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The Highway to Hell

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 14, 2020
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Unless they are an old-timey Disney villain or similarly classic cartoon villain, nobody wants to be evil or bad starting off. Nobody's ambition is to be the villain in their own story. (note I say ‘villain’ and not ‘antagonist’)

Everyone is out to be the hero.

So why aren't they? Not everyone manages. Where do things go wrong?

As with species' evolution, there is no exact moment of ‘switching’. It's a spectrum of behavioral shifts in small increments:

A visionary seeking to make the world better for everyone starts off pure, and slowly becomes harder, more intolerant of anyone he/she perceives as a threat to the vision of prosperity and peace. He/she keeps seeing themselves as the beacon of light and good, but they steadily walk towards the darkness until they have become a tyrant.

A doctor seeking to cure cancer employs more and more radical methods of research. At first he/she breaks tertiary, unimportant protocols as he/she cuts corners, but soon as he/she seeks to get to the cure ethics give away to horrific experiments without any regard for human life.

A teacher seeking to push students into excellence becomes a little pushy, then demanding, then stern, then brutal, until they become child abusers and not educators.

What is the common denominator to all of these trajectories? Why is the way to hell a highway and not a goatpath?

In my opinion it's a highway because there are no limits to your speed- meaning, people that become villains didn't stop at their drawn ethical lines. They crossed each one until there was none to cross.

If there is a character who thinks that the end justifies the means, then no matter where this character starts off - it could be in frigging heaven - a downfall is definitely in the deck for them, and it can be all the way to hell.

What causes people to break their ethical lines? And does breaking an ethical line (e.g. “I won't steal” or “I won't kill”) always a sign of corruption?

I wouldn't be quick to say ‘yes’. Life has more nuance than that, and there are instances where breaking one's ethical lines is actually done in order for a stronger, more important ethical line not to be crossed that otherwise will be, to the best of that character's knowledge. (e.g. “I will steal stuff from a car engine in order to keep a nazi from using it to catch up to his victims” is not part of the highway to hell)

If, however, the line breaking happens the other way around, then you might be on the highway after all. (e.g. “I will break up that couple and steal the guy/woman because I want that guy/woman” is putting ego and lust/want over other people's free will and peace/happiness)

Do you have characters that start off well enough only to take a dive into villainy later? How does that happen?


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comment

anonymous?

Furwerk studio at 6:19AM, Nov. 17, 2020

I guess I'm the contrarian because I do believe there are absolutes in many cases, that there is good and evil. Honestly, I loath the thinking "everyone is grey" because it feels like an excuse for people to do horrible things, that they can get out of anything with "bad childhood" or "victim of society" and my favorite, "from my perspective you're evil!" But there is a point that there is good and evil actions, I don't care how you slice it in real life stabbing a baby is a very evil act.

Gunwallace at 10:23AM, Nov. 15, 2020

I'm not evil ... I'm just understood.

hushicho at 3:17PM, Nov. 14, 2020

A lot of the time -- a LOT -- it just depends on who you're following and who the writer is presenting as the protagonist, or it should if you write it well enough. Good and evil are almost never absolutes, and the development, the evolution of a character isn't a bad thing. A character can become harsher or kinder in ways that a person in real life may not be able to. It's important to view these characters with the levels they deserve to have.

PaulEberhardt at 11:25AM, Nov. 14, 2020

Curiously, any attempt at a U-turn on this highway is deadly, at least in Hollywood. To my mind that's oversimplifying Christian notions of redemption a bit, but who am I to judge? ;) Personally, I've never been overly fond of stories with too clear-cut notions of good vs. evil - whether consciously or not they tend to go too far down on the motorway to symbolism and preachiness for their own good - but invoking the highway to hell metaphor is a good way to tone this down a bit for people like me. It's at least an attempt at explaining why a villain would stick to being evil even in situations when it's against logic; people do get that set in their ways.

usedbooks at 5:44AM, Nov. 14, 2020

(of course I meant social norms in the earlier comment. Predictive text is a villain.)

usedbooks at 5:42AM, Nov. 14, 2020

My villains don't have a "fall from grace" so much as a different sort of outlook. Raidon is a personal favorite. He's modeled after feudal lords and slave owners. He believes he is inherently better than common folk and therefore should guide/control them. He also has a romantic drive -- combined with that protective/possessiveness, which gives a villain's edge. Another villain is an overcompetitive narcissist driven by a need to be the best (or to be acknowledged as the best), and his followers are drawn in by that power and feed it. Maybe he was brought up wrong (like Violet Beauregard?) but he doesn't have a backstory in my comic. My main characters are not villains but did some pretty awful things and maybe think they are. That is more the slope you mention. They had good reason to cross lines. Over the course, at least one of them got lost entirely.

usedbooks at 5:32AM, Nov. 14, 2020

Sometimes, primal drives push people toward ignoble acts. Humanity exists because of social network norms, but a person isn't obligated to play nice. Some people literally have no empathy. Self-preservation, personal enjoyment, thrills, and "highs" can supercede that. I would say MOST people do have ethical lines and initially "good intentions." But some literally do not. (They are rare cases, but they definitely exist out there. Lack of empathy can be learned but from what I have seen of real life "villains" (I've been watching a lot of true crime), some are basically "born that way." In fiction, I like complex bad guys, so I don't use inherently evil/narcissistic/sociopathic characters (much).

Tantz_Aerine at 4:13AM, Nov. 14, 2020

Oh yes totally, that could happen. A spectrum is a spectrum for a reason :D

Ozoneocean at 9:23PM, Nov. 13, 2020

That's a great way of characterising the path of the development of a character. Taking that highway idea though I think you could extend that... maybe a character goes down a bad path and then comes out of it again to redeem themselves and become a hero again? I love the idea that the path is continious, in that there's not just an end (except for death).


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