Villains are tortured souls, somehow wronged years ago (often in childhood) and they only turned to evildoing because of that pain … or so the modern storyteller portrays them. This is wrong. Villains, generally speaking, are villains because they are evil.
Let’s state up front that there are exceptions to what I’m about to put forth. I believe there are certain stories where it is both interesting and appropriate to portray the antagonist as having legitimate and non-evil reasons for opposing the protagonist. I’m also not suggesting that every character who does something wrong or engages in shocking behavior is a villain. What I am addressing here is the modern habit of portraying a clearly evil antagonist as somehow having justifiable reasons for doing evil when he does not.
The image for this post is a still frame of Rosalinda Celentano portraying Satan in The Passion of the Christ. Satan is the embodiment of evil (and The Passion of the Christ portrays him that way). Yet many modern storytellers appropriate him and turn him into a “complex” character whose “troubled past” has shaped him into who he is today.* He is either not responsible for the evil things he now does or he is actually not evil at all—he is simply misunderstood or even falsely smeared as the bad guy. This is all wrong.
Evil actually exists, and people (and supernatural beings) become evil and do evil things because they make those choices. There isn’t a need to explore what made this villain evil or what the motivations of that villain are for doing evil. A villain’s wicked nature and wicked actions are the result of him wanting to be evil and to do evil. This doesn’t mean a storyteller can’t provide a background for his villain that shows how he went down the wrong path, but that background shouldn’t be used to justify why he has chosen to do the wrong thing.
Some people argue such an approach makes for a boring or one-dimensional villain. Maybe it does or maybe it doesn’t. But so what if it does? The approach is accurate. In fact, it’s revealing that modern storytellers think a villain has to be exciting and multi-dimensional.
For instance, why do storytellers often strive to make the Joker more interesting than Batman? Or Darth Vader more interesting than Luke Skywalker? Shouldn’t storytellers want their audiences to find the hero more interesting than the bad guy? If they don’t, then it reveals a bit about their worldview and beliefs.
Ultimately, if the plot of a story has an evil antagonist, then the ultimate reason he is a villain is because he wants to do evil. No amount of supposed wrongs or unfortunate events justify why he does evil. Everyone experiences hardships and setbacks, but we all have the choice for how we are going to react to them. A character who becomes a villain does so because he chooses to be on the side of evil, and not because something forces him to be that way.