Building characters with believable motivations can be a complex process. Rarely do people want their heroes or villains to be one-dimensional these days, nor do they want people who engage in behaviors solely as mouthpieces for certain types of morality without cause. Given this, we turn to notions of psychology, and the idea that behavior has causes somewhere in a person’s past. There’s nothing wrong with this. I have studied some psychology and it does help to build characters. The problem arises when certain motivations become stock, and so heavily ingrained in the public consciousness that people both overuse and misunderstand them.
One of the most common of these is the villain (or sometimes hero) whose motivation is an evil, abusive father. This father is usually a drunk, probably a redneck or something similar, and generally inflicts arbitrary harm on the character in question and other family members. While it’s certainly true that unpleasant individuals like this do exist, and probably do shape their children in all manner of unpleasant ways, EvilAbusiveDads (whom I call such because this is often their only personality trait) have become the only ingredient in a recipe for evil. This has all sorts of unfortunate and inaccurate implications, and as such, it is a Thing That Needs to Go Away.
First of all, let me say that I am not making light of anyone who has gone through actual abuse of any kind. Abuse is a terrible problem and one far beyond the scope of my silly little writings. That said, I believe making EvilAbusiveDads as a common motivator for villainy does such people something of a disservice. While it is true that some, perhaps even many, people who grow up in abusive households become abusers themselves, human beings are not easy to predict or pigeonhole. Many are traumatized but not perpetuators, while others transcend such abuse and find strength through surviving. In any case, there are many factors in what a person becomes, and abuse=evil is simplistic and inaccurate.
It is also problematic because it implies that being traumatized as a child is either the only way, or one of the only ways, that a person becomes evil. There are endless motivations if people wish to plumb the depths of the human psyche: religious/political fanaticism, a harsh life of survival at any cost, bitterness born of disappointment and betrayal, a lack of restrictions leading to a narcissistic sense of entitlement, a slow slide into betraying one’s ethics in favor of expediency and convenience, inborn sociopathy or other mental illness, terror of some imagined threat, simple greed, or any combination of these and more. EvilAbusiveDad, while certainly a possible motivating factor, seems to have become the go-to when writers simply can’t think of another.
I’ll give a couple examples of this, and how it can be wildly out of place. In the relatively recent Conan the Barbarian series, an origin story was written for Thoth-Amon, one of Conan’s greatest villains. For those unaware, Thoth-Amon is a powerful wizard, high priest of evil god Set, and the de facto ruler of Stygia, a vast nation. Now, one would think that serving a dark god and having virtually unlimited power, not to mention living in a world as unforgiving as Hyboria, would be enough motivation to do terrible things on a regular basis. But instead, we are treated to this:
From the rest of the story, it’s clear that Thoth-Amon in his youth was not a nice person to begin with. He robs and kills without concern, so his father’s abuse is not the cause of his evil. Besides this, he doesn’t act like an abuse victim. The cycle of abuse tends to create in people an uncontrollable rage, a belief that it is acceptable to harm loved ones, and a belief that anger and violence are reasonable solutions to problems. It is not the cold, calculating evil of Thoth-Amon, who ruthlessly and methodically works his way up the ladder of society and betrays as he must for power. So how does an abusive past help illuminate his character? His motivation is not used to justify or explain his behavior, and not particularly telling of his actual personality or mindset in relation his goals. It seems only to be there because it’s expected that someone as bad as him must have had an EvilAbusiveDad. There are numerous examples of this with major villain characters, and they are equally as out of place as this one.
I also find myself perplexed by the fact that EvilAbusiveDad is always male, while the mother figures in the lives of such characters are usually saintly figures. Even in cases where EvilAbusiveDad isn’t directly abusive toward the mother or child in question, and is simply evil, I am forced to wonder what these perfect angels and flowers of motherhood are doing married to such monstrous psychopaths. Perhaps there are those who would tell me that this happens in the real world, and I’m sure sometimes it does, but I can’t help but find the sheer number of saintly women who marry abusive brutes in fiction to be staggeringly high, to the point of straining credulity. I suspect that the authors in question are attempting to create a good/evil dichotomy for their characters to follow, where the male figure represents the negative and the female represents the positive. I won’t go so far as to call this misandry, as I think most of the writers are in fact males, but it is another lazy trick, which gives neither parent actual personality, and thus no true insight into the characters in question.
I’m not saying that abuse should never be dealt with in fiction, or that no character should ever have a past with abuse in it. What I am saying is, if we’re simply drawing motivations out of a hat, especially for villainous characters, I think it’s time we let the EvilAbusiveDad a little vacation time. Human experience is vast enough that with a tiny modicum of effort, less obvious backstories can be found and used. Better yet, give honest effort to figuring out a character’s motivations, or, if it simply doesn’t matter that they have a complex backstory, just give a simple motivation and make them interesting in the present.