Cardboard Cutout Villains Are Realistic

I’ve been reading a very curious book, at the request of a friend. To save you a click, it’s the memoir of someone trying to become famous as a punk rocker and failing miserably (by which I mean that he failed and that he was miserable). While it’s been very painful to read because (so far) he makes no decisions that aren’t bad decisions and he mistreats approximately everyone he interacts with, it does also have some applications beyond the reasons my friend asked me to read it. In particular, it gives insights into what villains are like in real life.

When I was young, it was common for people to complain about villains being “cardboard cutouts.” They were there only to be evil, so the refrain went, and we never heard their side of the story. Why are they doing what they do? Why does it seem good them? Everyone is the hero in his own story, so why do these people think that they’re heroic? And so on.

This led to all sorts of stories in which the villain was sympathetic. Often, he was just a misunderstood good guy. When the protagonist of the story took the time to find out the villain’s perspective, he realized that there was a lot going for it, and instead of defeating him, a compromise could be reached. Maybe even a mutually beneficial compromise, where both parties were better off than if they were alone.

There’s a lot that can be said about this, and to some degree I’ve already said some of it. To some degree I think that this also appeals to modern laziness, which hopes that at bottom there isn’t really conflict, only misunderstanding, and so a little bit of talking things out will resolve all problems. What I want to talk about now, though, is that it’s just flat-out wrong. Villains are not always complex.

The guy in the memoir, at least as he describes himself, is easily recognizable as the bad guy in other people’s biographies. He doesn’t run an evil empire and he’s not the dictator of a small communist country, but he is the guy who makes the lives of everyone he’s around worse. He is sometimes violent (without justification) and often cruel. He adds nothing to other people’s live but does quite a lot of taking. Normally you see this character during the section of someone else’s biography where they improved their life by finally getting away from him.

In this book, we get his perspective. What makes it even more interesting, we get his perspective on events that we only know about because he tells us. We have no (practical) way of checking up on the stories he tells us. For all we know, he was much worse and the people around him much better than the version of events that he gives us. And what’s so very strange, and thus interesting, is that in his version of events, he comes off as the bad guy.

He offers no justification for the awful things that he does. Quite the opposite: where he should be putting the most effort into explaining away what he did and trying to make himself seem sympathetic, he expects the reader to be impressed with him. The only regret he ever expresses is over times when he did not lash out at people because it would have been imprudent, such as not attacking someone he was angry at because the guy was a friend of the guy who booked gigs at a venue, and he wouldn’t be able to book gigs there if he lashed out as he wanted to. Or when the guy he wanted to attack was just too big and strong.

Let’s take a made-up example because all of the real examples are too long: suppose there was a memoir written by a dog and he mentions a time when he drank from the toilet. The 3-d villain version would go something like:

When the level of the water in the toilet is too high, it angers the earth spirits who shriek in agony, which gives me a headache. I drank from the bowl in order to appease them, so that we might have peace in the land. I did not realize that the hind-leg-walkers wanted the water to mask the smell of their bodily functions.

The version that would be in the real dog’s memoir, if it was written like this memoir, would go more like this:

The stupid apes never let me drink from the toilet even though it was at a great height for me and the water was extra delicious. Then one day the morons left the toilet lid up, so I walked right up and drank the thing dry. !@#$ them and their trying to keep me from drinking what I want. When the smaller stupid ape saw me she shrieked so much I thought she’d fall over from not breathing. Dumb $#@!. Take a breath every now and then. It was so funny. I didn’t let them stop me from being me.

I do not mean, of course, that in all instances of conflict that one side is pure good and the other pure evil. It’s just worth noting, though, that cardboard cutout villains are, in fact, realistic.

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