WHAT MOVES YOUR VILLAIN: EXCUSE VS. DEFENSE

Many, many years ago, when I was still living in suburban Chicago, I went to traffic court. At least back then (I’m fifteen years behind on any developments in Illinois state law) when you got a traffic ticket you could go to court and ask for “supervision.” This was more or less you pleading no contest, promising not to waste the judge’s time with a defense, and more or less throwing yourself on the mercy of the court. If your record was reasonably clean, this was pretty much always granted, and you were sent on your merry way without the cruel and unusual punishment of your crimes being reported to your car insurance carrier. If you got another ticket in the period of supervision, you got shithammered for both of them.

When I lived in Chicago I was among the ranks of the working poor. I could barely afford car insurance as it was, so if I had the slightest infraction, I needed to take that day out to beg for supervision, and that’s what brought me to traffic court on this particular day.

People make fun of traffic court judges. I bet even other judges make fun of traffic court judges. But I bet traffic court is the only time the overwhelming majority of Americans actually see the inside of a courtroom. So these poor beleaguered judges are the only judges we meet in person, and that’s too bad, because traffic court almost never goes the defendant’s way. Everybody has a sob story, and I’ve yet to hear one that was believed, or even listened to with anything like the judge’s full attention. And on this particular day in this particular traffic court, I was ready to see more of these poor bastards throw themselves at the bored judge and the obviously inconvenienced prosecutor to no avail. But then the judge addressed the assembled supplicants and explained the difference between an excuse and a defense. I’ll paraphrase, but this message resonated with me immediately and thoroughly, and I often think back to this vital life lesson.

It boils down to this:

You’re accused of running a stop sign.

A defense: I did not run the stop sign.

An excuse: I ran the stop sign because . . .

In only the rarest of circumstances is the judge interested in why you committed a crime, from the mundane no-accident traffic violation to murder in the first degree. I killed the guy becuase he pissed me off, because he owed me money, because the Godfather told me to, becuase he wouldn’t tell me where he buried the diamonds we stole last week, because he was sleeping with my wife . . .

Those are all, actually, admissions of guilt. There are very, very, very few reasons that you can give for killing someone that will hold water in a court of law. And what this traffic court judge was trying to say was that if your defense is: I was speeding because everybody else was (the “flow of traffic” defense) then all you’ve actually told him is that you were guilty of speeding. If your defense is that I ran the stop sign because there was no traffic coming from the cross street anyway, all you’ve done is admitted to the crime of running a stop sign. Why you did it is an excuse, proving the fact that you didn’t do it is a defense.

That seems logical, right? When that traffic court judge explained it it made perfect sense. I didn’t bother offering either an excuse or defense, asked for supervision, it was granted (I’m a generally safe and responsible driver and my record was as solid then as it is now), I thanked the judge (he seemed surprised by that),  paid a slightly discounted fine, and got the heck out of there. But at least one of my fellow respondents went with the flow of traffic defense and almost to a person, the rest of us audibly groaned.

Last week I mentioned that I had planned to write this, then was made a bit uneasy by what happened in a high school in Ohio, and anyway my attention was drawn to another subject. There’s still an awful lot more that we don’t know about the Chandon, Ohio shootings than we do know, especially as far removed from the situation as I am. I don’t personally know anyone involved, I live a couple thousand miles away, and so on, so I don’t want to pontificate over this still-open wound. Let’s let the authorities in Ohio do their jobs, and the families bury their dead, in peace.

That having been said, when these sorts of high-profile crimes happen, there’s a general rush to judgment in the media, and around water coolers, all over the country, if not the world. In general, people don’t like to think that things just happen, or that someone’s motivations are actually complex, or that someone can do something—anything—without some kind of external stimulus forcing his hand. And when you have to fill up a twenty-four hour news cycle, you can’t say what I just said above: I have no idea precisely what went on and why, and we’ll have to let the right people do their jobs the right way before anything like a clear picture will resolve itself. News readers need to say something on camera, and they need to say it now.

Enter the excuses:

Violent video games are never far behind when teenagers are involved.

It was the internet.

It was Marilyn Manson.

It was bullying.

It was prescription drugs.

It was recreational drugs.

It was child abuse.

It was liberalism.

It was conservatism.

It was gun culture.

It was the War on Christianity.

The only thing about that case in Chandon that I feel I know for sure is that it was none of those things, or one, some, or all of those things, and none of it matters a hoot anyway. If this kid they have in custody shot those kids, he’s guilty of murder. If his lawyer tells us he did it becuase they picked on him, that’s an excuse, not a defense.

I was picked on when I was in school. I was called names and even attacked physically, and I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when bullying was something kids worked out themselves. My childhood much more closely resembled Lord of the Flies than I think my parents could possibly have imagined. We’re way more in our kids’ business now than my parents were—and I didn’t have absentee parents. No one in my neighborhood was supervised to a tenth of what the average American suburban kid is routinely subjected to now.

Back hen we didn’t have violent video games. We had real violence, and make-believe violence acted out in a sort of ongoing live-action role-playing style with toy guns and snowballs.

And despite that law of the jungle upbringing I have never killed anyone. I do not act out violently ever. I do not own a gun, nor do I have any intention of using one against any of my perceived “enemies.” I’m not even sure I could put together a list of “enemies” in the first place.

Bullying is bad and should be stopped. People should learn how to treat each other with dignity and respect, and you’re never too young to learn that. But that’s not a defense for murder. It just isn’t. After all, wasn’t the excuse for the September 11th terrorist attacks pretty much the same thing? Certain radicals in the Middle East felt bullied by America’s neo-colonialist energy and foreign policies (or lack thereof)? Was that an excuse for killing thousands of innocent people? Of course not—as witnessed by the eleven-years-and-counting of war that followed.

Okay then, fantasy and science fiction authors, what about your villains? Have you equipped them with the proper excuses for what they do wrong?

I think one thing that people on the farthest ends of the criminal spectrum, from rolling through a stop sign with no resulting accident all the way through to 9/11 have in common is an excuse. I was in a hurry. The infidel army is too close to Mecca.

And what do heroes have in common? Generally, whether that’s the beat cop on traffic duty or Seal Team Six, the hero doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the villain’s excuses.

Since most fictional villains actually have committed the offenses that drive your story, the defense angle is more or less out the window, though by all means think about that: The villain is accused of something he didn’t do? Hmm. Interesting.

But let’s say he did do that thing—resurrect the demon god that will destroy the world, or hijack the starship that carries the royal family of Deneb in order to hold them hostage—why he did it may be an excuse in legal terms, but when we look back at our own real world history we’ve seen an awful lot of people do an awful lot of terrible things for amazingly stupid reasons. Your villain may be bringing about the end of the world based on a total misunderstanding. He might have a reasonable grievance against the King of Deneb. As long as your reader is able to accept that this is a plausible (ooh . . . there’s that word again) excuse for committing this crime, your villain will work. After all, if we agree that the villain actually didn’t do it, or that he’s acting in the greater good, he isn’t a villain anymore, is he? Ultimately we (as readers) want a villain who’s doing the wrong thing for what he thinks is the right reason, or at least what will ultimately benefit him, and we want to understand that why he’s doing it is just an excuse for doing the wrong thing.

Make those excuses count.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to WHAT MOVES YOUR VILLAIN: EXCUSE VS. DEFENSE

  1. E. A. Hughes says:

    Excellent article. Motivations for villains are one of the trickiest things to get right, in my experience. As writers we naturally tend to focus on the ‘what’ (actions) rather than the ‘why’ (motivation) when it comes to our bad guys, usually because we are solely focused on our protagonist’s arc and the obstacles we want to throw in their way that we tend to forget that Dark Lords Are People Too.

    What are the best and worst motivations you have come across for villains?

    For me:

    Worst = ‘daddy issues’, ie. my parents didn’t love me enough.
    Best = any personal need to do something that could just as easily be felt by your protagonist (I need to save the ones I love; I need to atone for something I have done). That way, the difference between hero and villain comes down to method, which makes things far more interesting.

  2. Great piece, as always. Something i’m prone to saying when talking about character, motivation, and villainy is a third-hand rendition of something i heard years ago in the form of Joss Whedon quoting Willem Dafoe. When asked by a reporter about whether he preferred playing heroes or villains, Dafoe responded that it made no difference to his approach as an actor, because deep down inside, “everybody thinks they’re righteous”. For me, the most interesting villains are those whose righteous excuses are a reflection of the same excuses a hero might use to justify his or her own actions — “I did it for the greater good”, “I did it to save the ones I love”, “I did it because it needed to be done, and everyone else is afraid to do it except me.”

  3. Kameron says:

    I love the communal groan everyone uttered when that guy offered his excuse for speeding. Imagine being able to elicit a similar, if more intense than a groan, reaction from your reader when you reveal your villain’s excuse for his actions. That requires some set up on the author’s part so that the reader has the same understanding you and your fellow traffic court attendees had thanks to the judge’s explanation. Giving a villain motivation is good, but having the reader see through that motivation and accept it is just an excuse is even better.

  4. Pingback: BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XIII: COLUMBINE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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