16 December 2012


Due to recent events in America, this post touches on some potentially contentious and sensitive areas. I make no judgment on specific events or people, but merely offer a discourse and discussion. However feel free to make your own opinions and add your comments.

E is for Evil

First off I have to say that evil is a rather vague concept in the sense that it isn't quantifiable. We can measure lots of things - we can count the exact number of eggs in a basket, or measure the height of a bookshelf. But morality doesn't have a measure. Different people might have different moral standards or different understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Different cultures will perceive good and bad behaviour in different ways. Okay, so generally most of us believe killing others would be at the top of a scale of evil. But what if someone kills to protect themselves, for example if their house was being robbed? We would naturally take this to mean that they aren't intrinsically evil just acting out of self defence. They would be considered different from someone who broke into another person's house and killed them.

But in this latter case should we judge the act to be evil or the person who committed it as evil? What if the person committing the crime has mental health problems, such that they can't rationalise their own behaviour? Too often we are quick to judge a person based on the acts they have committed without any understanding of their background, upbringing, psychological wellbeing and so on. A person doesn't exist in a vaccuum. Not only might someone have a genetic predisposition to react in certain ways, but the environment around them will also affect how they think and behave in the future.

There is plenty of research to show that 'villains' are made not born. Children exposed to physical or mental abuse, drug abuse, poverty, alcoholism, or neglect will certainly be affected in adulthood by these experiences. For example, men who were neglected and abused as children have a higher risk of growing up to be abusers themselves. In some cases, the victim can become the villain.

When writing, creating a suitably evil antagonist can be a very difficult task. Based on what I've already said, I think a realistic villain has to have a backstory and some sort of reasoning to why they are the way they are. I'm not sure this happens enough in books though - trying to find a book on my shelves featuring a villain with a past was quite a difficult task. Often, the villains are bad just because they are bad. But I don't think this is sufficient. I want to know the history of the bad guy, I want to hate him and pity him at the same time. I want to understand him (or her).

This is one of the reasons why I love Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. The characters in this story are gritty and scary. Each of them has an interlude telling their backstory, going some way to explaining their 'breaking' point or past abuses. Trying not to give too many spoilers, this is a snippet of Harriet's story:
He meant for it to hurt. I saw it in his eyes.
I pulled my hand free.
"That settles that," he said.
Then I went into the kitchen.
I went to the blender. It was old, an Oster two-speed with the beehive base and the heavy glass pitcher.
I picked it up by the handle, and I marched back into the living room.
Walter had slumped back down in his chair. He looked up at me as I stood there.
"What are you doing with that?" he asked.
And I bashed it over his head.
The characters created aren't just mean and evil; they are more than that. They felt real and invoked real feelings in me. They made me hate them, feel sorry for them, and what to go back in time to help them. But isn't that what any person is? A complex being with a past, that can elicit strong emotions through their actions and behaviour, whether they are evil or not.

What do you think makes a good book villain?


Jo said...

Such a brilliant post. You know, I never really consider the backstory if the criminal/villain. It just never occurs to me. But thinking about it, and trying to come up with a villain with a past, I could only think of Voldemort in Harry Potter. I especially loved Half Blood Prince, when we got to see all about his past through the Pensieve. About his mother, how he was conceived, the lack of love and proper upbringing. He may have been a different guy if his father was actually in love with his mother and they both wanted him. I did feel sorry for the young Tom Riddle, even if he was always a little twisted.

Book Angel Emma said...

I love reading these posts they are so well thought out, eloquent and articulate. You have a beautiful way of expressing things even if they aren't good <3

Hannah Mariska said...

Brilliant example Jo! I too liked how we get to see to Tom Riddle's upbringing, his family and childhood. You can't excuse his behaviour as Voldemort, but you can definitely feel sorry for Tom as a child. Another reason to love the Harry Potter books!!