Back in 2016 I took a look at villains and their motives in a feature that looked at why so many villains want to destroy and/or rule the world and pretty much drew the conclusion that it was a pretty dreadful motivation. Still, it was fairly early days for my blog back then and to be honest I barely scraped the surface of a much larger discussion about villains, so I’m turning my attention back to our monologuing, nefarious foes who sometimes seem only to exist to oppose the hero giving them no agency of their own.
There are plenty of reasons why being a villain in any narrative would suck but here are the three that I think are the most prominent. Feel free to add your own and your examples to the comments as I’m sure there are plenty of villains out there that deserve something more than the untimely end that is usually dropped upon them in the name of narrative convenience.
Reason 1: Heroes get to travel in packs and work with teams whereas the villain is always alone even when surrounded by comrades.
Think how lonely some of our villains must get. Whether we are discussing Beryl from Sailor Moon, Light from Death Note, or a myriad of other villainous characters, these characters are either constantly alone or have minions (servants, pawns, etc). They have no one they can really confide in and no one who really has their back.
Beryl’s minions in the original 90’s Sailor Moon are next to useless and most serve out of fear rather than loyalty, which means when they think they can get away with something, they certainly try it. She opens up more to Darien when he is unconscious than we ever see her open up to those who serve her. She also is looked down upon by the higher power she serves. Basically, she is completely isolated emotionally so it can’t really be seen as surprising that she is as deluded as she is. Then again, this one is a chicken and egg question of whether she became a villain because of social isolation, or if her villainous tendencies isolated her from others. And I know some of this is addressed in the manga and in Crystal, but the 90’s anime wasn’t much interested in the how or why of Beryl, only in turning her into Moon Dust to a catchy 90’s pop-rock song.
In shorter form (otherwise this post will go forever), Light really only has Ryuk to confide in given he essentially looks down on all humans and the one human he kind of semi-respects is actually trying to catch him. While he does work with Misa and later others, he keeps them at arms length and they never are privy to his full plans.
Reason 2: The questionable fashion choices.
Seriously, why do people feel that just because someone is crazy and wants to destroy the world that they would start with their own sense of fashion?
Okay, there is the occasional villain who gets to look suave and pretty well put together, and anime also has its fair share of heroic fashion disasters, but villains just never seem to catch a break here. Alright, more the issue is that villains seem to morph into monstrous creatures or twist their facial features into unrecognisable masks of pure horror, but still, is there any rule that says an anime villain can’t be adorable?
Pride is a good choice in terms of what I mean. He’s an evil little kid (well not really a little kid but you get it) from Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood and in his human form he’s kind of cute. He can play cute really well. But then you get one of those looks. Yep, you know the look I am talking about. And then you get his other form. There is nothing cute about that. Yeesh.
Reason 3: The audience expects way too much from their villains.
Heroes are heroes because they want to stop villains. They are heroes because they protect the innocent and their friends. When you ask a hero what their goal is and they say to save the girl, stop the bad guy, protect the school, you accept that as a suitable motivation. Very occasionally you might ask why they want to save the girl but most people agree that girl saving is fairly decent character motivation.
However turn it around. The villain wants to kill that girl, abduct that boy, destroy that city. The audience will immediately ask why. And then, when the get the motive, such as kill the girl because she turned him down in high school or whatever, suddenly that is trite. It isn’t good enough. Shallow motivation comes the cry from the critics.
No one ever claims the hero wanting to save the girl because she one time made him lunch is being shallow. Okay, I’ll amend that statement. I can think of at least three bloggers who would. Very few people would call that shallow. We don’t question acts of decency and kindness. But we want our acts of villainy to be perfectly justified. And don’t even try to get away with the villain being bad just because they enjoy it. No, no, no, no, no. The audience won’t swallow that. There must be some angsty back story or reason. No one was ever just complete jerk because they chose to be.
The double standard to which we hold hero and villain motivations baffles me as I find some heroes really insufferable because they do good because they can, or because the writer decided it fit with whatever moralistic message they wanted to shove into the story. They seemingly have no other reason. Whereas, I’m kind of okay with villains that just want to smash things to pieces as long as they are upfront that this is all they are trying to accomplish and they don’t try to pretend like there is a deeper reason. Other people are the opposite readily accepting the good deeds of heroes while nitpicking every move and word the villain makes.
It doesn’t help that heroes usually get three-quarters of a season to establish their motive and moral compass whereas villains generally get about three scenes. An establishing scene, a mid-way point, and the scene right before they die. There are exceptions, as there are in all things, but there is definitely a pattern here.
So remember, be nice to the villain of the story.
It is hard being a villain. No one likes you, your hair probably sucks, you shed your skin and humanity at the drop of a hat (even if only symbolically), and everyone questions your motives. To top all of that off, you are almost always going to lose at the end of the day. You are fighting a losing battle, doing it without friends and probably surrounded by too much purple. If you are really lucky your theme song will be cool and maybe your laugh won’t be too over the top psychotic. It is a hard life, and probably a short one. But most stories rely on the villain to at least keep things moving so we probably should remember the vital role they play even while we critique them to death.
Thanks for reading.
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