What I Like In A Villain

So, my preferences in fiction are kind of unusual. We all like a good bad guy who exists only to be punched by our stalwart heroes, but a monster or a madman or a common criminal never really impresses me all that much; they can be well-done stock characters, but they’re still stock characters, inheritors of the often-hackneyed arts of storytelling which have been through every possible permutation since the dawn of conscious thought, and have been refined down to a form of propaganda which we all happily take for granted. Even the most powerful world-conquering abomination or the most sadistic evil torturer is never really all that scary to me. Let me tell you about what is.

Picture a villainous group from whatever franchise you like, whose modus operandi is to force everyone into becoming part of them, often literally and physically, with all manner of torture and horrific transformations and what-not. Obvious well-known examples are the Borg from Star Trek: the Next Generation, the Phyrexians in Magic: the Gathering, and the Sarkic Cults of the SCP Foundation universe. Now take whatever group you’re picturing, and remove the torture, remove the body horror, remove the pitiless and mechanically efficient destruction of anything that stands in their way. Give them a PR department, make them very conscious of branding, make it part of their mission statement that they’ll go out of their way to ensure that they look good to everyone.
Make them a charitable foundation, with a great reputation, who everyone likes and depends upon as they grow more and more essential to the people’s daily lives. And leave their absolute determination, at any cost, to totally control and unify literally everything that exists into their singular vision of what the future SHOULD be.

Since the Borg are probably the most widely familiar example, I’ll use them. Instead of being robot zombies that perform crude surgery on people in order to forcibly assimilate them as quickly and efficiently as possible, let’s make them beautiful. They’re these obviously perfect people who seamlessly blend man and machine into an integrated whole, and they show up and they tell you all about how wonderful their way of life is, and their logic is flawless and they’re so warm and approachable and they never ever say anything that makes you feel even a little uncomfortable. And, slowly but surely, they persuade everyone that they want to be assimilated, that it’s obviously RIGHT…and that anyone who disagrees is clearly a force of chaos and destruction who is a threat to the ultimate Greater Good. So, slowly but surely, anyone who tries to oppose the Collective is gradually isolated, given all sorts of aid and comfort to keep them from radicalizing, and slowly but surely moved out of public view, until one day they can quietly disappear and nobody will care. One by one, these “disruptive elements” are swept away without anyone noticing, and the world grows more and more perfect according to the Borg’s definition, until there are millions of worlds under their absolute control, and just a tiny handful of people who don’t quite agree, and know that the moment anyone even SUSPECTS that fact, it’s all over for them. They dare not breathe a whisper of their dissent, and they live the rest of their lives in constant terror, surrounded by smiling friendly people who would murder them in an instant if they knew the truth, and nobody who saw it happening would even imagine how it could be wrong.

That, to me, is REAL villainy.

Honestly the fact that it’s more realistic villainy is why I typically dislike reading/watching fiction about it.

I like the escapism of the heroes actually being allowed to address the bad guys versus the RL situation where you usually get ignored, victim-blamed, and punished for it because the bad guys are better at PR spin.


So, if that’s so, how can there be any Heroes, if anyone who even thinks about opposing the status quo is immediately and efficiently eliminated? And even if there are, but the Villains are just so competent, you run the risk of Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy, because the Heroes can’t really do anything.

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I like that escapism too, but I don’t get as much satisfaction from defeating a cliched and unrealistic villain. What I really want is to see a really believable story of how a villain like the one I described can actually be beaten, before it gets to the point of becoming unbeatable. The Next Gen episode “The Best of Both Worlds” shows a version of the Borg which isn’t really trying yet, because the heroes are so far below their level that the Borg only send a single ship to try and take out the entire Federation of Planets, and it almost succeeds. So the heroes manage an impossible victory against a foe that’s way above their level (the equivalent of a level 1 D&D character who kills a full-sized dragon with a single lucky critical hit)…and then a sense of incredible dread sets in, with the realization that something far worse is inevitably coming. Which sets up the movie “First Contact”, and that too is amazing (though not quite better than “Both Worlds”).

One example of how this can be handled is to have Our Hero time-travel forward into that future, see how awful and hopeless it is, and then come back to our time with a desperate mission to ensure it never happens. The X-Men’s “Days of Future Past” storyline is a great example. The future it portrays is very bleak, and it’s mostly pretty realistic; instead of Magneto’s “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” (I have a lot to say about that name, but I’ll save the tangent for another time), we get a world where ordinary people have used a bit of fairly mundane technology to get the upper hand against the mutants and wipe them out with cold efficiency, and then back in our time, the X-Men have to figure out how to ensure that never happens. While a lot of soap-opera diversions get in the way of that story playing out really well (the boiled-down version in the fifth X-Men movie is a huge improvement since it lacks these sidetracks, and that movie is my favorite of the entire franchise), the core aspect of that story really encapsulates what I’m talking about here.

There is that concern, for sure; everybody subjectively has their own line between “wow, this show kills a main character in season 1, this is so thrilling and high-stakes and I’m so invested”, versus “there’s no point in getting attached to everyone because they’re obviously all going to die”. Personally, I’m a little more toward the end of enjoying the former enough that I can tolerate the latter, even though I also tend toward the desire to miraculously resurrect those killed-off characters (but in a way that doesn’t cheapen death too much, which is another problem comics in general have).