by Janis Patterson
I admit it. I’m a cartoon junkie. I love watching weird little animated creatures dancing across the screen in all kinds of improbable story lines. In my opinion, the older cartoons are preferable, with better storylines. And better art. Give me a Rocky and Bullwinkle marathon and I am in pure heaven.
Something I have never understood, though, is the villain – human, hybrid, alien or animal – shouting that he is doing whatever he is doing solely for the sake of evil. Skeletor of the lamented He-Man franchise did that a lot.
Now I believe in evil. I know it is real, and I’ve actually seen it a time or two. But I must also believe that doing something solely for the sake of evil makes no sense, at least not in a mystery or thriller novel. Even the darkest dye villain does what he does for a reason, and in my opinion doing evil just for the sake of evil is not a reason. People do bad things, yes, and they do them for money, or power, or love, or some distorted and ugly thing in their brain, but to them it is a logical (sort of) and effective way to fulfill their vision… whatever twisted form that might take.
For example, a man who slaughters a schoolbus load of children is definitely evil, but is he doing it solely for the sake of purposefully serving evil? Or is he doing it to get publicity so that people will have to think of him? Or to avenge a real or perceived wrong? The end result is the same, but that’s a totally different thought process and rationale.
We believe in and accept heroes because in our culture it is accepted that it is right and desirable to do the ‘right’ thing. As a people we find it difficult to believe that one can do evil simply for no other reason than it is evil, and therefore we must attribute motives and desires to our villains. This renders them understandable to us – in our minds, at least.
But in our books do our villains really do evil, or do they merely go after what they want in a way that is unacceptable to our culture? Does the villain rob the store simply because we are not supposed to rob stores, or is it because they want something the store has – goods or money or whatever? Or, in a horrible extension, the life of someone in the store, perhaps in return for some real or perceived slight? Perhaps when looking in the news media you find stories of someone saying they wanted to do a crime just to have done one, or some similar rationale of evil, but that is real life. We deal in fiction, and fiction has rules. Real life doesn’t.
Genre writers have worked long and hard to make their heroes (and heroines) real and believable people with flaws and dreams and quirks. We can do no less for our villains, for if we don’t we run the risk of having our corporate raider morph into Snidely Whiplash, a two-dimensional sketch who twirls his mustache and threatens to foreclose the mortgage. Just pick the villainish cliché of your choice.
A hero who is real deserves an antagonist who is real, and it is our job as writers to make them both as believable as possible.