The Villain in the Sky, the Villain in the Mirror: How I Stopped Believing in God and Country and Backstory

Matt Bell


To begin, two bits of personal background: the first is that I grew up in a very religious household, one in which good and evil were verifiable forces at work in the world, forces that influenced and caused human actions. The second is that almost all of my early reading was fantasy and science fiction and horror novels, novels where often the villains were also the representatives of some greater force, some ancient power—one that was implicitly or allegorically religious, but of course not always.

Think Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia. Think Dracula, or else Grendel, Grendel's mother: these were the kind of villains I feared most when I was young. Perhaps because I grew up in a home in which I was rarely if ever in actual physical danger, it was instead the long arm of ancient, spiritual evil that I feared the most, that I believed waited outside the perimeter of a house's light, its circle of prayer.


A second breed of villains came from a secular but ultimately similar place, a simple patriotism or nationalism: When I was growing up in the 1980s, Nazi and Soviet soldiers were the bad guys in so many books and movies and video games (and still are, in surprising numbers). Later these villains changed mostly by staying the same, and certainly they'll wear other faces in the future, speak in different accents, but always they will be some other, usually dehumanized to the point at which no sympathy is possible or even expected.

It is perhaps a profound moral problem when a soldier from another country—a stand-in for a person who actually lived, who presumably had the same complexities of character as you or I, whose involvement in whatever conflict was probably at least as complicated as the involvement of my friends who served in our most recent wars—is then used in a narrative as the equivalent of an orc in the Lord of the Rings: some unit of cannon fodder ready for dispatch by the heroes, who are inevitably more like us than like them. When I was a kid I ate up this sort of equivalency, or at least did not think about it: For instance, in Wolfenstein-3D, a video game popular when I was a teenager, you played the role of an American soldier, B.J. Blazkowicz, sent behind enemy lines in World War II. The enemies were without exception some variety of Nazi soldier, and the final episode of the game—titled "Die, Fuhrer, Die!"—has the player storming a hidden bunker, fighting through ever more difficult enemies. The games' end boss was a pixelated Adolph Hitler, wearing a suit of mechanized armor equipped with four machine guns. 

A walkthrough found online complains of disappointment at this, stating that the end game is too simple, that "Destroying Mecha-Hitler is surprisingly easy."

The war started by the real Adolph Hitler—the war the game is based on—lasted six years and contributed to the deaths of at least 22 million soldiers and up to 78 million people. At its end, Hitler shot himself with his pistol rather than face capture at the hands of the Allies. The reduction of this historical villain to a sneering obstacle trapped inside a robot is an incredible and perhaps unbearable diminishment.


It might go without saying that very few of us easily arrive at a fictional villain with the kind of grandiose and complex evil of an Adolph Hitler. But I think it's also fairly obvious that few of us are interested in creating villains as one-dimensional as Wolfenstein's Mecha-Hilter. It offends our politics, and anyway many of us writing literary fiction are attracted to more nuanced villainies, characters who the reader can empathize with: less other, and more like ourselves in every way except their evil.


I recently had dinner with a colleague who related how she was spending the semester analyzing novels with her students, looking for the "backstory wounds" of the novels' characters, arguing that all successful characters required such a wound, that the actions of both protagonists and antagonists spring from what was done to them in the past. For her, this justified the amount of backstory and flashbacks that many novels are saddled with: backstory was necessary to explain the narrated action of the book.

This is a fairly common stance, I think, and also probably why there are so many books about the childhoods of serial killers: Among other things, these kind of psychological destinies help make the unimaginable imaginable.

But too often to me this seems to play out simply as psychology replacing predestination, in part just a secular workaround for the loss of supernatural or nationalistic or otherwise less-nuanced motivations for our heroes and our villains. Where is the moral complexity in watching a character act out their past trauma in too exact of terms? Isn't that just another loss of free will, of the agency and choice that makes great fictional action so compelling?

Doesn't this also make the most important action the one that happened before the novel began, and not the novel itself?

I would like to think that we as human beings are more complex than this. Even if it's not true, I would still like to think so.

If nothing else, believing that we are more than merely the products of our pasts might make for better stories—and possibly for better people.


He was such a normal person, a neighbor says.

He was a quiet kid, but he was so nice, a childhood friend says.

I loved him, and I can't imagine how he could do this, says a sister or a mother, a brother or a father.

We know this story: He was just like us, and yet what he did sets him apart, and what we thought we knew does not explain what is revealed. We need a narrative in which to make that understandable—and also to ensure that we will not also someday end up doing some other terrible thing, because we also see ourselves as normal and nice, as the objects of the affections of others. If left untampered, this uncertainty about who we really are can drive a story, can fuel the reader's experience beyond the page.


If we go back and read Little Red Riding Hood again—especially without whatever moralizing denouement history and revision has tacked on—is the wolf actually a villain? And if there is a villain, isn't it at least as possible that it's Red? After all, the wolf is a hunter, and surely an animal cannot be expected to be a moral creature. But perhaps it takes a certain kind of girl to carry a knife into a belly, to cut the wolf open from the inside, and then to fill his body with stones.

What's intriguing about this question isn't one answer over the other, but the not being able to absolutely know which is right, because the storyteller does not tell us. 

What's scary isn't the level of violence these characters visit upon each other. What's scary is the not knowing why. And we do not have to agree on an answer for the experience of the story to be equally meaningful for both of us.

Like supernational motivations, backstory wounds and other psychological explanations put the responsibility for contextualizing fictional action on the writer, but perhaps the better experience requires that responsibility to be on the reader. Already we have been trained to sympathize with the characters we read about: That preference is enough to trap us into having to wrestle with what those characters have done, in the same way we might seek to justify the worst actions of our parents, of our children, of our well-loved spouse.


Many of my stories begin at the moment when my characters choose some alternative means of defining themselves to the world around them, or at the moment when that choice spurs them into new ways of interacting and building. Crucially, little else is generally known about them before this choice. During the time narrated, they make stories and structures with which to organize their lives, take on roles with which they hope to prove ourselves good. This personal myth-making is the stuff of which my stories are made: Not the way the writer might justify a character's actions, but the way they might justify them for themselves.


What I am trying to be wary of is simply using psychology or other similar systems as a replacement addiction for these other motivations I've discussed: I don't want to replace "he was possessed by evil spirits" with "he was abused as a child" and have the result be as simple a cause and effect. What I want instead is to try to create fictions in which I as the writer am able to explore the complexity of some action—some villainy, in this context, although certainly goodness requires just as much investigation—and to come out of that exploration not confirming my previous biases, but instead somehow unsteadied, discomfited, changed by the writing. And then I feel it's my responsibility to try to recreate the same space for the reader: not to duplicate my experience, but to make them a place where they might experience for themselves. For me, this place is created in part when I remove my explanations for fictional evils from the forefront of the story, and therefore create a blankness into which the reader might write their own answers, and so change themselves. Because, in the end, it is not just our characters who should be wholly transformed by what happens in our stories.