I dislike the concept of ‘pet peeves’ but when it comes to fiction, we all have things we hate to see; things that make us want to throw a book across the room or snort a line of red pepper flakes. I’m pretty well-known for being vocal about writing trends I hate, so one day soon I plan on writing a post about things in fiction I adore. My sister and I have been on a Michael Ironside kick, so we’re watching through a bunch of 80’s/90’s movies and a few days ago I realized she’d never seen ‘Scanners,’ a trippy but delightful David Cronenberg sci-fi thriller from 1981. The movie has plenty of writing flaws, of course; but we were watching for the villain, Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside). A ‘Scanner’ (someone with abnormal mental abilities like telepathy, telekenesis), he’s trying to bring down a corporation who ‘adopts’ the main character (also a Scanner). The only issue with Daryl as a villain is the fact he’s actually….right about almost everything. He reveals the main character’s backstory, tells him how he was manipulated and used, explains why ConSec (the corporation) is evil, how they made Scanners and tried to cover it up, etc. and we’re given no reason to believe he’s lying. His goal is to find Scanners and get them to band together against the people who either want to kill or use them. But he’s Clearly a Bad Guy because he Kills Some People, Amirite? Except most of the people he killed were trying to kill him, and ConSec has killed Scanners, too, so…
See what I mean? Sometimes the villain is actually more of a hero than the main character, but the story refuses to acknowledge that the villain might Sometimes Be Right. This is bad writing, unless you’re actively trying to point out narrative bias. It happens pretty frequently. I remember wanting to pull my hair out when I watched the pilot episode for Inhumans (granted, there were….a lot of reasons to want to pull my hair with that travesty) because the ‘villain’ was demonized for holding the stance that ‘Um, guys, humans are /this close/ to discovering we live here and you aren’t doing anything about it.’ The same thing frequently happens in Superhero shows/movies, like Supergirl, The Black Panther, etc. where the villain, if not totally correct, actually has extremely good points to make but because he’s The Bad Guy, those points are ignored in favor of the heroes being all….Hero-ey.
The strange thing is that most authors/television producers don’t seem to realize they’re doing it. They’re so caught up in the concept of ‘EVERY DECISION THE HERO MAKES MUST BE THE RIGHT ONE’ that they forget what’s actually right and wrong, what makes narrative sense and what doesn’t. There’s a difference between writing a sympathetic villain and writing a villain who’s right. Your villain, if you’re writing them correctly, should be a three-dimensional character with their own viewpoints. If you want them to be Total Evil (i.e. Sauron) then go right ahead; but if you want them to be complex and sympathetic, you have to flip the narrative and understand their point of view. Prince Nuada is a villain because he wants to raise the Golden Army and attack humans; but humans broke their treaty with his father and have shoved all the fey underground to die. Even the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series had some pretty darn good points to make, while Batman, presented as the hero, consistently broke the law, endangered civilians, and was frankly kind of a danger to society. (I’m not a Joker sympathizer, just pointing out weaknesses in various stories.)
Almost every time this concept of ‘The villain is only a villain because the writer was biased for the hero’ is present, it has to do with killing. But here’s the thing—people die constantly in fiction. The hero can cause a thousand off-screen deaths, but suddenly becomes The Better Person when they refuse to kill the villain ‘because that’s murder,’ whereas a villain who actively fights for his own cause and does what he must never makes such hypocritical excuses.
Heroes aren’t perfect and villains aren’t always wrong. Not all villains are sympathetic or correct, of course; but please, whatever you do, don’t accidentally make your villain more reasonable than the hero. You don’t want people doing what my sister did, which is walk into my room the morning after we watched the movie and cry, “HOW ON EARTH COULD THEY MAKE HIM THE VILLAIN? DID THEY THINK WE JUST WOULDN’T NOTICE HE WAS RIGHT?”