1. Link the Writer
    Online

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2009
    Messages:
    11,218
    Likes Received:
    4,226
    Location:
    Alabama, USA

    Am I the only one sick of the 'villain with tragic backstory' shtick?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Link the Writer, Dec 15, 2015.

    Hey, not sure if any of you had noticed but recently I've seen a growing trend where a villain is given a sob story in an effort to make them more sympathetic. Some examples include: Malificent from the recent reboot and Kellogg, a mercenary and an antagonist from Bethesda's Fallout 4. Or hell, even Voldemort from Harry Potter. They almost always have some dark sinister past that explains their evilness and the plot tries to get the hero to feel pity for them. The worst offenders are stuff like Grand Theft Auto which paints a clearly evil villain (protagonist in that game's case) as a generally good person who made a lot of really bad life choices. Like this somehow excuses all the atrocities they've committed and are committing. That's kind of why I liked Saints Row because they flat out demonstrate that you're playing an evil person and don't even try to justify it with a sob story or ‘B-but...but he/she is actually a decent person who just got in with the wrong crowd!!’

    In short, am I the only one sick of the shtick where the villain has a tragic sob story and we're all supposed to feel sorry for the villain? I mean, OK, I get it, not all villains are pure evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and a flat ‘Because I'm Evil’ villain makes for a boring one but c'mon. Why the quick sob stories like ‘Oh, her family was abusive!!’ or ‘He lost his wife and child to a murderous gang!!’ Why can't there be villains who were spoiled rotten and raised to believe he/she is entitled to everything and still have redeeming qualities to make them likable?

    So what do you think? Is the whole ‘villain with tragic backstory to explain evilness’ done to death, or do I just think it's the case because I've been exposed to just that particular method? Are there examples of well-written villains who don't have tragic backstories?
     
  2. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,897
    Likes Received:
    10,088
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Well, I don't think it's going away any time soon. A villain who is evil just because that's the core essence of who he/she is, is not a character that can be reasoned with or related to by the protagonist. There's usually only one option: elimination. Even Melkor (Morgoth) - when one reads the passionately tedious Silmarillion - wasn't born of pure evil. He's kindova' counterpart to Lucifer, who was, prior to things going tits up, the most favored, beautiful, and beloved of the angels. He was the golden boy, and then some shit went wrong, and the creator was kinda' heavy handed about handling it, and bam! But when you know the honest and full story, there's some cause for pity and an attempt to reason.
     
    Link the Writer likes this.
  3. Ryan Elder
    Offline

    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2015
    Messages:
    1,613
    Likes Received:
    78
    I think it depends on the story, and what the themes are really. If feels like it's cliched or trope-ish while you are reading, then perhaps the backstory was not called for, or shoehorned in.

    But if you think about it, isn't almost every villain's backstory a sob story? I mean their is always something to make a person into a monster, and they are rarely born that way.
     
    Bocere and Link the Writer like this.
  4. Sam Frost
    Offline

    Sam Frost Member

    Joined:
    Dec 8, 2015
    Messages:
    47
    Likes Received:
    19
    Location:
    Illinois
    I don't think a sob story is necessary, but I like that stories have been going away from the "they're just evil because they're evil" thing. @Ryan Elder is right about something making a person into a monster, though I agree that it has become a trend to make every villain almost a good guy, which can take away some of the fear/threat of the villain if not done properly.
     
    Link the Writer likes this.
  5. NeighborVoid
    Offline

    NeighborVoid Active Member

    Joined:
    Nov 26, 2015
    Messages:
    237
    Likes Received:
    81
    Location:
    Planet Earth, Origin System
    Let's just stop using the good guy/bad guy system and keep the morality ambiguous.
     
  6. Link the Writer
    Online

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2009
    Messages:
    11,218
    Likes Received:
    4,226
    Location:
    Alabama, USA
    I dunno, Beerus from Dragonball Super is basically the embodiment of destruction. He's literally the God of Destruction, that's his entire being and I find him interesting because his erratic personality. On the one hand he's the psychotic god you'd expect from a being of pure annihilation, yet he's also capable of extreme, placid calm, he's very formal and polite and has a heavy appetite.

    Another example is the Joker. He's the embodiment of chaos, of anarchy. He's the Clown Prince of Crime, yet he's by far one of the most well-known and popular villains of the Batman franchise. No sob story there.

    I do agree; I guess that's the sort of thing I'm sick of. The ‘sob story’ for the sake of pulling heart-strings. I don't mind sob stories if they're done well, meaningful and feels right to the story.

    Definitely. If not done right, if the villain elicits more pity than fear, then you risk not letting the villain...be a villain. Yes, give them a reason for their wrong-doings, but don't overdo it is what I think.
     
  7. WriterMMS
    Offline

    WriterMMS Member

    Joined:
    Dec 11, 2015
    Messages:
    70
    Likes Received:
    31
    What your talking about isn't a mere trend, it's one of the backbones of storytelling. You have two options really, a villain with a reason to be evil and a villain that doesn't have one.

    So when you're saying your sick of it, you're basically belittling a large portion of stories themselves.
     
    Bandag and Ippo like this.
  8. Ryan Elder
    Offline

    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2015
    Messages:
    1,613
    Likes Received:
    78
    But I think a villain has to have a sob story to a degree. Can you have a villain who grew up with a happy life, and all the blessings he could ask for, and then he just decides he wants to be evil without any upsetting or angering cause? Or I guess you are saying that sometimes, it comes off as more 'preachy', then it needs to be?
     
  9. Link the Writer
    Online

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2009
    Messages:
    11,218
    Likes Received:
    4,226
    Location:
    Alabama, USA
    Sometimes it comes off as more preachy than it needs to be. That's what I'm getting at.

    I think you can have a villain who grew up with a happy life and still be evil. Imagine this villain: A spoiled, all-powerful, self-absorbed, egotistical tyrant who feels he's entitled to everything and everyone. He has some redeeming qualities that makes him interesting to the readers, but he's very much out for his own personal gains and everyone else are pawns, tools that he uses to get there. He's this way because his parents raised him to be this way, and so did their parents. No sob story, just someone who feels he's the single most important person in Earth and everyone else should just do what he says or get out of his way.

    I guess all I'm saying is that not every villain should need a sob story to justify their actions. There are plenty of people in real life who become bad despite coming from a mostly well-adjusted home.
     
  10. Ryan Elder
    Offline

    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2015
    Messages:
    1,613
    Likes Received:
    78
    I see. For me it depends on the villain's cause. Some cause's benefit from having a sad backstory, some do not. For example, in Goldfinger, a villain who wants to break into Fort Knox and destroy all of America's Gold, so his Gold will be worth more, does not benefit from a sad backstory. Or maybe it could, depending on how it was done, but it didn't need one.

    In Red Dragon, I think that giving the serial killer the sad backstory of abuse, for making him do what he did, really added to the character and the theme, for that particular cause.
     
  11. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,749
    Likes Received:
    1,293
    "No tragic backstory and the villain's actions are recognized as evil" and "Tragic backstory that is supposed to make us think that the villain is right" are not the only options.

    I love villains with tragic backstories where the narrative makes it clear that the villain's response to the tragedy is unacceptable.
     
  12. Beloved of Assur
    Offline

    Beloved of Assur Member

    Joined:
    Jan 26, 2013
    Messages:
    20
    Likes Received:
    4
    Location:
    The Sacred City of Ashur
    I love tragedies in general and tragic characters in particular. If its used as an excuse for vile behavior its a problem but I see no reason as to think that compassion or pity would be wrong, even on individuals deemed as "evil".
     
  13. 123456789
    Offline

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    6,347
    Likes Received:
    3,092
    You mean like the people who control our real world?
     
    Shadowfax likes this.
  14. xanadu
    Offline

    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 21, 2008
    Messages:
    552
    Likes Received:
    407
    Location:
    Cave of Ice
    I like well-developed characters. If a tragic story works, go for it. If a not-so-tragic story works, go for it. I definitely like to be able to understand the motives of characters and for them to make sense, so if a villain's actions can be explained (not justified, that's a different word!) by a tragic backstory, so be it. It doesn't have to be melodramatic. But that's up to the writing. If a tragic backstory isn't properly handled, it's not the fault of the trope but of the writer mishandling the trope.

    Is it overdone? Maybe. It's definitely popular. But I think that's got a lot to do with the propensity of writers to have more morally ambiguous heroes and relatable villains. Tragic backstories are an easy way of creating that.

    I'm not necessarily a fan of "villains" in my stories, anyway. Only one of my novels has a true "bad guy," which was a group of people in a post-apocalyptic future doing "science" and harboring a grudge for the pre-story actions of the hero's group. All my other stories are much more internal, "man vs self" stories with antagonists who are only labelled as such because the protagonist seems them that way. I tend to like those stories better.
     
    AsherianCommand likes this.
  15. AsherianCommand
    Offline

    AsherianCommand Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 2, 2014
    Messages:
    152
    Likes Received:
    28
    Location:
    Chicago, Illinois
    I think villians are overused in general. A good character or a very relatable antagonist is one that is morally gray and is in similar boat to the main hero. Both are in their own right.

    I think interesting characters and compelling characters are always the top priority of any writer. You can have the most well developed, or most well thought out but if the character is not compelling or interesting, you might as well not of written it.

    A good villian on the other hand, if someone does use one, is one that has goals that are not true evil, they fall into the line of morally gray, or they are sympathetic character.

    Mary Shelley's Creature was a villian but he was a sympathetic character. We felt sorry for the creature, we got to know the creature, we knew his thoughts and what he wanted to do. We know he wasn't a bad guy, he was treated poor because of how he looked. And he was different. Because of this the character was compelling.

    Villians have to be compelling, and I mean a sympathetic backstory only works if the character is human or interesting or for that matter or has a baring on the story.

    Maybe the Villian and the hero are the same, except their experiences are different that lead to them leading completely different lives. If either them where in each others shoes maybe they would still be the same person, but they would be the opposites of where they are now.

    If it fits the narrative and gives a character depth and interest. I always say go right ahead. If it adds something of value to the story always a go to. That is always the greatest benefit for a story is that. Compelling and interest are the top things for any writer.
     
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2015
    Lifeline and Link the Writer like this.
  16. GuardianWynn
    Offline

    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 12, 2014
    Messages:
    2,088
    Likes Received:
    672
    Eh... one thing. Joker was a guy that had his face disfigured into a smile he can't take off. He had a psychological break down in response. No sob story? I beg to differ. I guess you could claim the recent movie didn't show this but it is still the lore, on or off screen.

    The real point is this.

    Lack of creativity can come in all forms. Let me compare to old Videogames. Old SNES games were once made really hard because harder games took longer to win. So people felt like they got more money out of a game that took longer. Longer because harder is not a sign of quality.

    Anyone can insert "dead parents" as a lazy attempt to add sympathy or make it interesting.

    Take the Joker, he has a sob story that explains his origins. But he is interesting because of like you said. He is chaos now. He isn't after the person that scared him. He doesn't want to take over the world. He is just chaos now. That is the interesting part. That he defied the normal with his sob story and he was unique. If he was just randomly a gimmick without explanatio or diving into the conclusions of it. He would be boring.

    Let me compare to one of my villains.
    He is like a god. His sob story is witnessing a destroyer and is scared of its return. He in a sense has PTSD about the onne thing stronger than him and is forcing the people to help him prepare to destroy the destroyer beast.

    That can be lazy or simple or random insert but I try not to play it that way. I focus on how tragic I think it is that he wants to be a hero. He thinks it is worth it. And he accepts the title of evil. Take the combanation here.

    He wants to be a hero and thinks he is. It would be easy to be an overzealous nut(which he is) but the self realization of evil adds a flavor to it. A flavor that isn't seen all the time.

    The sob story doesn't just make him fine. He is still bad and your still supposed to dislike him. Yet this explains that.

    I think it makes it tragic. Since he is trying to make the world better. One line in my head I think really sells it.

    "No! No! I can't lose! If... If I lose everything I have done has been for evil. I need to survive to finish this! To give all that evil purpose! I will not let you stop me!"

    ^ sob story, does it found boring?
     
    Link the Writer likes this.
  17. DeathandGrim
    Offline

    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 28, 2012
    Messages:
    540
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    Virginia Beach
    I mean there are characters who were just notoriously dicks because they were megalomaniacs or just want to watch the world burn like Kefka (final Fantasy 6) or the Joker. But even they're deeper than just "I'm crazy, deal with it"

    Personally I think tragic backstory adds depth to the villain and makes them slightly relateable. It can make a conflict seem so much more real when you understand why both sides are clashing.

    Joker's backstory is extremely sad actually. You should read Batman: The Killing Joke where it explores his origins from how he went from an subpar desparate comedian to the clown prince of crime over the course of about a day
     
    Link the Writer likes this.
  18. psychotick
    Offline

    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Feb 10, 2011
    Messages:
    1,375
    Likes Received:
    315
    Location:
    Rotorua, New Zealand
    Hi,

    I'll agree with you to a point. Sometimes I just want a villain to be a villain. It makes it more satisfying when he's taken out - hopefully in some extremely horrible way. I don't want to feel sorry for him when he dies etc.

    Sometimes though I like a villain to have more depth. It all depends.

    But I think what you're noticing, is actually just a part of the increasing popularity of grim dark. In this sub genre of fantasy, there are no true heroes, and no true villains. Everyone's shades of grey. The belief being that this is more realistic than the heroic fantasy which was so big in the 70's and before. GOT is the perfect example of this trend - although really everyone in it is mostly shades of very dark grey and the rest get killed off!

    My thought is that it's not actually particularly realistic. Most villains in real life end up as villains because of bad choices. One bad life choice leads to another, and sooner or later they end up a crim etc. Crime is mostly what people fall into. And while undoubtedly abuse and tragic back stories are a part of it, simple pathetic stupidity is a massive part.

    Want to guess how many crims can't read and write? Because they ducked out of school or their home didn't place a premium on education? Or how many have addictions? Because that first puff of whatever was so good, why not try again? Crime is mostly the outcome of a series of bad choices forming a vicious cycle. But that doesn't make a lot of good reading.

    Cheers, greg.
     
  19. DeathandGrim
    Offline

    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 28, 2012
    Messages:
    540
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    Virginia Beach
    I mean every time I try to design a villain as just ostensibly evil I always feel so cold about it. I tend to go for deeper story writing and I've tried to have a villain just be a villain but I just couldn't. It felt like I was shoving a 2D character in a 3D world. I have to ask why is such and such evil or bad? The closest I've come to it is a character named Lucious who believes all robots should be subservient to humans because humans made them (in that story robots eventually gained Sentience and their own nation) but other than that I always feel there's always something to explore in even the most 2D of villains. What drove them over the edge? What made them so mad? Can I relate in some way?
     
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2015
  20. Ippo
    Offline

    Ippo Member

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2015
    Messages:
    81
    Likes Received:
    23
    Personally I love the conflict that is between hero and villain, so I want to identify with the hero's motivation in order to really enjoy the final battle. Many times the villain will do despicable things that make the audience boil in order for them to passionately hate him. Now when you decide to make me feel for the villain before the final showdown this just pisses me off. I want to enjoy the showdown so don't try to confuse my emotions about it.
    I can't enjoy a final showdown if I don't wholeheartedly want the villain to be beaten.
     
    JenHLewis likes this.
  21. peachalulu
    Offline

    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    3,829
    Likes Received:
    2,382
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    I always find it transparent when it becomes imbalanced. Villian was abused as a child now he wants to take over the world - hmm - usually that would only turn him into a wife-beater. I don't find megalomaniacs to be very believable unless they've had issues with power before - if they came from a line of dictators or wealthy people used to snapping their fingers and getting stuff done.

    And some reasons just gets overused. I've had to reconsider why I had my mc kills three men in my WIP - I thought am I going to use the stupid revenge reason? It's so overdone. Right now it's still up in the air.

    I think it's easier for writer's to come up with a big reason then to try and lay the ground work - villains are just self-centered, self-absorbed people who as a rule don't give a damn about other people. There's a disconnect in their thinking - and that's a whole 'nother ballpark of subtly. Cause usually this doesn't stem from one incident but a more insidious slow poison. Ever watch Dateline? Those people can do the cruelest things and have seemingly normal backgrounds but there's something off even amidst all the insisting that things were 'good.'
     
  22. JenHLewis
    Offline

    JenHLewis Member

    Joined:
    Nov 12, 2015
    Messages:
    33
    Likes Received:
    13
    I like this! I like that you are standing up and saying "hey, sometimes people are twisted and evil and that's just that"
    I agree wholeheartedly. Even the diehard romanticist in me is tired of the excuses. We pander to the character, and our own need for rationale.
    I'm writing a book where the villain is a villain becuase he is. He's from a privileged background, has a loving family but he's just a pyscho. It's difficult to write. I love him, he's mine. I want to make excuses for him. But I won't. No matter how much he charms me...and he does. Then again don't all psychopaths?
     
    Link the Writer likes this.
  23. BrianIff
    Offline

    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2015
    Messages:
    1,294
    Likes Received:
    433
    Location:
    Canada
    Having a hard time commenting without sounding social-science professorial, but my views could be summed up crudely as, "What about the kids? Save the children!"
     
    JenHLewis likes this.
  24. Ryan Elder
    Offline

    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2015
    Messages:
    1,613
    Likes Received:
    78
    Sometimes megalomaniacs are best left unexplained. Look at the movie Moonraker. The villain goes takes up a lot of men and women into space, plans on destroying all human life on Earth, but keeping animals and plants alive, and then he is going to take his men and women and repopulate the Earth with his master race.

    When I first saw Moonraker I actually wanted the villain to have more background to explain his character and why he was doing what he was doing. But perhaps no explanation is better for that type of villain?
     
  25. Link the Writer
    Online

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2009
    Messages:
    11,218
    Likes Received:
    4,226
    Location:
    Alabama, USA
    Exactly. Sometimes people do bad things because they feel they're entitled to it, that they can get away with it. Take Dudley Dursley for instance. He's a bully, obviously. He didn't come from a tragic home; as had been made painfully clear, he's been spoiled rotten. He takes pleasure out of bullying those weaker than he is. Because he knows he can get away with it. No one's going to stop him.

    That's exactly my point: not all villains from the common school bully to a mass murderer have tragic backstories to explain their evilness. They have other reasons as well: a sense of entitlement, a belief that they're superior to someone or to a specific group that they feel they can bully/hurt that person/group, whatever.

    Look, I'm all for well-rounded villains. I'm all for trying to understand what makes a villain tick, I'm just saying that not all have sob stories. And if they do, I prefer that sob story be done well and not shoe-horned in as a last minute “omg feel sorry for me!” moment.

    EDIT: I'll read through the other responses more closely and respond when I've got a bit more time. I've got to go make dinner now. :D But thanks for your time, I'm enjoying this conversation.
     

Share This Page