The Shadow Side: On Villainy
The Longbox View #006 | DotDotDot 001
Okay so, hear me out.
I know last time I said we’d catch up with I Breathed a Body, but when I went to do so I realized there’s only one more issue anyway… so I decided to circle back and do the entire series after the final issue is released. Big fail from me, but we live, learn and lollygag around on our way to the next thing.
But that left me without a column topic. Horror of horrors!
Which brings me here.
I think a lot about villains – how they function, what makes them memorable, why some feel more menacing or more sympathetic than others. There are obvious answers – an unrepentantly destructive goal or a tragic backstory can make a character come off one or another way. But I figured it can’t be that easy, right? The Penguin had poor self-esteem but he still doesn’t come off as especially sympathetic. Meanwhile, you have other villains like, say, Poison Ivy, who do or have committed pretty large scale atrocities, and yet people still feel they have the potential to reform.
Because I am who I am, this led inevitably to a thought:
How would I break down the elements of a villain into a set of tools or measures that could be universally applied and scaled to different types of characters and genres? Now, of course others have done it but that’s not the point – all tools work or don’t work for sets of people who do or do not click with the specifics of the tool… so the real question is what tools and measures would help me or someone like me break down (or build up) a villain into the parts that make them work the way they do?
What I came up with is a sort of mishmash of ideas pinned together with thumbtacks, stuck in place with scotch tape. But even so, it works.
Well, for me.
The Components of Villainy
In this mishmash, there are essentially three basic parts to a villain:
- Malevolence Measures
- The Goal to Action Gap.
- The Trappings.
It’s the chemistry these three generate upon interaction with one another that creates the final character and the impression they leave.
So okay let’s look at them in detail.
A while back I was reading an article on Psychology Today by Dr. Travis Langley called “Defining Evil: Dark Triad, Tetrad, Malignant Narcissism (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-heroes-and-villains/201606/naming-evil-dark-triad-tetrad-malignant-narcissism).” This article proposes that “evil” is, by definition, the place where narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and sadism meet.
Dr. Langley goes into greater detail regarding where this idea originates in the article, and as the author of the book “Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight” he knows more than most about villains and heroes, and certainly a great deal more than most (including me!) about psychology. Aside from all that, I also happen to think that’s a perfect definition for the truest form of evil so let’s go with it.
And then let’s take it a step farther and say not only is this intermingling of traits the most basic, truest form of evil, you can roughly predict how evil readers will perceive a character to be by how many of the traits they have, and how extreme their manifestation is. Because of course personality issues, disorders, etc. are not completely black and white – as with most things, there is a spectrum, and having some narcissistic traits doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is actually a diagnosable narcissist.
Taking everything I say on psychology with a grain of salt, of course, because I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist, just a schlub with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a habit of reading/listening to psychology and criminology content.
Which is why I won’t go on any more about the dark tetrad concept – I’d definitely suggest looking at Dr. Langley’s article instead of listening to me. For now, it’s enough to acknowledge that most villains have some or all of these traits, and that the more traits a character has, and the more extreme their manifestation, the more “evil” the character will seem to the reader.
Which brings us to the one I can comfortably discuss which is…
The Goal to Action Gap
The gist of this is as follows:
- Create a goal for your villain. The goal can be anything – even something seemingly heroic… though obviously a selfish motivation such as “get rich” is more natural to villains and a selfless motivation such as “protect my home town” is more natural to heroes. Just remember that the more heroic the goal is, the farther down the path to destruction your character will have to go in order to come off as a villain and not just an antihero. Which leads to…
- Consider a number line that ranges from -X to X, with 0 in the center as the default “reasonable person who is neither a hero nor a villain” standard of behavior in the pursuit of that goal. The farther you go from zero into the positive/prosocial direction, the more heroic a character will be. Similarly, the farther you go from zero into the negative/antisocial direction, the more villainous the character will be.
The reason I refer to this as as the Goal to Action Gap is just that the gap between where you put them on this hypothetical number line and the “reasonable normal person” placement at 0 is what defines the extremity of the character’s presentation. This can scale with setting, plot, tone, demographic, etc.
Now. That sounds more complicated than it is. To demonstrate, I’m firing up the Quick Character Generator (https://www.character-generator.org.uk/quick/) for a basic concept and then we’re going to walk through it, move the action plan around, run it through some genres and demonstrate what I mean.
Here’s what the generator spat at me:
Marko Reynolds, 15, musical teenager
A musical teenager from Brisbane is obsessed with piano keys. He has beautiful, brown eyes. He always carries two phones. He is striving to redeem himself after robbing a bank.
Okay so, this is a pretty good setup for a reformed criminal type hero, but since this is an article on villains let’s go the opposite direction and turn him into a villain. This might seem weird since he’s trying to redeem himself, but… it absolutely can work.
For example, you can say something like, “in order to achieve the goal of redemption after robbing a bank he goes on a killing spree and then frames Lissa Valiant, the object of his unrequited love whom he had recently seen on a date with someone else, as the killer. He then captures her and is hailed as a hero. But then, hoping to prevent Lissa from exposing him, he makes a deal with Vincent, a minor psychic and petty criminal, to implant memories of committing the murders into Lissa’s mind. And then he shoots Vincent in the head instead of paying him. The idea is to put himself in a position of being seen as a hero, while punishing Lissa for her rejection and removing Vincent, the only person who knows the truth, from the table.”
Despite Marko’s positive motivation, his actions are selfish and antisocial. He’s treating people like pawns, hurting or killing people who have done little or nothing to him, including at least one person who thought they were allies. Worse yet, he does it all in service of his own advancement. This is way beyond what a normal, reasonable person would do to try and clear their reputation – in fact, you could say it’s downright evil. In other words, boom, villain!
Take the same motivation and decide to make an antagonist for a lighter-toned romantic action/mystery story instead, and you would avoid the above and instead say something like, “to achieve the goal of redemption after robbing a bank, he bribes his friend Sammie to rob a bank just so he can stop the crime, seemingly save the teller’s life, and ‘accidentally’ allow Sammie to escape. Unfortunately, Marko doesn’t have a car so he gets stuck on the bus on the way to the planned crime scene and is late. So, when Sammie starts the robbery no one stops them and they end up actually robbing the bank and getting arrested. With Marko exposed as the mastermind, he’s on the run, playing a game of cat and mouse with our heroic protagonist, Tyler, all while both Marko and Tyler slowly come to realize that they’re the only ones who understand each other and falling in love through their exchanged taunts, clues, and public statements eventually forcing them into a confrontation with both themselves and their ever-growing feelings!” …seems like a shounen manga.
Anyway, here Marko has the same motive and he’s still behaving in an antisocial way but, while it’s definitely not ideal behavior, it was never actually meant to cause permanent damage to anyone. His selfishness created a situation where Sammie was captured, but that wasn’t intentional. Still a villain? Sure! He got his friend into trouble because he was too selfish and impatient to do the work to redeem himself in the public’s eye legitimately, and he’s causing chaos in his attempt to stay out of prison. Hero Tyler has to waste valuable time tracking Marko down instead of capturing other criminals. And ultimately Marko is dodging responsibility. He might be salvageable but only if he learns to accept the consequences of what he’s done.
Finally, if we want to scale it down to a children’s book, we can go with something like, “Unable to afford the new Playengine 5 console, Mark robbed his kid sister (and our heroine) Peggy’s piggy bank. He meant to pay her back after his next paycheck and leave her none the wiser, but she discovered the money was missing when she tried to get some money out to buy the new “Talk to Me Timbo” doll that her whole class has been getting. Now she must crack the case of which sibling stole her money while Marko tries to throw her off the trail, all the while doing increasingly over the top favors for her out of guilt!”
All of these variations on a theme are designed around the idea that even if you take a relatively positive/prosocial motivation, such as the desire to redeem oneself, you can create a villain by skewing their action plan in an antisocial direction.
But here’s the kicker: as long as the motivation is prosocial in some way, there will always be some percentage of the audience who sympathizes with their actions regardless of how bad they might be. Even with Marko #1 above, you’ll probably have some readers argue that Vincent deserved to get shot and Lissa is a [bad word here, hah!]
So if you want to create a true absolute monster, then what you really need is an antisocial/self-oriented motivation such as “gather power” or “become rich” (self-oriented) or “kill people” (…antisocial I daresay). Mind you, even then you can reverse the tide – a person with the motivation “get rich” who does so via fraud and theft is a villain but not the same kind of villain as someone who does so via, say, killing friends, family and spouses for insurance money. Moreover, if they pursue that goal by playing the stock market or charging for labor they’re just a normal person and not villainous at all. [Editor’s Note: Depending on how you feel about capitalism that’s not entirely true… – Anthony]
Surprisingly even a character with the driving urge to “kill people” can be turned into an antihero by pivoting their behavior away from purely antisocial and toward a slightly less destructive action plan. See: Dexter.
Hopefully this is all making sense. If not… throw a shoe at me, I don’t know.
Finally, this is the rest of the stuff. The character’s backstory. The reason they arrived at the goal that they did. Their logic. Their general personality. Their modus operandi. Are they suave or rough around the edges? Their abilities, appearance, etc.
If we go back to Marko, you can find the start of his trappings in the original character profile. He’s from Brisbane, and obsessed with piano keys. Maybe he leaves a piano key at his crime scenes? Maybe what he originally stole from the bank was not cash but the contents of a safety deposit box that hold the few keys remaining from an antique piano that once belonged to Marko’s ancestor? Mark carries two phones – perhaps one for his day to day communications while the other is encrypted and calls Vincent directly? Perhaps it isn’t even a phone, really, but is a miniature safe built to house a key to some unknown secret. His eyes are beautiful and brown, but do they carry the exhaustion of a difficult life or are they sharp, alert and cold? And why is he obsessed with piano keys anyway? How does his love of music affect his character? Maybe he always has piano solos playing in one ear when he’s taking on a mission – his way of keeping focused and calm.
In a lot of cases, the trappings are what readers will think of when they think of the character, and that’s natural. While their psychological makeup and goal -> action plan gap may form the skeletal structure of the villain, the trappings are the rest of them – heart, flesh and blood. All that said, in my personal experience, this isn’t what makes a character a villain rather than a hero. Magneto, for all his tragic nobility, remains a villain as long as he remains a terrorist.
What it can do is change the flavor of the villain. Magneto without his horrific experiences as a child in Auschwitz is just a mutant supremacist. But when we know his history, well… he may remain a villain (depending on the phase of his career in comics), but he becomes understandable, complicated. Maybe he has to be stopped, but there’s a part of us that wishes him well and wants him to find his peace.
And an addendum… on Dealbreakers
There are also a few hot button things that I think people should treat with care and maybe avoid unless they’re fully aware of the ramifications and how they can permanently color the audience’s view of a character. For example…
- Sexual assault
- Physical abuse of a partner
- Any kind of child abuse
- Filicide or attempted filicide
- Animal abuse
- Anything that evokes Naziism – gas chambers, for example.
- Bigotry of any kind
These actions, because they’re so viscerally offensive to the average person, can have a powerful flattening effect on a character where many readers are just completely unable to get past “they did the thing” to see whatever motivations, history, complexity, etc the writer has put into them. Instead that character just becomes the character who is the absolute worst because they did [thing], which can be useful if you want to really drive home that a character can’t be redeemed but… at the same time, it can cause a backlash if the audience senses that you’re using it that way.
Also, to be honest… I’m not saying these things can’t be used, but they can also be overused, because they are so effective in flagging a character as bad to the bone. It can be a bit of a lazy route/shortcut is what I’m saying. So I think that kind of topic (and I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting) just needs to be treated with care and well-considered before using them because the bell, once rung, can’t be unrung and we’ve lost many interesting characters to the use of these hot buttons and dealbreakers.
All right well, that’s about it. I hope this was interesting at all, or useful in some way. When I started Longbox View I really wanted it to be open to a lot of different types of content – reviews are obviously what I do much of the time, or analysis of themes, but if you hang around my Twitter you’ll know that I also spend a lot of time just throwing observations out there, and this is one of them. If you have any additional thoughts or criticisms or comments you can find me on Twitter, the info is below. Other than that… we’ll see how it goes.
Coming Soon on The Longbox View… bwahaha! I have a very special something soon, and it’s already done so keep an eye out.
Also, watch out for an upcoming guest article on Gatekeepers (https://gatecrashers.fan/), that should be up around the end of the month!
Aaaand then we’re back here! The plan in June is to have a themed rec list for Pride and of course the look at I Breathed A Body, since the miniseries will be completing soon. Not sure which will be first.
It’s been a rough first few months but I’m working on it!
Until my chill arrives, stay safe and keep reading!
ARIEL BEE IS… An Old Person. A Comics reading veteran. Mostly involved with DC and indies but happy to go on the occasional Marvelous Mission into the unknown. An analytical overthinker. Also found as a reviewer on Comics-Watch and Twitter @thearielbee.