This post is the third in a series of 7 Tips for Writing Epic Super Villains. Check out the earlier posts below:
Tip 3. The Villain has to Choose to be Evil
Way back in Tip 1, I told you to forget about the idea that the villain is the hero of their own story, and to have the villain admit that he is evil because he enjoys it and because it gets him what he wants. Here is where we start delving into morality and classic Old Testament style good versus evil.
It comes down to the question of agency. Either the villain is responsible for his own actions, or he’s a victim. Since we’re trying to build epic villains here, we have to choose the first option. Look at it this way, if the villain is compelled to be evil, compelled to harm innocents, compelled to destroy, then can you really say that he’s a villain? His compulsion is what drives him. Sure, you can create a villain who is insane, even homicidally so, but at the end of the day if he’s not choosing his own actions, then he’s a victim. Think of it as building in the “not guilty by reason of insanity” factor in your villain.
As readers, we look at insanity and we can classify it, compartmentalize it, and identify it. There’s no mystery to insanity as far as the reader is concerned. It’s something that is making the villain act the way he is.
However, if the villain chooses of his own free will to do evil, then that really scares us. We are surrounded in our lives by good people. These people choose every day to do good things.
However, when we meet someone who is deliberately causing harm and misery to innocent people, we get frightened. We can’t process that. In fact, we are sorely tempted to say that the evil people in our lives are crazy, or that there’s something wrong with them. That’s what helps us understand evil.
The best villains from a storytelling perspective, are always the ones who choose a dark path, and they do so willingly.
As an example, let’s take a look at Baron Karza from the classic Marvel Micronauts comic book. Once the preeminent engineer and scientist of Homeworld, he discovered the secret to immortality and converted this to political dominance by allowing the rich and powerful to replace their old and failing organs and bodies with those of the lower classes. The middle classes continued to work and save in hopes that they might be able to afford immortality, while the lower classes sold off their own body parts, and gambled to win enough to be able to escape poverty. Baron Karza decided that this wasn’t enough. In a brutal coup, he killed off Homeworld’s rulers and and then ground Homeworld under his boot for a thousand years, also enslaving all of the various races and planets of the Microverse in the process.
Although slain by the Micronauts fairly early in the comic series, he managed to return from the dead by taking over the body of Prince Argon, one of his enemies. Even his armor was enough to corrupt the hero who made the mistake of putting it on. Baron Karza would be killed and rise from the dead over and over again throughout the series.
For our purposes, he illustrates the choice to be evil perfectly. He actually was able to obtain enough power, and enough knowledge, to be offered godhood.
He turned it down.
He wanted to remain human to continue killing and inflicting suffering on others. He is as epic, and as evil, a character as I have ever seen in comic books.
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Tune in again tomorrow for another tip. Same bat-time, same bat-channel. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the tips and the series in the comment area below!