Villains and evildoers

Quite a few times I’ve played the villain of LARPs, and over the years I’ve seen a development in the way I’ve tried to play and portray these characters. Most profound was the impact the latest villainous character had on me. In november of 2014 I participated in the College of Wizardry LARP in Poland. It was a magnificent and amazing experience.

At this LARP I was given the character of Octavius Landsvik. A pureblood with a vendetta. He’d lost everything after the Second Wizarding War in ’98, and blamed just about everything around him for the hardship he’d endured.

They wanted a villain? Well, wish granted! You’ll give them all a villain all right, one they truly deserve.
The character description for O. Landsvik

While the experience was awesome, the character read to me as a bit one-sided. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that often villains are evil, but it’s rarely explained what led them down that specific path. What influenced them to choose to hurt people? What happened in their past to shape their perception of reality, so what they do is somehow perceived by themselves to be okay?

In Landsviks case it was a combination of things that led to his unfortunate demise. He lost nearly his entire family overnight after the war in ’98. After that times became tough, and he watched as his father (an already weak man previously ruled over by a fierce and stern matriarch) crumble further and removed himself from the world. Now at that time Landsvik would’ve been 7 or 8, and so I imagined that experience to be the start of his downward trajectory. Unable to understand why, it was only natural for a kid at that age to get a feeling of immense injustice.

Now, granted, these thoughts are shaped around the fact that I don’t believe any person is born evil. We’re also not born good. But we are given choices and options during our lives. And it’s those decisions that ultimately end up defining the kind of person we are.

The choices we make dictate the lives we lead.
William Shakespeare in Hamlet

To me, the most interesting and scary villains are the ones you can relate to. You might object to their actions. You might find them reprehensible and despicable. But on some basic level you can understand their actions, because maybe – just maybe – you’d do the same if you were in their shoes.

That’s what I tried to do with Landsvik. He wasn’t inherently evil or bad. He was angry and desperate. He felt isolated and alone, even amongst his friends. And so he relied on the only person he believed he could trust – himself. And like many young adults he greatly misjudged his own capabilities. The story ended in tragedy when he was sentenced to death for his crimes, which subsequently led to his girlfriends suicide, when she learned what had happened to him.

Of course, evil is rarely this easy or convenient. In the real world evil often springs from psychosis or a warped moral compass. Some people simply do not possess compassion, and horrific events take place each and every day. But once we start to delve into the self-rationalisations and motivations of people who can at best be described as aberrant, it can at times become increasingly difficult not to empathise with them. Most come from broken homes, having experienced massive trauma during their younger years. While we can’t point to a single event that ruined a person (that would also be massively reductive), we can often see, retroactively, the path that ultimately ruined the person.

You might as well ask why a middle-aged man with no criminal record might put a paper bag over his head and rob a bank. I acted out of personal desperation.
Aldrich Ames

But evil is an interesting concept if portrayed correctly. I think it’s because when we’re presented with villains we can relate to, we’re presented with the fact that we all have great capacity for evil. It’s part of human nature, and it’s something we’re all capable of. The only difference is whether we’ve been pushed or moved to a point where we can justify and rationalise these acts.

I think, what I mean is that being evil for the sake of being evil quickly becomes one-dimensional. Where evil with motives you can understand, and perhaps relate to, creates a much more compelling and chilling narrative.