Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know about Walmart: people steal condoms. You wouldn’t expect shoplifters to be socially conscious enough to worry about birth control, but it must pretty high on their list of priorities because nearly every day, you can find a partially empty box of condoms sitting on the shelf in the Toy Department (apparently there’s no security coverage back there or something, but it’s still really unsettling to see a box of Trojans sitting next to Sleepy Time baby dolls.)
Note that I said the box was only partially empty. That part used to bother me a lot. I couldn’t figure out why people wouldn’t just take the whole pack. It’s not like you’re going to get into any more trouble for stealing the whole box instead of just taking three.
But then it finally dawned on me: the reason people don’t empty out the whole box is because somewhere in the back of their minds they are trying to justify what they’re doing. They’re thinking to themselves, “Well yes, it’s wrong to steal, but this isn’t really stealing because I’m not taking the whole box.”
This realization helped me to understand something broader about the human condition: people do not like to think of themselves as “bad people.” They almost always construct some kind of rationalization for why what they’re doing isn’t really that bad. Often they’ve even convince themselves that ultimately the crime they’re committing is in the interest of the greater good.
For instance, take Adolph Hitler. No seriously, please take him. He’s been haunting my blender for far too long. But while he was alive he did horrible things, unspeakable things. And yet even Hitler the man who has become the very image of the clichéd villain had to justify himself, had to convince himself that the people he was trying to wipe off the face of the earth were somehow less than human, that they were evil conspirators, responsible for keeping the real people down.
People in fiction don’t often think this way. People in fiction to bad things because they’re EVIL. Kids movies and fantasy are particularly bad about this sort of lack of characterization. They throw some guy in a black cloak and give him glowing red eyes and suddenly that character is the VILLAIN, a person completely without scruples or sympathy.
And all the time I’m asking myself, why? Why does this character hate the hero so much? Why does he want to murder tiny unicorns and take over the world? How did he go so far wrong?
In my opinion the best stories are the ones in which all the characters have convinced themselves that on some level they’re doing the right thing. I’m not just talking about giving the antagonist some tacked-on motivation for what he’s doing and then going on to portray him as utterly unsympathetic. I’m talking about crafting characters that people can genuinely empathize with on some level.
I know that there are plenty of good stories out there that don’t follow this rule. In Lord of the Rings no one really cares what Sauron’s deeper reasons for trying to rule the world are. But for my part, I always get more enjoyment out of reading a tale where you can understand where all the characters are coming from.
It may be more difficult to craft this kind of story, but I believe that creating villains who are not simply doing bad things FOR TEH EVULZ will serve to make the kind of story that speaks to readers on a far deeper and more meaningful level.