What does the Joker have in common with Michael Corleone?
Meet my two favorite villains of all time. From a creative writing perspective, I am fascinated by what makes these guys tick. They represent two conflicting ideas of what it means to be “evil,” and they also represent two very different ideas about how the world works.
As a human being, there are two things I refuse to believe in: hell, and pure evil. Not so much for political reasons as epistemological ones. Saying “thou shalt not kill else you’ll burn in hell” is too facile a reason to build up a superego buffering you from your primal urges. Not because the statement is objectively wrong, but because it puts up a wall beyond which nothing need be explored. After all, if there is no hell, what’s to stop you from acting on your worst impulses? While that hypothetical may frighten the fundamentalist, it’s a meaningful question for the secularist. Many take this meme quite seriously: that all people are either fundamentally good or evil and that civilization is a fragile balance keeping us comfortably complacent, but that some impending doom is close at hand that will strip away that veneer of law and order and plunge us into apocalyptic chaos. (I hear it used in radio advertisements to sell safes, guns, gold, and freeze-dried food.)
This is the Joker archetype. This is a vision of the world in which demons roam the earth in human form, with green hair and purple suits trying to usher in the end times. What’s scary about this character is there’s no reasoning with him. He embodies what Jungians like to call the shadow aspect, that part of us we’re most ashamed of, that anarchic impulse that has us itching to shoot a home invader or rear end a slow driver. The thought that “I have these impulses, but I am basically a good person in control over them” leads one to the thought “but there are basically evil people out there with little to no control over them who would do me harm given the chance.” This projection misinforms our ideas of real-life villains, from Ted Bundy to Adolf Hitler to Al Capone to common looters. Purifying this archetype, stripping it of all human capacity, leads writers to fictionalize their own shadows: the Joker, the White Witch, Mr. Hyde, Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Count Dracula, Mr. Kurtz, and of course, the all-time, best-villain-name trophy-holder, Cruella de Vil.
These are fantasy villains though, for the most part. They are scary because they tap into our inner mythos of evil, and our instinctive association of erratic, predatory, and harmful behavior with chaos, darkness, and void. Real villains are more nuanced. I prefer Godfather Part 1 because it shows Michael’s arc. He starts off as a good soldier who loves his family but rejects their “way of doing things.” Saving his father’s life from an attempted hit, then confronting the would-be assassin’s architect “radicalizes” him (in today’s parlance), turning him back to his family’s tutelage. Revenge is his primary motivator, reason his ultimate weapon and guiding principle. In fiction, this better resembles fiendish anti-heroes: the Count of Monte Cristo, Peter Pan, Gordon Gekko, Jay Gatsby, Huck Finn, Becky Sharp, Shylock, Beetlejuice, and Jason Bourne.
These villains are scary because we can empathize with them. We can understand their grievance and against our better judgement, root for them. These characters don’t speak to our inner darkness, but to our appreciation for cosmic justice, and the horrific cost of it. One of my favorite quotes is Al Capone’s “I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand.” How much blood was shed to satisfy this man’s cool, rational, purely capitalistic vision casting himself a tragic hero in a world of crooked cops and politicians? Which brings me to my last point.
Better writers write grayer villains. Better villains shatter that wall that says “he did this evil deed because he’s just an evil guy.” That wall, left erected, gives you the Jabba-the-Hutts of the literary world. But tear that wall down, give your villain a life and a history and a worldview and a rationalization, and you will draw readers (and yourself) into that uncomfortable space of justifiable evil. It is these gray areas that have probably formed your real-world, personal idea of good and evil, and channeling that into your fiction goes a long way toward exploring the human condition in an original way.
“The myth of pure evil bedevils our attempt to understand real evil.”