‘To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue.’
–C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
‘…with aberrant killers, people resist the concept of a shared humanness. That’s because US and THEM is far more comfortable.’
–Gavin DeBecker, The Gift of Fear
Antagonists can come in several flavors. One is the well-intentioned, perhaps even sympathetic character whose goals clash with the goals of the protagonist, or who is using morally questionable means to reach an admirable end. Another is the self-centered and unsympathetic character who wants the protagonists out of the way and opposes their goals, but adheres to some moral code and has a readily understood motivation. Finally, there is the villain as monster, a character who has crossed appalling moral boundaries and cannot be seen as sympathetic. These villains are the hardest to develop realistically, and are the main subject of this post.
‘Monsters’ exist in real life. History shows us far too many people who energetically enslaved, slaughtered, and terrorized their fellow human beings. It’s temping to imagine that these individuals are so deeply abnormal as to be inhuman caricatures of purposeless evil, something that none of us could understand. The more confusing and disturbing reality, of course, is that people who commit atrocities are no more or less human than anyone else; the unsuspecting neighbors of the terrorist or the serial killer standing before news cameras, lamenting that ‘he seemed so quiet and normal’, is a trope for a reason.
Instead of handing your Evil Overlord a cute dog and call it a day, you can use the juxtaposition between depravity and apparent normalcy to create a genuinely unsettling villain. Even if you don’t choose the ‘banality of evil’ route, it’s important to develop the villain’s motivation around consistent internal logic. Their goals or beliefs may be objectively counterfactual and destructive, but they have to make complete sense to your villain.
Even if you are not writing historical fiction, it is highly instructive at this point to break out your history books. It is both chilling and enlightening to read accounts from and about those who committed horrific crimes against their fellow humans and felt justified in doing so. Although the specifics do matter greatly as to whether society and posterity deem a particular act of violence as justified, there are some common patterns, none of which are mutually exclusive:
- The targeted group is framed as non-human, subhuman, or ‘born bad’, so that generally agreed-upon morality around violence against other humans is suspended. This is often backed up with psudoscience or conspiracy theories;
- The targeted group is framed as an existential threat to society;
- The targeted group is seen as unjustly possessing resources that rightfully belong to the group committing the violence;
- Violence against the targeted group is framed as being ‘for their own good’;
- Any resistance from the targeted group feeds back into justifications as to why this group is an acceptable target.
If you’re writing a ‘monstrous’ villain who is not a serial killer or otherwise extremely aberrant in their behavior*, it is a good idea to think about who is the Other in your world and why they are mistreated, and why your villain personally feels justified in persecuting them. Now link up that Other to your villain’s backstory and motivations, and show why they feel threatened by this group of Others, or see the Other as a disposable resource to use in pursuit of Important Villain Goals. Bonus authenticity points if the villain sees themselves as an underappreciated visionary who is making hard choices for the greater good. This kind of villain is terrifying, because they are in a position to rally more people around their terrible ideas and start a Villain Goals movement.
I don’t think it’s necessary– or in many cases, even a good idea– to make a monstrous villain sympathetic. But for the character to work, their motivations need to hold to an internal logic and make sense in the universe of the story.
*Note mentally ill people, in general, are only as violent as the general human population; some groups of mentally ill folks are actually less violent than the general population.