Why can’t characters just be evil?

thoughts orangutan

In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort made to humanise evil. Through the rise of anti-hero stories, we seem to put violence on a pedestal, to worship the wicked and praise perversion… Or do we?

nearly got everything peaky blindersYes, there has been more and more of an interest in anti-heroes of late- but when we explore these topics, like in the spate of gangster stories we put on our screens, we still are fully aware that these characters are doing bad things. Indeed, it’s almost written into the formula- if the protagonist seems to be reluctant to engage in misdemeanours, the writers shake up their lives, throw them for a loop and *bam* they’re committing atrocities again. We know full well they’re the bad guy in the story- anti-heroes are just villains in the role of the hero after all- and we’re on board with that.

So does this mean we think evil doesn’t exist? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s like I said, we’re conscious of this character’s role in the story. Indeed, I’ve often been disappointed by an 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 michael corleone godfatherthat the message revolving round the impact of human cruelty was never properly realised. For me, it would have succeeded if it had got the Michael Corleone balancing act from the Godfather right- sure, make the protagonist  understandable, but don’t lose sight of the fact they’re the bad guy!

aslanThe fact we want them to fully realise that core of evil isn’t to provoke chaos in the real world– no, it’s to identify something far deeper than that. You see, there aren’t many “perfect” characters in the history of literature– well apart from lion Jesus 😉 . Even in the biblical tradition, particularly in the Old Testament, people make errors all the time. Why? Because if the cast of the Bible was littered with only perfect people, there would be nothing to aspire to and no mistakes to learn from. We are drawn to complexity. No character can be wholly good, just as no character can be entirely evil.

And this is why we love anti-heroes so much. It’s not because we reject the idea that evil exists. It’s because we get that we have a lot to learn. And sometimes you can learn things from the dark side- the clinical psychologist Dr Peterson often points out that we have to incorporate a little bit of our inner monster in order to succeed: 1) because it’s not heroic to be weak and 2) because we have to be in control of our inner luke skywalkermonster in order to overcome it. That’s why the hero is so often the person that mirrors the villain- they’re the one with the power to defeat the darkness, BUT like Luke Skywalker, they show restraint when it comes to the fight. A hero isn’t someone who’s never tempted- it’s someone who overcomes that temptation. Still- and here’s the kicker- how are we supposed to overcome that inner demon if we don’t understand it? That’s where anti-hero stories come in.

maleficentTo go back to Maleficent, it’s all about trying to puzzle out the causes of evil. Where there was scope in the original was that we didn’t know why the character was evil. While terrifying, Sleeping Beauty Maleficent was never fully developed in terms of what the hell were her motives anyway. Thus here’s the part of the new movie that worked- underneath all her awesome aesthetic, there had to be that pinprick of goodness or she’d continue to come across as a cartoon villain. And, of course, that’s fine- but I think most of us crave a little more complexity.

So I think the real reason a character can’t just be evil is that our hearts rebel against the notion. We barely believe in the Aslans of literature as it is (being lion-Jesus is a little unattainable 😉 ). In the same way a character can’t just be good, we need villains to have a little humanity to work. We’re all a little bit of both after all.

Well, my thoughts got a little rambly there, but what do you think? Where should the line between good and evil be in books? Let me know in the comments!

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53 thoughts on “Why can’t characters just be evil?

  1. …make the protagonist understandable, but don’t lose sight of the fact they’re the bad guy!
    I think that’s a good yardstick. Lots of advice given to waters warns that the villain must also have some redeeming quality or at least least a quality that makes them understandable and so more complex. Real life is like that. No one is completely bad and that should be reflected in our literature and screen productions. That said, I’m never overly comfortable watching a show or reading a book entirely from the villain’s perspective. Sometimes evil is just evil, no matter how writers try to pretty it up!

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    1. Thanks! Yeah that makes a lot of sense. And that’s very true. Totally fair enough. I do really get what you mean there! Sometimes even in programmes I like, I think how am I supposed to relate to this person right now? But I think that’s half the point- we’re not supposed to.

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  2. Hmm…good question really. I think a villain is better if no matter how evil he is, there is still some way you can relate to him or her. I have seen villains in movies for instance that are played so well, that you don’t want them to die. It could be because of a certain character trait, or that the villain has some kind of redeeming quality or a back story that somehow explains the evil.
    I don’t think anyone is just all good. Everyone that is good also has a dark side to them. But…I do think there is true evil. Someone that just simply has not a single fiber in his being that is even remotely good. When it comes to books I think a good example of that is Sauron in the Lord of the Rings. I don’t think there is any kind of line there : he is just evil, pure and simple. Great post as always! 😊😊

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    1. That’s a good point and I agree. I definitely think people are complex and no one is all good. But yeah, there are definitely cases of true evil. I think in some cases it’s only possible to look at the past and go “huh, they didn’t start out that way”. But I do think it’s possible to go so far down a dark path that there’s absolutely nothing good about them… and yet I also kinda believe that it’s possible to find a way back (which is probably a bit naive and over-optimistic) Well, that’s the thing about Sauron as well- much like Satan (particularly Milton’s Satan) he didn’t start out that way (it goes into how he becomes corrupt in the Simarillion)- sure, he gets to the point where he’s basically the embodiment of evil, but I think there’s still some complexity there. Thank you so much! And awesome comment!! 😊

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  3. I think that yes we want to believe there is a “work in progress” somewhere and that there is room for redemption. When you speak about the hero showing restraint against darkness it reminds me of faith. Keeping one’s faith is battling against disbelief. It’s not believing all the time (I think it’s impossible) but when you are losing faith it’s choosing faith, willingly and consciously…Now who is rambling here? LOL Very interesting discussion 😉

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  4. Interesting question. I think we need evil characters sometimes to go against the good. Also, there is evil in the world and maybe if a good character shows what to do in the face of evil, people will take that to heart

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  5. I don’t know, I’m kind of a huge fan of Sauron myself. 😉

    Truthfully, I’ve never been able to really get behind the anti-hero. They’re fine from time to time, I guess, but I’m such a goody-two-shoes that I can’t much relate to anti-heroes a lot of the time. Like, why would they choose to do that when it’s so obviously WRONG. I prefer a flawed hero (too much pride, too much stupid, etc.), but that’s just me.

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  6. Hmm… I think White Witch was a pretty kickass villain, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever – but what made her so compelling was the fact that she was fallible, and had weaknesses – like all humans do. Also, Palpatine was just evil as well, and it seems to me that his impact on the audience was so great exactly because of that 😉 I think that understanding the evil doesn’t make it less evil – and we can’t humanize it any more than it already is, since at least till now it’s been a strictly human category 🙂 (not sure any other sentient beings possess moral categories of good and evil, but probably apes are pretty close to it).

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    1. That’s a great one and a brilliant point! And great point as well 😉 hehe that’s fair. And yes I don’t think there’s anything wrong with understanding it and I think making sense of it is a productive thing to do. hahaha yes apes are pretty close!

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  7. I want all the characters I read about to be as mixed up as possible. I want bad decisions and redemptive arcs and minor characters becoming the hero. The last thing I want is someone who is 100% good (too predictable) or 100% bad (too inhuman, can’t connect). I also can’t stand the “evil – because bad parenting” trope – everyone has choices. Oh and I hate how the good guys are always attractive and the villains aren’t. Give me a sexy death eater any day 😉

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  8. Another great post! I totally agree with your argument, villains are humans (so are heroes) and this must be evident but their capacity for evil shouldn’t be diminished. And this is what happens in reality as well.

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  9. Fascinating post! My feeling is that we, as humans, have both dark and light in our characters so we cannot fully identify with an on screen character that is either a complete, no flaws, perfect hero or with one that is entirely evil. Also the handsome, charming bad guy/gal character is an outlet for the darkness we know we have inside ourselves but are too reserved to let out – without inhibitions, we could be that character…

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  10. Really interesting post! I particularly like your point about how we like to see heroes with a little bit of bad/imperfection in them as well. Heroes that are too perfect sometimes get on my nerves too, and I wish they’d have just a little of bad mixed in 🙂 I must say though there are quite a few fictional villains who are just too awful for me to find anything redeeming about them, and I actually don’t always mind that, because in those cases I can still find them interesting and long to see them to be brought to justice/fail. Still, villains who have more redeeming qualities can be really interesting as well – I do love antiheroes for that exact reason!

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  11. …. Lion Jesus… 😂😂🦁✝️… That killed me. Well, what do you think you’re going to get from a Christian writer??
    And there are some characters that I feel were just evil…. Percy in “the green mile” and Sean Nokes (good ole Kevin Bacon) in “Sleepers” come to mind…. They were just super evil assholes….

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  12. A lot of the time when I root for evil characters (or just anti-heroes) over the heroes it when they have a backstory or a redemption arc I can get behind. In a lot of books if the villain is just there as someone for the hero to try and defeat then I don’t feel for them the same way. I want to see the heroes overcome the villains most of the time, but that’s not to say I want perfect heroes and horrible villains (all morally black or white characters) and that every so often I don’t enjoy books like The Dark Elites, Six of Crows, etc. where the hero is the anti-hero you know?
    Great post. 🙂 ❤

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  13. I agree with you. And though I love Harry Potter with all my heart and soul, as an older reader I can freely admit that Voldemort’s lack of any redeeming human characteristics was a little disappointing. Although, he is the classic textbook case of a remorseless sociopath. Which is also very fascinating to me. Heh.
    I feel like I’m totally contradicting myself, but I genuinely believe there’s room for all shades of evil in literature & media, from more nuanced villains like Magneto, to more I’m-evil-get-over-it characters like Sauron. Anyway, thank you for this thought-provoking post!

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    1. I’m really glad you agree. And yeah, that was one of my biggest problems with the series, even growing up. hehehe true. I do enjoy those too- so funnily enough I prefer him as a villain as an adult 😉
      And yes I really agree with that. Thanks so much for reading!

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  14. This was a good read.. its always nice to be reminded of these things and have some interesting thoughts go through your head whilst reading..
    Makes me think about the psychology of and evil mind…
    Now…the thing with writing is that we get to break the rules and make some people inhuman, and that’s why some of the characters get to be just pure evil…we get to create things we think may not exist..

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    1. Thank you very much!
      And yeah that’s totally fair enough and I actually think having a totally evil character (like Sauron) can be really interesting from a symbolism point of view. That said it can be interesting to explore how they got to that point (like with Sauron)

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  15. I love love this post. And I am all for humanizing the evil. I love it when a character is stuck in the gray and is bias towards black. Of course, I love a few that are totally evil, but rarely that gets done perfectly. And I don’t like evil being evil for evil’s sake, like with no reason. Again Great post.

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  16. I really enjoyed reading this post! I do think we need to not lose sight of the fact that a character is still the bad guy. Anti heroes are great because like you said we can learn things from their dark side. Xx

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