I’ve heard this one before and the best answer I can give is… no. The bad guy or villain in a story does not necessarily have to be evil at all. When Chancellor Palpatine said that goodness is a point of view in Revenge of the Sith, despite how self-serving his remark was, he was actually right on many different levels.

There are actual philosophies out there that good and evil are actually just varying degrees of one another. Where one person may say that what they’re doing is for the greater good, another might call it the lesser evil. In the end, good and bad in many cases are largely based around one’s own morals and values.

Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?

From one of the greatest literary classics, Les Miserables. Javert is the bad guy. There is no getting around this. He is the chief antagonist and the villain of this story. What do we know about him? Well… he’s a self-made man who was born in a prison, living around the worst France had to offer. He worked his way up from there and became a prison guard, and then a police officer.

He spends his life hunting a man who broke into another home, robbed it, and attempted to flee. After being caught and spending time in jail, that man breaks his parole and takes up a fake identity. Okay, now I know that this is a gross over-simplification of the circumstances around Jean Valjean, but it’s the basic jist of the situation.

Now, looking at the two characters based on those descriptions alone, who would the good guy be? Not knowing the rest of the story, you’d probably guess Javert and you wouldn’t really be wrong to. This is not an evil man. He’s a man with a very basic view of right and wrong and believes whole-heartedly in value of Law and Order, so much so that when his view is challenged, his mind simply cannot handle it.

So why is Javert a bad guy? Because he’s the antagonist from the perspective of Valjean, whome this story is the focus of. This is what I mean by point of view. The same can be said for Terry Benedict from Oceans Eleven. He’s a successful businessman who makes it a point to know everything about the people who work under him. He actually takes the time to ask his doorman how the new baby is doing. He’s even accomodating to special requests in his casinos. Yes his priorities are a litle out of whack and he’s a little ruthless with people who cross him, but that kind of comes with business.

Again, not evil. Not really even what I’d consider a bad guy, vs. the gang of theives and tricksters who we’re supposed to be cheering for.

So Jim, does that mean that you don’t believe in the concept of pure evil?

No, definitely not. There are some examples that breach all lines of morality and ethics right down to the basic core of right and wrong. Let’s go to the most typical example, Adolf Hitler. What he did and how he did it breached those lines. Now one could argue that maybe he did what he did because he saw it as the greater good and what he was doing was a necessary evil… well… honestly I’ve never seen any evidence that Hitler acknowledge that what he was doing was in any way wrong.

I can also say that in my own experience, I’ve met people that in my opinion, would fall under the umbrella of pure evil. I will cite one specific example… I used to work at a program that took kids out abusive homes, took kids that parents simply couldn’t handle anymore, and/or kids who were awaiting DSS placement.

Let me preface what I’m about to say by saying that I love kids. I have some of my own, I gave up the first few years of my professional life to work with kids, I donate as much as I can in both time and money, and always drop off a lot of presents to Toys for Tots at Christmas time. I’m all about kids. So when I was working at this program, I made myself a promise to never give up on any of those kids, never.

Sadly… I broke that promise. There was this one kid who’s mother couldn’t handle his behavior anymore. He would hurt other kids, cause the other kids to get in trouble, hurt animals, and destroy things… why? Because he thought it was funny and it entertained him. During his stay, he sent multiple kids and staff to the hospital, myself included.

I remember one night he ran away from our program and went home to his mother’s house. The program director called down to the residence and said that one of us had to pick him up… if we didn’t and the police were called in, this was his third strike and he might not be returning. Down the list, the five of us crossed our arms and refused to go get him.

Then they turned to me. I crossed my arms and said, “No… I’m sorry, but it’s my life, my livelihood and my insurance on the line if he decides to try to cause problems while I’m driving. I do not feel comfortable getting behind the wheel of car with him as a passenger, nor do I think he belongs here. You don’t pay me enough to put that much on the line.”

The director obviously wasn’t happy, but what’s done was done. This was one kid that I had completely given up on. Why, because I don’t think a kid who would light a forest on fire just for the pleasure of watching it burn can be helped.

Jim, come on! He was just a kid! You really think he was Pure Evil?? Maybe he had mental deficiencies! Did you ever think about that?

Every day of my life from the moment he showed up to the moment he left. However here’s the problem, how many of the people we consider evil have mental deficiencies? Take a look at Hitler’s life before he became the ruthless dictator. Secondly, there’s a reason that the insanity defense only goes so far, which is why it rarely holds water in court. There has to be a level of personal responsability. We can’t chalk everything up to mental disorder. Everyone has problems, everyone had a parent who was either too overbearing or not caring enough and we all dealt with it differently. Its a fact of life.

All right… so what about pure good?

Well… that one is a little harder to do, but yes I think in many cases there are obvious choices that are the right and morally and ethically good ones.

So that’s where my opinion on the whole concept stands. True/Pure good and evil exist, but they aren’t as common as people may think. More often than not, good and bad are a point of view and are largely abitrarily based on perspective of those watching and whomever a narrative follows.

Take it with a grain of salt.


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2 Comments on “Does a Bad Guy Have To Be Evil?

  1. Great ideas about both writing and living here.

    My favorite example of an antagonist who isn’t really evil is Magneto from Xmen. A Holocaust survivor who lost both parents, he sees humans as a threat to mutants, and is determined to stop them. He chooses bad means for a good end.


  2. I actually on my 5th draft of Tale of the Cattail Forest= that book is close to being finished. I love that book. My antagonist, Sarge, isn’t a villain- yes, he is a bully, but he isn’t evil at all. He grew up with an abusive father, and had to live on his own beginning at only 13, and he became the leader of the Toads at at that age.

    One of the most common misconceptions about Les Mis is that Javert is a villain. Javert is only an antagonist.


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