Random thoughts: The good guy ideology

Many who are following “Steins;Gate’s” latest developments are marveling over Okabe’s newfound depth of character. Some people love that he’s willing to break a few rules in order to save Mayuri. They call this character development; they praise Okabe’s three dimensionality. Similarly, though not quite parallel, some commentators are astonished to see that Nezumi of “No.6” is well versed in the humanities. It’s as if, somehow, an interest in the theatrical arts counterbalances Nezumi’s single-minded hatred of the walled city central to the anime’s plot. Here’s a young man willing to let an entire city full of innocent (albeit misguided) civilians die, but his ability to cross-dress as Ophelia nevertheless softens his character.

Contrast Okabe and Nezumi with their enemies: the faceless, nebulous agents of SERN and the faceless, nebulous agents of No.6. While on the other hand, our heroes are multifaceted do-gooders with rough edges and dark sides, our villains are nothing more than machines of oppression. SERN, previously an organization of physicists, seek only world domination. No.6, arising from the ashes of humanity’s own destruction, only wishes to dominate and control its people. We uphold complexity in our heroes and yet we paint our enemies in broad strokes. Isn’t there something cynical, manipulative and dishonest about this? What this goes to show is that good guys aren’t just complex, but that they get to be complex. They have doubts and worries — they get to be human just like us. That’s not usually the case for villains.

Here’s an interesting anecdote from Lars Von Trier:

My very first film, “The Orchid Gardener,” opened with a caption stating that the film was dedicated to a girl who had died of leukemia, giving the dates of her birth and death. That was entirely fabricated! And manipulative and cynical, because I realized that if you started a film like that, then the audience would take it a lot more seriously.

I’ve recently amused myself with the internet reactions to Mayuri’s multiple deaths. Here’s a paper-thin character with almost no relevancy to the plot whatsoever but she somehow unites the audience. They now follow Okabe’s mission with a heightened sense of earnestness. All of a sudden, the audience now “take it a lot more seriously.” But if we just think back a bit, isn’t this a bit odd? Okabe’s initial goal was to prevent the SERN takeover of the world and yet the story doesn’t gain a sense of urgency until a cute character dies. Somehow, the larger goal of saving the world fails to sufficiently humanize Okabe’s character. The mission to save one’s childhood friend, on the other hand, gains the necessary gravitas to make most of us sit up and pay attention. Even though Mayuri’s death is inconsequential in the larger scheme of humanity’s existence, it is ironically that which humanizes Okabe’s mission!

Some will argue that they prefer evil to be “pure evil,” whatever that means; they are tired of villains with sob stories and tragic pasts. They like an evildoer they can’t understand. They prefer evildoers to commit sins just because. Don’t make villains evil because their mothers died at a young age or that they were picked on in high school. People say that this weakens the villains and makes them less threatening. Isn’t this, however, exactly the problem? We prefer to hate on the Other — it’s much easier to justify as opposed to hating a fellow human being.

There’s a saying that goes, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” The people behind “Steins;Gate” and “No.6” want to make it easy for the audience to identify with each anime’s respective protagonist. So how do we accomplish this? By only humanizing the heroes. Our heroes might like to read Shakespeare; perhaps they’re doing what they do for a childhood friend. On the other hand, the villains get no story so they are simply the Other. Of course, there’s a limit to this line of thinking. Slavoj Zizek astutely points out that no story could possibly humanize Hitler’s monstrosity. Still, there’s something to be said about our refusal, in Zizek’s own words, to subjectivize the Other; in our own stories, we have an ideology of good that we prefer to keep untainted. We don’t want to humanize the villains. We just want to hate them.

Why are we so surprised, then, when people in real life form baseless prejudices against one another? Why are we so astonished when we see bigots generalize and stereotype the targets of their hatred? Our practices start at the very core of human experience, i.e. human storytelling. In our stories, we rarely give an inch to our villains. We don’t often allow our stories’ villains to become anything more than a one-dimensional target of hate. Why, then, would we practice otherwise in real life?

23 thoughts on “Random thoughts: The good guy ideology

  1. 2DT

    Interesting re: Hitler. There’s a manga adaptation of Mein Kampf, and– horror of horrors– it’s actually pretty good, and makes the Führer into a very compelling character.

    But I understand your wider point. This seems like a specifically anime-fandom sort of problem, if we can call it a problem. We don’t actually want the complexity we say we want.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I haven’t heard of this “Mein Kampf” adaptation — I barely read manga. Sounds kinda silly.

      I dunno if I’d call it a specifically anime-fandom sort of problem. I think the examples are a little more subtle in other media, however. Zizek wrote on the same topic, but he targeted the dishonesty and one-sidedness of “Munich.” To Zizek, Spielberg had given “realism” to the Mossad agents in order to redeem them when the Mossad agents had no psychological doubts in reality (quoted as saying they simply did what they had to do).

  2. Richfeet

    This Article is kind of like One piece. Fans know more about the pirates than the marines. The marines are the good guys. but they are one dimensional. most of them. they are both sides to an argument. I know the other side could be fleshed out more, but at the end of any story, one side’s got to win. On the other hand, I think Zuko’s a humanized villain wouldn’t you agree? If they can be reasoned with, Then they wouldn’t be a villain. Just another human being right? I hope I didn’t misunderstand your article.

    1. E Minor Post author

      On the other hand, I think Zuko’s a humanized villain wouldn’t you agree?

      I don’t watch One Piece. I wouldn’t know a Zuko.

      If they can be reasoned with, Then they wouldn’t be a villain.

      Well, that’s the thing — we assume our “villains” in real life can’t be reasoned with. When people say stuff like “Homosexuals are out to destroy America,” they don’t really want to sit down and reason with their homosexual “opponents.” They just generalize and demonize and we wonder how these people can be so single-minded. Well, I’m saying that we grow up with stories that are simplistic — parables of pure good vs. pure evil. Why should it then surprise us when people apply this binary belief to the real world?

      1. Richfeet

        We see our lives through stories sometime. we want a beginning middle and end. We see the world through one pair of eyes. We definitely don’t see ourselves as villains through our point of view. So we make enemies of other people to conquer. The thing is, there is no happily ever after as we grow up. Life goes on, but anime ends. Does Humanizing villains in anime makes the protagonist’s resolve weaker or stronger? I just mean should get run over buy the opposing side the to see if they show restraint of brutality? That would be quite a gamble wouldn’t it?

        1. E Minor Post author

          Well, it’s fiction. You can make up any threat you want. I’m just saying that there’s something suspicious about the idea that all villains are brutal and heartless.

  3. inushinde

    I think villains gain much more likability once they’re characterized. I mean yeah, for run n’ gun type media, it’s not really a necessity. But when you have something that at least attempts to build layers of complexity through characterization of the protagonists, it had best do the same for the villains if it wants to be something completely memorable. Of course, some of the best villains are villains just because, but knowing that there’s gravity to the action makes what they’re in that much better to me.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Of course, some of the best villains are villains just because

      What are some examples in you opinion?

  4. catchercatch

    There goes a widely spread rule in screenwriting that has relevance to your topic. This is the rule that the main character of a work should always be empathetic, but not always sympathetic. The reason for this is as follows: if the audience can feel empathy for the character, then they can connect. Once the audience connects with the character – mission successful – as the audience realizes ::why:: certain things are being done, and can feel what the character feels. You come to want what they want.

    I won’t get into the depth that that topic deserves here, but the most relevant part to your lecture is this, and what I wanted to add: there exists no such rule for antagonists. Certainly, there are works that give them a human aspect, giving them as much depth as the protagonists and sometimes even more. On the other hand, there are “villains for the sake of being villains” antagonists that have just as much depth, if not more, as the protagonist.

    Of course, those two aren’t what you’re talking about. You’re talking about the “faceless” villain, the one that is truly what can be considered pure evil by our moral standards. You bring a very good point with this topic, when you relate this to real-life expectations. At this point, you can’t shift the blame to “it’s good for the narrative”; no, people want a standard for villains that is separate from the protagonists. They want to find an easily recognized person in the protagonist and throw the blame of everything on to the antagonist. Very good article.

    1. E Minor Post author

      You reminded me of the chicken and the egg problem: are storytellers responsible for creating the poor characterizations in villains that we’ve come to know, or are they simply just giving the audience what they want, i.e. only the good guys get to be complex to an ideological degree? I guess if I had to lean one way, I’d lean toward the latter. Of course, what explains our love for this one-sided portrayal of conflicts? This sociological impulse might be out of my depth so I won’t try to answer it now.

      1. catchercatch

        I would say that the case primarily shifts towards the latter. As for what explains our love for a one-sided conflict, I think that while “it’s easy to hate” primarily encapsulates the majority, I’m going to try and reach a bit deeper. I’m no psychology buff by any means, so forgive me if I sound like I’m reaching for more than what’s necessary (or I sound completely insane, because that wouldn’t be a first).

        It’s hard to recognize your own faults. It’s even harder to admit to your own evils. When a villain is humanized, what’s been done is that the character is now relatable on the most base level. Once you can feel empathy for him, you can start to want what he wants, and start to rationalize why he would want it. I think that the reason the love of “paper-thin” villains is that the audience doesn’t want to associate with the “evil” of the story. I feel that being able to justify “evil” actions is possibly a horrifying prospect to the audience. There is a subconscious shirking away from the recognition that the villain is just as deeply human as we are. They don’t want to be able to empathize with two characters that are just as human as each other and have to be torn to support the “hero” just because he is the main character.

        1. E Minor Post author

          I think that’s the rub — in the real world, there’s hardly any real evil, but we grow up with the idea of good vs. evil ingrained into almost anything that will contain a narrative. Even sports rivalries can be dominated by a one-sided, irrational hate for another team’s fans (i.e. Yankees vs. Red Sox). Wouldn’t we, naturally, see the real world through this skewed prism of good vs. evil?

  5. decadyn

    From a storyteller perspective, it bloats the story to always have a morally ambiguous enemy. How do you humanize an enemy? Usually you give them story time where they narrate in first person or use flashbacks. That really stretches the focus away from the main characters. In Steins;gate it would mean having someone deep inside CERN be a recurring character, not just a Moeka character who is being used. You have to introduce their story early and often or else it feels like a token gesture. It’s a large commitment to have a three dimensional villain.

    1. E Minor Post author

      No doubt, it’s much easier to have a one-dimensional villain, but I never really disputed that. On the other hand, the practice of creating one-sided antagonists do carry with it, in my opinion, troubling implications.

  6. Bern

    Of what i can recall the people who are painted as a one-dimensional villain are usually those who are an unnecessary evil to the protagonist or society. Naturally most people can relate to the values of the good perspective(which in turn can make the characterization on that side much more enjoyable). To delve outside of this and attempt to extensively characterize a villain would not only leave the viewer troubled but indifferent as well. That isn’t to say characterization on the evil side can’t be appreciated, just that it is much more pleasant for the villains presence to be limited.

    The other half of it in my opinion is the element of uncertainty. If we knew the villains behavioral patterns and motives during the story, it might take away from the presentation
    ie we all have our own ways of interpreting things(usually coinciding with personal preference).

    If the villain is heavily plot centered and there is a closed ending, you also lose that pleasure.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Well, yeah, from a narrative point of view, we do enjoy one-dimensional villains; they are far more satisfying to hate. But we do have to question our narrative conventions when they inculcate in us the reflexive thinking that our opponents, real or fictional, are also as one-dimensional as our stories. Idealistically, I think most of us can separate fact from fiction, and we don’t mistake our real life opponents as one-dimensional ogres hellbent on destroying us. There are, however, a great many people who do bash on Islam, homosexuals, racial minorities and what-have-you and I must wonder if the stories we grow up with is worsening the problem. Most mainstream films do not have three-dimensional villains. Could this have any effect whatsoever on how some people act around and treat their opponents?


  8. Wuo Long

    “Slavoj Zizek astutely points out that no story could possibly humanize Hitler’s monstrosity.”

    I hope its ok, if I dig out such an old post, but as someone who lives in Germany and went through (endured) their educational system, this is a very familiar and loaded topic. The opinions on Hitler here are mainly, what Zizek implies here. I still remember the words of my elementary school teacher, when we first talked about Hitler in… perhaps second grade?
    “He was (shakes her head) a lunatic. A total lunatic.”

    The topic of Hitler and the Third Reich also seems to be the cause of conflicts and rifts between generations. During secondary school, one of my classmates told me full of incredulity about conversations with his grandfather, whose opinion on HItler boiled down to: “Apart from killing the Jews, he was a pretty good politician and leader.”

    For me, the topic of Hitler never became that personal, due to me being (technically) a second generation Chinese immigrant. While I can never condone an opinion like that uttered by the aforementioned old-timer, over time I also became suspicious of the oppressive need of German people to make Hitler into the worst and biggest monster possible. It wasn’t until I encountered a book, written by German author Gudrun Pausewang, called “my Adi” (Nickname for Adolf), that finally gave me the means to articulate my suspicions. And the book’s main message runs contrary to Zizeks argument and dives straight into the heart of your post here, because the author tries to do exactly that: Write a story about Hitler to humanize him.

    Pausewang had to endure a lot of criticism from different literary, political and intellectual circles in Germany, but her intention runs along that of her critics. She wants something like the Holocaust to never happen again. But in her opinion, making Hitler into a monstrosity is a way of looking away from the issue. To paraphrase:
    He is not us (Germans). He has nothing to do with us, because he is different, a monster.
    But to cite Pausewang: Hitler was not a monster. He was a human being. A bitter, hateful and disillusioned human being. And that is the true danger.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I feel if we keep arguing about the distinction between “a bitter, hateful and disillusioned human being” and a monster, the conversation will just quickly go down the road of pedantry. Zizek’s only point is that we can’t reframe Hitler’s story in a way that redeems him in the slightest. I agree with that. At no point can you look at Hitler’s story and say, “Y’know, his actions are justified from his point of view.”

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