Generic Villain’s Philosophy Corner: What Is Villainy?

I recently stumbled across a question: What is it that makes us villains, in particular? Why are we the bad guys? Yeah, it’s a little more philosophical than our usual, but it’s worth asking, and even more worth throwing your conclusions in the hero’s face. Just don’t spend so much time contemplating it that you miss your next plan, all right?

Some people say it’s just our narrative role. We oppose the heroes; therefore, we are the villains. And certainly, Dramatic Necessity’s main use for us is as things-to-oppose-the-heroes. I say that yes, that makes us antagonists—but there’s often a difference between antagonist and villain. After all, an antihero can be an antagonist, as can someone technically on the same side who just doesn’t like how the hero’s doing things, but neither of these people is a Hand of Darkness.

Others say that it’s whose sake we’re doing our evil for. Self-interest, of course, codes as villainous. So does doing all your villainy for one person who may or may not actually agree with what you’re doing. Apparently the more people you benefit, the less villainous they see you as… usually. It doesn’t seem to apply near as much for doing all you do for the sake of your society of similarly evil entities, no matter how apparently altruistic you are towards them.

Then there are the ones who think it’s our overall goal that determines our villainy: that what makes us bad is working towards something bad. And yeah, it’s pretty easy to be the obvious villain if you’re trying to do something blatant like destroy the world, free (or just be) the demon queen, you get the idea. But on the other hand, we all know the line about good intentions, it’s in the introductory pamphlets for any one of us who ever plans on going into recruiting. Can we still be villains if we’re trying to, say, stamp out world hunger?

That gets us to the next question: Is it just a matter of how we do what we do? You’d think that one would be easy; it certainly used to be. But then the lines softened, and next thing we know we’ve got heroes who can torture or kill their way through entire cities of our followers and still be seen as shining beacons of the light (particularly the ones who go from cold-blooded torture to laying down their lives for their friends in five seconds.) So trying to go by method alone is just going to give you headaches.

What about what you’re doing en route? Maybe you’ve got a plan that, at least in a certain light, looks decently altruistic, even if it is technically at odds with the heroes, and you’re managing to toe the line decently well in trying to execute it—it just happens that on the way, you’re killing every member of a certain group you come across, or trying to coerce someone into joining your side by any means necessary. It’s not about ends and means, it’s about things that might be tangentially if at all related to your overall goal, but something in there is just something that someone out there cannot forgive.

Does history have to do with anything? Sure, the heroes will probably see you as a villain if you’ve been the villain to them before, whether you’re still an active Hand of Darkness, trying to go into retirement, or even awkwardly attempting to embrace the light without stepping on its feet too badly or creeping it out with the unexpected physical contact. But the heroes will also recruit and redeem almost anything that moves.

What is villainy? It is none of these. It is all of them. And being able to question it is likely to drive your heroes crazy.

1 comment

  1. UZ says:

    Can we be villains if we’re trying to stamp out world hunger? Absolutely. Bagi, the Monster of Mighty Nature, counted toxic rice among her few enemies… also, for a good example of impliedly cyclical narrative, there was once a children’s book called Baa! which explained how, after the mysterious extinction of humanity, sheep somehow managed to solve their lack of food and overpopulation problem at the same time.

    This aside, a good enough villain can come up with an excuse for anything – and make anything evil.

    Trying to destroy the world? Well, because the new, flawed world isn’t as good as the old one it replaced (a popular time-travel hero excuse for destroying the world).

    Trying to raise everyone’s consciousness? The comic Orion was (at its heart) about a powerful mage trying to create a machine that ate bad karma, thereby (presumably) escaping their sins. In theory, if the machine had worked it would have rendered everyone in the universe enlightened beings. Um, it didn’t.

    Trying to bring their dear departed mommy back from the dead? Don’t even get me started on this one…

    It’s all a matter of explanation. Just make sure that, as a villain, your explanation is not made posthumously. (Altruism is often deadly to villains.)

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