Villainous Observation

I’m listening to back-broadcasts of the Writing Excuses podcast, and in Season 11, they make an observation about villains. (They tentatively ascribe this observation to Victoria Schwab although they aren’t 100 percent certain.)

The observation is that villains often have a “big picture” motivation for what they do. “In order to save the world, I have to…” “To advance science, I must…” “If I want to improve everyone’s life, I’m going to…” High-level goals are how these villains justify low-level acts of evil: “Murdering a few individuals is insignificant compared to the great things I’m trying to accomplish.”

Heroes, on the other hand, often have small-scale personal motivations. “This villain killed my father.” “If the villains get their way, my friends and family will suffer.” Etc. Paradoxically, such intimate motivations allow a universal connection: any reader can sympathize with someone who wants to avenge their father.

More abstract causes aren’t so easy to connect with emotionally. I may not even agree with a villain’s high-level motivation (do I really want to see America made great again?)…but even if I think what the villain wants to do is admirable, I’m much less likely to continue with, “So it’s okay to commit violence in such a cause.”

I like this observation, and I think it holds true in a ton of fiction: bad guys abstract, good guys personal. I’m passing it on to the readers here, just as something to contemplate.

P.S. But I hate the saying, “The end doesn’t justify the means.” This is often said in the sense of “No end ever justifies any means.” But that’s nonsense. Lots of ends justify lots of means. Cutting people up with knives is usually bad, but if I’m a surgeon performing a life-saving operation, the ultimate goal justifies making careful incisions.

In fact, the end is the only thing that ever justifies any means. Whatever you do, you should have a good reason for doing it; if you don’t, that’s bad.

So I’d rather see the phrase changed to, “Some ends don’t justify some means.” That I wholeheartedly agree with.

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