Why Unrealistic Evil Archetypes are so Successful

Discussion in 'General Fantasy' started by Richard Falken, Aug 5, 2016.

  1. Richard Falken

    Richard Falken The Best Epic Literature Ever Written.

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    I posted this in my website, but I thought I could share it here for the sake of discussion.

    Why Unrealistic Evil Archetypes are so Successful
    August 05, 2016 — Richard Falken

    There is a trend among fantasy fans regarding the demand for deep, developed, fleshed out villains in fantasy fiction. Nowadays, many readers want writers to create villains with realistic motivations, solid backgrounds that explain why they perform their evil deeds, and relatable traits. According to this takeview on the subject, characters that are evil just because are a sign of lazy storytelling, are boring and are unrealistic.

    Many fantasy or mythological creatures are bad just because it is in their nature. Demons and gods of darkness are expected to be evil because they would not be good even if they were given the opportunity to be. A demon is not a member of an oppressed class, he didn't have a rough childhood, he was not recruited by a gang at a young age. He was born from the fabric of pure darkness and darkness is all that he is. However, the human worshippers of these black forces are a different matter. There must be a reason why the Mean Wizard of the Week turned to the Dark Side. He was not born from pure darkness, so he must have been a member of an oppressed class, or had a rough childhood, or was forced to survive in a gang infested town, right? If the writer is not able to explain to the audience why the Mean Wizard of the Week chose to be so, it must be because he didn't want to think about it, and hence he is a lazy author, isn't he?

    The truth is obviously not so simple.

    Fact is that villains that have no realistic or developed motivations at all are extremely popular in entertaining media, but it is hard to demonstrate that their motivations are lacking because their creators were lazy. When you define a complexBad Guy of the Month for a story, you need to provide him with goals and motivations, and it is very easy to make a mistake and alienate your readers because of this. I suspect many authors consciously use simple villians because of this.

    Take, for example, the generic Alien Invader. He is inhuman, he is covered in nasty fluids, makes weird sounds and is ugly. He kidnaps people and uses human beings to lay eggs in them. He acts like that because that is what nasty aliens are supposed to do. Readers will automatically understand that and accept it. The valiant heroes have enough of a justification for beating the life out of him, his family and his whole civilisation.

    Now consider the second example. The Agorist Gunrunner. He was framed by a crime he didn't commit and lost his faith in law. His wife left him, and when he went out of jail there was no family waiting for him. He was never given a job. He then tried to open a gun factory, but he could not sell guns enough in the white market to sustain the business, so he started making hyper-technological weapons and selling them in the black market. He now sells weapons to radical constitutionalist militia groups, and exports weapons to countries were there are no gun licenses for civilians. It is clear that the heroes must destroy his business of weaponry... Our glorious Interpol heroes will take care of him!

    What is the problem with the second example? Well, the problem is that the following readers now hate you for writing "such rubbish":
    • Left-wing Agorists and other market anarchists.
    • American right-wing constitutionalists.
    • Militia members of different ideological signs.
    • Gun manufacturers.
    I highly dislike books in which I like the villain more than I do like the heroes... when you think the villain is right and the heroes are wrong, the book is upside down. The story turns around and is not about brave heroes chasing a dangerous evil mastermind. It is about a bunch of thugs that think they are right chasing a person you agree with. When the inevitable end happens and the thugs defeat this character you like and know to be in the right side, you feel cheated and think the book and its author are unfair and should burn in the Hell of Árelor.

    The underlaying issue is that once you start giving evil characters complex goals, personalities and motivations, you have a chance of alienating your audience against you if they agree with the villain and not with the heroes. This does not happen with simplistic enemies like the Alien Invader. This alone is enough justification for opting for such Bad Guys in certain circumstances, even if you could come up with something more fleshed out.

    My recommendation is to create villains that are evil just because they like being evil, but to give them distinct personalities and traits that are realistic and relatable. This allows to have the best of both worlds: an enemy that will be identified as such universally by every member of the audience, and a deep character to please the readers that don't want a cardboard villain.
     
  2. Firiath

    Firiath Halfling barbarian

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    But what about cases in which that is what the author wants? Because it questions the duality of good and evil, which, personally, I find much more interesting than an inherently evil villain who simply just does evil for the sake of doing/being evil. After all, there is no such duality in real life, and sure, fantasy is not about real life - but why can it not be so?
    I can only speak for myself, but I am really interested in villains you can - at least to some degree - identify with or understand. Those characters show that it isn't always so easy to point the finger and call someone 'evil', and might even make readers reflect this artificial duality. :)
     
  3. Richard Falken

    Richard Falken The Best Epic Literature Ever Written.

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    It sometimes works, but you have to be good at it. Darth Vaders and Raistlins are not that common. If your heroes are uninteresting you will have a complete anti-climax at the moment the awesome villian is defeated by flimsy characters. It really feels unfair to the readers.
     
  4. JNC

    JNC New Member

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    I don't think all pure evil villains are unrealistic. In real life there are those who would do wrong just for the sake of it - which also reminds me of novels such as The Black Cat or William Wilson by Allan Poe, though this is fiction. In any case, villians that are evil by nature have been depicted in many epic-fantasy sagas, like The lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time, and it has worked. Just as Richard Falken has pointed out, one has to be careful when creating a villain that is way more amazing than your own heroes.
     
  5. Turambar

    Turambar Harebrained Staff Member

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    Well, I mean, I disagree. But, why, really? Sorry for poking a bit, but that's just a preference. But, while we're at it, here's my reason.

    Humans are inherently good, if not sometimes selfish. That's just about the worst trait people can posses. Most, if not all, real world tyrants genuinely believe that they are acting in the best interest. No one sees himself as a force of evil. Or, the evil they do might be ameliorated by other personality traits and actions. Now, I agree that if any genre might deviate from what we consider normal, it must be fantasy. But even then.

    There's nothing really interesting about a force of evil for the sake of evil. I am convinced that creating anything beyond that trope enriches a story. There's a wealth to explore when the final boss ends up having an interesting, even relatable back story. Or if the villain comes from the same ranks as the hero, but ends up taking decision that appeared to be quite excellent at the time but end up, let's say, killing millions of people. There's literally nothing to explore in that sense if the end boss simply acts against generally held humane values.

    There are a few exceptions, of course. But those are either of the limited sentience monster variety - or the cosmic horror types. I suppose those are fine to explore, although it would be hard to try anything new at this point.

    I also oppose the Good = Win trope, which I find to be related. Good and evil is not a matter of black and white in the first place. Often, it takes a lot of mindless murdering to get to the evil boss in the first place - at which point you should be wondering how good exactly the good guys are. Assuming murder is still a bad thing. But, for all intents and purpose, what's the point of evil if they don't sometimes win in the end? Evil people do sometimes get away with it. Or, end up killing the hero of your story. Maybe there's this good guy who, for the sake of staying on the straight and narrow, loses out on the advantage and dies as a consequence.

    My point is that, unless there is (a) God(s) watching over morality and favors the good, there's very little sense in all these fantasy tropes. But the thing is, many of us, deep inside, feel that there is. That if we do good, we will be favored. And that there is an inherent unsavoury injustice done when what we perceive to be evil ends up winning. Like people genuinely do believe that the allied forces winning WWII is a manifestation of destiny. And, to be honest, that little snippet of history only enforced our feelings towards this notion.

    But, no. Let me invite you to explore why a villain more interesting than the heroes makes for a bad book (or story).
     
  6. Sparrow

    Sparrow Well-Known Member

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    From a purely Evolutionary perspective, we are neither inherently good or bad; we're at all times both moral and immoral in whatever measures needed to survive and breed, or as social and environmental pressures dictate.

    The biological answer is that we have evolved behaviors that increase our chances of survival and reproduction. When in a stable and safe environment, when resources are plentiful or at the least adequate, enough food in our bellies, having a biology of morality sustains our place in the community of humans who help ensure our biological imperatives. In highly stressful, resource poor environments, we'll step on whoever is in front of us if it helps us survive. The exceptions to this rule are the five percent of the population who are found to not have an oxytocin response and are pathologically selfish like say, Donald Trump, and another few percent who are nearly pathologically virtuous. The rest of us vacillate between good and evil. 10,000 years of "civilization" proves this out. I see it as we're emotional slaves to our immediate surroundings. Right now I'm thoughtful, considerate, all-and-all a decent person. But then I have that luxury of being those things because of circumstances, most of which are pure luck. What would I be like if I were a Syrian living in modern day Syria?

    Do you consider yourself "good"?.. would you behave in a morally upright manner if the screws were put to you?

    I think fictional stories that are ambivalent and contradictory toward good and evil are the best, at least those books tend to stick with me long after the reading. Books like Conrad's, Heart of Darkness, or Kipling's, The Man Who Would be King. Good men betraying their better nature, and doing bad things.
    There's some modern fantasy that does it pretty well, but I don't come across it very often.
     
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  7. Turambar

    Turambar Harebrained Staff Member

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    Spoken like a true Dauther of Hell :)

    Well, I don't know. I try to do better than neutral, and I am not sure whether I am succeeding. Would I behave in a morally upright manner if the screws were put to me? I don't know. That question is so ambiguous that I can't answer it. Possibly maybe? I don't know.

    But, in the end, we agree - so that's okay :)
     
  8. LeSaint

    LeSaint New Member

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    I'm in the prosess of writing my final chapters of a fantasy and my villians are thoroughly rotten.

    Its has only been recently that the thought that my villians are one (or is it two) dimensional has occured to me. The odd thing is I have made an effort to make my good guys multidimensional, but I have neglected my bad boys. Maybe I can use my neglect of them as their motivation for being rotten.

    To say that I'm lazy after working on this book for more twenty years would hurt my feelings. Actually I do have a streak of laziness, but this not the real reason for not wanting to flesh out my characters. I simply have very little idea of how to do it without making my story more complicated and thus alienating the reader.

    Right now I'm taking some solace from one of my literary heros Stephen R. Donaldson and his villian Lord Foul.

    As far as I can recall no one has ever called him on his portrayal of Lord Foul.

    Personally, I have no problems with him keeping Lord Foul in the background.

    If any of you have any thoughts on how I can do better I like to hear them.:shield:
     
  9. MattII

    MattII Member

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    Well Pratchett found a loophole in that most of his villains (all of the human ones at least), as psychopaths, and thus don't follow the same set of rules as the rest of the population, while at the same time, removing any need for an in-depth back-story. And yet, even within that there is variation. Some villains, like Carcer Dun, Lily Weatherwax, Lord Hong, etc want power while others like Jonathan Teatime, Pin & Tulip, Stratford, etc seem content to be hired by the big bad(s). And even within these, there are variations. Lily Weatherwax and Lord Hong positively grab at power, while Carcer Dun and Vorbis are content to play the long game, while of the 'underling villains', Pin & Tulip and Stratford seem to be lone operators, while Jonathan Teatime seems quite ready to hire a gang, even if he's capable of doing most of the work himself. Sometimes we get a trifling of backstory, but other times not. And you know what, it doesn't matter, because the real art is in writing the villain to begin with, backstory is just fleshing out.

    This of course doesn't apply to the non-human villains like the Elves, Auditors, etc
     
  10. David2016

    David2016 New Member

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    I find it better when there's a bit of a mix - a truly evil villain with maybe an understandable backstory. Or when you truly don't know their motivations. Its a tricky balance though isn't - in some of the Terry Goodkind books I almost want to vote for the villains because the main character becomes so endlessly right. Its obviously your really just reading Goodkinds own opinions :/
     
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  11. Lanko

    Lanko New Member

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    I agree with Sparrow.

    And evil for the sake of evil can work pretty well. Most people will say "no one is truly right", about "shades of grey", "everything has nuances", and etc, but just wait until a delicate discussion, like politics, economics, religious and etc pops up and you will see how quickly a lot of people will turn everything into pure Black and White.

    If we apply that thinking to real people, no wonder it can resonate with fictional characters.
     
  12. MattII

    MattII Member

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    Another thing to think about is that many ancient cultures had different morals to our own. Take, for example, a Spartan hoplite and make him immortal. How would he react to our world? This is a man who is a chauvinistic (by modern standards) slaver with little regard for the lives of others. He's also probably homosexual, and not afraid of showing skin (the original Olympic athlete competed naked), but those would be minor traits in comparison.