Podcast

253 – Creating Villains Who Have a Point

The Mythcreant Podcast
Villains are bad people, but are they always wrong? Maybe not! Sometimes the villain has a good idea buried under all their evil. That’s why this week, we’re talking about how to create villains who have a point. We discuss why authors do this, how it can benefit the story, and of course, all the ways it can go wrong. That’s right, it means we need to rant about Thanos again!

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Authorial Endorsement 101

TV Tropes: Villain Has a Point

Atlas Shrugged

Captain Lorca

Amon

Zaheer

Kuvira

Vox Populi

Columbia

Tyler Durden

Fortunate Son

Making Sympathetic Antagonists (And Why Thanos Wasn’t One)

I’m an Environmental Journalist, but I Never Write About Overpopulation

Forced Sterilization

Nazi Anti-Smoking Efforts

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by BunnyVolunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[Opening theme]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…

Chris: Chris.

Oren: And…

Wes: Wes.

Oren: …And before we get started today, I just want to mention that we are looking for volunteer transcribers because we really love publishing these shows with transcripts. You can tell that they just make the podcasts bearings better. We are really thankful to the people who have already donated their time; it has helped us a lot. If you are interested in transcribing for us, there’s a volunteer form on the podcast itself. We will send you a recording and a software-generated auto transcript, which is not something we can actually post because it’s bad. But hey, it gives you a place to start, and is hilarious because it’s really funny what the auto software thinks we’re trying to say. Often we will become the “Myth green” podcast.

Wes: Woo. Intriguing.

Oren: With our hosts, Macaroni, Christian, and West. Now, back to the main topic. You see, I am a very evil because I want to switch out all the caffeine-free drinks for fully-caffeinated drinks. I’m the worst, but also, I have a point because caffeine-free drinks are the worst, and bad. So was I really evil the whole time?

Wes: You do have a point. I mean, it’s hard to argue with that. Yeah. I say, we go for it. Maybe you’re the true hero of the story.

Oren: So this week, we’re talking about making a villain who has a point. I should be specific here. This is a villain that has some level of authorial endorsement when it comes to whatever it is they’re trying to do, or the point they’re trying to make. This is a little narrower than, like, “Villain Has a Point” as described by TV Tropes, which is basically any time a villain is correct about anything. This is more about what the villain is trying to do, considering it from the angle of when you the author are doing this on purpose.

You can also have stories where the villain accidentally has a point that the author didn’t mean for them to have, and it doesn’t have authorial endorsement. We just know it because we are rational thinking beings. Atlas Shrugged is the perfect example. Every Atlas Shrugged villain is actually correct, but they don’t have authorial endorsement. They just are, because Ayn Rand’s philosophy was garbage and she didn’t understand anything. So if you are a rational person with a basic understanding of how economics work, you know that her villains are actually correct.

Chris: I was thinking of Lorca on Discovery who is definitely supposed to be a villain, but he’s making weapons to defend against aggressors. There’s just nothing wrong with that. Good idea. But it’s just really easy to be like, “Oh, weapons bad!”

Oren: And the show does not give him authorial endorsement, right? When he says he’s making weapons, it plays the danger music, and then he’s revealed to be from the bad universe and he’s literally sensitive to light because he’s from the dark universe. Oh God. I hate that. Anyway.

[Laughter]

Wes: It’s probably full of dark matter too. You can’t see anything.

[Laughter]

Oren: Wes! I’m the one who makes puns on this show!

Chris: So should we go into why you would decide to have a villain that has a good cause or a good goal?

Oren: I have no idea. I can’t think of a reason.

[Chuckles]

Oren: Really, the reason you would generally do it is because it allows you to tell a deeper story. You can have more of a complex world and moral gray areas that can be compelling, and it can also more closely match reality because even people who are bad in some capacity often have some good points. Not always. Just to be clear, there are also people who are just bad, but there’s a wide range of humans and fiction can reflect more than one kind of villain.

Chris: I do think it’s a way of making your villain in general more nuanced. I do have to say, I think it’s a much more difficult method than some other ways of making your villain more nuanced, such as giving your villain a more complex personality or showing that they have sincere but misguided beliefs as opposed to sympathetic beliefs. Those are just easier. We’ll talk ways that this goes wrong, but it’s definitely a careful balancing act.

Personally, I think the best use for a villain who has a good cause or a good goal – especially if you have a universe like Star Wars, for instance, where when you think about things critically, the heroes have been overlooking some serious problems – is having a villain rise up and then challenge those heroes to be better. By, for instance, giving the villain a good cause, but maybe having them take it to a violent extreme if you are ready to address it. And we’ll talk more about Korra and how Korra did not fulfill that promise. But if we wanted to go back… I don’t think Disney’s ever going to touch droid rights again in the Star Wars universe, but if we did want to look at that, having somebody come up and say, “Hey, this is a wrong that all of these heroes have been overlooking,” that might be a way of turning that around in the universe.

Oren: Yeah, that’s actually a really important thing. If you’re going to do this, if you create a villain who has a point of some kind and are correct in some way in the goal that they’ve set, and you show that to be the case, you have to address it. You can’t just leave it. It’s just really unsatisfying when you do. For an example of this, we can take two villains from Legend of Korra. First, there’s Amon from season one. His thing was that non-benders are treated badly by the privileged bender elite and that they deserve to be treated better and he was absolutely correct.

Wes: The best part of that first season – well, I like all the Amon stuff for sure – but I think it’s like episode one Korra rides into town on… is Nala the name of her polar bear dog?

Chris: Yeah.

Wes: And there’s that protesting about benders and she’s like, “What? Bending is awesome.” And that old guy is like, “Let me guess, you’re a bender.” And she’s like, “Yeah, yeah, of course I am. It’s awesome.”

Oren: Better than you!

Wes: Unrepentant. Like, “It’s the best thing in the world, obviously. Who would ever doubt that?”

Chris: And it’s almost as though that was supposed to be a nice character arc for her, but then that’s the issue. She defeats Amon, and it feels like they were trying to discredit Amon’s cause, because in the end he’s revealed to be a bender himself, but that doesn’t actually change the fact that he was right about the injustice happening. Korra never really goes full circle and turns it around and actually fixes the issue.

Oren: For some reason – it has never been clear to me why – every season of Korra had to be very self contained. I get why they did it in season one to a certain extent, because they didn’t know if there was going to be a season two. So I know why they wrapped up season one so quickly. But in season two, they kind of just act like all of the problems from season one are solved, and they never revisit any of Amon’s problems. The closest they get to it is they say that, “Well, instead of being ruled by a representative from each of the five nations, instead, Republic City will elect a president.” That setup is sort of better for the non-benders in that there are more of them, and in theory, if they have a one-to-one popular vote system, they would have more voting power, but it doesn’t really on its own address any of the problems. That was never something that anyone in the first season was talking about. We don’t even know how many of the people on the council were benders. It looks like only one or two of them, from what we could tell, because they all get taken out like newbs. We know the water guy and the air guy were benders. And even if that president thing was supposed to be addressing Amon’s point, we never see how it does, and it didn’t have anything to do with Korra, so it still feels extremely unsatisfying.

Chris: It is interesting how in season four of Korra, they go over the villains and they’re like, “Look, all of these villains arose because the people had grievances!” And they try to go back and talk about that, but it’s just too little, too late.

Oren: Although speaking of season four, this is actually a better example.

Wes: Wait, wait, are you getting into Kuvira?

Oren: Yeah.

Wes: I kind of want to talk about Zaheer first.

Oren: Zaheer? Oh! Yeah, yeah. That guy.

Wes: So Zaheer is in season three, because we don’t talk about season two.

[Laughter]

Wes: In season three, the main thing is that suddenly there are new air benders. The world is correcting itself, or something like that, and we have to deal with that. And this criminal mastermind, Zaheer, is one of these air benders. And so he formed his own elite super squad, but his main agenda is to take out corrupt government, which I think Kuvira definitely does better. He sucks the air out of the Earth Queen in that one. He’s trying to advocate his point of view. And, you guys, please correct me if I misremember this, but he kind of gets Korra a little bit on board. And then, of course, the ultimate authority that he wants to topple in order to free the people is the avatar. That’s revealed later when they chain her up and try to destroy the avatar forever. She then seeks his counsel in the last season, so, what’s his deal?

Oren: Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve seen season three, but I don’t recall there ever really being an idea that he was supposed to have a point.

Wes: Beyond anarchy. Beyond being like the Joker.

Oren: He’s a dangerous villain, and he does succeed in killing the Earth Queen, which you could kind of argue is a good thing, but he’s not advocating for anything in particular. He just doesn’t like authority because he doesn’t like authority. I don’t really think he has any particular authorial endorsement, or at least, I didn’t read any. She does go to talk to him, which is kind of a cool scene, but if I recall correctly, it didn’t really feel like the wisdom he imparts to her was something he had in the third season. It just felt like he’d gotten a little wiser between seasons. It was a four year time jump, right? Maybe he read up on some philosophy, I don’t know. He had time. He was in prison.

Wes [Laughing]: He had time!

Chris: Once again, season four trying to correct the mistakes of the previous seasons. It sounds like this is what he should have been in season three. Sorry, that’s not what he was.

Oren: Moving on to Kuvira. Kuvira is a very similar type of villain to Amon in that she correctly identifies a problem, which is that the Earth Kingdom is suffering under corrupt rule by the monarchy and that the next King, the guy they have planned to be Earth King, has no real experience and not really even that much interest in running the kingdom. And so she’s like, “I’m going to do something about this.” And she’s a bad guy, so she also wants to go conquering to make the Earth Kingdom great again, and what have you.

But the original point, the thing that she was right about, was that before her arrival, the Earth Kingdom was really badly run and it needed reform. Her reforms were bad, but at the end, the Earth King (or the Earth Prince or whatever his title was), who had had gotten a surprising amount of development, is like, “Hey, actually what if we did democracy instead of having incompetent kings?” And it’s like, yeah, okay, boom! Done. That actually addresses the point that Kuvira was right about. And it was just so great! And also it was by a character who actually mattered. Again, it wasn’t just that we heard offscreen that this happened. We knew the Earth King and we’d actually grown to like him over the course of the season, even if he was kind of a schmutz.

Chris: So if we can move on to another way in which this can go wrong, besides just not addressing the point that the villain makes…

Oren: Yeah.

Chris: It’s kind of a balancing act. On one side, if you go too far, is having a story that demonizes a good cause, which is really bad. I think an example of this that’s really strong is actually Bioshock Infinite, the video game. So, Bioshock Infinite has this… it’s a floating city, isn’t it? Columbia. The city seems ideal at first, and then you find out that it’s really, really, really racist against the Irish and against black people. And we find out that there is an uprising called the Vox Populi in Bioshock Infinite that’s there because they’re being mistreated so badly. But the writers in this game were just really into the idea of you having to possibly fight both sides. And so they had to make the Vox Populi bad, even though this is people fighting for their rights against extreme oppression. And so they come up with this story about how the leader also killed white children and it’s just… aw, man. Why would you do that?

Oren: It feels very forced. They wanted this to be a both sides conflict, even though it obviously wasn’t a both sides conflict. And even at the time when it happened, I was like, “Okay. I mean, that kind of sucks. But I’m still with the Vox Populi.” There’re still clearly in the right, and the world will be better if they win. But the game was like, “No, now you have to hate them both.” And I was like, “I don’t though. Please let me not do that.” This is the problem when you tell me I’m a player with agency and then you try to take that agency away. You got to give me my Vox Populi ending, bro!

[Chuckles]

Oren: So another thing you have to be careful of when you want your villain to have a point is that in most cases, the thing you want to receive your endorsement is the villain’s motivation or their goal and not their actions. This is why the movie version of Fight Club is so beloved by fans of toxic masculinity. You see Tyler Durden, the epitome of toxic masculinity, and then at the end, we find out that his plan worked and he blew up all the credit card buildings and now no one has credit card debt anymore. Yay.

Chris: That would totally work.

Oren: That’s how it happens, right? The credit card debt lives in the buildings where the credit card companies are! So there’s really no wonder that people watch Fight Club and are like, “Yeah, I want to be like Tyler Durden.” You know, I see a bunch of internet memes where people are like, “You missed the point of Fight Club.” No, Fight Club missed the point of itself. Fight Club sets Tyler Durden up to be correct, and then the way the protagonist defeats him is by becoming more like him. And then we’re surprised that impressionable young men who watched this movie think they want to be like Tyler Durden. That’s just how it is. That’s a critical difference when you are making a villain and you want their motivation to be sympathetic or you want them to be right about something. It’s the focus on the motivation and the goal, not on the action. By definition, if the villain is doing the right thing, they’re probably not a villain anymore. At that point, you probably have them in the wrong role. Yeah.

Chris: Yeah. And then we get to the point where, besides demonizing a good cause, the villain can become too sympathetic, and it makes the heroes unsympathetic and feel like bad guys. And that’s not fun to read or watch anymore when you get to that point. I mean, the definition of a protagonist is basically the character that the audience roots for. So the story needs to align with the experience of the audience, and if the audience is rooting for the wrong side, it does not create good results.

Oren: Yeah, and a lot of this comes from just the writers not understanding what they’ve written. There’s not a piece of advice I can give to fix that. For example, the writers of Enterprise didn’t understand, in the episode where Archer tried to hunt down a freighter captain for fighting pirates, that the freighter captain is obviously in the right and the pirates are bad and it should be Archer’s job to fight the pirates. They just didn’t understand that when they wrote the script, and I don’t know how to make them understand these things.

Wes: Just think really hard. Maybe they’ll catch it.

Oren: Be smarter, I guess? What kind of writing advice can I give that would save you from creating Thanos?

Chris: I wanted to talk about Thanos.

Oren: Can we talk about Thanos?

Wes: You mean how there’re forums dedicated to him and about how he was right?

Chris: Oh my gosh.

Wes: Yeah. Check Reddit.

Chris: When I watched it, I just assumed that his plan was supposed to be bad. It seemed so obvious that Thanos’s plan was bad that it was easy for me to initially ignore all the signs of authorial endorsement of his plan. It’s so inconceivable that they would actually think that his plan was a good plan. But then, if you look at it… we had an article on the site by Mira talking about the fact that none of the heroes ever object to the plan on the basis that it won’t actually do any good. Erasing half of all life doesn’t actually help the ecology of anything, anywhere. It does not create good effects in any way. And yet, the movies do this absurd thing where we see again and again that the heroes lose because they absolutely hands-down refuse to sacrifice a single life to save half of all life in the universe. And it’s just frustrating and absurd. But then you realize that the theme of these movies is supposed to be that it’s just not okay to sacrifice one person for everybody. And that’s what’s supposed to be bad about Thanos’s plan. You’re just not supposed to make a sacrifice for the greater good at all, period. And not the fact that it’s just horrible and wouldn’t do anything good.

Oren: That one is particularly bad because that Malthusian school of thought is real in real life. It’s the idea that the only solution to our various economic and environmental problems is to cull the population. That’s a real thing that people believe. And they aren’t always willing to say it out loud, but sometimes they are and it’s terrible. And having probably the most-watched movie of the decade be like, “Yes, Malthusianism actually works. The only problem with it is that it will make Captain America sad.” It’s horrible. And it’s also just so illogical that if you think about it for even a second, it immediately breaks down. So those are two reasons why you shouldn’t do that.

Chris: The other thing that I wanted to point out about those sorts of Malthusian ideas is that it may not be obvious to everyone who sees them, but they are super racist in practice. When people think about these ideas and even the concept of overpopulation as a problem, they’re always thinking about those quote-unquote “Third-world countries,” and specifically about how women of color are having too many babies. That can be hard to imagine if you’re white, but forced sterilizations of women of color is a thing. They go to have a baby in a hospital and then are sterilized without their consent. That’s real. That happens. And so these ideas do actually harm people. So yeah, that was not great.

Oren: And if anyone was curious to know more about this, there’s a really excellent article about why, as environmentalists, we shouldn’t be talking about overpopulation, because that’s not only racist, but also a false lead. And I will link it in the show notes because it’s very good.

Chris: And I think one of the reasons that they probably ended up with this terrible Thanos plan is because they were deliberately seeking out a plan that was sympathetic, but kind of an edgy villain plan.

Wes: What’s also tough is that, in the comics, he’s just a nihilist, and that’s harder to do on mass mass market appeal.

Chris: They wanted to make him sympathetic. But they couldn’t have his plan be too good, so they made a plan that they thought would be in-between, but it was just horrible.

Oren: Right. In the comics, if I recall correctly, he wants to kill half of all life to impress Death so she’ll date him.

Wes: Yes, that is correct.

Oren: Which, frankly, is a much better explanation for what he was doing.

Wes: Oh yeah.

Oren: What I think happened is that in the movie they were like stuck with this “He’s going to kill half of all life” story, like they, for some reason, weren’t allowed to change that and they were like, “It can’t be to impress Death, because first of all we would have to establish that Death exists and is a person. And also that’s really silly.” So they were like, “Uh, I guess he needs a more serious plan. So what do people care about nowadays? Well everyone’s terrified of climate change. I guess he could be kind of about that. Sure.”

It’s gotten to the point now where frigging Honest Trailers has a special thing that they do whenever a movie’s villain is motivated by climate change or some obvious stand-in for it because it’s just so common now. Guys, I get it. Yes, I am scared of climate change, but please just think about what you’re doing for a minute!

One last thing to make sure you’re doing this properly is, if you want your villain to have a point, they need to be sympathetic on some level. In theory, you could make them the worst person in the world, but still give them a good idea. You could make them Hitler wanting to ban smoking, but you probably shouldn’t because that’s just not going to be a fun story. That’s not going to be a pleasant story to read. I have seen some people try to do this where they… I don’t know. Maybe they think it’s edgy to make their villain absolutely the worst and then be like, “Ahhh, but that villain had a point!” And it’s like, “Eh, but no.” If the villain is going to have a point in their goal, at some point they should at least be somewhat sympathetic. They don’t have to be full sympathetic. They don’t have to be antiheroes. But they should definitely be likable on some level, not the person you hate the most.

Chris: I think the issue with the idea of, for instance, Hitler trying to get rid of smoking is that it’s hard to not see a situation like that as either demonizing a good cause or endorsing bad behavior. Either we’re demonizing getting rid of smoking because it’s Hitler doing it, or alternatively, we can think about it as like, “Oh, Hitler was fine because he wanted to get rid of smoking!” Both of those are bad.

Oren: Both of those are wrong things!

Chris: We don’t want either of them. But if you have a mismatch like that, it’s impossible not to make one of those two conclusions. And also, sometimes, we can get kind of creeped out by writers where they’ll have this villain who’s a complete jerk, but, “Oh, look, the villain’s right!” And you start to wonder if the writer actually really likes that character and wants to glorify that character. And that goes with the whole “Endorsing bad behavior” thing. So, it really starts to make authorial endorsement look very ambiguous in a bad way.

Oren: And we’re nearly out of time, but there is one more thing I want to mention, which is to just exercise caution when you’re having your villain who has a point be dedicated to a real-life social justice cause. My example here is Black Panther, which I love. It’s a fantastic movie, easily the best Marvel film. The villain, Killmonger, is like, “Hey, the world is real racist against black people.” Accurate statement is accurate. And then he’s like, “I’m gonna conquer the world with my magic space guns.” And it’s like, “Okay, well I guess we should probably stop you from doing that.” And then to T’Challa is like, “Hey, to address this point, I’m going to do what my girlfriend has been saying I should do all along, which is to use soft power to fight racism.” That’s what he decides he’s going to do at the end.

That might sound fine and a positive message, but one of the problems that Black Panther has run into is that it is being seen as putting T’Challa and Killmonger in the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X dichotomy, which is not an accurate dichotomy anyway, but a lot of white people see them as the “Nice black civil rights guy” and the “Mean black civil rights guy”. That in itself is a toxic metaphor, and so like having a movie that falls into it can be a problem. Now, Black Panther was made by a mostly or maybe even entirely black production team, so they knew what they were doing. But as a white storyteller, I would probably not have done that. I would be like, “It’s not my place to make a story that might have that kind of message.” So, just exercise caution. [Sarcastically] I’m sure it will be a surprise when you’re trying to do social justice storytelling that you need to be careful because you might hurt someone.

[Laughter]

Wes: Good point.

Oren: All right. I think we are about out of time for this episode. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. Finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com.

Chris: If you enjoyed this podcast and want to slip us some gold-pressed latinum, head on over to patreon.com/mythcreants. We appreciate it.

[Closing theme]

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Comments

  1. Danny

    hey there! first-time listener here — really insightful stuff in this episode. Things I never even had thought of so thank you for that! I do have a question however…what are some good(?) examples of villains in stories/movies/tv shows/etc. that you feel the author/writers got right?

    Thanks! and now onward to the next episode!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well I do have an article about why the Fire Nation is such a great villain, but let’s see what else I got.

      -The Dominion and the Borg on Star Trek are both excellent villains.
      -Killmonger from Black Panther is easily the best villain in the MCU.
      -A lot of the villains on The 100 are excellent, but I think the Mountain Men are my favorite.
      -The Temeraire novels do a great job building up Napolean as their big bad.

      • Danny

        Niiiiice! Looks like I’ll have plenty to research during my lunch breaks. Thanks for the recommendations!

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