Heroes and Villains

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Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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84 Responses

  1. Hannibal Rising is an awful book precisely because it gives Hannibal Lecter a backstory.

    OTOH, one of the best things in Harry Potter is the revelation that Snape isn’t a villain, but an unhappy, conflicted, unpleasant, but brave and heroic figure, with a backstory that explains how he got there.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    There was a lovely little meme floating around the intertubes that explained the different Jokers:

    Cesar Romero: LSD
    Jack Nicholson: Cocaine
    Heath Ledger: Heroin
    Jared Leto: Meth
    Joaquin Phoenix: 40 Hour Work Week

    The idea that someone, just like you and me, could break someday and become The Joker is one of those thoughts that is simultaneously Lovecraftian in its horror and Winfreyian in its upliftingness. Hey, you know what? *I* could be the Joker too! (No, not the Condiment King!)

    Alan Moore’s Killing Joke was the “definitive” Joker origin story for a while there but, more recently, there was an origin story (AND I CAN’T FIND IT!) that said that The Joker was merely a prodigy who found life meaningless and, for a short while, enjoyed the thrill of crime until even crime stopped being thrilling… and then he saw Batman. And the absurdity positively lit him up inside like a Christmas tree. He adopted the “Red Hood” persona in order to mix it up for himself and ended up in the chemicals and, next thing you know, you’ve got a new Joker! (No Barbara Gordons were harmed in the making of this origin story.)

    I mean, we know Joker has an origin story. We just don’t know whether knowing it will be worse than not knowing it… effectively turning this personification of Thanatos into a guy who used to be called “Jack Napier” who has a form of sanity more suited for 2119 than 2019 (plus some mild homicidal tendencies). And like most of the Batman movies, you build it up more in your head before you see it than after you have it.Report

    • Avatar pillsy in reply to Jaybird says:

      One of the things a lot of people (very much including me) liked about the Heath Ledger Joker was that he didn’t have a backstory, but that he had many backstories, and all of them were probably bullshit. Maybe he had one bad day.[2] Maybe he had an awful life. Maybe he’s just evil. It isn’t knowable and maybe isn’t important.

      And the idea that he is somehow drawn to and inspired by Batman is a theme that’s been used many times to great effect. My favorite iteration of it was probably in The Dark Knight Returns, when the jackhole psychologist who says he’s “cured” the Joker and he can be returned to society since he is no longer a dangerous criminal [1] explains that it was Batman who would draw out the Joker’s murderous madness, and… he is actually shown to be completely correct. Before the Joker kills him, obviously.

      [1] It was, after all, the ’80s.

      [2] Then again Bruce Wayne is defined by his childhood trauma too, and while he is often portrayed as troubled, he’s, you know, Batman.Report

      • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to pillsy says:

        Exactly, and I have found that different people relate to stories and characters in their own ways depending on their own backstories. So getting too specific about the history of any given character can actually make them less relatable to me if I’d perceived some similarity that I could relate to them on. Thanks for reading.Report

        • Not so fast. =)

          Batman devotes himself to crime after seeing his parents murdered. Over the decades this has become “the psychological scarring of that traumatic event blahblahblah…” but I don’t believe that was the original intention.

          I believe it was “You see something wrong and you take steps to fix it” which becomes heroism if it’s something most people can’t or won’t do.

          There’s an interesting Batman story where Batman saves the Waynes in an alternate universe. So, is there no Batman in that world? And the punchline is that the young Bruce Wayne, instead of being inspired by his parents’ MURDER is inspired by his parents’ RESCUE. He ends up being Batman just the same.

          That, to me, is a truer story than The Event that changes us all.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to pillsy says:

        Yeah this new Joker movie that’s coming up looks awful and one of the reasons I feel it look awful is that it drives counter to the theme that Ledgers Joker had. Giving the Joker an origin theory, and especially a sad sack sympathetic origin theory, strikes me as utterly poisonous to the character concept. I expect it’s gonna crash and burn hard.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North says:

          I think that one of the things they’re trying to cultivate is the orgasmic feeling of joy when we *FINALLY* see Jack Napier (or whatever the guy’s name is… it doesn’t matter what his name is) close his eyes and then, after a second, have the Joker open them.

          Which kind of makes it a horror film.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    You know what origin story sucked? Willy Wonka.

    The 2005 movie probably had the absolute best and most faithful first half of any movie I’ve seen. “Holy cow, this captures the book *BETTER* than the other one!”, I thought. And couldn’t believe.

    AND THEN THEY GAVE WILLY WONKA A BACKSTORY.

    What the hell.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Jaybird says:

      Magneto — how does one become a ruthless villain? Survive the Holocaust.

      Hated it. First, it runs against Stan Lee and Jack Kirby making Magneto a Hitler-like thug that sets out to conquer humans as an inferior race. Second, it was revealed in a ham-handed fashion (after killing Kitty Pryde he recalls Auschwitz, as if for the first time, and realizes he’s lost his way). Third, surviving the Holocaust is the origin story of a hero, not a villain.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to PD Shaw says:

        Surviving Auschwitz is the perfect origin story for a villain. The most common motivation for evil across history is righteous indignation. Surviving WWI and the Treaty of Versailles is the origin story of Auschwitz.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to PD Shaw says:

        It worked for me.

        It made me say I know that he is wrong. I also know that if I were in his place, I would be doing the same thing. I knew that more or less anybody else in his place would be tempted to do the same thing.

        Which didn’t make it more difficult to root against him… but it did make rooting against him enthusiastically have a bad aftertaste.Report

        • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Jaybird says:

          The retcon only works if you ignore everything before it. Lee/Kirby created a Hitler-type who wanted to enslave all of humanity because they were of an inferior race. His ambitions can only be thwarted by race-traitors like the X-Men, which is why they came into constant conflict.

          Having Auschwitz give him his sense of purpose, rooted in the pain of seeing his non-mutant family killed because of their ethnicity, does nothing to contextualize his desire to enslave non-mutants. Why didn’t he use his power to go after the Red Skull and other NAZI remnants hanging around the Marvel Universe? Why didn’t he move to Israel to become its version of Captain America?

          And it ultimately wasn’t an origin story of a villain anyway, it was the beginning of a redemption arch.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to PD Shaw says:

        Third, surviving the Holocaust is the origin story of a hero, not a villain.

        The Palestinians might disagree with you.

        The really, really, nasty part about Magneto is he may be right. This is not often explored, much less explored well. However if humanity discovers a genetically superior sub-race in our ranks, we might reach for the extermination bat.

        Magneto’s big problem is often the writers give him the villain-ball, just to drive home that he really is the villain and ergo evil… because they don’t want to face the concept that good and evil might be a matter of perspective. Having an otherwise good man commit horrific acts because he’s right and the world is wrong is HARD to write when you’re part of that world.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Dark Matter says:

          However if humanity discovers a genetically superior sub-race in our ranks, we might reach for the extermination bat.

          Think of the Robert A. Heinlein’s “Howard families” and the book “Methuselah’s Children” specifically.

          When a very rich man (Howard) died of old age at 48, he set up a trust to encourage people to breed for longevity. Fast forward a few centuries and the Howard’s have a life expectancy at least twice that of normal humans. They go public and people freak out.Report

        • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Dark Matter says:

          Magneto’s big problem is often the writers give him the villain-ball, just to drive home that he really is the villain and ergo evil

          Indeed. There’s a How It Should Have Ended where Wolverine, instead of going back to when in did in Days of Future Past, when back to where Charles and Erik tried to recruit him, and tell them everything.

          Which was, of course, a pretty smart dig at that movie, but, it got me thinking about his character. Magneto is one of the only villains that ‘tell him how his evil plans will fail’ really makes any sense for, at least in the movies. You really do get the feeling that _ideally_ he’d rather it all just work out, and if he knew how to make that happen, he would. If you could tell him some peaceful solution to all this, at any point, he’d instantly do it. He’s just given up on finding one.

          The really, really, nasty part about Magneto is he may be right. This is not often explored, much less explored well. However if humanity discovers a genetically superior sub-race in our ranks, we might reach for the extermination bat.

          I would argue, at this point, he’s _canonically_ right. Just from the perspective of time. In Days of Future Past, society literally attempted to genocide mutants, (And accidentally did it to themselves, too, because AI programming failure.), and the fact the Sentinals won’t be built doesn’t change the fact that their society thinks like that. Still. Like 50 years after mutants became public in the mid-60s. Almost three damn generations.

          At some point you have to give up on the Mutant Pride marches and just start taking over the world.Report

          • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to DavidTC says:

            If you could tell him some peaceful solution to all this, at any point, he’d instantly do it. He’s just given up on finding one.

            Agreed if we exclude bad writing.

            At some point you have to give up on the Mutant Pride marches and just start taking over the world.

            :Sigh: I’d really like to see Storm become an A-list celib by being paid tens of millions to stop hurricanes. There is room in society for that sort of thing and it would give the world a reason to not use the genocide club.

            Further they’ve had mutants join the Avengers and it’s like they’re transformed into regular supers.

            And accidentally did it to themselves, too, because AI programming failure.

            I’d thought there were tons of humans off screen in the future and the military simply didn’t send them in any more?Report

            • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Dark Matter says:

              I’d really like to see Storm become an A-list celib by being paid tens of millions to stop hurricanes.

              It’s almost surreal how comics seem to insist that super-heros shouldn’t be paid for what they do in _any_ circumstances, and even ones that ‘do’ get paid always end up working for free.

              But, even if Storm just went around stopping hurricanes and floods and whatnot for free, she’d be a huge celebrity and able to live off the endorsements. Heck, she could always do the _life-saving_ stuff for free but charge for, I dunno, good weather for the fourth of July.

              There is room in society for that sort of thing and it would give the world a reason to not use the genocide club.

              Not really. It’s always possible to find a good ‘one of those sorts’, and it’s pretty easy to justify systematic murder if ‘most of those sorts’ aren’t good. She’d be excluded, of course.

              …oh, she doesn’t want to help now we’re doing that? Well, if we can’t make her, then kill her too.

              I mean, this is obviously stupid and predictable, but…I’m not sure there’s ever been a ‘well-reasoned genocide’.

              I’d thought there were tons of humans off screen in the future and the military simply didn’t send them in any more?

              At some point, Sentinel program had started killing non-mutants for helping mutants, or even _possibly_ helping mutants. (Wonder if that included shutting down the program?) Or having the X-gene without being an activated mutant. Or anyone whose offspring might gain the X-gene…which was literally everyone.

              I.e., the situation had actually spread _way_ outside mutants at the point the movie starts, and a lot of humanity had been killed, and the implication was the Sentinels would fulfill their mission of making sure there were no more mutants by making sure there were no more people who could produce mutants. (I.e, entirely predictable AI failure.)Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to DavidTC says:

                It’s almost surreal how comics seem to insist that super-heros shouldn’t be paid for what they do in _any_ circumstances…

                I assume comic book writers aren’t well paid so money is evil.

                Heck, she could always do the _life-saving_ stuff for free but charge for, I dunno, good weather for the fourth of July.

                Farmers lose crops because of the weather and would pay not to. California has a permanent drought. The winter olympics needs snow. The weddings of the rich and famous need perfect weather. There’s a real market for her… and that’s excluding endorsements, modeling, and various other doors that would open just because she’s famous.

                Not really. It’s always possible to find a good ‘one of those sorts’, and it’s pretty easy to justify systematic murder if ‘most of those sorts’ aren’t good. She’d be excluded, of course.

                That’s a solid point.

                The counter point is it’s hard to describe powers that wouldn’t come with a “you are rich/useful” option. Mental illness, power side effects, and hostility would drastically affect that but hopefully that’s rare. A super human hairdresser who telekinetically arranges other people’s hair is about as trivial as you can get. But even she could be a core member of a modeling studio or minion for someone rich and famous.

                Now when every super ends up in or working for the 1% we’d get “humans can’t compete” or “humans first” blowback. So it’s certainly possible to end up with serious racial problems and issues with integration and inequality. Although this seems less likely if there’s a grand total of one super hairdresser.

                However mostly we don’t see these sorts of situations because Marvel wants mutants to be an oppressed minority with super powers, and part of the “oppressed minority” package is “poor”, even if part of the “powers” package should be “rock star”.Report

      • Avatar Brent F in reply to PD Shaw says:

        Yeah, but the original Lee/Kirby Magneto is mediocre. Nobody cared about the thug-ish conqueror Magneto. Relatedly, original flavour X-men were an afterthought in Marvel’s stable, it was their later re-invention that made them icons.

        It’s the maybe he has a point, understandable motivation Magneto that became one of Marvel’s most iconic antagonists. Then he’s not a one note villain, he’s the head of an ideological faction, one that can be opposed, but also reasoned with and allied depending on circumstances. He can run the gamut from villain to anti-villain to anti-hero to straight up hero depending on what your story needs, while retaining the integrity of his character.Report

    • IKR?????? I was super infuriated by that.Report

    • Well, almost.

      From the outset, Depp’s Wonka is portrayed as a victim/weirdo instead of a hero/weirdo, the latter being far more consistent with Dahl’s worldview.

      Remember that Burton also did Batman a couple of times, and if those movies didn’t sufficiently show his inability to grasp the nature of heroism, this most certainly did.Report

      • I kinda disagree. Willy Wonka was kind of a victim in the book… I mean, a bunch of spies stole his best stuff. (Prodnose, Slugworth, so on.) But his victimness was always secondary to how he was a force of nature.

        I liked how Johnny Depp played him as a Michael Jackson variant (he denies the Michael Jackson stuff and says it was Howard Hughes… but I kinda see the Michael Jackson thing).

        That scene? That scene was *PERFECT*.

        I also really liked the low-level contempt he held everybody in… while, at the same time, loving to make candy.

        I mean, he was an ageless force of nature.

        Until we found out that his dad was a dentist. I mean… what the hell? The professor of a Creative Writing 101 class would yell “TRITE!” if someone said “one of them was a dentist” in response to “what were his parents like?” exercise.

        Seriously, there needed to be someone in the room to constrain the worst of Burton’s excesses.Report

  4. Avatar Aaron David says:

    One of the greatest villains in fiction from the last 20 years or so, was Anton Chigurh. Not only were his actions terrifying, but that he had no back story, no history, no past. He was a force. Similarly, The Judge.

    Darth Vader became less and less scary the more they revealed about him, as that made him human. Understandable. Relatable. And thus with other villains. I understand what you mean by the catalyst. In good fiction, it is simply a point of focus, and the characteristics that it sharpens were already on display. See Lord Jim for a wonderful example of this. But Conrad wasn’t writing pap, which, as you correctly state, is what we seem to be reading and watching the most these days.Report

    • I remember someone telling me as a small child “Darth Vader fell in a volcano and that’s what happened to him” and thinking it was literally the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

      Yeah can you imagine No Country For Old Men Two and his dad was an evil cattle farmer?

      Gack. (thanks for reading!)Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        Where *did* we hear that Darth Vader fell in a volcano? Because I remember learning that too, but I can’t for the life of me remember *where* I learned it!Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to DensityDuck says:

          When I was a kid, there was a Star Wars special magazine, came out after Empire, IIRC. There was an article in that that discussed how Obi-Wan and Anakin had a fight in a lava pit and Anakin was left horribly burned.

          I remember because I read that magazine until it fell apart. I was a fan, back in the day…Report

          • Avatar veronica d in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            I’m sure I never read that magazine, but I did “hear about” Vader and the volcano, I assume from a friend.

            It’s weird to think about how pre-internet “fandom” worked. We had to read newletters and magazines and shit. Information moved around so slowly.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to veronica d says:

              I’ve heard people say that this was one of the most fun parts of Dark Souls for them, hearing from someone who heard from someone who heard that if you did this-or-that in the game then something totally wild happened, as opposed to reading the entire thing on GameFAQs before even buying the game…Report

              • Avatar veronica d in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Funny coincidence, I’m doing my first play through of Dark Souls right now (yeah I’m late to the party).

                I’m actually really looking forward to their new “Elder Ring” (or whatever) thing, just so I can start the game at the same time everyone else does. I think will be fun.Report

          • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Yeah, I remember hearing about it too. I wonder if it came from something like Splinter of the Minds Eye, or some other secondary official source?Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Aaron David says:

      The Astronomer from WildCards. One of his abilities was he could erase memories. He has no humanizing memories or backstory because he got rid of them. He decided to be a monster and he has no idea why.Report

  5. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    This is a good perception, that our storytelling influences us, as much as it reflects our fixations and deepest insecurities.

    For me, it is the prevalence of superhero stories that give me a sense of ambivalence. I see superhero stories as being modern version of the mythology of ancient times.

    In the universe of superheroes, gods exist but God doesn’t. Our lives are ruled over by beings who possess near-unlimited power, but have no more wisdom or compassion than the worst human among us. The superheroes are foolish, fickle, insecure and selfish.

    And in this universe, the things we pride ourselves on such as the Enlightenment, rights of man, democracy, republicanism, even the essential dignity of the human person are shown to be false or at best, irrelevant.

    The basic premise is that there are in fact, a race of humans who are just somehow better than everyone else; maybe by virtue of a radioactive spider, genetic mutation, or intervention of space aliens, but the thing is, our fate is determined for us, and the course of history is determined by the gods and demigods while we all just watch in impotent wonder, passively accepting of our fate.

    In the superhero universe, the archvillain Hitler could have been defeated by Captain America, singlehandedly, while everyone else simply marvels at him.

    In the real world, Hitler was merely a leader of millions of people who did evil things, and they were defeated by a hundred million ordinary humans working collectively.

    It seems disconcerting that a people who pride themselves on small-r republicanism should have such a fascination with a world which rejects it entirely.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      I don’t much care for the Superhero genre, for the reasons you cite. The target audience for comic books was children. Comic books have a social message and important purpose – for children, who need to figure out how conflict works before they reach adulthood.

      Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make Believe Monsters

      But trying to turn the genre into a deep adult view of the world is problematical, at best. It’s like trying to turn Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into Sense and Sensibility, or some WWE passion play into anything about the complexities of real life.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

        In which a young lady of refined breeding but without prospects, calls upon a household of seven eligible bachelors yet finds them each, while possessed of many charming attributes, lacking in the truest aspect of a suitor, namely a kingdom over which to rule…
        For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a lady in possession of youth and beauty must be in want of a prince.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to George Turner says:

        There’s an infantile aspect to them I don’t like either. Trying to add adult depth isn’t possible within the constraints. The result is what you’d get if you got into a full baby pool and tried to dig it deep enough to be good for grownups. Lots of work on something that’s still shallow.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to InMD says:

          Very former OTer Freddie DeBoer wrote about this. Modern superhero movies want to be deep and handle adult themes but also keep the coveted PG-13 rating. That means no sex among many other things. They want to be everything to everybody.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

            Well, part of the problem there is that it is difficult to write about sex well. I’ve only seen a handful of sex scenes in movies that wouldn’t have been just as well served by a title card that read “AND THEN THEY HAD SEX”.

            (By comparison, I’ve seen countless action scenes that were better than a card that read “and then they fought and Our Hero won”.)Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

              There is a reason why there is an award for bad sex writing but not for good sex writing. The more romantic or emotionally meaningful the sex, the worse the writing gets.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to LeeEsq says:

            Heh. I remember a joke about this in MAD Magazine’s goof on “Superman 2”.

            “Isn’t anyone surprised by the way there’s all this carnage and destruction around us and yet we never see any dead bodies or blood?
            “It’s because of the Filmmaker’s First Commandment: Thou Shalt Honor Thy PG Rating And Keep It Sacred!

            (just guessing at the MAD-style bolded text here)Report

  6. Avatar Mark says:

    Hasn’t the backstory been a prominent part of fictional characters for a long time? In addition to entertainment, fictions provided catharsis, and to get catharsis we had to identify with the protagonist. The backstory provided this. Oedipus has a backstory, MacBeth has a backstory, Hamlet spends a lot of time telling us his backstory. Even the Brothers Grimm tell us that the King should have invited the witch to the christening of the Princess. We have too many two dimensional characters without backstories in my view.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Mark says:

      Well, part of the problem is over-reliance on guides like “Save the Cat”. Although the advice is very good, in the hands of writers who don’t really have a feel for a story, it lets them check off the proper boxes to get the script green-lighted because the studio executive is also a hack who read “Save the Cat”.

      A backstory works great in stories where it’s an essential element. It works badly in stories where it’s irrelevant, at best.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Mark says:

      I think it’s less the backstory and more the notion of “here is IT! the reason that explains everything this guy/gal does!” and it’s always in the form of some type of trauma, you know? I can’t shake the idea that this sends a pretty screwy message to people – something bad happens and that’s it, they’re broken people and can’t ever change or grow or redeem themselves. Thanks for reading!Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        I heard it said that Freudian analysis was the religion of the 20th century, and it seems apt.

        The idea that our fates are indelibly shaped by youthful trauma seems pretty much ingrained as received wisdom in anyone who was born in the 20th century, yet doesn’t appear much in literature before that.

        Which, ironically, seems to hearken back to the earlier idea that our fate is shaped by our bloodline.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        To pivot back to the Mary Sue discussion, it’s like how every woman in comics with any kind of strength or agency turns out to have a sexual assault in her past and that’s why she’s so angry/active. It can’t ever be that she wants to protect the weak or beat up bad guys or just likes fighting; no, she’s endlessly Reliving Her Past Trauma and breaking people’s jaws is a form of therapy.Report

  7. Avatar George Turner says:

    Backstory? I got your backstory!

    Rosebud.

    If it worked for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, it will work for the Joker!Report

  8. Avatar Pinky says:

    I have a bunch of unrelated (maybe contradictory) thoughts on this topic. But one thing that has struck me is the rise of zombie stories and the common discussion of a “zombie apocalypse”. Now *that* turns the origin story on its head. What’s the character’s background? Doesn’t matter. He got exposed; now he needs to be killed. Any contact with evil makes you evil. And that’s how our internet culture works. It’s all about purity tests, because you can’t afford to have anyone in your ranks who could turn into a zombie.

    As for the point that we’re consuming bad fiction, I think that’s inevitable. There really are a finite number of good stories. There are only so many melodies and harmonies, and if you’ve heard them enough, you have to start experimenting with dissonance if you’re going to even hear them. You start with High Noon, you end with Reservoir Dogs (or worse, Tarantino ripoffs).Report

    • Avatar pillsy in reply to Pinky says:

      It’s all about purity tests, because you can’t afford to have anyone in your ranks who could turn into a zombie.

      It probably does not help even a little bit that Internet communities so frequently have stories of people turning out to be zombies. It’s much easier to project a completely fake facade to the world when you’re just communicating via text, and literally impossible to not present a very narrow picture of yourself that omits many elements of your character.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Pinky says:

      Interesting take with the zombies, I have to think about that. Thanks for mentioning it.

      I do disagree about there being a finite number of good stories. There are tons of amazing stories that haven’t been told yet, but for reasons I don’t understand Hollywood prefers to do the same thing again and again, and worse, they don’t even change them much.Report

  9. Avatar Aaron David says:

    I have been kinda thinking about this a bit. Every time you explain someone, you humanize them a little bit. Keep doing that and people empathize with them. That takes them away from evil and towards sympathetic. They can be a bad guy at that point, but they can not be evil. See Micheals description of Snap up above. Or James Ellroy when he made Dudley Smith a point of view character.

    To be Evil, that level of unknowable malevolence needs to be upheld. Dudley needs to be the smiling Irishman, always one step ahead who packs the front of his bullets with garlic. And it even works better with Ledgers Joker, as he softens in the viewer’s eyes when he shares how he got his scars. But the malevolence increases when we realize that he was lying about that.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Aaron David says:

      Did we ever get the backstory on why Sylvester is so intent on eating Tweety Bird? Did a hawk attack him when he was a kitten or something?Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Aaron David says:

      The TV show “Preacher” (and possibly the comic book) had a character get sent to Hell, where he met Hitler and plotted to escape. The show then worked to humanize Hitler and give him a backstory about being rejected by a beautiful girl in favor of a rich Jewish guy.

      That’s similar to the many attempts various historians made at finding some traumatic event in Hitler’s past that would explain everything that happened, which was pretty much a fruitless endeavor. Millions of other Europeans had traumatic childhoods, and millions of more were traumatized in the trenches of WW-I, but they’re not the ones who were an ego-driven orator with a toxic ideology in a country whose environment that was a positive feedback loop of really insane ideas.

      Sometimes a villain is a villain because he can be no other. I’ve run across quite a few sociopaths in my day, and my housemate has defended many of them in court. It’s not that something bad happened to them, it’s that the parts of the mind that handle emotions like empathy aren’t there, and probably never were.

      And then there are villains whose minds are used almost as puppets by an ideology they adopted. Solzhenitsyn pointed this out in Gulag Archipelago.

      Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations… Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

      None of the major villains in such an environment really need any backstory at all. They joined the party, embraced its ideology, and kept getting promoted. One WW-II historian examined why the top German generals kept on fighting long after the war was hopeless. He concluded that it was, in large part, because they were getting paid a whole lot of money and being given a whole lot of estates, even as Russian tanks rolled over those estates. Behold the power of land and titles.

      Childhood backstories about abusive uncles or getting bit by a dog would utterly fail as a literary device for WW-II when the American and British soldiers undoubtedly had just as many childhood dog incidents as the German soldiers, and trying to invoke such pap explanations would detract from any proper story or understanding of what drove events.

      A good childhood backstory might explain one Joker, but it can never explain an army of them.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to George Turner says:

        Many commentators like to focus on Stalin’s rough and tumble childhood and beatings from his father on the reason why we got the Red Tsar. One of his biographers remarked that many children received bearings from their fathers throughout history. Only Stalin ended up as Stalin.

        People struggle with sui genesis
        evil, the idea that somebody could have a normal or relatively normal upbringing and end up as toxic shot. So we look for reasons why things ended this way in hopes that they could be different in the future.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to George Turner says:

        A good childhood backstory might explain one Joker, but it can never explain an army of them.

        The Spartans.

        Seriously nasty culture where every adult male military guy had that backstory.

        And for every one citizen there were 7 slaves. The reason the Spartans were so military oriented but very reluctant to engage in wars was because the purpose of the Spartan military was to abuse the slaves and keep them down.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to George Turner says:

        Childhood backstories about abusive uncles or getting bit by a dog would utterly fail as a literary device for WW-II when the American and British soldiers undoubtedly had just as many childhood dog incidents as the German soldiers…

        The average German soldier lived through their economy being burned down via hyper-inflation inflicted on them by France and the allies.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Dark Matter says:

          The average American and British soldier grew up during the Great Depression. The soldiers in highly decorated black units grew up under Jim Crow. The Russian soldiers grew up under the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism.

          So almost any good writer would have to dig into the details, asking what caused Nazism to take hold in Germany, why it gained so much support, and why it was so warped. Some singular trauma won’t explain much, especially when so many of the fears it stoked up and fed on were delusional.Report

          • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to George Turner says:

            Some singular trauma won’t explain much…

            Yes and no. I fully agree that it’s not one source, and there’s no straight line from A to Result. We’re not all one bad day away from becoming the Joker.

            It seems to be more of a witches brew, where some ingredients are a lot more important than others and there can be substitutions. The minimum needed for creating a serial killer is you need a psychopath (roughly 1% of the population) and brutal child abuse. Absent that brutal mistreatment they’ll grow up to be a lawyer, ceo, or some other relatively normal member of society.

            Now having said that, the Joker could have been one bad day away from becoming the Joker…

            …and various countries could be one bad leader away from becoming Yugoslavia or Rwanda. Germany probably needed hyperinflation to help it along, and I think you’re seriously underestimating just how nasty it is if you’re comparing it to the Great Depression.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

            Well, Paul Krugman points out that hyperinflation didn’t bring the Nazis to power, but the later deflation and the Great Depression may have. Hyperinflation had winners and losers, but the deflation caused massive unemployment among almost everyone, including government workers, so Germans were more unified in supporting someone who would fix it.

            Anyway, if you’re story’s villain is just an ordinary person who finally snapped, then the story of how and why he snapped is crucial. Foo Fighter’s “Walk” music video is an example of a commuter who snapped, abandoned his car, and had a day that just kept going downhill.

            If the villain has been sucked into a criminal enterprise due to circumstance, and just becomes more and more callous, the back story is often quite interesting. Or if he was the stereotypical government assassin gone rogue.

            But if the villain is a psychopathic killer then there’s probably little to tell about what made him what he is.Report

            • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

              Speaking of that, I highly recommend the book “Cherry” by Nico Walker, who is serving time here in Kentucky for robbing lots of banks to support his and his wife’s drug habit.

              Many writers are saying its the best book of the last several decades, and would give their eye teeth to have his skill at completely defining a character, as if you’d known them growing up, with about three sentences.

              Rolling Stone feature on it

              The New York Times and other outlets also went nuts over it.

              Ironically, his wife was a university creative writing teacher and had no idea she was living with a Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Salinger. She just thought he was an unemployed army medic hooked on drugs, who robbed banks.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Aaron David says:

      It’s also was desperately needed to stabilize the utter unbelievable nature of Ledgers Joker schemes. The things he did, the convoluted layers of mass quantities of explosives he deployed without being detected, the predictions he made of Batman’s actions AND timing was utterly ludicrous unless it was paired with his being an almost inexplicable primordial force of malevolent chaos.

      As soon as you make him human then the superhuman things he pulls off become utterly unbelievable.Report

  10. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I’d say that the purpose of the backstory is to allow us to relate to the villain–“well, of course he went bad, look at what happened to him!” It’s hard to relate to someone who is Just Evil, because very few of us (…I hope) find enjoyment in Just Doin’ Bad Stuff And Gettin’ Away With It. I think the closest this really came in human mass entertainment was the hubristic characters in Greek tragedies, who mouthed off to gods and got slapped down over it.

    And the message of a relatable character is, of course, “don’t let this be you”. It’s relatively easy to say “well of course this Totally Evil Dude isn’t me or anyone I know, he’s evil the way a razor blade in an apple is evil”. Harder to say “well my exclusion and oppression of the weak won’t ever lead to bad results” when you’ve got a morality-play happening right in front of you of a weak person who was oppressed and excluded and, uh, built a menacing death mutant that terrorized the populace, okay maybe the metaphor kinda falls apart a bit but I’m sure you get the idea.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I’d bet that sometimes, the purpose of the backstory is that the writer feels like he’s supposed to add one. Having a character without a backstory looks suspiciously like not bothering to write one. The Ledger Joker’s lack of backstory was deliberate. Michael Myers was scarier in the original Halloween because there wasn’t any sense to him, but who knows if that was a decision. It can work, but it’s safer to put in even a throwaway scene to keep people from complaining.

      Also, there’s a false idea that villains are the most interesting characters. Writing the villain’s backstory is like singing the National Anthem: you’re supposed to capitalize on your chance to shine. And there’s a little bit of truth to it, I guess. I remember Hitchcock’s description of suspense, that if you show the bomb a minute before it explodes you completely change the scene. Giving a villain a backstory can add a dimension to all of his actions. “Lost” was revolutionary in the way it told two stories every episode, one on the island and another from that episode’s main character’s past, illuminating his decisions.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Pinky says:

        I wonder if some are adding a backstory to a two-dimensional villain so he doesn’t seem so two-dimensional?

        It’s also an easy way to fix an otherwise senseless scene that the writer might be hung up on.

        The hero protagonist, enraged at his failure to save the city from the dark forces of the criminal underworld, shoves and ice cream cone into the garbage disposal.

        Then we flash back to his childhood and burn ten minutes of screen time trying to establish a backstory that would explain why we wrote a scene where he shoves an ice cream into a garbage disposal, so people won’t think we put it in just to win a bar bet with JJ Abrams.Report

        • Avatar DavidTC in reply to George Turner says:

          I wonder if some are adding a backstory to a two-dimensional villain so he doesn’t seem so two-dimensional?

          This, exactly.

          Villains often have _extremely_ thin motives for the stuff they’re doing. A lot of the villainous plots out there make absolutely no sense, especially in the way they involve the hero, often on purpose!

          Every one of the Batman Nolan villains had completely irrational goals. The villains in Iron Man 2 and 3 also, and the villain in 1 did what he was trying to do in extremely stupid ways. The villains in Age of Ultron and IW/Endgame had moronic goals, and the goal of Loki in the first Avengers sorta made sense, but, again, not how he did it. Magneto’s goals are understandable, but he can’t possibly be that stupid.

          Like, take _any_ comic book movie, and point to a villain both whose goals _and_ methods made sense, and could have happened without them planning on absurd coincidences they couldn’t have known, and you have…what? Hydra sorta makes sense as fascism-for-fascism’s-sake…and Killmonger. Which is why Killmonger get hailed as such a great villain, when it’s really just ‘Hey, what he is trying to do is entirely logical and I understand why he’s doing it! No part of this relies on stupid coincidences or things he couldn’t know!’

          So the villains have to be given something to explain their irrational behavior. Often, an irrational hatred that was caused by…something. That explains why they aren’t behaving rationally! We don’t need good stories! We can just handwave ‘They’re crazy!’ or ‘They hate X!’ at them.Report

      • It was deliberate. And John Carpenter DGAF if people complained, hence “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”.Report

  11. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    I’m reading a story now, part of the “Galaxy’s Edge” series, where the book is divided into two narratives:

    1) First person perspective soldier trying bring a terrorist to ‘justice’ for deploying two WMDs.
    2) Second person perspective terrorist who is actually a poorly conditioned spy for the Republic who commits an act of terrorism in order to get in good with a major arms dealer.

    It’s that second narrative that is so well done, because it begins as the story the spy chief is telling himself as to how his simple operation went so wrong. But then it leaves the spy chief behind, and does a fantastic job of exploring how the noble Naval officer creates his criminal persona, and then sinks so deeply into that persona in order to survive and complete the mission that he commits mass murder. All from a 2nd person perspective, which is so hard to do.Report

  12. I suppose art, like traumatic events, doesn’t necessarily make us who we are.

    But I also suppose it informs who we become.

    As an artist, one can do better. As an audience, too.Report

  13. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Also relevant: A song!

    Report

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