Writing Tips

Villains Don’t Always Need to be Humanized

By September 9, 2015 18 Comments

Two of my favourite TV shows aired their finale episodes last month. The first show is Hannibal (unfortunately, cancelled by NBC) and the second is Pretty Little Liars. While they are drastically different shows for different audiences, both shows feature a main villain that is portrayed as intelligent, organized, murderous, slightly supernatural and sees people as toys they can control like a puppeteer.

While Hannibal Lecter from Hannibal is impossible to relate to or sympathize with, I understood his motivations much better than A from Pretty Little Liars, who fell apart when the writers tried to humanize her actions.

Key takeaways from the video:

Why Hannibal Was a Great Villain Without Being Humanized

1. His curiosity about humanity makes humanity curious about him.

It’s interesting to watch someone with superhuman abilities orchestrate complicated events and inflict chaos simply to understand what you and I naturally know.

2. He’s an unknown quantity, a puzzle you try to solve (but can’t).

We naturally want to understand the unknown, but we also fear the unknown. Hannibal represents the combination of our fear and intrigue.

3. His actions drive the story, taking it to unexpected and fun places.

Hannibal is motivated by his curiosity first and foremost. While this motivation sounds simple, the cataclysmic events that follow his actions thankfully aren’t.

4. His portrayal is consistent.

Everything he does comes back to him being the devil trying to play God, especially with his need to destroy Will Graham and re-fashion him in his own image.

Why A Was Ruined Because She Was Humanized

1. She reveals that she had a bad childhood.

Who hasn’t?

2. Misunderstood because she was transgender and unstable.

She was sent to a mental institution presumably because of being transgender and also because she was seen as a threat to her siblings. I also hated how they handled the transgender storyline, but that’s another discussion altogether.

3. Hated the four girls because they were ‘happy’ A’s sister disappeared.

How does that justify A’s torturing them for years? Other people have done worse things to A’s family, yet she chooses to focus on the four main girls.

4. Addicted to the game of tormenting people.

Come again?

In Conclusion

A’s mystique was ruined because of a weak origin story designed to (and failed to) humanize her. The reasons given for her actions did not justify the extent of damage that A has caused, and A came out looking more like a caricature rather than a character. Meanwhile, Hannibal’s lack of humanization made him frightening because it’s in his nature to create chaos. It’s just what he does, and you can’t even exploit that.

Villains don’t always need to be humanized. Sometimes, being a complete unknown quantity is scarier than any convoluted backstory you can spin.


Millie’s Note: Who are your favourite humanized or non-humanized villains? Which kind do you prefer?

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • I have to confess to never watching either show, but I get the gist. I once saw someone instruct writers as to the difference between the villain, and the monster. The monster can never be redeemed, even though he usually works for the villain. One of the best movies to see this in is The Untouchables. I lost interest in Once Upon a Time because of the way they handled Regina. She was so predictably snotty/bad, then they tried to redeem her and neither method worked for the character.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Interesting distinction! The monster in this case sounds more two-dimensional than the villain, whose actions usually has a purpose. I suppose that’s because the monster works for the villain, and therefore his/her own motivations are tied with that chain of demand. What’s interesting is if the monster deviates from plan and does his/her own thing.

      Looks like the redemption of a villain usually fails AFTER the villain has taken action but the motivation does not line up with said action.

  • kvennarad says:

    I think Shakespeare would probably disagree with you. He always gave each of his villains his ‘moment in court’, often via soliloquy, by which we understood his humanity. Also he knew that villains could be courageous, that their essential villainy did not necessarily shear from them all the admirable traits of humanity.

    When we’re dealing with psychopaths and sociopaths, people with conditions we have only comparatively recently begun to understand dimly, it’s a different matter. Hannibal falls into this category.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Hannibal isn’t a psychopath. His portrayal on the TV show is that of a supernatural being devoid of a concern for both the right and wrong. I know Shakespeare would disagree with me because it’s a different narrative form, but I’m addressing how not humanizing villains are sometimes a better option when you want to preserve their enigmatic and frightening qualities.

      When a villain admits they do bad things because it’s “in their nature” or “chaos is fun”, they don’t have a weakness for you to exploit. And that’s pretty damn frightening. After watching these shows, I realized that writers don’t always need to relate to villains. Villains with no humanity are sometimes better than villains with humanity.

      • kvennarad says:

        Hannibal is not simply a character in a TV show. He exists in novels and movies. I did not apply the word ‘psychopath’ to him, but generally, groping for words to describe people without recognisable human sensitivities, or lacking in empathy. As it happens ‘devoid of a concern for both right and wrong’ fits the definition perfectly; incidentally was it not Machiavelli in ‘Il Principe’ who described a ruler as being ‘beyond good or evil’?

        As for a different narrative form, how about the novel? The character Ronald Merrick in Paul Scott’s ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ is intelligent, resourceful, and has a lot of personal courage and fortitude, but he is a ruthless social climber and essentially the villain of the novel.

        Other than that I fully take your point about preserving a villain’s frightening aspect by keeping them enigmatic. I have considered that in a couple of (potential) novels, but have often wondered if, these days, it would get past a really critical (in the true sense) review. Still, it is a shot in my locker.

        • Millie Ho says:

          I didn’t take Hannibal’s novel or movie depiction into consideration because he’s more human and understood (i.e.: he’s “merely” a sociopath) in those mediums. The TV show started as a police procedural and morphed into a “pretentious art film” as Bryan Fuller, the showrunner, described, and it’s interesting to see Hannibal take on increasingly surreal and supernatural qualities. Hannibal on the TV show does love, and this love manifests as the devil being seduced by humanity and finally finding someone who can empathize with him. I don’t want to spoil anything for you so give the show a watch if you’d like. It’s a masterpiece. I can analyze TV Hannibal for ages and still have lots to learn.

          Regarding the narrative form, I was referring to soliloquy being a common device in, say, dramatic plays before it fell out of fashion. Not sure how it fits in this context.

          You should give this type of villain a shot in your own work. I’ve recently started considering this as well. Another villain that has pulled this off well is the Joker. He creates chaos because it’s fun for him, and as a result, it’s fun for me.

          • kvennarad says:

            Oh believe me, I do understand the concept and I’ve thought about using it. It’s rather counter-intuitive for me, for the way I write, but I’ve never shut my mind to the idea. It often seems to me that the closer to normality a character is, then the more shocking the warp that sets them out-of-phase with ‘acceptable’ morality. For example, there’s an advert on TV at the moment for a movie called ‘The Visit’, and it is totally bright and cheerful, until a grandma character says to a kid, “Oh, there’s something wrong with my oven – would you climb inside and take a look?” And all of a sudden – Fcuk! – a chill runs through you. I don’t know how the film goes from that moment, whether its ‘villainy’ can be summed up by a ‘-path’ word or remains inexplicable or supernatural, but oh brother is that one creepy advert!

            I might get an opportunity to watch ‘Hannibal’, as there are dozens of TV channels in the UK that do repeat runs. And I like the analogy with the Joker, although I think even in the Heath Ledger incarnation there you’ll still find a hang-back to the simple good/bad dichotomy of the morals of the comic book era, rather than what you describe in the character of Hannibal.

            Soliloquising in plays:
            The analogy in novel-writing is of course the use of an internal monologue, whether in direct, indirect, or free indirect form. As you know, generally speaking I tend to write in first-person, concentrating in a single internal monologue, and asking the readership to use their imagination to extrapolate the motivations, emotions, etc. of other characters. I have stepped away from ‘normality’ in this respect, once, inasmuch as I used as narrator a boy who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It would be very interesting to construct a character whose internal monologue bore no relationship whatsoever to our understood morality – I’ll keep that idea in my back pocket, though I think it’s something that a writer like Brian Aldiss could pull off better than I could.

            Millie, I LOVE these bull sessions of yours!

          • Millie Ho says:

            I’ve seen the same advert! It was one of those surprises that, while designed to horrify, made me laugh out loud. You raise a good point about that surprise factor, though I think Hannibal on the TV series comes across as normal, but there’s a huge heap of dramatic irony and we’re just waiting for what we know about him to become common knowledge for the protagonists as well. I suppose in this case the Joker would be a better contrast since he at no point looks normal or tries to feign normalcy.

            I wonder if writing about a character that can’t be understood conventionally is impossible in first person, since the whole foundation of said character would fall apart once you peek into his/her core. So much of this type of character relies on a certain emotional and intellectual distance to pull off, a quality that is preserved in a third person narration or a first person where the narrator is not this enigmatic character.

            However, the transgressive surrealism in American Psycho, which features a first person narration from an unreliable character (Patrick Bateman, who may or may not have been hallucinating everything) established some of this emotional and intellectual distancing even though the book contained copious internal monologues. I suspect that it may also be easier to write a villain in this vein than it is to write about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s syndrome has a limited amount of differences with established normalcy and behaviours, but villainy boosts an endless amount.

            Let me if you do get to watch Hannibal, and what you think of the series! Great discussion, as always.

          • kvennarad says:

            “I wonder if writing about a character that can’t be understood conventionally is impossible in first person, since the whole foundation of said character would fall apart once you peek into his/her core.”

            Good point!

            Now you raise the first person narration in ‘American Psycho’ you in fact remind me that the novel I am currently writing (in fits and starts) is largely a monologue, and a strangely-constructed monologue at that. The protagonist is – supposedly – an amnesiac, who has to reconstruct her whole world, including the way she expresses herself, from scratch. I ask readers to trust this view, including the constant presence of someone/something else which may or may not be in her mind, the folklorisation and compression of the whole Victorian era in London into a few years of this character’s lifetime, elements of apparent steampunk, the dichotomy of her psychic ability and admitted fakery; the conclusion of the novel will challenge the entire foundation of her account, its trustworthiness and veracity.

            Your comments here have, therefore, given me a lot to think about.

          • Millie Ho says:

            Cool! Let me know how you progress with the monologue. Have you read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson? It’s got the same unreliable narrator vibe, but told through third person. Really interesting book.

          • kvennarad says:

            Heard of it (of course) but not read it.

  • Karen Wan says:

    My favorite villain is Darth Vader of Star Wars. I like that he was humanized in the end. But I get your point that stories can work better sometimes when the villain is not explained. I am currently writing a villain who is mostly unabashedly evil, and I am not going to try to make her look sympathetic either. I am hoping I can pull it off.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Good example! Darth Vader is an interesting villain. While he is humanized in the end, it seems like he turned to the dark side because he felt more strongly than other people. For example, he was wired a certain way whereas you and I probably won’t do the same things he did if we had the same experiences.

      I’d be interested in reading your unabashedly evil villain! It’s so rare to find a villain in this vein that’s both unsympathetic and female.

    • kvennarad says:

      I’m in two minds about Darth Vader. On the one hand his eventual ‘humanising’ felt a wee bit facile. On the other hand, without it he would have been a cardboard cut-out.

  • aetherhouse says:

    I am of a similar mind. Some villains work really well if they’re simply evil to the bone with no redemptive qualities. That’s a great way to make them scary and stronger than the protagonist. And if done well, they can be very interesting rather than generic.

    I think Professor Umbridge is a great example – there is NOTHING human about that woman. She is never offered redemption. She’s just a foul woman and her despicability evokes some of the strongest emotions in Harry Potter’s fan base. Snape and Voldemort have that human backstory to make them sympathetic, but the story demands that both of them be sympathetic. Umbridge did not need that. The reader needed to be terrified of what she could do, because the stakes in Book 5 really depended on that.

  • jmsabbagh says:

    Hi,great analogy , a villain is a villain in every play and novel ,there won’t be any climax.Regards.

  • bg says:

    Villainy and humanity are one and the same, we just choose to give them different meanings . That is why we don’t like it when villain characters are humanised.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Interesting point. However, I’d argue that some villains get better when they’re humanized (well) because they’re relatable. Some of us like to see the darker parts of ourselves in page, doing the things we can never do in real life.

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