her world-justification. So a character whose deeds are entirely a result of her surroundings, or to whom it just hasn’t occurred that there is another way, is likely to be written off as merely misguided or forced into an unpleasant path. On the other hand, someone who chooses one path even when given a cleaner alternative due to self-justified reasons is likelier to be viewed as villainous, since there’s a lot more culpability involved. So the more self-justified a villain is, the likelier she is to stay a villain; the more world-justified a villain is, the likelier this is going to get played into ‘misunderstood’. What this means is that any villain you work with and don’t want falling to the blandishments of light and love is going to need to be rather firmly self-justified.

More importantly, the self-justification needs to run counter to the moral code of—well, whoever it is that the villain in question opposes. This is a vital portion of what keeps us antagonistic. It doesn’t mean we can’t share some of their moral codes, and in fact, sharing a few of them can be good for our survivability. But there has to be something that separates us from them, a code that we’re never going to break. That’s how we stay us.

So what you need is such a self-justification. Many of these spring directly from whatever world-justification their bearers may have, often a result of overgeneralization; extrapolating a single situation into a law of the world and trying to either support it or render it irrelevant. For others, it’s a single goal that takes precedence over everything. Every now and then you get someone who does both. That’ll give you someone who isn’t just going to drift over to the ‘right’ side.

But just as important is making sure you can still deal with them—which means that you need to be able to identify with whatever set it up. Not the extremes, necessarily, but you can empathize with “Nobody seems to want to be near me…” without agreeing with “…so I’m going to kill them all in revenge/erase their minds and replace it with utter loyalty to me/…” You get the idea, I’m sure. The point is to have just enough point of contact that the figmentation remains, but not so much that you can’t stand to let them go in the end, or want to crush them because they’re too wrong to you for you to wrap your head around them.

Help any?

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