Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys

This post is a followup to my post on Satanic Banality And Writing Villains. In it, I said:

These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors.

This phenomenon is why it feels realistic when the bad guy thinks that he’s the good guy. Unfortunately, that trope in stories is very often misunderstood by people who do not understand what evil really is. It is quite true that bad guys will often think that they are the good guys. What isn’t true is that they seem like the good guys to anyone but themselves.

This mistake has resulted in a great deal of bad storytelling, where the bad guys are shown to actually have a point. Instead of them having mistaken evil for good and thus be pursuing evil as good, they have, in fact, correctly having identified a good and are legitimately pursuing it. But if that’s the case, why on earth is the good guy in the story fighting these other good guys? There needs to be some explanation for why the good guy thought that the other good guy was actually a bad guy.

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

There’s rarely a satisfying explanation—in the sense of an explanation where the villains actions could plausibly be connected to his goals, even according to the mistakes he is making. To use the example of killing off most of the world driving the share price of his company up by fifteen percent, the fundamental mistake the villain is making, that is, the evil he is mistaking for good, is the share price of his company being all-important. This is a dubious mistake for someone to make, but it is possible. One can become idolatrous about almost anything. But given this mistake, it is not plausible that the villain would think that killing off three fourths of the world (say, with a bio-engineered plauge of super-locusts) would actually be good for the price of his company’s stock in a way that’s useful to his goal. Sure, in the extremely short term the stock would go up, but it would shortly thereafter crash when no one has the money to buy shares any more since they’re busy eating the rats which died of starvation. His mistake is about the good of his company’s share price, not about how markets work. In fact, his idolatry of his company’s share price would make him the last person who would misunderstand how markets respond to major events. The problem—apart from many writers not understanding how markets work themselves—is often due to the real villain’s character and motivation being an afterthought, because it’s all revealed in the last few pages (or last few minutes).

(It should be noted that this goodguy-as-badguy plotline is largely driven by misunderstanding why a badguy thinks that he’s a goodguy, but once this mistake was made it appealed to writers who want to personally rebel against goodness in order to indulge in some evil of their own, and so to make the world more comfortable for their evil they want to make readers (or viewers) distrustful of the institutions which exist to guard against the sort of evil they wish to indulge in. I think that they merely stumbled on this from the structure, rather than set out to undermine these organizations and incidentally got—partially—closer to a better plot.)

None of this sort of the-good-guys-are-actually-bad-guys would seem necessary if the writer recognized that evil is fundamentally a perversion of good. In grasping at the shadow rather than the substance casting the shadow, the one doing evil does not plausibly think that he’s doing good. He merely thinks that he’s doing good anyway.

The villain will have reasons for his evil deeds, but they will be bad reasons. This is necessarily so. It is not possible to have a good reason for a bad decision.

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