I think one evil villain I can really say is evil is Voldemort. Yeah, he had a rough childhood and I feel for him in that, but he did a lot of evil stuff. He was even willing to kill a baby! He even wanted to kill Dumbledore who was the one guy who showed him compassion. All for power.
The appeal of seeing villains receiving justice may have to do with ancient patterns in human evolution. There may be a psychopath gene that gets passed down, and it may be just another evolutionary adaptation for survival. Unfortunately, an entirely selfish gene both conflicts with and sometimes dominates the pro-social survival adaptations. So maybe throughout history there have been periods of tribal social harmony punctuated by periods of brutal monarchy or autocracy by some random combination of muscle and heartlessness. Eventually the dictator either dies or is overthrown by the group. Maybe these patterns are inescapably part of being human, and we tell these stories as part of some rite of passage or ritual that triggers all the right hormones to promote tribal unity and survival.
swamp:I don't think it's an outdated concept, but I also don't think... it's a vital one.
Every person who is bad is bad for a reason.
But the truth is nobody is 'just cruel'
Ooh ! Dunno about that - I don't think there's necessarily abuse or brain damage, when you see those horrible kids pulling the legs off things....those are so often the ones who go on to be serial killers. Psychopaths and their somewhat less dangerous sociopath 'cousins' mostly just go on to be CEOs or dodgy presidents , but a few of the former, maybe don't have the talent, so just go straight to the 'Dark Side'. A lot go into places/positions where they can easily hurt people, like the military, police, private security.... come on, don't we all know at leastone person like that !!???
...but getting back to "bad for a reason", I'd been toying with the idea of a central character evil villain, killing millions, in his bid for a 'better world'. A more rounded character, perhaps, than the real-world pair of Adolf and Josef we had mid-20th C. More corporate than dictatorship.
Then I lost the drive to do the art for anything, after being ill a few times and just drifting out of comics creation...
MK_Wizard:Arthas from World of Warcraft. He started off as an extremely noble person, but it all got to his head and he turned to the dark side. His soul was not strong enough to resist the evil that made him into the Lich King. Even after being brought up so well, he went bad. And not all because of magic. Something in him was spoiled to begin with. Maybe a lack of humility or always being in a constant state of praise.
I know I'm coming late to the party with thsi one but Arthas isn't supposed to be one of those evil for the sake of it people. He's a really bad example because he's a fallen hero who got really obsessed with beating Mal Ganis and ended up deciding that he needed to kill him at all costs, including letting civilians die and stuff. He was also corrupted by the Frostmourne. So he's actually one of those sympathetic villains that you're meant to understand.
I'm surprised that Senator Armstrong from Metal Gear Rising: Reveangeance isn't mentioned yet. He's a guy who just sits in the backstage until the very end of the story, just like most villains. However, he manages to become one of the most popular characters in the Metal Gear franchise due to his presentation as a character, along with the memes that come from his nanomachines.
It amazes me how there are evil villains who don't do jack-shit most of the story, but end up being AMAZING characters when they do show up at the climax. We got DIO, Senator Armstrong, Fire Lord Ozai, like holy shit!
I don't think pure evil villains are needed, actually. What you need in a story is conflict, but you can get that in lots of interesting ways without having to employ the "evil" card.
In my story I have people who do, in some cases, exceptionally bad things and are utterly unrepentant, and they're definitely the bad guys, BUT I made a point to show that they are human (or, well, people) and they too have people they're attached to and reasons for doing what they do. Yes, they are bad people and no, they don't get redeemed, but they aren't evil.
Another thing I do to introduce conflict is to have multiple main characters with different agendas/objectives that interfere with each other. So they're each other's "bad guys", so to speak. The reader can end up rooting for one over the other, too.
I prefer to think of villains as mostly normal people with a limited amount of traits or motives that make them villainous.
A CEO can absolutely be a kind man while imposing working conditions that keep his employees in poverty. He doesn't see himself as a bad guy not because he thinks abusing loose labour laws is good, but because he doesn't think it's much of a big deal, and how well his kids are turning out and how he helps out his friends and donates to a few pet causes and he washes the dishes most nights weight a lot more in his own self-image than the business policies he signs and spends fairly little time thinking about, even though they're the ones who determine his real influence on the world.
A single blind spot, rationalisation or conflict of interest can make one somebody else's villain without being central to their personality.
So a pure evil villain? Sure, from the protagonist's perspective. But that's because the protagonist isn't interested in how the evil wizard takes his dragon mount to the dragon park to play with the other dragons in the afternoon, when he'll be busy dodging fireballs all evening. Possibly the reader doesn't want to know either, depends on the kind of story. A pure villain at all that has no life outside of their evil plan even off-camera? Eh it can work, but it's a device, not a character.
After reading all of these responses and giving it some thought, I'm beginning to have second thoughts about absolutely evil villains. Maybe the concept is just a perception of how the other characters see the villain not what the villain actually is. Don't get me wrong. They are still bad and some of them are outright sick people, but they are complicated too.
For some reason I thought about Steinbecks' Of Mice and Men, like who is the villain in that? Maybe it's Lennie, a simple-minded oaf who doesn't know his own strength, kind of like the archetypal beast of nature. He's the scariest character in that story to me. But he does have a conscience, because he doesn't want to hurt other creatures, he just can't help it. Steinbeck wanted to make it clear that Lennie wasn't to blame, even though he gets some severe justice in the end.
Is Steinbeck kind of saying that no one is to blame for their actions, because human beings are just simple creatures that can't help but do the things they do?
So Mr. Hyde, another classic villain, one of the greatest of all time. But is he a separate character or is he just the suppressed urges of Dr. Jekyll? Some would argue the archetypal villain here is the Self.
If all it takes to become a villain is suppress one's conscience and pro-social regions of the brain, like flipping a switch, then what if the unrepentant villain is given a potion to suddenly switch on empathy and compassion, thus becoming a model citizen? Could we welcome all the prisoners to be released if we found a medical cure for criminal behavior?
Of Mice and Men was a compelling story, but I have to kindly disagree about the view on who is bad. Some of the characters were bad even though they were victims. Lenny was not bad. He was just unfortunate. He had a mental condition and was never taught to live with it properly in such a way that he couldn't hurt people. He was more of a tragic character than anything else whereas the other characters who did bad were aware of what they were doing and intended to do harm.
I find it interesting that you posted the 1939 film, which portrays Lennie incorrectly as insane, when John Malkovich's portrayal of him was more accurate, as a mentally disabled man whom George goes out of his way to "protect" from the realities of the world, ultimately opting to kill him rather than having him go to prison.
Lennie was absolutely not the villain, that's the whole point. His story is a tragedy of a disabled person not getting the proper help they need.
In some ways, I agree with you both but there's more to the story than that. All the characters were trapped and disabled in one way or another, and treated like dogs. And while Curly was a bully and antagonistic, was there any indication that he knew better or was ever trained to manage his emotions or impulses any more than Lennie was? (As a former boxer he may have had numerous head injuries as well). And George probably went to prison for what he did because it was murder, too. In the end, everyone was still mentally and physically trapped and hadn't learned anything.
Anyways, I shared the Lon Chaney Jr. version because I never saw it and 'cause it was free on YT.
One more question, though, what fictional villain has declared that he/she knows better, but consciously and dispassionately does the villainy despite that? I say dispassionately because that emotional component brings to mind crimes of passion, which are treated more leniently in criminal cases, as far as I can tell. Moriarty comes to mind, but I can't remember, did he really say he knows better?