Some of the most dangerous people in human history have been those who nurse terrible grudges and have the power to inflict their own psychological pain onto the world at large. Us writers and fans of fiction like to discuss whether villains in a given work are “realistic” or not. The bulk of this assessment has to do with a given villain’s motivation: if the reason for evil actions is not believable, then audiences won’t take the story as seriously as the writer intended.
There is a common cliché stating that a villain does not think of himself as the bad guy. This is, generally, an accurate assessment that is true to life. Did Adolf Hitler think of himself as “the bad guy”? Did Josef Stalin? Mao Zedong? Osama bin Laden? Napoleon Bonaparte? Saladin? You get the idea.
Some actors throughout history—and fiction—are pure evil, and revel in the acts of destruction and death. Jeffrey Dahmer knew how screwed up and evil he was, but he still couldn’t stop eating his gay lovers.
This sort of evil, the reveling in bad for bad’s sake, might be described as “cartoon evil” versus some of the subtler kinds we see in everyday life. For the sake of fiction, cartoon evil works very well because writers and audiences like the drama heightened and exaggerated—it gives us a rush and can often be very fun. Further, when a villain is so evil, it makes their comeuppance all the sweeter.
What if, as a writer, you’re looking for a different angle? What if the proverbial mustache-twirling, tying-a-lovely-young-damsel-to-the-train-tracks type of antagonist just isn’t working out for you?
Glad you asked! Perhaps, if you’re looking for additional motivating factors for your villains, you could just take a look around these United States.
The State, which manufactures by dint of textbooks all these persons possessing diplomas, can only utilise a small number of them, and is forced to leave the others without employment. It is obliged in consequence to resign itself to feeding the first mentioned and to having the others as its enemies. From the top to the bottom of the social pyramid, from the humblest clerk to the professor and the prefect, the immense mass of persons boasting diplomas besiege the professions. While a business man has the greatest difficulty in finding an agent to represent him in the colonies, thousands of candidates solicit the most modest official posts. There are 20,000 schoolmasters and mistresses without employment in teh deparment of the Seine alone, all of them persons who, disdainign teh fields or the workshops, look to the State for their livelihood. The number of the chosen being restricted, that of the discontented is perforce immense. The latter are ready for any reovlution, whoever be its chiefs and whatever the goal they aim at. The acquisition of knowledge for which no use can be found is a sure method of driving a man to revolt.Gustave le Bon, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind”
We have a glut of the overeducated with elite ambitions. They are not always elite material, but they sure are elitist.
You know the type: went to a “good” university; majored in something like political science or journalism; likely moved to Washington, D.C., or maybe New York City, with dreams of getting involved in media, electoral politics, or both; got a low-paying job at a “prestigious” think tank, or works for peanuts in some Congressman’s office; and has nothing but sneering contempt for the sort of people they ostensibly serve.
Furthermore, this type of individual always thinks that they are entitled to far more than they are given. Why? Because in all actuality, they got involved in government/politics/media because they, quite literally, weren’t good enough to do anything else.
Sure, this person might be bright. They might even have an objectively high IQ. However, their ambition exceeds their skills, and their work ethic may leave something to be desired. Further, for a multiplicity of reasons, be they family connections and wealth or favorable demographic trends, this person deep down might know that they really don’t deserve their position and didn’t actually earn it.
And it eats them up inside.
They have the “right” degree, but it’s useless. They know the stuff all “good” people are supposed to know, but nobody cares. Recognition and money aren’t coming their way, and it hurts. So this sort of person loves nothing more than to wield what power they do have over those they see as lesser. Or those who are actually excellent at a thing. And woe to them if it’s a thing the mediocrity has pretensions of excellence in.
This leads to all sorts of nasty outcomes.
It doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to graft this sort of person into a work of fiction; even fantasy or sci-fi would only take a small amount of tweaking. The resentful mediocrity is universal and eternal, and in the absence of places to channel their energy, they decide to take out their insecurities and neuroses on regular people.
Some call this “biological Leninism,” the idea that genetic losers, so to speak, want to restructure society so that they are actually the most attractive. Whatever you call it, the idea that resentful mediocrities attempt to bring society down to their level, or normalize whatever weird and deviant things they are into, instead of improving themselves, results in much villainy.
And this villainy can hit very close to home.
Enough about bad guys! How about next time we talk about heroes?