I’ve never been real crazy about declaring alignment for characters. If you have a Good character and he’s homeless and penniless and he steals some bread to survive, does that make him not Good anymore? What about a man who kills someone in a jealous rage but is otherwise good? Is he now “evil” or is he still a good guy who made a horrible mistake?
In cartoons and crappy movies, the bad guys do bad things because they’re EVIL. That’s simply the way it is. A realistic villain probably won’t see burning, raping, and pillaging as acts of blackest evil. They’ll see it as “Things To Do Wednesday Afternoon”. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a bad person. The human mind has a lot of powerful emotional defenses against this. My favorite of these is called cognitive dissonance, in which a person’s mind perceives reality in a way that supports what the person believes. Any ideas presented that challenge these beliefs are almost always discarded (and in many cases, violently attacked). Through this, our villain can justify what he’s doing in a variety of ways that relieve him of the responsibility of his actions:
It’s YOUR fault!
The reason I’m burning down your house? You didn’t pay the protection money that you clearly owe.
I was just following orders.
A character works for someone who asks him to do something reprehensible. He may be motivated by fear or material wealth but in his heart he knows damn well it’s not right — so he justifies it by “just following orders”. This is not to say that a mistake flips the switch and makes a character evil all of a sudden, but if this character continues to do this sort of thing and starts thinking of this as “normal” behavior…. what then? What better way to relieve yourself of guilt than to relieve yourself of the responsibility of your own actions? Don’t blame me! Blame the Dark Lord!
Cold, Emotionless Logic.
It’s a whole lot easier to do bad things if you just view it as a bunch of stats and abstract concepts. For instance, deaths turn into “acceptable losses”.
A sense of entitlement.
You can do whatever you want because you DESERVE IT. Whoever invented prima noctis was totally into this. The right to deflower all virgins in the land because you’re the lord of the place, dammit — that’s some USDA A-1 prime grain-fed angus entitlement right there.
A variation on this can occur if someone justifies their actions by declaring someone else deserves a particular fate. They may not even know the reasons for this. “My family has been enslaving the dwarves for 87 generations, there’s nothing wrong with it, and I don’t see any reason why it should change now!”
You fools have no idea of the power you are dealing with.
A massively inflated ego is a wonderful tool for dismissing naysayers. And when you cultivate it long enough to get dreams of world domination, you say cool things like the previous statement! You can’t believe you’re doing anything wrong when you won’t listen to anybody. Yours is the only opinion worth listening to, and who cares that it stopped being grounded in reality decades ago?
Once again, evil people are still people. They still have to live with themselves somehow — even if that means descending into a big pit filled with neuroses. The really scary part is that in many cases, this isn’t even a conscious decision. The easiest way to live the lie is to believe it yourself.
Emotion: The Root Of All Evil
Any Jedi master worth his stylish burlap robes will tell you that strong emotions lead to the Dark Side. In many cases, they’re right. People frequently do bad things when their feelings overwhelm them and distort the world to their eyes and minds. If you look at the justifications above, you’ll see emotion at the root of every last one.
When a person wants something badly enough, they might start doing morally questionable things to get it. This could be anything: money, power, sex, even love. Countless evils have been rooted in desire.
Fear and Anger
You get someone scared or angry enough, and you’ll find that their perception of morality (and even reality) shift. In their head, committing horrible acts upon the cause of those feelings may seem perfectly justified!
Who knows how many the Green-Eyed Monster has claimed over the millenia? A person who bottles the anger over an unrequited love or envy over wealth or power that he feels should rightfully be his may eventually vent those feelings, and may the gods help those in the way.
This might seem an odd one to you, but consider this: the person with the blackest thoughts in the universe will never be a villain unless they actually do something. Such a person finding a reason to act may simply be the spark that touches off the explosion.
Of course, simply acting on one’s emotions doesn’t make one evil, even if those actions are utterly wretched. It may, however, make one a villain. Take that and a suit of black plate mail, and you’ve got yourself a campaign. More or less.
Later in this series, I’ll discuss how to play a villain so that you might better torture your poor, hapless players. Until next time!