The Villain Believes in the Mean Streets

[Continuing our series on Bad Guys in film and fiction … ]

The villain believes in a world of scarce resources and a competition of all against all.

Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973)

As the villain sees it, the human race inhabits a post-Edenic cosmos, i.e. a universe in which all of us have been kicked out of the Garden (where our needs were provided for in abundance) and are condemned for ever after to scuffle for a living out here on the mean streets. Or, as the tribesmen of Pashtunistan might phrase it,

I against my brother; my brother and I against our cousin; my brother, my cousin and I against the world.

Or, phrased another way,

And unto Adam He said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

The patron saint of the Villain point of view is Thomas Hobbes, the great English philosopher and author of Leviathan (1651), in which he laid out the proposition that all men are born selfish/evil and care for nothing but their own preservation and advancement. He termed this condition the “state of nature.”

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes believed that the only viable form of government was monarchy. The human race in his view was incapable of governing itself, i.e. practicing democracy, because each individual under pressure would revert to seeking his own self-interested ends or would bond inevitably with other like-minded partisans (see “political parties”) and act in the same selfish/evil manner, only collectively.

It must be said, though I hate to be the one to say it, that Hobbes has a point.

Indeed most villains have a point.

The tyrant or despot, in his or her own mind, is not operating out of greed or lust for power or the desire to crush his or her enemies. Rather he or she is acting—in his or her own view, that is—as any prudent, responsible person would act, given the fact that the human race is evil and, if society is to avert catastrophe, cannot be permitted to act out of its own blind, self-interested instincts.

When we write our own villains, it’s important to keep this in mind. The Bad Guy, in his own view, is not bad. He’s just being “realistic.”

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27 Comments

  1. Brian Nelson on May 20, 2020 at 6:51 am

    Steve,
    I’ve been reflecting on my own villainous behavior of late. The most recent was when my wife said something to me about one of our cats that I was about to feed. (We have a lot, and some have special feeding requirements and medications.) I knew what to do, and Kelly was simply reminding me.

    Well–it was 0630, we’d been up past our bedtime (Damn COVID19) watching a show–and I responded with snark. The sad truth is she didn’t even respond poorly–which means she’s so damn used to my snark that she simply rolled over and went back to sleep like nothing happened.

    As I was doing my chores, I was noticing how messy things were, the cats had added to the problems–I was basically in a pissy mood. Why I thought? When I finally sat down to journal, I remembered that a couple of days prior I said, “I will get up NLT 0600 everyday.” This COVID has made everything fungible–and I don’t operate very well like that. It has also given me the opportunity to find my own battle-rhythm without outside influences.
    I had to lay down some ground rules, or I’d be a fat, angry, tv-watching useless man-child in no time.

    So, that morning, I hit snooze (another absolute no-no in my credo) and slept to 0630.

    Soooo…I wasn’t angry with my wife, our cats, the cat hair on the floor–or any of that. I was disappointed with myself. I had betrayed my own ideal–not an ideal of another–but one that I myself had set and agreed to.

    You mentioned tyrants and despots. I’m struggling to define a new truth for myself–maybe better to say a new law of being. “We are all little tyrants. We must tyrannize something or someone, it is in our nature. Either tyrannize yourself (meaning stay disciplined, live up to your best self), or you will attempt to tyrannize the world/others.”

    A more concise way might be: Control yourself, or you will attempt to control the world. The world will win.

    So–I wonder, if under all of the villains in fiction and life–exists this aspect of tyranny and self-betrayal? Does an author need to share–even if only implicitly–the villains self-betrayal?

    And does the belief in scarcity immediately translate into controlling behavior? Why is it when I tyrannize myself, I see abundance, feel and act with compassion, good humor, and faith? The material conditions are the same.
    bsn

    • Brian C. on May 20, 2020 at 7:22 am

      This is an incredible post, Brian. Remind me of a note I have in my phone that I remind myself of daily:

      If you want liberty, you need to rule yourself like a tyrant. If you can’t govern your desires like a tyrant, then you will undoubtedly find a real form of tyranny.

      -BCJ

      • Brian S. Nelson on May 20, 2020 at 10:55 am

        Brian,
        Thanks man! Too kind. I love your quote. Have a great day.
        bsn

      • Evan on May 20, 2020 at 12:04 pm

        As Navy Seal Jocko Willink puts it, “Discipline equals freedom.”

    • Pam on May 20, 2020 at 7:51 am

      Wow, this is great insight. I’m new to this community, and really looking forward to letting the thinker/writer in me back out again. I’ve spent nearly 23 years in a simultaneously oppressive and vacuous marriage, and I have a much greater understanding of this concept as well as what Ms. Moretti writes below. Yes, I too can imagine…

      • Brian S. Nelson on May 20, 2020 at 10:58 am

        Thanks Pam—this is a cool tribe. I encourage you to read some of the (most if you have time) the previous blogs. Steve’s authentic sharing of his art is like a magnet—all these similar mindsets are iron filings getting pulled into Steven’s gravitational pull.
        bsn

    • Jule Kucera on May 20, 2020 at 8:33 am

      Brian, I’m going to offer a different perspective, along the lines of the sun’s ability to energize and the moon’s ability to energize. The sun takes us upward and outward, the moon takes us inward and downward. The sun is obvious and constant and male, the moon is mysterious and shapeshifting and female. Yang and yin.

      I have beaten myself up (yang) as a means of motivation for years. It has its place. Right now, covid-19 has put us all under yin energy. We are forced to slow, to look inward, to think, and to change.

      Under these conditions, because life is hard when more people than usual are dying and people are losing their jobs and people are scared, we all might need a little more tenderness (yin).

      Here is my covid-19 approach to getting out of bed these days. It’s odd but it’s working.

      Alarm goes off.

      Under the old scenario I yell at myself to get out of bed.

      Under the new scenario I steal words from a wise one and imagine Love talking to me. “Good morning. I’m right here. I love you. I’ve got you. There’s nothing you can do to make me stop loving you. I’ve got your back. I love you. I always will.” I breathe that in, feel it, then imagine Love saying, “Let’s go do your yoga.” That’s often sufficient, but if not, then Steve P. shows up and asks, “Are you a Pro? This is when Pros get out of bed.” And then if that isn’t enough, Michael Crais’ Joe Pike shows up and says, “Hey, let’s go work out. I’ll get my mat.” And that’s enough.

      • Brian S. Nelson on May 20, 2020 at 11:02 am

        Jule,
        I love it, and your open-hearted ness to yourself and others. I think I’m still a bit more of a savage. My evolution is incomplete enough that I require a bit more stick than nurture. Maybe someday…
        Love your insight though, and I can totally see my wife talking to herself that way. I don’t mean that in any sexist way either, I just know how self-conniving I can be. And, for sure, Kelly is much further down the path than me.
        bsn

        • Jule on May 20, 2020 at 12:30 pm

          Brian, thanks for responding, and no sexism taken. I think many men are more naturally sun and many women are more naturally moon. And I mixed up Connelly and Crais. Robert Crais. Joe Pike wouldn’t like that to go uncorrected (and neither would Elvis Cole).

    • Randy Stuart on May 20, 2020 at 10:06 am

      Wonderful insight, Brian! Breaking a promise to oneself is the worst kind of treason. Reminds me of my favorite quote by Henry David Thoreau: “The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men.”

      • Brian S. Nelson on May 20, 2020 at 11:04 am

        Randy,
        Thanks! What a beautiful quote! I’ve added it to my quote log. Demonstrates his ability not only as a writer, but a thinker to synthesize it down to 12 words! Powerful.
        bsn

    • Joe on May 20, 2020 at 7:04 pm

      Good insights, Brian. I’m thinking we find the villain so intriguing because we have a shadow. And we know it.

  2. Ms. Moretti on May 20, 2020 at 7:37 am

    One if the things I enjoy about adopting a writer’s mind is that I can delve into another’s motivations and practice being a witness to how this character would think, live , act, etc. And I love the act of doing this. Last couple of years I had two instances where one of my neighbors said, ” can you imagine?” in an incredulous tone. This stuck with me, because my immediate reaction was, “well, yeah (expletive)”
    Humans are capable of any behavior, given the right circumstances. We each inhabit a different world, and it’s when these universes smack into each other that the drama ensues, and the story begins. Can be messy in real life, but makes for a good story.
    Good reminder, Mr. Pressfield, to keep the villain true to his/her/its own world view, however warped, ridiculous, or insightful it may be.

  3. Jule Kucera on May 20, 2020 at 8:10 am

    The villain believes in his reasons as completely as the hero. The writer needs to love the villain as much as the hero. The writer needs to see the villain in herself as much as she sees the hero in herself.

  4. Ingmar Albizu on May 20, 2020 at 8:37 am

    The best villains are an ends justify the means type of person who feel zero remorse because, as you indicated, they are doing the right thing for the right reasons.
    Twisted, perhaps. Yet, if the readers understand where the villain is coming from, it adds layers to the plot and characterization.

    Great article, Steve.

  5. Chuck DeBettignies on May 20, 2020 at 9:03 am

    Yes, the villain is a hero in their own eyes. And yet doesn’t change/evolve as the hero does. (These are Steven’s ideas).
    So subtle and profound!

  6. Charlie Kunken on May 20, 2020 at 11:44 am

    Yup, I’m starting to see how Steve’s posts tie together. I think that’s why the anti-hero stories are so compelling (Breaking Bad, Joker) – I find myself rooting for these guys then catch myself thinking, ‘whoa, wait a minute!!…’ The villain is not evil, in their eyes. They’re right.

  7. Melissa L Weber on May 20, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    Holy cow that’s depressing. It was the reference to political parties that got me…

  8. Nduwhite Ndubuisi Ahanonu on May 20, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Wow, an amazing read and very apt, thinking of Thomas’s ” The State of Nature” kind makes think about what we are all experiencing today and this lines “no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” scars me the most and to think of when this was written.
    I enjoyed all the quotes shared about self discipline and the sun and the moon idea, brilliant people.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Charles on May 20, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    “We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings”
    “Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the unseen community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolate”
    Albert Einstein

  10. Charles on May 20, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    the villain wants more
    is no happy with today
    only thinks on the future
    when will have more

    “future is uncertain, present is all you have, so eat, drink and live merry”
    Einstein
    “do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”
    Buddha
    “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself, let the days own matters be sufficient for the day”
    Jesus

  11. David James on May 21, 2020 at 12:08 am

    I’m glad you added this depth to your recent maxim about the villain’s relentlessness. Since then every bad guy I see (or write) is judged on a Terminator scale.
    But I like thinking that they have a content for being so.

    • David James on May 21, 2020 at 12:09 am

      Oops bloody relentless spellchecker, conTEXT

  12. Marina Goritskaia on May 21, 2020 at 5:31 am

    The psychedelic fruit must have made Adam confuse good and evil, and mistake the villain’s point of view for the divine voice. Can happen to anyone.

  13. Susan Setteducato on May 21, 2020 at 5:43 am

    I’m reading the Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel and simultaneously watching the Tudors. My dreams have become very weird lately. Henry Tudor lives in his own bubble and everyone around him tells him he’s right (even if he changes his mind inside of a minute) for fear of their heads. Sound familiar?? In my own work I have been poking around the idea that much of what we believe as a culture was set rolling by people who woke up the morning and drank ale or wine. I’ve also been having chats with my shadow side during these long days. Interesting woman. I love this discussion.

  14. Bill Evans on May 21, 2020 at 7:12 am

    I hate villains, those pusillanimous, slimy sonsofbitches who stand there looking so smug, even after I’ve whacked them a time or two, kicked their cats and slammed doors in all their pudgy little faces. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning so I can have another go at it. Sleep is for losers and lemmings.

    I love parading in front of the Capitol protesting all the too-goody good folks who say they only want to save lives, when really they just don’t want to go back to work – losers! I hate Buddha as well.

    PS, I love my AR-15s, all ten of ‘em.

  15. Zack Derese on May 22, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    Hello I’m new. Love Steven’s work. Perhaps a budding writer, perhaps a mid-life crisis.
    I’d like to add my comments, but I haven’t been around long enough to know if I would be out of sync or repetitive from previous writings. So I’ll just gently insert my view: I think the villain is a victim in his own mind. He is selfish and petty, not a Dr Evil-esque genius in a lab coat with some nebulous motive to take over the world. His crimes, at the time, seemed his only recourse. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.
    Sorry if this is way off, but let me know. I’ve got alligator skin, I won’t be offended if anyone offers criticism!

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