“My friends, it has been said that I like war. My friends, I like war. My friends, I love war. I love holocausts, I love blitzkrieg, I love defensive lines, I love sieges, charges, I love mop-up operations and retreats…I love every act of war that can occur upon this earth. My heart leaps with joy whenever a soldier is tossed high into the air and torn to pieces by well-placed sniper rounds. And the feeling that comes when a soldier runs screaming from his tank only to be torn apart by machine gun fire is such an exquisite sensation. It moves me deep within my heart to watch a fresh recruit stabbing over and over into the bloated chest of a long-dead enemy…gentlemen, all I ask for is war.”
This is a massively summarized speech from one of my favorite villains in fiction. The Major, from the Hellsing series, is a modern day Nazi who leads an army to destroy London for a singular, simple reason. He loves war. Not the causes or the reasons, he doesn’t care about the honor of the Reich or racial purity or anything other than war for the sake of war. He loves the bloodshed, the carnage, and utter destructiveness of war and will go through extreme lengths to achieve what he wants; war without end. The Major is an example of a type of villain who has been discredited in modern fiction, called unoriginal or lacking in creativity and empathy. The Major isn’t the ‘hero of his own story.’ He isn’t a misunderstood victim. He isn’t a Well-Intentioned Extremist. He isn’t a good guy deep down.
The Major is a Complete Monster.
The Complete Monster, as described on TVTropes, is a villain utterly lacking in redeeming features. Most people hear this description and they yawn, thinking of mustache twirlers and monologuers. Considering these types of antagonists to be antiquated, without purpose in our more enlightened and sophisticated modern media, where complexity and sympathy is the measurement of the quality of an antagonist. I hear people say, all the time, that they are ‘tired of the stereotypical, bad-to-be-bad villain.’ These people are under the impression that writing a Complete Monster is lazy, and easily done.
But the Complete Monster is not easy to write. It may be one of the hardest cases of a character to write compellingly. The Complete Monster is heinous, without sympathy, and without any chance of redemption. What they do is evil, not because it must be done for a greater good, but because they want to. They are devoid of empathy (or if they have empathy, it is used for the sinister purposes of manipulation or increasing suffering), their reasons are either non-existent or unsympathetic and don’t even try to justify their actions, and they never at any point suffer moral doubts about what they’re doing.
When you think about the most well known Complete Monsters in fictional history, minds often go to Disney. Jaffar, Cruella de Ville, Scar. Maleficent’s name is even a synonym for evil intentions. Other prime examples are the Joker, Father, and Freddy Krueger. The main link between all Complete Monsters is their complete disregard for anything that stands in the way of achieving what they want. When people say that they hate Complete Monster villains for having boring motivations, they are usually focusing on the wrong thing. For starters, a Complete Monster doesn’t have “evil” as their motivation (unless their motivation is literally to spread evil, which can be interesting in its own way). Usually, a Complete Monster written well has motivations that are very simple. Common ones are power, money, and revenge. It could really be any of these, and you could still have a functional and effective Complete Monster, because for this type of villain, the motivation really isn’t the point. What they want doesn’t matter.
The thing that makes a Complete Monster a threat isn’t that they want something, it’s that they really want something. They want it so bad that they will do whatever they have to in order to get it, and it doesn’t matter how many orphans or puppies they have to kick on their way to it. They don’t care. Most importantly, the power of their wanting is so all consuming that nothing will ever cause them to waver from their course to getting it. That drive is what makes Complete Monsters so interesting and hard to look away from. It’s so rare, in fiction and reality, to see someone who has that much conviction and drive toward getting what they want. It doesn’t matter what it is, our Complete Monster wants it and that’s all that matters, and no petty little things like feelings or ethics are going to stop them.
Because the Complete Monster is so detached from moral reasoning, there is really nothing to slow them down. No morals bind them, no personal attachments to others make them vulnerable, and no regrets ever slow them down. That’s one of the main things that separate Complete Monsters from the Well-Intentioned Extremist; no regrets, no doubts, no hesitation. The Complete Monster isn’t going to have a conflict of conscience because they don’t have a conscience to be conflicted.
This complete lack of doubt in the evil they do, and their narcissistic ego, tends to make Complete Monsters incredibly charismatic when coupled with great writing and dialogue. But that brazen confidence and eye-catching charisma should never be confused with sympathy; the Complete Monster should never do anything that invokes our sympathy, or do something that makes us think that they might not be such a bad guy deep down. Usually, any sympathy we might have for a Complete Monster goes away once they start actually doing things, and we see how monstrous that lack of regard for regrets and doubts can make a person. This is the reason most Saturday Morning Cartoon villains didn’t really work as compelling Complete Monsters. Because they were limited by children’s television standards, they were restricted by morals, and a Complete Monster is characterized as a creature without restrictions.
Lack of restrictions are what make Complete Monsters so terrifying, especially for the team of protagonists. For protagonists used to bargaining, talking down villains, and convincing people to be their best selves, the Complete Monster presents the ultimate challenge. The Complete Monster cannot be placated because they want something and they will have it, usually to the detriment of the heroes or the world. The Complete Monster can’t be bargained into accepting a less damaging alternative, doesn’t have relationships to reign them in, no sympathetic motivation to deconstruct, and no morality to be appealed to.
For a band of heroes, the Complete Monster forces them to bring their all, because it’s certainly going to throw everything it has at them with absolutely no mercy. This is wear chips in their armor have a chance to show, because there is no tactic too low for this creature to exploit. No weakness that’s too dishonorable for it to prey on. The Complete Monster forces the heroes to either bring their best selves or be utterly destroyed. It presents a scenario in which there is no longer any diplomacy, no moralizing, just dig in your heels and fight for what’s right. Proving the strengths of their convictions against an unrelenting force that doesn’t have anything to hold it back.
Now I’m not saying that the Complete Monster should or has to be the manual off of which every villain is made. I love my Wilson Fisk, my Thanos, and my Discord. But I’m tired of the phrase “I’m tired of villains who are just plain evil.” In the hands of good writers, a Complete Monster who is just completely devoid of any sympathetic qualities and inner goodness can be a creature that is both fascinating to watch, and narratively impactful in a way that no other villain can be. There is a place in fiction for the mustache twirlers, the megalomaniacs addicted to monologuing, and the flamboyant sociopaths who can’t take a walk without kicking every puppy they pass. Pure evil can be complex in its simplicity.
All I’m asking is…give evil a chance.