When you look at any story, true or fictional, you will notice that there is no story without conflict. That can be a great, hostile force, or (usually) an enemy that needs to be defeated. On the rare occasion, the villain is the main character, and it’s a story about their redemption or about how they only become even worse (such as There Will be Blood). Regardless, pretty much all stories about the evil (or perceived-as-evil) force at work. Stories are never about the good guy(s) just going around being good, in all their goody goodness.
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Why is this? Why would that be completely uninteresting? Even Disney, with their flagship children-oriented, family-focused works, always have a villain, dating all the way back to 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I think this is because ‘goodness’ is too simple. It’s not because deep down we all wish we could be evil, I really do think it’s because good guys are just not interesting, at least not without some darkness. We can follow a good guy indefinitely, book after book, movie after movie, because we always expect them to be good. They’re always going to do good-guy things, for the sake of being good. It’s kind of the same reason we don’t care for villains who are evil just for the sake of being evil (like Jafar from Aladdin). If someone is good, we need to know why, and it can’t be as watered down as, “Because I want to do the right thing.” The audience needs to know why they believe in what they believe, same with the villain.
But it goes deeper than that. Individual stories (especially but not solely in comic-superhero stories, whether it is a certain issue or a movie release, or a book volume) are about the villain because there are countless reasons people do evil things. Being good, on the other hand, is almost never complicated or nuanced … it just is. Good for the sake of being good. Straying away from good, whether a little or a lot, can have countless reasons behind it.
Sometimes, villains aren’t evil, they’re just focused on a goal that goes against what the protagonist wants/needs. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the principal is the villain, but he actually has a good reason for what he’s trying to do. This kind of proves that sometimes ‘villains’ actually have a good point, and it’s the protagonist who’s misguided.
The moral of every story ever told is: Things aren’t always what they seem.
‘Bad guys’ make us think. Only they can keep us interested in a story. They’re the ones who teach us new lessons. They’re the ones who prove life isn’t as simple as ‘being good.’ It’s not just about the entertainment value of seeing bad people do bad things, it’s about the nuance. Most important of all is the fact that life itself wouldn’t be worth living without struggle – without opposition – much like no work of fiction would be worth consumption if nothing wrong happened in the story. Nobody opens a book hoping to see the protagonist walking up to the girl of his dreams, confessing his love, and she just says, “Sure, let’s get married right now,” and that’s literally all that happens. Nobody wants to watch a Spider-Man movie where nobody steals anything and nobody becomes the villain-of-the-month. But we also don’t just want to see the two sides clash, we want a reason for why they clash at all. We won’t care if there’s no reason to care, and without conflict, there’s no possible way to care in the first place.
In my book series, Remnant, I made it so that every character is neither the ‘good guy’ or the ‘bad guy.’ Everyone is both. The real antagonist of each book, and the series as a whole, is human nature itself. An important fact about human nature is: Once you become evil, it will control you forever, whether that is your actions, your overwhelming guilt, or both.
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