The Villain Has No Empathy

“Empathy” is a term much in the news these days. It means of course that capacity of imagination that allows one person to feel another’s pain and to identify with, or even act in sympathy with, that other person.

If you and I as writers want to create a memorable villain, we will banish that capacity from our Bad Guy’s character.

Jeremy Irons as Wall Street CEO John Tuld in “Margin Call”

The Alien feels no empathy.

The Predator feels no empathy.

The pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers feel no empathy.

Each acts only in its own self-interest.

Margin Call is one of my favorite movies of the past few years. Its villain, Wall Street CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) is about as perfectly realized a villain as it is possible to create. (Kudos to Mr. Irons and to writer and director J.C. Chandor).

Here is Tuld in a scene with Sales Manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) justifying ruining thousands of his firm’s clients, not to mention tanking the entire global economy, by unloading under false pretenses a few zillion dollars in worthless securities.

SAM ROGERS

The real question is: Who are we selling this to?

JOHN TULD

The same people we’ve been selling it to for the last two years, and whoever else would buy it.

SAM ROGERS

But, John, if you do this, you will kill the market for years. It’s over. And you’re selling something that you know has no value.

TULD

We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price. So that WE MAY SURVIVE!

The villain operates by a Hobbesian, zero-sum code. This code’s highest value is survival. If others must die so that the villain will live, so be it.

The villain looks out for Number One.

Burt Lancaster as Gen. James Mattoon Scott in “Seven Days in May”

A political villain like the Dick Cheney character (Christian Bale) in Vice or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) in Seven Days in May may be acting for the survival of his country but only in the sense that he identifies so totally with his country that he might as well be the nation himself.

Beyond the imperative of self-preservation however lies the moral justification that the villain cites to legitimize his lack of empathy for others.

They are less than human.

They are a liability to the greater community.

They are a threat to him personally.

In Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, WWI French general Mireau (George Macready) congratulates his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) on the “success” of the execution by firing squad of three innocent soldiers to cover up his own cowardice.

GEN. MIREAU

I’m awfully glad you could be there, George. This sort of thing is always rather grim.

GEN. BROULARD

But this had splendor, don’t you think?

GEN. MIREAU

I have never seen an affair of this sort handled any better. The men died wonderfully. There’s always that chance that one will do something that will leave everyone with a bad taste.

Like the Night King in Game of Thrones or the shark in Jaws, the Villain has one priority only—his own survival and his victory over his enemies. Everything and everyone else is strictly collateral damage.

 

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23 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on September 25, 2019 at 6:13 am

    Digging this discussion. Taking the “hero-villain” dichotomy the next step to “good-evil,” the root of it is the loss of awareness that we’re all one thing. “Others” are “less than human,” which serves to rationalize all manner of evils. This page makes Wednesday mornings better’n bacon.

    • Brian Nelson on September 25, 2019 at 9:37 am

      I’m stealing ‘better’n bacon’. Great line!
      bsn

    • Joe on September 25, 2019 at 2:33 pm

      Brian… one has to reach a pretty high bar to be “better’n bacon.” I think we’re on solid ground here on Wednesday mornings. Ya?

      • Aaron H. on September 25, 2019 at 3:23 pm

        A high bar indeed, but bacon is edged out by the philosophical benefits at the least.

  2. Yvonne on September 25, 2019 at 11:41 am

    This is just what I needed to read today, thank you!

  3. Markus Boch on September 25, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    This article helped me a lot more than I thought. At first, I was against the idea, since I know a lot of villains who had genuinely good intentions. But then I did realize that even so, they are fighting for the “greater good” They lack the empathy to think about the people who will suffer so that they may reach that goal.
    Great article and I am glad to have read it.

    • Anonymous on October 2, 2019 at 12:28 pm

      Me too but nothing is better than bacon.

  4. Aiyana on September 25, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    Of course, we are experiencing some of this in real time;
    more vivid than fiction!

  5. Aiyana on September 25, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    Of course, we are experiencing some of this in real time;
    more vivid than fiction! Is there a beating heart even in
    the villain if we dig deep enough?

  6. Phyllis on September 25, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    Of course, we are experiencing some of this in real time;
    more vivid than fiction! Is there a beating heart even in
    the villain if we dig deep enough?

  7. Becky Blanton on September 25, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    This is why narcissists make such great villains. They appear to have/show empathy but it’s a practiced act, not real. Just as a true narcissist will lure others in only to betray them, so will a book’s villain.

  8. Renita on September 25, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    In my favorite film noir “Out of the Past” Robert Mitchum’s character is in love with a beautiful woman who it turns out is all about putting herself first. The only way to stop her is to stop both of them. He becomes her last target. She shows herself as capable of doing anything to survive. His death is satisfying and a waste. I love this movie.

    • Steven Pressfield on September 27, 2019 at 10:33 am

      One of my faves too, Renita. I drive through Bishop CA (where big parts of “Out of the Past” were shot) on the way to Mammoth. The place hasn’t changed that much!

  9. Pauline Brin on September 26, 2019 at 9:37 am

    Great read. Enjoyed all the references to stories and different characters.

  10. Anne Pellicciotto on September 26, 2019 at 11:12 am

    Hmmm, I got that; but what about when the enemy is the dark side of the hero? Like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty? Or what if the villain has a bright side but it loses to the dark? Is there any room for ambivalance? What about the #metoo predator who really is in love with his prey?

  11. Tyler L Bush on September 26, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    Steven –

    I’m new to your blog, and love this discourse here. I’m an aspiring screenwriter from Chicago. I’m curious about creating villains who are more nuanced in terms of their humanity.

    For example, the Kaz character from Phil Alden Robinson’s “Sneakers” played by Ben Kingsley, and Tom Hardy’s Bain from “The Dark Knight Rises.” Each of these two villains may have a thirst for power that can only be achieved by anarchy, but this counter hegemonic logic seems heroic compared to the protagonists in their respective narratives.

    Just my thoughts… I’m glad this thread exists!

    Thanks Steven
    Ty Bush

  12. Patricia on September 26, 2019 at 12:43 pm

    So, by this definition, does it mean that someone who initially looks like a villain but displays empathy, even briefly, at some point in the story (e.g., Frank Griffin in “Godless” with the smallpox victims) is really not a villain but something else (antihero, antagonist, etc.)? I would have definitely called Frank the villain of that story.

    I’m struggling with this definition, at least for all genres across the board. Lack of empathy in a villain by psychological definition makes them a narcissist or sociopath. Does that mean all villains are personality disordered? I’ve been cautioned time and time again in reading and classes against making villains so one dimensional. Yes, it works with the Jeremy Irons character in that scenario and with many characters whom we need to hate absolutely for the plot to turn… But I’m thinking the best villains are those who are more multidimensional, like Frank. They suck you in with a moment of empathy, only to make it worse when they do show their monster side. Thoughts?

  13. Joe on September 27, 2019 at 4:07 am

    We’ve talked in these posts about “what makes a villain.” I happened into this short (15-min) video on the site Science and Nonduality. Fascinating and trippy, talking about the origins of life, the drivers for evolution being “cooperation among communities of beings” rather than “survival of the fittest,” and (among some other points) how technology is the current embodiment of the “snake/serpent” metaphor we see in wisdom traditions.

    This link should cut to the one minute’s worth of video that applies to our discussion of villainy (the whole 15 minutes is great, but this bit starts at 16:40). Bruce Damer points to the scene where Darth Vader is dying and asks Luke to “take off this mask” (that is, remove this barrier of technology that’s been imprisoning me, and standing between me and you, my son). Damer says, “Look what Luke finds. This being, like us. This sensitive, broken being. The very embodiment of the Empire, getting a healing. From a Jedi, from his very son.”

    So, do we see that in some sense, Vader was also a victim, trapped in the machinery, seduced by the Sirens of power and control? And maybe it’s “the Dark Side” itself that is the true villain. THAT’s the thing that never changes: even though the embodiment of the Dark Side — Anakin consumed by Vader — can experience redemption even up to his final moments.

    https://youtu.be/_EkSqzhNonc?t=1008

  14. AS on September 27, 2019 at 6:17 am

    Brilliant, helpful article – excellent comments! Thank you. One sense that I have on the nature of villainy and personality disorder..which I do think are at least related if not identical; is that at the core the villain is a screaming, traumatised, sad little child in an adult body. That is what I feel so strongly about the Joker..there is always this hysteria leaking through. I am playing around with the idea that this is true even for the coldest and most self-controlled of villains. That is why they grow the armour and authority of cruelty and ruthlessness…they have been forced to identify with the Aggressor in order to survive and so they become the evil that hurt them.

  15. Mike Esser on September 27, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    I think there is an argument to be made that “compassion” might be the better term (and emotion) than “empathy.” When I feel empathy, I put myself in somebody’s shoes and see the world from their (limited) point of view. For example, I can feel empathy for the coal miner who is out of work, can’t provide anymore for his family, and suffers from a lung disease caused by his work. I will find that the world has abandoned him, that this is disgraceful, and that one needs to stand up for this man. If I feel compassion, on the other hand, I will see the destiny of the group. I will understand how circumstances that were beyond the reach and understanding of coal miners pressured them into the same line of work of their fathers. I will see how social pressure and the willful actions of those who exploited them, have kept this promising young boy, and all his companions, from choosing another path, from understanding that the time of energy production by burning coal was up even before they started their careers, and I might be able to understand more than when I am empathetic and my actions would potentially more effective because I am able to see the bigger picture.
    And there are worse scenarios to be imagined when it comes to empathy: If I am empathetic with the parents who dread that their children might come away from vaccination with a terrible disease, I might feel compelled to stand up for them, and to allow (if this is in my power) for an exemption so that these parents do not need to go through the pain of fearing for their child’s wellbeing. In doing so, I completely black out that I put thousands of other children at risk to get a contagious disease that this one child has not been protected against by vaccination.

  16. Foreign Love Web on September 27, 2019 at 7:58 pm

    I do know that I am not like the villain.

    I have much empathy for the women I have dated. I want to help them find hope and especially true love with the right men. They deserve to be as happy as I do.

    We need more empathetic people in this world.

  17. Facundo Petruccelli on September 28, 2019 at 2:02 am

    Excelente desarrollo sobre El Villano, gracias por tus palabras y conocimiento estimado Steven Pressfield. Cordial saludo.

  18. Adam Abramowitz on September 30, 2019 at 8:21 am

    I’m sitting on the pooper and decided to read my favorite authors most recent blog post

    I’m halfway through the article and I’m thinking, damn ima send an email about what we watched this weekend (Paths of Glory)

    I keep reading through the article and bam. We start talking about it…

    Looking forward to doing a podcast on the film. It was friggen incredible 💯

    http://www.insidethemindseye.com

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