Hey, everyone! I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving! I know I missed my last post. I blame the tryptophan from the turkey.
Wait . . . I hadn’t eaten any turkey on Wednesday . . . Yikes! Better keep going!
If you were here a month ago, you’ll remember that my last post was pretty short, just a quick question about who the greatest villains were. I don’t know why, but I’ve had villains on my mind lately. Maybe it’s a hazard of writing superhero stories. But this week, I started thinking about a slightly different question: what makes a villain a good one?
I can remember many, many years ago, while I was still in high school, that I got into a conversation with a student teacher in my school about Frank Peretti’s angel books. I don’t remember everything she said about them, but I do remember that she didn’t like the female New Age guru in This Present Darkness. She thought that this obvious bad guy was cartoonish and unrealistic.
We’ve probably all heard the dictum that everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own stories. While people may do horrible, evil things to one another, very few of them do so because they’ve devoted themselves to the practice of evil villainy. When authors and storytellers remember that, their “bad guys” become even more compelling.
Take Magneto, the “big bad” who faces off against the X-Men. When Magneto was first introduced in the ’60s, there was little nuance to his character. He was a bad guy, pure and simple, dedicated to death and destruction. This is the guy, after all, who put together a team of people and named them, without a hint of irony, “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.” With a name like that, you have to wonder who would seriously sign up!
But over the past few decades, Magneto’s character has evolved beyond that. Now he’s an almost sympathetic figure, a man who has dedicated his life to fighting for the superiority of mutants. We saw that in the recent X-Men movies. Magneto starts as a survivor of the holocaust, someone who saw his people being wiped out by those who feared them. It’s easy to understand why Magneto would resort to extreme measures to protect his fellow mutants from meeting a similar fate. Now Magneto is a complex, rich character, one that people can sympathize with and maybe even wonder if he’s somehow in the right. That’s good storytelling.
But at the same time, though, I’ve recently come to realize that sometimes, deconstructing a villain’s motivation actually hurts them and makes them less effective as agents of evil.
Take the Reapers in the Mass Effect video game franchise. For those unfamiliar with the story in this fantastic game series, you play as Commander Shepard, a human military officer who finds him- or herself in the midst of a crisis of galactic proportions. A race of sentient machines as large as starships called the Reapers will soon return to the galaxy and destroy every advanced civilization they can find. It turns out that they do this every 50,000 years. In the first two games, the Reapers are terrific villains: frightening and implacable, a force of nature that will simply overwhelm everything and everyone in their path.
And then it all goes off the rails in the third and final game.
Throughout most of Mass Effect 3, the Reapers are once again the overwhelming force. But then, in the end, the developers decided to reveal the “why” of what the Reapers are doing. And I have to admit, while I was curious about the “why,” the moment I learned it, the Reapers lost a great deal of their menace. Part of the reason for that is because the explanation made very little sense (something the game developers have been trying to fix with the release of downloadable content), but for some reason, the resolution of that mystery made the Reapers seem weaker.
And we don’t just see this de-threatening (that’s a word, right?) with the Reapers. Think of Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Darth Vader is a monster in his black armor. Even his redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi didn’t weaken him. But when we were shown Ani the slave boy, suddenly Vader didn’t seem quite as menacing. The phrase, “Now this is pod racing!” did more to hurt Vader than any lightsaber ever could. The same thing happened to Boba Fett. Yes, it’s awful that he’s an orphan and yes, I felt bad when Mace Windu lopped off Jango’s head, but seeing that made me think less of Boba Fett because it made him seem weaker.
And how about Sauron? I’m sure that J.R.R. Tolkien included some backstory that would go a long way to explaining why Sauron forged the ring and what motivated him to want to dominate Middle Earth, but quite frankly, I’m not sure that would help make Sauron seem like a better villain. Let him be a gigantic, disembodied fiery eye and don’t put him on the couch for psychoanalysis. He works better that way.
So I seem to be caught in a conundrum. On the one hand, some villains are more effective and menacing if we understand their motivation and what drives them. But other villains work better if they remain mysterious and the reasons for what they do remain unknown. It almost seems, at least to me, that the key to all of this is whether or not the villain is “larger than life.” If they are, then they can be evil for evil’s sake without explanation. But if they’re more “down to earth,” then we need to know what drives them and what made them the way they are.
What do you think? Am I over-thinking this? What do you think makes a villain effective in a story?