1. Good argument. Plus, you’ll never go wrong by quoting Solzhenitsyn.

  2. Rachel Nichols says:

    Tragedy and suffering do not always ennoble. Solzheneitsyn, Viktor Frankl, and Corrie ten Boom told of people who quit acting like humans in the camps where they were placed.

    There comes a point we must choose what we do with the suffering we have been dealt.

    I like the novels Les Miserables and Anna Karenina. The “villains” Jalvert and Count Trotsky are complex. Jalvert overcame his tragic childhood by bootstrapping his way up. Not your typical villain though and not a maniacal sadist. He seeks the good but in the wrong way. Trotsky was a spoiled brat who always got what he wanted. Even if it belongs to someone else.

    But these are literary. I think spec fiction should go more the LOTR and classic fairy tale route with villains.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I didn’t say suffering always ennobles. But I believe it often does. You would not realize suffering is ever good if all you did was watch modern speculative fiction movies give the backstories of villains…so I sought to counter the modern narrative that slights and sufferings are the royal road to creating villains…

    • Jill says:

      The idea of a crossroads is a good one, though, and could work very well in spec fic. We all have those moments when we choose to turn toward darkness or toward light. No matter what our situation is, we choose. Of course, some go the route of inebriation, as a pretense of delaying the inevitable. Those are usually the “informant” characters.

    • PhiLiP SchMidT says:

      Indeed, Rachel.

      As I read your response, a song by Pat Terry – ‘Growing Up & Growing Old’ from his album ‘Film At Eleven’ – sprang to mind:

      “It’s funny how pain can reach you
      And it either makes you better
      Or it robs you of your soul
      All in all it defines the separation
      Between growing up and growing old.”

      PhiL >^•_•^<

  3. It’s probably a matter of how the exact circumstances interplay with each person’s psychology. And maybe what nurture aspects they’ve had up until that point. Two people can have the same/similar circumstances and react in two different ways.

    Something readers often do with tragic villain back stories is praise how sad the story is WITHOUT justifying the villain’s behavior. Like, they want to know the how’s and whys of the villain’s motivation, but they don’t want the story to say the villain’s actions are ok.

    It’s also worth wondering what the exact definition of a villain or evil person is. Is it someone that has no good qualities about them at all/a lack of capacity for caring? There’s some pretty horrible people that have a capacity for caring, they just don’t use it. And if someone has no capacity to do something, can they really be blamed?

    Conversely, if someone is ‘evil’ because of actions and such(regardless of how much they might care about others), exactly how many bad things do they have to do to be called evil? And are they really worse than someone that doesn’t usually do anything bad, but also holds contempt and indifference for everyone around him?

    Sometimes it seems easier to call particular beliefs and behaviors evil, while describing people as ‘problematic’ or ‘harmful’ or some other thing. A full blown psychopath or a narcissist would be the closest thing to a truly evil person, I think. The only issue with that is people misdiagnose those disorders all the time (often just because someone upsets them enough), and true narcissists and psychopaths pretty much always end up that way due to factors outside their control. But, again, should we call people evil due to personal choices or because of who they are innately?

    What do you think about the good intentions going awry thing (both in fiction and real life) because a lot of people try to do good and it ends up backfiring or hurting others in ways they’re too blind to see. Death Note is kind of like that, since Light’s idea was to use the Death Note to kill all the bad people so that only good ones were left/criminals would be too afraid to commit crimes. He had some selfish and arrogant motivations, but looking at some discussions of the show, some people actually support the guy, in spite of seeing how problematic he gets. So it actually is a realistic and important issue to explore.

    A lot of times, though, whether or not it’s good intentions going awry or a villain having a tragic backstory, MOST people don’t say we should stop fighting villainous behavior, at least in real life. The reaction seems to be more like ‘I don’t care about your reasons, I just want you to stop hurting people!’

    • Travis Perry says:

      Yeah I think evil, while a bit hard to define at times, is for the most part identifiable in specific ways. Clearly not everyone agrees with me on that.

      As for stories in which those who have good intentions go awry, yes, these can be quite interesting stories–and such events happen often enough in real life. But I think struggles between genuine evil and real good are more interesting.

  4. I should warn you that the validity of the Stanford Prison Experiment is coming under fire nowadays. https://www.livescience.com/62832-stanford-prison-experiment-flawed.html
    Scientific rigor would demand that we replicate the results many times, rather than relying on a single incident that involved a pretty small sample size of people (and replicating the SPE is obviously difficult for ethical reasons).

    One thing that strikes me as missing from this article is a summary of what we know about the causes of things like bullying and domestic or sexual abuse. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I think there’s some evidence out there that abusers are more likely than average to have suffered abuse themselves. Suffering can increase empathy … OR it can lead the victims to hurt others in order to take back the power they feel they lost.

    I do agree that suffering does not *force* anyone to commit evil. When we experience suffering, we get a choice in how we respond to it. But to me it does not seem implausible that some people react to suffering in terrible ways.

    • Travis Perry says:

      The Stanford Prison Experiment is what we have to work with because you can’t ethically perform experiments on people designed to make them evil.

      Likewise since we cannot do double blind experiments to see what actually causes people to act in certain ways, we only have correlations between backgrounds and behaviors, which in a scientific sense doesn’t constitute proof. In other words, what is definitely known I would say is less than you seem to think.

      I do not and did not reject the idea that suffering can cause people to do evil–but Nazi death camp guards (for example) weren’t drawn from those who were especially abused. Abuse is not required to form a bad person–examples from history very much argue the case I’m making.

  5. Jill says:

    I used to read true crime, I think because I wanted to understand why some people didn’t just go evil, but went evil in a bizarre twisted way. Serial killers tend to have missing/abusive fathers or abusive stepfathers. Knowing that helps, to an extent, make sense of behavior almost incomprehensible to most humans. But it doesn’t make sense of all of it because most abused children do not grow up to be serial killers. That kind of background could be interesting in a suspense novel, especially if it’s set against an investigator whose life trauma created the opposite impulse (justice), but it can be very ham-handed and unnecessary. Good article.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Thanks for your positive comment.

      I know a few examples of historic people who suffered abuse who turned out very well–but in general, modern psychology is more interested in explaining people who commit horrible crimes than people who don’t commit them. That unintended bias of focus on cases where abuse produces monsters may be leaking its way into how villains are commonly thought of in modern stories…

      • notleia says:

        Well, people who don’t commit horrible crimes aren’t exactly a problem and don’t need a solution, right?

        But it’s part of the byzantine question of nature vs nurture.

  6. I haven’t seen the Joker movie, but part of me thinks it will feel weirdly out of character. Like, something really bizarre and extreme would probably have to happen to make someone turn out like the Joker, so simply showing bits of injustice in Joker’s past isn’t going to be enough. The falling in a vat of toxic waste thing makes more sense, since the show could at least make a case for severe brain damage(which can greatly alter personality). Maybe I could buy the idea of extreme childhood abuse turning him that way as well, considering such things sometimes cause people to have NPD, but different types of abuse affect people in different ways.

    Something people have to keep in mind is that he is usually depicted as having little to no empathy and that he just ‘wants to watch the world burn’. And that he hurts people for fun. Enduring injustice can make people do bad things, but probably not to Joker like levels.

    • Travis Perry says:

      The Joker found in the Dark Knight Batman movie was evil in the old style, just because, and as evil as the writers could imagine him.

      The new Joker movie has a different goal–but even though I haven’t seen it, it already seems like the kind of thing that won’t ring true to me.

  7. Just a side note to add to the possibilities, some people’s response to hardships and injustice is to withdraw, be mistrustful, etc. Or have a mixture of withdrawing while also becoming more compassionate and stuff, which is what tends to happen to me.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Yeah, agreed that an awful lot of abused people shut down in one way or other–which is quite different from lashing out and becoming Maleficent…

      • Yeah. I wasn’t ever abused, but that doesn’t mean dealing with people is easy. It’s understandable if an abused person does want to withdraw, though. It’s a much better alternative than getting vengeful.

  8. Good post, Travis. Brought to mind some lines of poetry I heard this week from a pastor on the radio:

    “But to every man there openeth,
    A high way and a low,
    And every mind decideth,
    The way his soul shall go.

    “One ship sails East,
    And another West,
    By the self-same winds that blow,
    ‘Tis the set of the sails
    And not the gales,
    That tells the way we go.” (from a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox)

    There’s truth there, but in many respects we all are serial killers—but for the grace of God. That’s the real difference between those who do horrific deeds and those who don’t. That God has poured His grace on us for all these years to keep us from destroying one another is a provision we take for granted and in fact take to ourselves as if we are the ones who are setting a standard that treats others with kindness; only those who deviate are evil. Jesus called us out on this when He said, If you hate your brother it’s just as if you murdered him. Of course the world doesn’t recognize that standard, and sadly too often we Christians slide right by it. Maybe we ask, What actually is hate? Or some other dodge. I could say more, but I’ll leave it there.


    • PhiLiP SchMidT says:

      A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Becky!
      As I read the excerpt from Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem, something sprang to MY mind:
      A song by Pat Terry entitled ‘Growing Up & Growing Old’ from his album ‘Film At Eleven.’
      I daresay that these lyrics are the flip side of the same coin that Wilcox’s poem is on:
      “It’s funny how pain can reach you
      And it either makes you better
      Or it robs you of your soul
      All in all it defines the separation
      Between growing up and growing old.”
      Seen in this light, we cannot afford to take for granted the grace that God has poured on us, can we…..
      Not even for a moment.
      Because as soon as we start doing this…..
      We’re setting our sails wrong, aren’t we?
      PhiL >^•_•^<

  9. Ryan says:

    It depends honestly. Darth Vader is richer for his tragic backstory, and even then his redemption is owning up to his mistakes.

    Sometimes people don’t have tragic backstories but still turn out evil because of how they were raised. An asshole aristocrat who burns poor people in one manga is that way because society told him that he as a noble was above the law. Still satisfying when he’s tricked into publically confessing his crimes and decapitated

What do you think?