In Why Can’t Characters Just Be Evil? The Orangutan Librarian wrote about evil in characters, saying that while ‘In the same way a character can’t just be good, we need villains to have a little humanity to work’, at the same time:
I’ve often been disappointed by anti-heroes that fail to do their job properly. Take the example of Maleficent. Now, I’ve got nothing against the film and I get it was made for kids, yet many will agree that it fell short of the mark- chiefly for failing to make the villainess truly malevolent. It’s very notable that the biggest change from Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty is that she doesn’t want to kill the girl here, only send her into a cursed sleep. And it was this reluctance by the writers for her to go fully dark that meant this unforgettable villain lost her menace and consequently that the message revolving round the impact of human cruelty was never properly realised.
While characters who are evil ‘just because’ are boring, the difficulty with having them be a truly malevolent human is squaring up their underlying humanity with the things they are doing. I think part of the reason humanising an antagonist can lead to them not being dark enough is that the writer couldn’t fully get in the headspace of a human who does inhuman things. Writers joke about suspicious search histories, but perhaps it’s for the better our empathy only goes so far in certain directions.
When Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolph Eichmann (responsible for organising transport to Nazi camps), she was taken aback by a man who seemed to her ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’; famously commenting on the ‘banality of evil’. Thomas White writes that:
By declaring in her pre-Eichmann trial writings that absolute evil, exemplified by the Nazis, was driven by an audacious, monstrous intention to abolish humanity itself, Arendt was echoing the spirit of philosophers such as F W J Schelling and Plato, who did not shy away from investigating the deeper, more demonic aspects of evil. But this view changed when Arendt met Eichmann, whose bureaucratic emptiness suggested no such diabolical profundity, but only prosaic careerism and the ‘inability to think’. At that point, her earlier imaginative thinking about moral evil was distracted, and the ‘banality of evil’ slogan was born.
Arendt’s pre-Eichmann and post-Eichmann views on the evil exhibited by the Nazis are reflected in approaches to fictional antagonists.
Absolute evil, ‘end the world just because’, doesn’t make for compelling characters, but can work as what I’ll call an Evil Force.
An Evil Force is something like Sauron and the Ring-wraiths. They’re technically people, but functionally they aren’t meant to be characters and aren’t used as such, really. They’re more like abstract forces of darkness for the protagonists to struggle against. This sort of thing is very black-and-white morality, but it’s really satisfying when pulled off – there’s an epic feel to the conflict, the good guys heroically mowing down opposition without making us worry about how Nameless Goon #14’s widow will make it through the winter without him.
An Evil Human is much more complex and harder to pull off. The writer has to come up with a believable, human motive for inhuman acts. There’s a natural temptation to believe ‘people don’t do things like this’, and make the character’s acts too tame or treat them like an Evil Force rather than a person. But an Evil Force can’t work well as a character – imagine how cringy it’d be if Sauron had a large speaking role. What on earth would he say for himself?
The reality is that people can do terrible things thanks to momentary passions, dehumanisation (Margaret Atwood: ‘That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real.’), following slippery slopes too far, the bystander effect, social influence and mob mentality, corruption of power; all sorts of factors that in no way diminish personal responsibility, but do help explain, for example, how a bureaucrat can come to facilitate genocide.
Maybe I’m being weird, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day (also a decent film) comes to mind, even though he isn’t a villain per se. Through the book we gradually learn how his compassion for the German people and sense of honour, in the wake of the incredibly punitive Treaty of Versailles, lead to him buying into Nazi ideas. And we see how the narrator, his butler Stevens, denied what was happening thanks to the extreme concept of duty he’d been raised with.
Villains are at their best, then, when the inhumanity of their acts is combined with a humanity uncomfortably close to our own.
This was a heavy one. Here, have a silly meme.