Rumpelstiltskin’s Good Intentions: A Case for Nuanced Villains

Our listener Michael Lucero felt so moved by another listener’s comments he felt compelled to write this letter defending the show’s portrayal of villains. A lot of good points (even if we do enjoy a little mustache twirling every now and then). Thanks, Michael! You can check out more of his work at his website.

​Hey Bill & Anne Marie, 
Yes, as you probably guessed from the subject line of this email, this is going ​​to be another long-winded, philosophical letter. 
I wanted to respond to the listener who said they wish that Once could have some villains who weren’t evil just because they’d gone wrong somehow in the past (I’m paraphrasing; I don’t remember their exact wording) but because they were evil for evil’s sake. While I do agree that the show needs to find some more original motivations for the characters, and that the villain’s story arcs seem to have very few differences in terms of their emotional histories, I absolutely do not want to have someone who is evil for evil’s sake, for the simple reason that this would be very boring and yet another example of lazy writing. 
Why? Because this would be a completely simplistic and and unrealistic image of human nature. We often complain that stories are too black and white, but what we usually mean is that the heroes are too good, with very little flaws. Well, this would be an apt complaint for a story that had a villain who is too evil, too perfectly black, with few or no good motivations or good moments in their history. 
The fact is, it’s impossible, in the real world, to want evil just for evil’s sake. It’s simply not how the human mind works, or any spiritual mind, I would say. The most evil figures you can think of, in history or in stories, wanted things that were ultimately good, or that in their minds were seen as good, but were chasing those goals in evil, twisted ways with evil, twisted thoughts. That’s what evil is: good, but twisted, taken in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong circumstances. 
Even if the motivation is to make sure that one is never threatened again, or that one can rule over everyone else, or that one can avenge the death of a loved one, those evil motivations are at heart a desire for something good (safety, order, justice), but pursued in twisted, inappropriate, ignorant, and incommensurate ways. 
I also disagree that Rumpel was evil for evil’s sake, even though at this point, he seems the most consistently . The entire story is his quest to redeem his past mistakes, to reunite with his son, and now, after his son is killed, to make sure he can never be in a situation where his family is in danger again. His actions are deceitful, self-centered, obsessive, manipulative, and exploitative. Yet the basic desires at the heart of his motivation is love, and the desire to protect the ones he loves. 
Does this justify what he does? Absolutely not. The fact that evil is dependent on good for its own existence does not in any way make evil a legitimate thing. Nor does it make the evil actions less deserving of our hatred. But it does mean that the person comitting the evil warrants sympathy, and especially pity. 
There’s a lot more that could be said about this, but I’ve already written a long enough letter, which I don’t expect you to read on the show. But it’s been bugging me that people on this podcast, and definitely on others as well, are making this sort of remark, when a purely evil villain is just as unrealistic as a purely good hero. 
Keep up the great work, and thanks for the #PrisonBill shoutout! Take care, 
Michael Lucero

This entry was posted in Letters.

3 thoughts on “Rumpelstiltskin’s Good Intentions: A Case for Nuanced Villains

  1. While I agree with most of that, it IS possible to have a mentally ill sort of ‘evil.’ There ARE mental illnesses in the world that stem unmotivated evils. Joker types / psychopaths. The types that just biologically are just so unhinged and disconnected from reality, that there’s really no emotional motivation – they’re just warped mentally as all hell.

    Some of the people could mean those types? Where it’s not about revenge, or self protection or motivation, but where it’s about “just wanting to watch the world BURN.” (Or freeze, or curse… so on and so forth.) Heck, Snow White’s Queen was evil born of vanity. Some people DO like that. Those kinds of people DO exist without sob stories. I’ve known a good handful – there are quite a few rich, vain CA girls who bully and are just downright evil (telling people online they’re ugly and should go die) or doing evil things on a smaller scale…

    and some of these girls have great parents! Good lives… so… what gives? They just ended up being little shits. Regardless of a decent home life, and no known experience of bullying or whatever.

    But yeah,

    I also personally like Eris character types. The Goddess of Discord doesn’t have rhyme or reason for spreading chaos – except that it is her nature and she believes it to be the natural ‘order’ of things. That’s a type often viewed as inherently evil, while having no abandoned at birth, lost a child / lover, shunned / bullied, ect kind of backstory.

    So it can exist, I believe. It’s just not as common, and also not ‘as relatable’ I suppose. I know cause I’m working on being a TV writer. You want to aim for relatable villains (reality ones) rather than twirling mustache two-dimensional evil. But hey, a lot of people do like watching that without reason. See: 80’s cartoons. Villains were just villains. No one cared if Cobra Commander had a backstory or not. Or Shredder. Or Skeletor. (But then they started giving them backstories, and ask fanboys- they thought it was lame.)

  2. I still think all those episodes fall under the “evil based on good” or “evil as good twisted” rule. An insane Joker type of evil takes something originally good and whole — rationality, mental health, a sense of humor, and twists it, so that what could have and should have been good is now ruined. If the Snow Queen, is ruled by vanity (I’m not sure that’s the case, but I won’t argue that here), well, vanity is only the wish that people would appreciate a person as much as they believe they should be appreciated. What is wanted there, appreciation, is itself ultimately a good thing.

    I’m not saying that all villains should have sob stories, or stories that make you understand where they’re coming from. I’m just saying that there cannot be any such thing as evil for evil’s sake. Let me rephrase that. There cannot be any rational and realistic such thing as evil for evil’s sake. Evil is still evil; evil uses bad methods, and its ends are wrong, but what evil wants is at its core something basically good, even if that good is buried by a million delusions, twisted thoughts, or hateful and selfish emotions.

    I’m not saying there can’t be that kind of cartoon villain. But you yourself confessed that they’re two-dimensional and not realistic. All I’m arguing for is realistic characters. The story itself, its trappings, its plot devices, its flora and fauna, can all be as fantastic as the writers can dream up. That’s the point of fantasy — it brings reality into greater focus by putting reality in new, fresh trappings. But if the characters, if the dynamics between them, are unrealistic, the to me the whole show just becomes fluff at best.

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