This is topic concept of believable evil in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by rstegman (Member # 3233) on :
A problem we have is making our antagonist believable, to make the reason they are evil to be logical and acceptable. they really should not be evil just for evil's sake.
I came up with a concept today and thought I would use it as a stepping stone.

The antagonist is on fire because of waste energy emanating from the super heros. He has to eliminate the super heroes to return to normal.

In this example, the antagonist is following the logical pathway of the cause of his malady. He is fighting for self preservation and for the opportunity to return to a normal life. I figure he cannot touch anything that is flammable. I assume he has tried to block the energies in many ways, and nothing has worked. He has had the technology to find out exactly what was the cause. I assume he might wear fire proof garments to reduce fires around him. Or it could be that anything other than air on his body burns him. I also might suggest that he cooks the food as he eats it, no ice cream or fresh veggies.
It might even be painful.
Now, he is highly motivated to remove the super heroes from existence.

This is just one example of giving an antagonist a reason for how he is acting. It is logical, and if he was the hero, his actions would be laudable.

Any disagreements?
Posted by wetwilly (Member # 1818) on :

I'm a bit of a history buff, and history is littered with villains who are following the logical steps dictated by an initial flawed premise. If one were to accept the initial premise as true, then the villain's actions would be totally reasonable, maybe even righteous.

Take Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader who erected the initial Berlin Wall. Accept as a premise that Communism is the only way to achieve a balanced and functioning society, and that Capitalism is inherently corrupt, and his actions make sense. His weaker-minded citizens were being lured into a life of corruption by the fascist West, and his fledgling Communist utopia was dying before it got a chance to succeed because of the resulting loss in manpower (not to mention the slanderous Western propaganda against them). Why not build a Wall, so your Communist system has a chance to get a foothold and achieve its potential?

If you accept that the Aryans are genetically superior and the inferior races are destroying humanity's gene pool, then Hitler's actions make sense.


To be clear, I am not saying the Berlin Wall or the holocaust were excusable. Just that they are the logical outcomes of flawed initial premises. In these cases, those initial premises were flawed enough to result in unquestionable evil.

Even the most vile villain is just following the reasonable dictates of his or her warped worldview.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The examples of an inflammatory character [sic] and of Walter Ulbricht illustrate external and tangible motivations and stakes, plus that they are mechanical and of surface value only. Even if nobly and personally intended and directed motivations, albeit wicked, they are a fraction of features that contribute to believability and appeal, even if of villains or nemeses.

A greater and more compelling feature is personal, private, self-interested motivations: moral motivations, vice and virtue, in other words. An inflammatory character who wants to stop the burn is self-interested, of course. A statesperson who wants to wall off a city from external interferences is self-interested. Foregrounding their self-interested motivations without too overtly revealing those and such that readers timely recognize those requires clear and strong implication.

Several passages from The Poetics of Aristotle explicate:

"Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either
of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these
divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral
differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in
real life, or as worse, or as they are." (Chapter II)

"Character is that which reveals moral purpose,
showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which
do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid
anything whatever, are not expressive of character. Thought, on the other hand,
is found where something is proved to be, or not to be, or a general maxim is
enunciated." (Chapter VI)

"A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on
the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and
fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly,
in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the
spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves
neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man
passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the
spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies
the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of
the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy
the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused
by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an
event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the
character between these two extremes, that of a man who is not eminently good
and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by
some error or frailty." (Chapter XIII)

"In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most
important, it must be good. Now, any speech or action that manifests moral
purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good
if the purpose is good. . . . The second thing to aim at is propriety. . . .
Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct
thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. The fourth point is
consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type,
be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent." (Chapter XV)

In summary, character develops due to a character's moral aptitude and character frailties, plus, of course a plot and story, emotion, moral, etc., course that is transformative of movement.

Note that though a hero achieves a comic outcome, in the classic sense of improved conditions. morals most of all, a well-intended, morally ambiguous villain who fails to improve conditions is tragic in the classic sense.

An inflammatory character does indeed have a problem complication; everything touched burns. Why does the character have that complication in the first place? Due to, of drama's necessary moral functions, self-interest.

This inflammatory feature resembles the moral issue on point in the King Miser folk tale. Everything Miser touches turns to gold, tragically, includes his precious daughter. The vice is clear there and of Miser's doing and moral fiber frailty.

For maximum believability and appeal, what then does inflammation represent in moral vice terms? And what is the self-interested cause of that characteristic? Wrath is on point, inflammatory, after all. What's the cause of the wrath? Patience is the virtue opposite of wrath; therefore, impatience is causal. Impatience for what? Self-worth, of course. Poor pitiful fearsome inflammatory character has not, does not, will not receive the quality or quantity of affection the self needs to be emotionally healthy; therefore, the gods give the gift of wrath realized as inflammation to teach the lesson of emotional insecurity hubris. The burn, in other words, alienates totally, utterly consumes any and all possible external self-worth gratification.

Really, what's the story about, such as the above thought processes? Rhetorical question.

[ April 26, 2016, 08:55 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
A problem we have is making our antagonist believable, to make the reason they are evil to be logical and acceptable. they really should not be evil just for evil's sake.
And why should any antagonist be automatically evil? In your example, you give your antagonist no other option than to kill the superheroes that are inadvertently(?) causing him pain. Why is his only viable option to kill? The answer is simple; you require him to be evil in order to fulfil your plot imperative(s). If your antagonist chose to submit, to accept and endure the pain for the greater good then would he not rise above his adversaries and thus ruin your plot? Of course he would.

This is just one example of giving an antagonist a reason for how he is acting. It is logical, and if he was the hero, his actions would be laudable.
I must disagree. What you are saying is that if a character hunts down and kills all his opponents then, if labelled hero, his actions are laudable and yet, if labelled antagonist or villain, the deed is evil. Does this make logical sense?

I put it to you that your 'stepping stone' will result in the same one-dimensional, melodramatic caricatures of evil we all have come to know and love simply because you are not looking at what motivates the antagonist to do what he does, you are simply looking for something to explain why he's done it. That's two different things.

Posted by rstegman (Member # 3233) on :
I believe that if you know why they are doing it, and the action is logical from their view point, there is at least a slight acceptance to why they are doing it.

My example I showed was weak, I do admit.

I am thinking of a story written two ways.

One, you have a nation at war. A "Monster" is doing serious damage to your installations, killing your soldiers and have also killed a few civilians, robbing and stealing all over the place. Your job is to try and track this guy down and stop him.

Same situation, but you have a soldier trapped behind the lines. He is doing everything he can to stay alive until he can get back to his people. He takes what he needs and does as much damage as he can. to the infrastructure . Some civilians have tried to stop him or turn him in and he killed them.

These are still not good examples, but it shows how the point of view is important. Even if one disagrees entirely with the methods, One might accept the actions of the evil one if it is logical with initial reason for the actions.

in essence, if one could make it a morally acceptable action from the antagonist's point of view, one could have the antagonist cooking and eating children and the reader would at least know it is a logical outcome of the initial moral stance. One would not like it, one would know it is wrong, but if done well, the reader would at least say that it is a moral stance from the antagonist's point of view.
In this, the antagonist develops dimension. It is not simply evil, The actions are logical, based on the starting point of the character.
Posted by Scot (Member # 10427) on :
It seems that unless your goal is to explore themes of moral ambiguity, all we really need for the villain is enough motives to make things plausible.

Despite the trend of (re)telling stories to show how the villains were merely "misunderstood"---Wicked, Malificent, Lolita, American Psycho, etc---I think there's something morally ambiguous on a a real-life level when an author indulges a fascination with evil.
Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
I've never subscribed to the "I'm a villain and I glory in behaving badly" theory---I remember one writer had a villain who, partway through the story, indulged in raping another character, but the rape played no other part in the plot far as I could tell. If your villain does evil things, any evil thing, make sure it makes sense in terms of (1) the plot, (2) the character, and (3) the setting.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
I would add or emphasize that personal motivations are easily more substantive matters than impersonal motivations.

A behind-the-front-lines operator ostensibly is under a patriotic persuasion: external, impersonal. Personal motivations might arise from that; however, a congruent though separate personal motivation adds depth and enhances appeal.

Maybe the operator was mistreated as a child and obtains amusements from producing mayhem and murder. Maybe the operator feels guilt and shame for the acts, or not, instead, appreciates a state-sanctioned license to wreak havoc and kill and let off emotional steam. A first cause of the personal motivations is indicated. Whether that's because of mistreatment or some other more morally justifiable cause, the personal motivation establishes and strengthens believeability and verisimilitude and enhances appeal.

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