Are Villains Bad?

I’m doing some writing workshops this year just like I did last year and I wanted to explore something that can be as simple or as complex as the audience is ready for. I wanted something that would be relevant to Grade 1 students all the way to adults.

So, I decided that this year, I would tackle some of the questions regarding character motivation.

As you might imagine, what motivates characters (as with living, breathing people) is as varied as the population of our imaginations. I also didn’t think a workshop titled Character Motivations was all that interesting. What I settled for was Good Villains and Bad Heroes.

I thought it might be fun to blog about my thought processes on the subject in case any of you wanted to weigh in on the topic too. So here we are. 🙂

I think where I want to begin is with the recognition that history is written by the victorious. You can use that if you like. I didn’t come up with it. 😉

That is a pretty broad statement. Some history, like what happened yesterday at lunch time out on the playground won’t likely make its way into history books (unless that is when we made First Contact), but it will play a role in the lives of the people who lived it.

Maybe there was a fight between to kids. The winner of the fight, in this case, was not a bully. She just happened to get the upper hand. The other kids rallied around her after the fight and the loser was left alone to lick his wounds.

Who is the hero and who is the villain here? Without any further context, one might be inclined to award the title of “hero” to the winner of the fight. Villain might be a bit strong for the loser, but for the sake of argument, we will give the loser of the fight that name.

But is the Villain bad in this case? That depends on what you provide for a back story and what happens next. If the boy is so humiliated that he starts vandalizing things and bullying weaker kids, then one could argue that he is bad. But what if the fight happened because the girl had his dog and wouldn’t give it back? What then?

I think of the movie MegaMind whenever I consider this whole idea. MegaMind, the title character is the funny blue kid who eventually turns to a life of crime. He turns to crime largely because he is ridiculed and marginalized his entire life. The handsome, popular kid, who happens to have super-abilities, also picks on him. That same popular kid grows up to be the city’s defender.

No wonder MegaMind goes bad.

Spoiler alert here if you haven’t watched the movie – MegaMind goes straight and eventually becomes the big hero. It was in him all along but, due to circumstances, it took him a long while to get there.

So, I will ask the question again: Are Villains Bad? Certainly in some cases, but I’ve always found inherent evil as a very boring motivation for villains. If you want interesting characters in general, you need to make their raison d’etre to be interesting too.

A fantastic example of this come from the television show, Breaking Bad. The main character, a chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancel. He wants to provide for his family and knows he won’t be around long so he has to make some quick money. His solution? Cook up and sell crystal meth.

Is he a bad guy?

Certainly not at the beginning, but as the show goes on, he does some absolutely horrific things. And it all started because he was told he was dying and wanted to ensure his family would be taken care of.

The motivation certain speaks to the heroic, but the methods go down a very dark road indeed. Is he the villain? Yes, in an anti-hero sort of way. Is he bad? He does a lot of bad things. You be the judge.

One last example: Genghis Khan.

History paints him as one of the most bloodthirsty warlords ever. He built a vast empire. He was both revered and hated. He is the forefather of literally millions of people.

Was he bad? Was he good? Was he a hero or a villain? The answers to these questions completely depends on your point-of-view.

So, does my post answer the question of Are Villains Bad? I hope not. Because not every villain is the same. Not every person is the same. Who and what your villain becomes should be entirely dependent on the story.

Just don’t make your villains boring.


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