The subject of villains came up between me and another writer friend who is plotting an arc for a very virtuous, idealistic, squeaky-clean sort of fellow who eventually turns entirely batsh*t-crazy-evil. How does one go about this? How do you convincingly portray the loss of respect for life that is necessary in this kind of Villain With a Capital V?
After some hashing out, this is what we came up with.
A virtuous, idealistic character is likely to pursue a profession that embodies those ideals–law enforcement, clergy, etc. While he is attempting to live his life by these ideals he believes in, he begins to recognize the disparity between those ideals and the world around him, to the point where he cannot find evidence that these virtues actually exist. There is probably a good deal of betrayal that occurs (at least, what he considers betrayal) as those he looked up to as exemplars of these virtues reveal themselves to be anything but.
This is especially destructive when a large part of a person’s ideology pivots on another person–a messiah, a prophet, a mentor. Once this pivotal element is somehow proven (to the person) to be false, it causes the person to question everything. “Well, if that was a lie, what else is?”
Once his faith in that pivotal person has been torn down, he will go looking for other evidence that the ideology he has subscribed to all of his life has not been a massive waste of time. That can go one of two ways, if we’re aiming for the losing-touch-with-reality theme:
If he is a person who needs to believe in something, in the absence of evidence that his previous ideology has any basis in reality, he may become even more committed to it. The disparity between the world and his beliefs must be overcome, and those who do not fall in line with his sense of justice and virtue will become villainized in his mind. His loss of respect for life comes from a growing belief that he is the only one who is a reflection of these ideals–ideals which have become warped from their original definition to fit this purpose of “necessary” domination. Enter the Spanish Inquisition. (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.)
Unable to find a focus for his belief in these virtues, he begins to suspect that they do not, in fact, exist–anywhere. He will probably attempt to continue following his previous beliefs for a time, but every example he finds of those original ideals will be unmasked as a deception. His own attempts to live by his ideals will be twisted by others, taken advantage of, and ultimately turned to “evil”.
Realizing that his previous ideals do not actually exist, he begins to take on a perception of the world, and the people in it, as intrinsically, unfailingly, base, brutal, and ugly. The result is extreme cynicism, and an inability to see the good in others even when it is actually present because of his own painful disillusionment. This person does not believe himself to be better than those around him, he simply believes that there IS no better.
His loss of respect of life comes from a deep belief that life and those living it have no redeeming qualities. He will have no allegiance to morality of any kind because, in his mind, morality is a lie.
In each of these examples, this person takes something that is, in itself, fairly reasonable, and fixates on it to the point that their reality ceases to be affected by external sources–it is beyond reason, and beyond the influence of any further evidence. There are definitely other pathways to evil, but these are a couple that I, as a reader and as a writer, find the most interesting.
To me, a hero can only be as compelling as the villain he’s pitted against. So don’t forget to give your bad guys some love.