As I’ve said before in previous blog instalments, I’m a huge fan of villains in stories. Whilst I do not believe that they should shine more than the heroes (at least not intentionally) I am a firm believer in the classic quote – “It’s more fun to play the bad guy!”
But what interests most about these types of characters (aside from their lack of morals and utterly bleak outlook on life, amongst other characteristics) is their back-story. For me, a perfect villain needs to be sympathetic and tragic to a small extent and you need to understand their motivations – even if you don’t agree with them. A back-story is crucial to setting up the villain and helping you understand why they are doing what they are doing – they can’t just be evil for the sake of being evil.
I’ll let you into a little secret – years ago I used to do pantomimes for my Mum’s dance school and I always enjoyed playing the baddy. But I always gave my character some kind of back-story as to why he was so evil and what could have happened to make him that way. Probably a bit much for a pantomime, but hey – it worked for me!
Anyway, there are TONS of great villain back stories - but today I look at my personal Top Five. These are the types of stories that I think can make for some great, sympathetic, yet utterly evil villains that can be as interesting as their heroic counterparts. Again, this is just my own personal opinion and in no particular order.
1. Death of a loved one
The death of a loved one (be it a lover, family member or otherwise) is not exclusive to the revenge seeking heroes/anti-heroes of fiction. Villains can be just as much affected by the death of a loved one as much as anyone else. In fact, considering that most characters that are effected this way tend to go on killing sprees, murdering all in their path, it’s probably better suited to villains in some ways.
This is probably one of the most basic, and yet most effective back stories for creating a villain. For one thing, it’s a completely natural reaction for most humans. If the one you love is killed, it leaves a gaping hole in your life that cannot be filled. What’s even more sickening is that the person that kills your loved one gets away with it – you want justice and will seek it out however you can. So it’s no wonder that some people might become so obsessed with revenge that it dominates their life, turning them into monsters. Look what happened to Abu Nazir in the TV series Homeland. He lost his son in a bombing raid and became so consumed by revenge that he would do anything to get back at the US – even if it meant the death of innocent civilians.
This trope can also be subverted a little bit if the villain tries to bring the loved one back to life. This one is probably more common in Fantasy or Sci-Fi type stories where magic is involved, but it can make for some interesting storylines. Think of it this way – the character is just trying to reunite himself/herself with a lost love. That in itself is a noble intention – but the way round to doing it usually involves criminal activity (in the case of Mr Freeze from Batman), innocents being harmed or (at worst) toying with forces they cannot understand.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. In the Yu-Gi-Oh anime(at least the English dub), the villain Pegasus hosts a duel tournament so that he can gather the Millennium items together, hoping it will bring his dead wife back to life. To this end, he traps Yugi’s Grandfather’s soul and even kidnaps Kaiba’s little brother. Pretty dickish I’ll admit, and at first when we are introduced to Pegasus, we see him as nothing more than a cunning, wicked (if slightly flamboyant) villain. But once we learn his motivations, we can actually understand his reasons for doing it. I just don’t think anyone can agree with the lives he has to step on to accomplish it.
Another example is an episode of Gargoyles (an underrated Disney cartoon). In one episode, the villain captures Anubis and tries to force him to return his son (who was killed in a car crash) to him. Anubis refuses, but the villain won’t let up. Unfortunately, in holding Anubis, it means that the world now has no death. Overpopulation will increase and throw the world into chaos – but this guy doesn’t care. Again, great motivations. We can understand his pain – but unfortunately his pain is so great that it condemns the entire world to doom.
Death (and how the character reacts to it) can make for some great tragic villains and even gain some sympathy for the character to an extent. You don’t want them to succeed, but you don’t want them to be entirely punished for it as their reactions are totally natural. This was actually the back-story I kinda went for in my Trapped on Draconica novels, for all the reasons I listed above.
2. Survivor of a traumatic event
There have been a large number of catastrophic and traumatic events throughout history that have been perpetrated by human cruelty (Hiroshima, the Holocaust and numerous wars to name a few). We all have heard stories of how terrible and devastating they were. But what if there was a character that lived THROUGH it? What if they survived it and the results changed them forever – turning them into hateful person, cursing mankind forever more.
This works similarly to the death of a loved one, but on a much bigger scale. A character (usually an everyman/everywoman) survives this terrible event, then seeks revenge against those that were the cause of it. Again, totally understandable and you can quite easily relate to why they are doing it. But here is always the problem. The villain often becomes so consumed by revenge that they end up becoming the one thing that they are determined to destroy. These types of villains are great metaphors for the corruption of power and lust for blood that humans have, and also proving that justice cannot always be achieved without spilling blood.
I think a perfect example of this is Magneto from the X-Men films, comics, cartoons, video games, etc. Magneto is, himself, a survivor of the Holocaust – he saw his people tortured and murdered (even his own parents), oppressed by a corrupt government. And then years later he witnessed mutants being oppressed and tortured in this same way – is it any wonder he ended up hating humans? But even though he believes that his intentions are honourable and that he is saving the humans, it’s at the cost of human genocide. So in his own way, he is, himself, a dictator.
The scariest thing about these types of villains is that, in their own way, they were born of these tragedies. The horrific encounters they went through made them look at humanity in a horrific and terrible light – believing in the old Eye for an Eye way of thinking. There’s a quote that I remember at the end of an episode of The Outer Limits that says “If we teach our children to learn by example, we have only ourselves to blame for what they become”. That is particularly true of these types of villains. They are born from human cruelty. And in the end, they may just be the answer to ending this cruelty.
3. An experiment goes wrong
Ah, the old classic Mad Scientist storyline. A story that dates back as far as Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and has been the first choice of storyline for the creation of many a comic book super villain. Most notably Marvel comics. If you look at the vast majority of Spider-Man’s rogue gallery (Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, The Lizard, etc) most of them were created due to a science experiment gone horribly wrong.
The sad thing is, most of these villains weren’t even villains to begin with. They were good men, all working on something that was intended for the good of mankind (usually), in Doctor Octopus’s case, he created the robot arms to assist with handling dangerous radioactive materials – but an accident fused it to his body and turned him mad. In Curt Connors’s (The Lizard) case, he was working on a formula for growing his arm back using lizard DNA, but the result turned him into a monster.
The sad thing is that, in most cases, they actually discover that the accident has granted them powers that they never had before – so they become convinced that their “condition” is actually the next step in human evolution. They then become convinced that humanity would benefit from this and begin a crazy mission to make everyone in the world like them – as was the storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man.
The mad scientist storyline is a classic cautionary tale that humans should be careful how much they experiment with science. Scientific experimentation is great and indeed, there are plenty of advances that can benefit humanity – but one must be careful as it could lead to a possible god complex. And that is usually the case with these types of villains. They become so consumed by their own vanity and believe themselves to be better than humans. That causes them to think themselves above the law and that they are invincible, which usually catches the attention of the local superhero.
A classic, and one that has probably been done to death, but I still think this one is pretty decent. Some later versions of this involve the mad scientist trying to find a cure for their ailment and going on a rampage to collect the things they need to be cured – although this often means them having to steal to do so. Either way, the mad scientist storyline is a classic example of “curiosity killing the cat” and proving that humanities desire to discover new things may end up being his undoing.
4. Born into darkness
Now, the one major difference that this back-story has compared to the ones above is this. In the above examples, the villains (generally) had a choice to make and they choose to turn to the side of evil – whether it was out of revenge or just a spur of the moment thing. They could have (with enough willpower) kept to the side of good and not fallen into darkness. But what if a character was BORN into a world of darkness and evil? How can they possibly live a normal existence when evil is all they’ve known.
In this example, I’m looking at a couple of Mafia related characters. Tony Soprano from The Sopranos and Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Both were raised in the world of organised crime and both have had to live with it all their lives – so neither of them have really known how to live as normal citizens, only to hide in plain sight.
I think it’s fair to say that the world of organised crime is a violent one. In that world it’s kill or be killed, make money in any way you can, no matter how sleazy, depraved or illegal it is. And in the Mafia, all bets are off and everything is fair game. In both examples above, the characters are some of the most despicable and wicked people in fiction. But even though they themselves do commit evil deeds, does that necessarily make them evil?
Short answer for me – no.
I actually think that both examples above are some of the most interesting characters in fiction, if maybe a little barbaric. In Tony Soprano’s case, he has grown up the son of a legendary gangster, so already there was a lot of pressure to live up to his father’s name. All through his life, Tony has known nothing but the way of the Mafia – violence and crime. He has grown up believing that a man must be tough, ala Gary Cooper “The Strong and Silent type”. Fast forward years later, Tony is an emotional wreck of a man, unable to cope with the pressures of family life and being the Boss of the family. Struck with constant panic attacks and emotional outbursts, he always looks like he’s going to come apart at the seams.
Then again, we can’t really blame Tony for this entirely. He was brought up in a world where only the tough survive and he has done what he can to try and survive. And he certainly is not a wimp and he’s not afraid to put up a fight and put a bullet in someone’s head if it comes to it. But aside from all this, he genuinely is trying to be a good father to his children and give them everything in life. He’s just not very good at showing his emotions. And in actual fact, Tony does have some lingering elements of humanity to him and he does try to do good now and then, so he isn’t entirely a monster.
The same, however, can’t really be said for Michael. Like Tony, he was raised in a world of violence and danger, but he does at least try to break away from his family at first and make his own way in life. But when his father passes away, he becomes the boss of the family and slowly (though the course of the story) becomes every bit as ruthless a crime boss as his father. Unlike Tony, Michael has little or no human feeling in him. Whilst he can be quite caring and protective of those that show him respect, if you cross him he will not hesitate to have you killed – he even has his own brother murdered for betraying him. It’s quite sad, because at the beginning he is genuinely set up as the most level headed character, determined not to be consumed by the family business – but as the story goes on, we see how power corrupts him and turns him into a monster.
Now admittedly, it’s quite easy to get these characters wrong in my opinion. If you spend too much time showing the characters doing evil deeds and not enough time getting into their mentality, they can just come across as generic evil bad guys. But, if you examine their history and they way they’ve had to adapt to a world other than our own, then you have the makings of a complex, seedy, nuanced, yet evil character that readers/watchers will love to hate and hate to love.
5. The fallen hero
Another story that is as old as time itself, popularised by Star Wars and often imitated.
We all know how this goes, there is a mighty hero – a great warrior that is loved and respected by everyone. They then turn to darkness and become a shadow of their former self (for any number of reasons), now trying to destroy the very people they tried to protect.
This is another classic example of the idea that power corrupts and that even the most purest of souls can be turned to evil. Because heroes by their very nature are supposed to represent goodness, morality, altruism, idealism and the faith that all can live together in harmony. But if THEY can be shown to be just as corruptible as any “normal” human, then it proves that no one is infallible.
There are any number of reasons why a hero may turn to evil – some of which could be any of the examples I’ve mentioned above, amongst other things. But sometimes, the most simplest of reasons as to why heroes turn evil is simply because they are human – and humans are all prone to moments of negativity as much as positivity.
I would use the example of Anakin Skywalker to demonstrate this point, but I actually have a far better example of the fallen hero. One that is as old as time itself – Lucifer and God.
If you go by the old classic tale, Lucifer was God’s most beloved angel and his favourite son. Lucifer in turn was loyal to God and followed his word accordingly. But when humans were born, Lucifer became jealous of God’s love for them, considering humans inferior to angels. This caused him to lash out at God and caused him to be cast from Heaven. He then was sent to dwell in the depths of Hell for all eternity – until the end of the world.
Let’s be honest, how many times have we seen this storyline been used? In books, films, video games, comics, you name it, it’s been used. Why? Because it’s the classic tale of jealousy and corruption. Because, if the most beautiful and pure of God’s angels can fall into evil, surely anyone can?
Some may consider this type of story clichéd to an extent – but I still believe that there is power to it if done right. Add to this that maybe another hero could come to face the fallen one, be given the same offer and refuse (like Luke Skywalker did), then it can also prove the strength of will of the character and show that evil doesn’t always win over good. And sometimes, the fallen hero has a chance to redeem himself – further proving this theory. Because I believe that there is equal amounts of good and evil in the human race.
Did I miss any other type of back-story? Is there a story that I missed that should have been on this list? Please leave a comment below to let me know what you think – and what makes a great villain back-story in your eyes!
Thanks for reading!