Aug 30, 2011

question of the day

The question of the day, as I dig deeper into revisions for my Southern gothic novel, is this:

In case you can’t read my loopy writing, the page asks What makes a man evil?
I’ve wrestled with this question often. I think many of us have. It’s hard to imagine what would drive a person to lead or even participate in atrocities like the Third Reich and the Khmer Rouge.
Is it because bad things happened to them? I know many people who’ve experienced terrible things in their life, but they haven’t become evil over it. This leads me to believe that, in some ways, being evil is a choice. But why choose it?
This is the quandary that has me beating my head against the desk as I strive to delve into the emotional lives of my villains. I would welcome any further thoughts below, if you're brave enough to delve into this deep topic!


  1. I love it when villains truly believe what they're doing is the right thing, that it's bettering the world in some way. Their methods are evil, but they think it's the right path. It makes them seem more like real people then, instead of just some evil dude twirling a mustache and laughing maniacally.

  2. For sure! I was talking about this with my husband last night and he said something to the effect of, "Evil men don't believe they're evil." I do wonder if this statement is absolutely true though. I can believe people getting numbed to their actions to a certain point. But Hitler? Pol Pot? Sometimes the things people do are so atrocious that I can't wrap my mind around any possible scenario in which they think they are good! Is there some point where people accept their evil and revel in it?
    It makes me think of Sayid at the end of Lost. Although I didn't really like the "zombification" of his character, I did think the show's writers brought up some good points as to the nature of our capacity for darkness.

  3. What about simply making other people hurt like you do? We do this everyday, when we lash out at others because we are hurting ourselves. It's a cliche in writing that the villain causes pain because they've been hurt, but there's a point where you become numb and simply don't care. If you're numb, making other people hurt is sometimes the only way to feel something yourself.

    There are also complete sociopaths, who literally don't understand right and wrong. If everything is arbitrary, there is no darkness. There are only things beneficial to yourself, or things that provoke a reaction.

    My favorite villains (in fiction) are always the strong ones. The ones that are personally powerful enough to disregard conventional morality, and do what they want to because they can get away with it. They aren't always concerned with greater conquest, but sometimes just want to create chaos, and see the world burn because they can. I always find them the most chilling because in their complete moral freedom, they are the least human.


  4. I was actually discussing this very thing earlier today. Sometimes I wonder if people do horrible things because they're angry and afraid. I think there are people who do horrible things because they want to be in control - they've lost it in their own lives in some major way, so they want to find a way to control others to make them feel powerful. There is nothing like deep-rooted, soul-corroding anger to make someone behave in unspeakable ways. But I also think you're probably right: right and wrong is, to a certain degree, all a matter of perspective. I think that people who do evil things have often convinced themselves that it's not evil at all.

  5. Greg- Good points, on all accounts. What you said made me think of Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. He is such an amazing villain because he's so utterly unpredictable and without a moral compass. Watching that movie always makes me think about the villains I create...

    Kate- The control thing is also a good point. It probably ties into Greg's point that we hurt others when we get hurt ourselves. When we lose control we want to take it from others.

  6. Ryan,
    Yeah, I couldn't help but think of Heath Ledger's the Joker too. There's nothing more terrifying that something you don't understand, and that you can't stop. There's a reason they keep calling him a force of nature: being hurt by the Joker probably feels similar to having your home flooded or being caught in a storm at sea.