Is There Such A Thing As A True Villain?
Maybe this question is coming from the villains I know of from film, writing, and in my stories, but the more I think about this question, the more I think this question can be applied to any kind of villain. As I look back at the stories I’ve written and even the one I am writing now, all of my villains had motives for being the way they are, and although these motives may be selfish, their reason for being a villain is not to harm others for the sake of harming. There is a greater purpose or source behind their behavior and actions. Below are some reasons I came up with:
Is the villain reacting to losing something near and dear to them?
For example, in the Lord of The Rings, Smeagol could easily be viewed as the villain since he tried to hinder Frodo from completing his mission, even to the death of him. But his motives for doing so was to retrieve the ring that he felt was his or that he wanted. Perhaps, if Frodo didn’t have the ring, he would have left him alone and let him carry out his mission.
Is the villain being a challenge due to some ill that happened to them in the past—were they once a victim?
An example that comes to mind is a story where either the villain directly, or their family, was cheated out of something which affected their future or their stability. Maybe the villian’s family does not address this matter, but as time passes and the effects of that injustice continue to play out in the victim’s life, the victim, now older, rebels and tries to find retribution on their own terms.
Was the villain brought up to behave this way?
Sure, in the land of fiction one can make their villain evil because that is all they know, they don’t know any better, but even when considering a case such as that, does that make them a villain in the sense that they have a choice? Maybe they came from a family of villains and believed this is the only way to be. An example I keep thinking about is that of a mafia family, such as the Corleones from The Godfather. The individual, in this case, Michael Corleone, ends up being a villain, killing innocent people, because he is influenced by the life of crime he was brought up in.
The villain fears losing something, even if its only perceived to be in their mind.
An example is one of a villain that grew up in extreme poverty and eventually lifted themselves out of it becoming resourceful in some way. However, they became greedy, trying to obtain as much wealth or money as possible, even to the point of extorting or conning others. This behavior may not have been intentional from the start but developed out of the fear of always wanting to have enough to ensure they never go back to that impoverished state.
Similar to Injustice Faced, did the villain go through some trying times or difficult times, such as bullying, poverty, or abuse?
Does the villain have a low sense of self, such as a low self-esteem that they feel they must be viewed as powerful, strong—admired, even if superficially to think better of themselves?
For example, in Snow White, the queen wanted Snow White dead only so she could be seen as the fairest in the land. She was jealous of her image and/or character and therefore could not see what she possessed. I would say she had a low self view.
Is the villain struggling in life, suffering in some way, whether physically, financially, or socially that they feel they must victimize others (even if unintentionally) in order to improve their situation, survive, or feel better about themselves?
An example comes from a children’s tale, The 3 Little Pigs. In this tale, the wolf is the villain as he wants to eat the pigs and that is why he is determined to blow their house down. However, this villain can easily be viewed as one that is only tormenting their victims for survival—they are his food and without food, he cannot survive.
Although the reasons stated above can address these contradictions (i.e. Nature/Nurture), I want to include some possible counter arguments and a case against them.
Villains are full of jealousy and envy. A lot villains will have jealousy or envy toward whom or which they are victimizing, but if you look deeply into the villian’s mind and life, you will see that there is more that explains their motives. In stories, especially movies, time may not be given to look deeply into the victim’s life, sometimes it is easier to assume they are just evil and have no purpose in being so. But a lot of times, the jealousy and envy that is present in a villain will be rooted in issues they faced or didn’t overcome in their early life, such as nature/nurture and past experiences that shaped their self view.
An example is Robin Hood (Disney Version). Prince John (who was jealous of his brother) wanted all the gold and jewels–wealth to himself, robbing everyone in sight. He had so many riches, he didn’t know what to do with them. But as the movie progressed, it was revealed that he had a low self view of himself and needed to been seen as this powerful and wealthy figure, though he knew he could never be king (since his brother, King Richard, who later returned, was), hoping that everyone would respect him, if not fear him.
A villain simply is full of hatred. I believe there is always a source that is tied to a villain’s past experiences and injustices. Even if the villain decides to victimize those who have not directly done anything to them, the villain will see the victims as the cause of their hate, injustice, or suffering—they will remind them of something negative that has cause them to be this way.
An example is Beauty and the Beast, the villain being Gaston. Gaston loved Belle and wanted her to be his wife, although she was not interested. Eventually when he found out that she was in love with the Beast, he wanted the Beast dead. Who knows if he thought if the Beast was dead, Belle might come to love him and marry him one day. But his hatred stemmed from believing the Beast was taking someone away from him.
Biological (born evil)
A villain is simply evil without a cause. I don’t believe one can be born evil especially if given a positive environment and experiences. The best argument against this is the nature/nurture explanation. A villain with no known reasons for being so is likely to have been born into a negative environment and/or experiences, so that is all they know—sometimes they may not see what they do or how they behave as negative.
An example is the one mentioned earlier with the movie, The Godfather. Michael Corleone was born into a family of crime, so his life was shaped in that way.
Overall, I believe there may not be such thing as a true villain because every villain has a story behind their behavior. They did not wake up one day and decide to victimize others because they wanted to. And as I write my stories which many contain villains, I think about the villains’ stories to answer the question—what is their motive for behaving the way they do? and, can they change?
Perhaps as a writer, one can choose to make the villain be so far gone that change is unlikely, make the villain’s motives or backstory a mystery, or one can make the villain find redemption and become positive force. The choice is up to the writer.