In the grimdark 90s, I loved villains. All of them. Name a bad guy, and I was ready to sing their praises as a character of depth and interest. The same went for anybody with a whiff of the antihero around them. I wanted gritty, emotionally remote characters with A Past and Things They Don’t Talk About. “Heroes,” I would proudly tell you, “bore me.” I was proud to own that edgy-seeming stance. I found do-gooders tiresome. I was too cool for them. I sneered at my brother’s growing stacks of Captain America comics and considered myself An Intellectual.
In a lot of ways, the reader-writer-fan I was twenty-some years ago is gone. I don’t really miss her. She was too invested in proving something about herself by being tough and pragmatic. She was arrogant and dismissive. I don’t miss trying so hard to assert myself as above any flicker of goodness or virtue.
But mostly, I don’t miss that me because she wanted so badly to rewrite history around creative definitions of right and wrong, because it was fun. It was an intellectual exercise. She had no idea just how dangerous that was.
I managed to get my Twitter feed blown up recently when I shared a screenshot of a panel idea for a con I’ll be attending. It was tentatively titled, “But the Empire was GOOD!” I didn’t propose the panel or craft its language. It’s entirely possible that panel will run in a few months’ time, digging into the “some people say the Empire were the good guys” premise with gusto. Or it might die of lack of interest or get transformed into a different thesis altogether. I’ve raised my concerns with the relevant people; they want a marketplace of interest to decide the programming’s fate.
I sent that tweet because I was startled by the effort to recast what seemed to me transparently obvious: that people who blow up an entire inhabited planet and run the rest of the galaxy like a fascist dictatorship are, indeed, Not Good. One theme that kept surfacing as people responded to the tweet was concern over the way the Star Wars films (and, let’s face it, much of storytelling in general) tempts us to the dark side by making being tough, cruel, remote, and so on cool. Throw in a traumatic backstory or a “they had good intentions at the start” and you have the beginnings of fandom adopting evil apologism.
I don’t have to squint too hard to see that grimdark, middle school me would have played Edgelord right along with the authors of the “the Empire was GOOD!” theory of galactic ethics.
As writers and as readers, it behooves us to consider why we’re so damned interested in the bad guys. We make excuses for them. We mine their backstories, looking for formative traumas, looking for where it all went wrong. We retell stories (Maleficent and Wicked), revisit worlds (Suicide Squad), and retcon a justification for violent coup and dictatorship (Star Wars, episodes I-III) in their name, searching for the nugget that reveals evil is really misunderstood. Or that it’s a misstep. Or something.
I loved my antiheroes, and I still do. Largely, they’re the type of characters I still write. But they work for me now because they know they aren’t good. They know their choices are much more than mere missteps. That’s what gives them a small sliver of grace that might someday be parlayed into redemption.
In part, we like the idea of villains because in their hands, we do wrong by proxy. We watch them act out some of our worst, darkest impulses, and feel the combined satisfaction of seeing dark things done, and the equalizing satisfaction of seeing them prosecuted and punished.
Or at least, we should take satisfaction in the second part. Instead, it seems there’s a slow creep toward villain apologism, toward a tightening of the gap between antihero and villain, and a lowering of the bar a character must cross to be redeemed. We confuse “badness” with “broken-ness” and because we all fear being in some way broken or unforgivable, we give a pass to people who have done unthinkable things. It’s wrong to assume that a broken person is bad, and so we slide the scale of moral expectations, adjust our television sets, and call it critical thinking.
The heroism I turned my nose up at in the 90s was what drove Frank Miller to recast Batman as a traumatized vigilante Goth a decade earlier, shucking off his campy detective roots. But that change also blurred the lines between the caped crusader — now the Dark Knight — and his nemeses in a way they’d never been before. It makes for interesting storytelling, yes. But it has a cost.
In our fannish fascination with darkness as a stylistic mode, pain as storytelling, and redemption as an almost inevitable phase in a villain’s story, we rush to forgive the unforgivable. We praise ourselves for thinking “outside the box,” or for boldly saying things other people are “triggered” by. So what if we think the Empire was good?
“DEBATE ME,” a certain kind of reader howls.
The question to ask is, do you want to be the kind of writer who gives sustenance and succor to Edgelords-for-Edgelording’s sake? To colonial apologism, to ignoring harm in the name of “good intentions,” to “it’s just a thought experiment” when all of these roads lead to a flattening of our understanding of what stories can do?
Stories can interrogate and enrich our sense of right and wrong. They can hollow us out, or fill us up, or do a little of both. They can even change the way we see the world. That, reader, is a great and terrible power. It’s a power that by itself proves that just because an idea can be had, it need not necessarily be given space.
“DEBATE ME!” the Enlightened Edgelord cries.
But here’s the thing:
The debate itself doesn’t create a space to challenge the claim that down is up, and wrong is right. The debate nurtures that claim by giving the claim soil. Ideas don’t need a marketplace to thrive. They’re more like plants than products, able to survive in any environment that gives them a halfway suitable climate and a little bit of sunlight. Some ideas are planted in the soil of “those lives are worth less than this sense of order.” They’re watered with the blood of women, children, the innocent, the non-combatant. They’re bathed in the light of “well, actually.”
Sometimes, the edgier and braver thing to think about — as a writer, or a reader — is that the villains really are bad. Giddily trying to prove something that can only be true if you pull out a slide rule and do the calculus of human cost just because you like being different and not thinking like the sheeple isn’t an act of intellectual courage.
It’s intellectual violence.
So, as you write your next villain and consider whether or not they really are good after all, tread lightly. Think about the seed you’re planting. Think about what you’re asking of your reader, and yourself. And then maybe, just maybe, you’ll create something worthy of a debate.