Writer's Note (10-10-18): Corrected some typos I noticed too embarrassingly late. My apologies. In the words of Spec Fic writer Janine Ippolito, they really do breed.
“Don’t make any ‘Mwahaha I’m so evil’ bad guys,” any so-called writing expert will tell you.
Okay, rule #1: don’t tell me “never” to do something.
But I get it. I understand what people are trying to say when they claim relatable villains are “more complex” and “memorable,” how it’s more interesting to watch a very human character clashing with the protagonist than it is seeing a top hat-wearing megalomaniac tying a damsel to railroad tracks.
But I think a lot of people are confused about this issue. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with an evil for evil’s sake villain.
Think I’m wrong? Let’s hash this out.
Because I’m out to defend the honor of the really, really bad baddies out there. MWAHAHAHAHA!
“The Villain Problem”In his video “RWBY: The Villain Problem,” critic and video essayist Blizzic criticizes the villains in Rooster Teeth’s original animated series RWBY, arguing that the villains’ penchant for evil deeds, wicked laughter, and snatching hope from the hearts of the main characters makes them inferior to villains with a more soft, squishy, human side.
“There’s no denying that some of the villains are actually pretty great as long as we’re looking at sheer entertainment value… But, specifically, some of the villains that you’re supposed to be impressed by are really lacking in the narrative department,” Blizzic begins.1
So what makes RWBY’s villains so harshly “lacking”? Well, according to Blizzic…
Blizzic goes on to assert that, by contrast, truly great villains “[aren’t] interesting because they’re villainous; they’re interesting because they’re human.”3
[I]t’s very uncommon for a sane human being to view their own actions as evil. Meanwhile, Cinderella’s evil twin is over here calmly and methodically laying out her evil plan and then grinning menacingly… At this point in the narrative, the writers have completely failed at establishing her as a real human being. She’s incredibly one-dimensional; she’s evil for the sake of being evil…2
RWBY, Rooster Teeth 2015
And I agree—to an extent. Humanizing a villain certainly does make them more complex; and I can enjoy a complex villain. But I take issue with people when they insist that humanizing villains is the only way to make, in Blizzic’s words, “truly great” villains.
Is that the only way to make good villains? Let’s take a look.
A Villain’s PurposeAs award-winning screenplay writer Robert McKee reminds us in his book Story, “the protagonist creates the rest of the cast.”4 The protagonist is the center of the story; the villain is just another character built around who the protagonist is and what the protagonist wants.
Good, memorable, effective villains are ones who cause direct problems for the hero. They’re antagonists, standing directly opposed to whatever the hero is trying to accomplish. As Vanessa Martinez Wilson puts it: “The hero must have problems [and] then… overcome them. That’s where the villain comes in.”5
That’s a villain’s purpose. If they’re not opposing the hero’s goals, they’re not doing their job. This is the number one aspect to analyze when determining whether a villain is “good” or not.
The Right Villain Type for the Right StoryTo that end, sometimes relatable villains just ain’t gonna work for the story you’re trying to tell.
Take the Joker, for instance. No matter how many times he clashes with his beloved Bats, the Clown Prince doesn’t really care whether he’s the hero or the villain. In fact, I don’t think he gives it a second thought. He does what he does because he believes the world is a living nightmare of despondence, and he’s here to have fun with it. “It’d be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. Oh, what the heck, I’ll laugh anyway!”6 In fact, according to Eric Radomski, producer and director for Batman: The Animated Series, Joker knows he’s the villain.7 Which makes sense. What else could inspire those cackles of wicked glee?8
Now imagine how boring the Joker would be if he were a preachy villain who just wanted everyone to believe he was the real good guy. How boring is a pitiable soul trying to reason with Batman compared to a madman laugh-gassing anybody within ten feet who wasn’t already his lackey or shuffleboard buddy?
Admittedly, The Killing Joke toys with humanizing the Joker, but only to highlight how far he’s fallen—how psychotic and delightedly evil he’s become.
So if the Joker relishes his evil actions, does that make him any less of a great villain? No, of course not! Part of the Joker’s charm is his glee while carrying out horrific atrocities; the story wouldn’t be the same without him.
And what about The Lord of the Rings? It has its share of relatable villains with Smeagol and (arguably) Wormtongue, but what if Sauron were a humanized villain? Can you imagine how much longer the Council of Elrond would have dragged on for? “Well, what if Sauron’s actually right? What if we’re dooming the world by not using the Ring’s power?” Reluctance and uncertainty would get in the way of the plot!
No, we WANT Sauron to be really, really evil. We WANT him to be a very, very obvious bad guy.
Sauron is evil for evil’s sake; he wants to rule the world. And it works. Why? Because fantasy often goes hand-in-hand with moral clarity. Many fantasy stories make it very clear what is evil, what is good, and who’s on which side. That’s because morality isn’t the kind of story most of the fantasy genre tales (with exceptions like Game of Thrones) are trying to tell.
The irony is that Blizzic knows there’s a place for evil for evil’s sake villains. In his video, he confesses that some villains really do just enjoy watching the world burn (mentioning the Joker specifically).9
And this is where the argument for all villains being human and relatable begins to fall apart. These critics don’t realize that it doesn’t matter whether a villain thinks what they’re doing is right; it doesn’t matter if they enjoy rubbing their palms together, laughing wickedly over their evil schemes. What really matters is how the villain opposes the hero’s desires.
So Why the Hate?I think people believe this villain type is inherently “bad” for a few common reasons:
#1: OversaturationPeople got tired of an over-used villain type. Let’s face it: we saw a lot of evil for evil’s sake baddies in the 80’s and 90’s. And 60’s. And maybe even the 70’s.
#2: Culture ShiftThe evil for evil's sake villain was a fad that outlived its lifespan. Just like how shining paragon superheroes went out the window in favor of angst-riddled antiheroes, people felt like they’d “outgrown” evil for evil’s sake villains and decided they needed new ones to be relevant—new ones that were “relatable” and “human.”
The storytelling community powerfully relies on these kinds of fads. Which is stupid! We need to be careful not to label something as “bad” just because it’s not currently considered culturally relevant, like Matt Colville highlights in his video “Explaining vs. Engaging.”10
Types of villains are tools. As Colville says, use the proper tool for the proper job. Be wary of saying there is only one way to do something; that’s how we get into media ruts.11
#3: “Unrealistic”People often argue against evil for evil’s sake villains by saying they’re inherently unrealistic (as if realism is the end-all, be-all goal for all stories). They say that “real people” only see themselves as the hero; thus, all villains should too.
But in real life, there’s plenty of people who know what they’re doing wrong and still choose to act that way.
Or heck, maybe they go a step further: maybe they enjoy doing terrible things.
#4: Misdirected HateMost people think they hate evil for evil’s sake villains, but I don’t it’s the “evil for evil’s sake” aspect that’s really got most people’s undies in a bunch. After all, some people adored Wander over Yonder's Lord Dominator,12 and she THRIVED on being evil for evil's sake!13
Mustache twirlers, we can all agree, are annoying. But the issue isn’t that mustache-twirlers are evil for evil’s sake; it’s that they lack any real motivation or personality. Why is Lord Dominator so popular as a villain? She’s got personality oozing out of every curvy line: she’s bad, she knows it, and she revels in it because to her, it’s fun. She has personality and a motivation, even if that motivation seems as simple as “doing evil things because I get a kick out of kicking puppies.”
Evil for evil’s sake villains might have a motivation or they might not. But the ones who enjoy watching the world burn for laughs because they’re insane (like the Joker) or who want to take over the world (like Sauron) or who harm others to further their own desires (like any number of Disney villains) aren’t inherently bad villains just because they enjoy doing bad things.
No, the truly lousy evil for evil’s sake villains are the ones who don’t have any motivation. They’re the ones who have no personality besides “Really, really evil; trust us.”
|RWBY, Rooster Teeth 2017|
Still, I think it’s unfair to condemn an entire villain group as a narrative “failure” just because Rooster Teeth hadn’t gotten around to revealing a character’s backstory yet.
Ergo…So the next time you find yourself hating a villain, don’t just throw your hands up in the air and proclaim, “This is what happens when you have a villain who’s evil for evil’s sake!” Look a little deeper and find out what’s really bothering you about that character.
You may be surprised what you’ll find.
Notes and References:
- Blizzic, “RWBY: The Villain Problem,” YouTube video, 9:16, June 3, 2017.
- Blizzic, “RWBY: The Villain Problem.” (1:05)
- Blizzic, “RWBY: The Villain Problem.” (1:50)
- Robert McKee, Story (New York, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc., 1997), 179.
- Vanessa Martinez Wilson, “The Top 10 Worst Disney Villains,” ReelRundown (blog), October 25, 2016, accessed December 12, 2017.
- “Batman Beyond: Return of The [sic] Joker - Part 6,” YouTube video, 14:55, posted by “Beyond the Lot,” April 22, 2013. Originally from Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, directed by Curt Geda, (2000; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video), DVD.
- “The Joker: Mark Hamill,” YouTube video, 5:26, posted by “thejokerlady,” August 31, 2008. Originally from Batman: The Animated Series - Volume 4, directed by Kevin Altieri, Kent Butterworth, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur, Eric Radomski, Dan Riba, Dick Sebast, and Bruce Timm, (1992; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2009), DVD.
- “The Joker: Mark Hamill,” posted by “thejokerlady.”
- Blizzic, “RWBY: The Villain Problem.” (2:05)
- Matt Colville, “Explaining vs. Engaging,” YouTube video, 11:18, January 30, 2017.
- Matt Colville, “Explaining vs. Engaging.” (7:19)
- Saberspark, “Top 10 BEST [sic] Cartoon Villains,” YouTube video, 16:57, November 3, 2017.
- “I'm the Bad Guy | Wander Over Yonder | Disney XD,” YouTube video, 2:18, posted by “Disney XD,” April 8, 2016. Originally from Wander Over Yonder, episode 66, “My Fair Hatey,” directed by Dave Thomas, Eddie Trigueros, and Justin Nichols, (2016; Burbank, CA: Disney-ABC Domestic Television), Television.
If anybody knows the exact creator who made any of the .gifs (especially the Benedict Cumberbatch one), please let me know!
Cinder Fall, RWBY, and all related terms are the property of Rooster Teeth Productions, LLC; The Joker, Batman, and all related terms property of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; The Lord of the Rings and all related names and terms property of Middle Earth Enterprises. Wander Over Yonder, Lord Dominator, and all related names and terms property of Walt Disney Studios. And, unfortunately, I am not affiliated with any of them.
From Him, To Him