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.

Sharing: October 9, 2018

More things I like:

Events: The Norfolk County Fair
I dropped the ball on this because I should have made the recommendation a week ago when the fair was actually open. Or perhaps I should have made the recommendation a month ago when you could have decided, “Hey, that looks like fun!” and then picked a date to go. Sorry about that. But the Norfolk County Fair is exactly what a county fair should be: a midway full of rides, booths full of junk food, and barns full of cows, horses, rabbits, chickens, etc. You can see giant pumpkins, try to win a stuffed animal at games that are probably rigged, and buy apple cider straight from the farmer. I’ve been going to the fair for decades; I wouldn’t miss it.
Book Series: The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
This series comes to mind because I spent last weekend at VCON in Vancouver, where I got to hang out with Charlie a fair bit. The Laundry Files series is funny, and icky, and full of surprises. It’s also a shining example of a long-running series that has never fallen into a rut—every book brings something fresh to the table and keeps events moving forward. The series never flinches from doing the next thing, even if that means…well, having the world taken over by Lovecraftian horrors. (Quick summary of the series: a British intelligence agency fights the apocalypse. Spoiler: eventually, they lose.) The next book in the series, The Labyrinth Index, comes out October 30 and the advance material I’ve seen looks great.
Podcast: Writing Excuses
Writing Excuses is a long-running podcast about writing, jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler…plus a number of guest contributors, almost all of whom are also writers. The podcast is in its 13th year, running like clockwork every week. It’s full of good talk about writing: an excellent resource for writers of all levels of experience, from beginners to professionals. If you’re a writer, it will teach you things and get your juices flowing. Well worth listening.