The Villain’s Truth: Origin Stories

Please note: There may be plot spoilers in this post. Read on at your own discretion. 

In a previous post, I expressed my enthusiasm for villain origin stories. And while my excitement when it comes to such a story has certainly not waned, I have been forced to ask myself a significant question. Why are villain origin stories filled with what amounts to excuses as to why certain individuals become evil? While wading through the complicated stories of why a villain became who he or she is, I noticed a pattern, particularly with the female villain. Frequently, the reasons an individual becomes a villain have less to do with the individual him or herself and more to do with the surrounding environment and how he/she is treated by the general populace.

Sure, this all makes sense with what we know about nature vs. nurture. But nurture only goes so far. Sometimes depravity comes from a deep-seated chemical dissonance and there is no other explanation. At other times, perhaps a person has a natural propensity towards villainy of some kind and he or she only needs a subtle push in the right direction to wreak havoc on his or her peers. I am certainly no expert in psychology and as you who read my blog know, my background is solely in literature, particularly Gothic literature which (in its more sophisticated expressions) does tend to explore various avenues of the human psyche. Thus, my comments cannot be interpreted on any sort of scientific or social scientific level. But, I think what I have to express bears a significance when it comes to storytelling and what modern storytelling offers to us about contemporary society.

Villains of a different age of fiction were pretty flat. They were evil. And often because they were evil, they were also ugly. They were evil not because of society, but because of their own lack of moral reasoning or due to their own personal desires and their determination to achieve those desires.

Today’s villains, in contrast, are much more complex. These villains are evil not just because of themselves, but because they are a product of their environment or how they were raised, or because of what they lacked in life. Additionally, they could be evil but, at the same time, possess physical features that would cause most people to view them as beautiful. Somehow this amplifies their sadism and depravity. Perhaps its our own weak-minded belief that something beautiful could not be evil and how their villainy destroys this innocent perception of the world.

Think back to the most notorious villains whose stories we have seen expanded in books, in film and on television in recent years (there are many more that I do not reference in this post, but I can’t write a book today). I would suggest that the trend began in 1995 with the publication of Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked and Eve Forward’s Villains By Necessity. In Wicked, the reader learns that Elphaba (i.e. The Wicked Witch of the West) endures the prejudices of the Munchkins and refuses to be used by the Wizard of Oz. She begins life as an outcast due to her green skin (which she acquired through no fault of her own) and then becomes a target in a society whose efforts to ostracize her are built upon a flimsy P.R. platform put forth by those who are arguably the real villains. Elphaba herself is not REALLY evil. She is (or becomes) evil due to circumstance and how she has been treated by her peers.

(Found on Google images.)
(Found on Google images.)

In Villains By Necessity, a few individuals of questionable loyalties become villains in order to disrupt the imbalance of power that has occurred due to the overwhelming triumph of good over evil. Without this good/evil balance, the world will end. So, these characters become villains in order to save the world. Within this story, we have a situation that is similar to the one professed by Gregory Maguire. Individuals become villains because of societal or social circumstances.

Photo Credit: Disney®
Photo Credit: Disney®

Moving along, if we turn to the recent Disney® film release, Maleficent, we are once again forced to contend with a villain who is not REALLY a villain. Overall, I really enjoyed this film. But there are creative decisions with which I am a little disappointed. Maleficent is perceived as a villain by the “humans” and she does become a tyrant of sorts to her fellow fairies. But at the heart of the story, she becomes a villain out of anger and the desire for revenge. She was provoked by the betrayal of Stephen and by human greed. She becomes a villain not through something that was her fault, but because of the actions of others. I find this plot route to be compelling, but exceedingly disappointing. Why, you ask? Because Maleficent is one of the most notorious villains in the Disney® pocket. She was equally frightening and intriguing to me when I was a child. But to learn that the source of her villainy has little to do with her as an individual and more to do with her sense of injustice and feelings of betrayal due to a man whom she loved and was betrayed by is an exceptional letdown.

Do you see the same patterns that I do? These individuals are villains but their paths to villainy are paved by their response to the ways they have been treated by others rather than solely by a personal propensity towards villainy. But perhaps it is I who is mistaken and that these villains are actually much more sophisticated and multifaceted. In fact, perhaps they become villains in response to the misdeeds done against them precisely because they already had the propensity towards villainy in the first place and are thus, simply, pushed over the edge. Regardless,  I don’t think that my desire to see a villain origin story that has a stronger focus on the individual him or herself stems from a childhood need for a more dichotomous expression of good and evil. As a former academic who is well-versed in the Gothic and its many twists and turns up to modern publications, I have a fair understanding of the way the villain progresses in contemporary mindsets and I applaud the multifaceted nature of today’s characters.

The genetic material, if you will, that influences this modern villain is based upon a writer’s intended message and their eagerness to draw a reader into a connection with this character. For people out to make big money, the first concern that requires address is the problem of alienating your audience. If the main character of your story is too villainous, then moviegoers or readers will be unlikely to rally behind him or her or connect with him or her in any way. If someone is innately evil or depraved, the general tendency would be to be completely turned off by that character. Without that connection, you are unlikely to create a fandom. By leaving a doorway open that reveals an initial state of being good, you create sympathy for the villain and allow a thread of connection to be drawn between the reader/viewer and the villain being depicted.

The above issue makes sense, but because of the feminist lens through which I have chosen to view these figures (most notably the female villains, of course), I find the catalyst for Maleficent’s villainy to be particularly disappointing. At the absolute base, she allows herself to be fooled by a man and her actions can therefore be reduced to the wailings of a scorned woman. Disney® gets perilously close to this line and I find that rather disheartening. Maleficent is a bad ass. She is way beyond such pettiness. Disney® saves itself by twisting the story and showing that Stephen betrayed her and stole her wings. Because of this, her revenge is justified and stays just beyond the bounds of scorned woman status.

The last influence on these stories follows the idea that the bad guy is always the one whose agenda is opposite of whoever is telling the story. The person who is the villain is the person who doesn’t happen to be narrator. This follows the concept that “history is written by the winners” but that the real story is often buried and lost with the obliteration of the enemy. This concept is one that I have turned around in my head for years and it is one thing that I have always found to be the most fascinating about storytelling because it almost suggests that no one is the villain and everyone is the villain all at the same time.

But perhaps all of my above interpretations are wrong. Perhaps villains who are portrayed as such due to the way society treats/fears them mark an important step towards interpreting the way society functions today. People are cast out and ostracized for any number of reasons: because they are different, because we are jealous of them, because we do not understand them and do not wish to attempt an understanding. This in of itself offers a deeper psychological analysis of the way “regular, everyday” people function and what motivates the,.

Although today’s villains are in fact much more complex and sophisticated in comparison to villains of the past, I cannot help but be reminded of a famous quotation from Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. Richard III expresses the culmination of his frustrations with his position in his family and his unfortunate maladies (of which whose actual formation and situation is left unspecified) when he states,  “And therefore,—since I cannot prove a lover,/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,—/I am determined to prove a villain,/And hate the idle pleasures of these days” (Richard III, Act I. Scene I). Richard III is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the most villainous antagonists in the history of literature. Why, you may ask? Because he lacks motive. The reasons he spouts in this above soliloquy are grossly insufficient for the deeds that he undertakes throughout the course of the play. And I think that, ultimately, it is the dynamic found in this play that leaves today’s villains wanting.

(Found on Google images.)
(Found on Google images.)