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Becoming the Beast

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 25, 2024

Humans can be scary, fascinating, mysterious creatures. Humanity is capable of the most amazing feats of compassion and the most debased acts of cruelty. And not necessarily at opposing ends of the spectrum. The same person can be compassionate in one context and appallingly cruel in another. They may not even realize they're being cruel until after the fact. Or, unfortunately, they often do and the impact of that hits them after the context in which they manifested cruelty is gone- with all the psychological havoc that may potentially wreak.

Other times, the only thing stopping a person from becoming atrociously callous and coldly cruel is the fear of repercussion, whether that is social scrutiny or actual legal consequences. How many of us know people that don't do certain things only because they don't want to be arrested?

On the other hand, there's also many people that do what is right (or what they believe is right) whether they're being watched or not. The usual twitter facepalm debate of religion acting as an agent of ethics (i.e. the “why don't you murder people if you're an atheist” drivel) stems right from this notion that many people would do anything if they could get away with it, and don't because they believe they'll get their comeuppance by the divine if, by some kind of luck, they aren't caught while on this earth. The facepalm debate though neglects to account for the people that won't stoop to murdering anyone even if they could get away with it on this life and the next, even if there is or is no god, and so on.

And that brings us to today's character building (or character development) notion: how does one become the beast?

There are many theories about whether humans are good, evil, or mostly morally neutral with a propensity for good

That's also where the nature vs. nurture debate is tossed in the mix, and a whole lot of other things (looking at you Bronfenbrenner ) that make the debate of what humans are born a question of your personal opinion, experiences, existential approach, and spirituality.

So for the purposes of this article and because I'm the one writing it, and I believe everyone is born good- yes even monsters like Hitler and Pol Pot- how does one start off good and end up a beast?

There are many routes to that, unfortunately for real life, but fortunately for fiction, since the character design of a terrible villain can have a fascinating background that doesn't necessarily require humanizing them.

Yes, some villains become so because they enact the terrible trauma and abuse they experienced themselves as victims, and now, as adults, repeat it and perpetrate it to other victims as a way to a) take revenge they can't get from their victimizers and b) indirectly justify their abusers as doing something that is acceptable, since they are now engaging in it too.

But other villains become so without having shockingly terrible childhoods: they may simply have become so because everyone indulges them and teaches them that lashing out at the slightest frustration is the way to get satisfaction and what is expected of them (in that, Hobbes was right). Such a villain will be extremely impulsive, very demanding, and have a terribly short fuse.

Yet other villains may have become so as a result of a grooming process- their parents have raised them to be evil simply because they quenched every element of compassion and instinct of cooperation there normally exists. Teaching a child that everyone is a tool to be used is, unfortunately, a very common way to create amoral, callous, cold individuals that will do anything necessary to achieve a goal, even if that amounts to staggering atrocities (genocide included).

And there's a type of villain that is progressively corrupted because of slight, little steps towards breaking moral barriers. This one starts off as a good/heroic guy and slowly devolves into someone that keeps crossing lines until there comes a line that, once crossed, there is no turning back.

That's why the Portrait of Dorian Gray is such a fascinating work of fiction- the young man we begin with is pure (or at least seems pure) and with the promise of a weird type of impunity (having an advantage over his peers that in his eyes made him superior to them) he gets more and more corrupt, until there's nothing in his portrait, but a beast.

What route did your villains follow?

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Tantz_Aerine at 2:21AM, May 26, 2024

Ozoneocean: I agree!!! That's my favorite too. I just couldn't find a good gif of it...

mks_monsters at 4:24PM, May 25, 2024

The route my villains tend to take is that they were always bad, but slowly yet surely, they try less and less to hide it until they don't.

PaulEberhardt at 2:37PM, May 25, 2024

@bravo: Ok. Point taken. In this particular context, it's kind of comforting that they're just better at covering up their evil deeds, isn't it? 😉

Ozoneocean at 2:35PM, May 25, 2024

There are a few versions of Dorian Grey around- there's the one in Penny Dreadful, the League of Extraordinary Gentleman and more. I like the one in the old 1945 film. He loses his moral compass and just becomes more and more callous and selfish. It's a great simple analogy of the corruption of youth and it all catching up to a person when they reach their 30s or 40s or even 50s when they suddenly don't look as young anymore XD

bravo1102 at 1:25PM, May 25, 2024

There have been plenty of truly evil female villains. They just don't get as much press as their male counterparts. Also as women history doesn't paint them in as stark colors as it does men. Remember the mass murderer with the biggest body count was a woman. Elizabeth Bathory. There's also Catherine the Great, any number of Chinese expresses, a Japanese dowager or two, Indian and Indigenous American. They're more subtle and tend to work through others but still villainous. It's also a point of view thing. Maria Theresa of Austria was a villain as far as Frederick the great was concerned and Elizabeth of England was a villain as far as Catherine d'Medici was concerned. Ever read about the affairs of Louis XIV mistresses? How about Madame de Pompadour? Plenty of villains in skirts with perfumed handkerchiefs and black hearts.

Jason Moon at 9:51AM, May 25, 2024

Sometimes a villain isn't at all what you thought or expected them to be. Even something that is incredibly powerful or sinister could have started out as something entirely different. Whether it was society or a string of events that could have altered their fate or way of thinking. I think it's fascinating when you can have an audience hate a villain but at the same time get them to feel sorry for their struggle.

PaulEberhardt at 7:14AM, May 25, 2024

Please note, that there's a difference to people who are just ambitious, but otherwise OK: for them power is only the means by which to achieve their goals. They may sometimes shoot over the mark, which may make them look, act and be villains for all intents and purposes, but this tiny difference remains important, as long as power doesn't become their main driving force: they can, in theory, be made to snap out of it. Trying to snub the food from a beast that feeds on power on the other hand just results in a stand-off: either you or him*. (* Interestingly, practically all dictators or overly autocratic rulers in history were male, I'm almost ashamed to say. You might try to explain that away with the male dominance most cultures have had for most of their existence or still have, but perhaps there might be some kind of latent power-hungry streak in those four billion of us? Nature vs. nurture again, even if I swore to myself never to take sides in that debate!)

PaulEberhardt at 6:59AM, May 25, 2024

This subject is endlessly fascinating, especially when you think about how unbelievable and yet how real both the saints and the mass murderers have always been in human history. The thing is, monsters like Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mao and so on probably never thought of themselves as evil and chose to regard all the people they thought below them as things. Of course, they were very probably sociopaths, so there's no telling what they thought, really, but for the purpose of writing villains that would be my general approach. As for nature vs. nurture, I've never been quite sure if that could be entirely separated, and despite my Christian background, I'm not too fond about concepts like a good side and a bad side either. I only know that all villains, fictional and real ones, have a tendency to think of everyone and everything in terms of power and power alone, with no other logic behind it: power for its own sake. That's possibly why it's often so hard to understand their motives.

bravo1102 at 4:48AM, May 25, 2024

I worked with some child psychologists and they gave me some interesting insights into evil. Glorification of self, being completely self-centered self-absorbed and selfish. Me, me and nothing else and no one else matters at all. A toddler could be looked at as the most evil human around. But they don't know about consideration of others so they're ignorant. Ignorance is evil especially willful ignorance in the face of evidence. Someone can't admit wrong because that's a blow to themselves and that simply isn't. There is self-care but that's much more modest than the self aggrandizement I've outlined here. For most of my villains it's all about them and everyone else just better stay out of their way. Some of them don't even recognize that you have a say at all. You're not from their group or species so you just aren't important. As Grey Guys and Gals say "it's what we do." Implying that there is no other choice for them.

usedbooks at 3:47AM, May 25, 2024

My favorite bad guy is a self-serving hedonist. He has no power play. He's not a sadist. He just likes shiny, new, expensive, and fun. And he doesn't bat an eye eliminating anything that gets in the way. He was raised in a well-off family, had a good education, and developed a taste for expensive things. He's one of my least sinister villains partly because he's easy to read and had no "evil plots," but his callousness makes him pretty dangerous.

usedbooks at 3:42AM, May 25, 2024

I grab inspiration from real life to write villains. I found the only way I was able to flesh them out was to have primary source material (diaries, interviews, internet rants). They don't have any tragic backstories, just flawed philosophies. They have something wrong with their personalities to start with (narcissism, sociopathy) and then the type of upbringing that implants destructive ideals, encouraged by like minds that support them. Not really said right out in my story yet but there's a nasty serial killer whose father is serving time for multiple murders. So both nature and nurture are pretty damning in his case. Complex characters that do bad things rarely fall into a villain category in Used Books. Even henchmen end up in the neutral/victim range as the protagonists sympathize with them. (In fact, it's a life's mission for a couple of the characters to "rescue" henchmen.)

marcorossi at 2:07AM, May 25, 2024

I think that we have a lot of contradictory instincts, but then society will regard some of them as evil and repress them, and other as good and reinforce them. In order to repress the "bad" instincts we have to recognize them in ourselves, and thus the image of the Devil is created as a shadow of God, so poetic. However the complication is that it is not always true that what society regards as evil is truly evil, so a mature person should also be able to judge their society.

InkyMoondrop at 12:27AM, May 25, 2024

My philosophy for my characters is that no matter what you believe in, sooner or later life will find a way to pull the rug out from under you.

InkyMoondrop at 12:27AM, May 25, 2024

Interesting. My characters usually have something that compells them to mistreat others. One convinces herself that justice or revenge legitimizes cruelty, another walks a similar path, but rationalizes it with a firm conviction that all the harm can be undone in the end, another has his convictions of what lengths a parent must go to to prove his or her worth, and another is crippled by fear and anxieties, seeing himself as the victim up to the point he sees harming others as a way of self-defense and even freedom, peace of mind. A current character of mine places God's supposed will above all. Most of them come to a point where they are forced to confront the destructive nature of their drives and need to adapt, change, because they realize what they need is very different from what they want or because the consequences of their actions demand a far greater price than what they're prepared to pay. The only true villains in my story are unwilling to learn.

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