I know I’ve touched on this before, but it’s mostly been in different Candor Friday posts, so I thought I’d put it all together in one place.
One of my favorite quotes ever about villains is by Tom Hiddleston- “Every villain thinks he’s a hero in his own mind.”
More often than not, when we write, we forget about this. We make our villains evil and they know they’re evil and they’re okay with that because they’re evil.
But, something reading and watching movies has taught me is that very few people know they’re evil. Or, they know what they’re doing is wrong, but they have a reason why it’s okay for them to do it. They can justify their actions.
Only a very twisted few are evil for the sake of being evil and are okay with committing crimes without having to justify them.
Villains, I have come to learn, are scariest when they don’t know they’re wrong. See, someone who kills and loves to kill is terrifying, but if they also think it’s okay for them to kill, that makes them a million times scarier.
Contrary to what some people believe, we are inbreed with this sense of right and wrong. A moral code, if you will. So, when someone violates that code while thinking they’re in fact doing the right thing, our very being shudders. It’s so wrong to us, that it frightens us.
The key to a well-crafted villain is conviction.
If you villain is not convinced that what he is doing is right, then you need to reevaluate them.
I have heard several people laugh about the conversation in The Avengers where Loki and Nick Fury are talking and Loki tells him he’s come to make the world free. When Nick Fury asks what he’s making the world free from, Loki replies: “Freedom. Freedom is life's great lie.”
People think it’s funny, because they say, “That’s not how freedom works” but, they're actually wrong. It's not funny. Because Loki believes it. Every fiber of him believes what he’s doing is right. He’s superior to these puny humans. They’re beneath him and his coming to “rescue” them from their miserable little lives is a blessing, not a curse. He’s not punishing them. If they submit to him, he will in fact reward them for it.
And that’s what makes Loki so terrifying. Because no matter what crimes he commits, he believes he’s right in committing them.
Another great place to look for villains who are convinced is the Divergent trilogy. There are a lot of people who could fall under the category of “villain” in one way or another, but I’d just like to look at three (it should be relatively spoiler free…)
First, there’s Marcus Eaton, who I know I’ve talked about before. He’s frightening because he believes hurting his son is really making him a better person. As he beats him, he tells him “This is for your own good.” He believes in what he’s doing. Even though it’s sick and tragic, he believes in it. He believes what he’s doing is for the good of his son and it never crosses his mind that he’s wrong.
Jeanine Matthews believes what she’s doing is right to save the faction system. Yes, she essentially wants to commit genocide to obtain her goal, but it’s for the good of everyone, so sacrificing a few for the sake of many is justified. She believes it with every fiber of her being and so she goes right ahead with her atrocious crimes.
And, on the other side of the scale, there’s Evelyn. She thinks she’s doing what’s right in trying to destroy the factions because she’s seen the damage people like Marcus and Jeanine can do. So, she ends up fighting fire with fire and becoming a lot like them because she’s convinced her cause is right. If she has to hurt people to get where she’s going, she will, because she knows what she’s doing is ultimately right.
I could go on and on. Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon a Time. Moriarty from Sherlock. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Brutus from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility. Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. Charles Muntz from Up. Randall and Mr. Waternoose from Monsters Inc. Mr. Hurst and Mr. Pulitzer from Newsies. Miss Minchin from A Little Princess. Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit. Colonel Graff from Ender's Game.
All villains who are convinced they are right. No matter what evil they commit, they justify it because they believe what there are doing is for the greater good.
Now, some villains don’t realize they’re bad. Some genuinely think they’re doing the right thing and cannot for the life of them figure out why the hero keeps trying to stop them.
And, some villains know that their actions are wrong- or that their actions seem wrong. But, they look on their actions as a burden they must bear. They have to commit the crimes they do because someone needs to save the world. And, if they have to kill a few hundred people in the process, well, it’s a shame, but it has to be done. It’s for a good cause.
But, no matter what their viewpoint, the one thing all the truly great villains have in common is their conviction that they are right. In their head, they’re the hero of the story and the hero is the villain for trying to stop them.
Once you look through your villain's eyes like this, your character will grow by leaps and bounds. They’ll gain depth and complexity, and be well on their way to a being truly terrifying villain.
How about you? Who are your favorite villains? Is the villain of your story convinced of his or her rightness?
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