Villains, bullies, dicks, and Hanlon’s Razor

I’ve recently read an article that was actually about work environment and building and maintaining a supportive team but one sentence struck me in a way that made me think about real life bullies and how villains are portrayed in media.

[…] Management expert and author Douglas W. Hubbard [in his] book The Failure of Risk Management: Why it’s Broken and How to Fix It [rewrote Hanlon’s Razor as]: “Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.”

[…] not only are people’s actions rarely malicious, they’re most likely not about you at all. Malice is simply not a probable explanation for people’s actions, and it’s not reasonable to assume it is.

So, if you take that to the realm of story villains, the best ones are not just there to be an antagonist but would exist and do their thing even if the hero wasn’t there at all. A good villain is not about the hero. A good villain is only about themselves and what they want to achieve. Think about that when you craft your next villain for your story or game, either forwards as who they are, what’s their motivations and what incentives exist that they will follow down the wrong path; or backwards as what you need the villain to be and come up with the system of incentives that could put someone in that position.

But this same conversation got me thinking about bullies and generally dickish people. Because people in all walks of life just follow the incentives that fit their world view: the guy going into a particular field of work just because of the money or the people who cut you off on the highway who are probably stressed enough to get somewhere on time that they’re willing to take that risk because they have a baby on the way or they had a hard day at work and just really want to get home. The bullies who had such a stunted development that the only way they know how to express themselves or get any interaction is by hurting someone.

I’ve learned all of this by talking to professional people about my communication and social skills and it changed the way I think about people. I’m not saying it completely cured my misanthropy but now I try to think about that when someone annoys me: what happened to them in life or this week or this day that got them to that point? Because, I know that sometimes I get to that point too. It’s not fun and a system should be put in place to handle young bullies or hurtful children in a supportive and accepting way. A competent adult that breaks a law should be punished because they know what they did. A child who hurts someone should have someone to talk to about the troubles that brought them there.

In Marvel’s What If, episode 2 (spoiler warning), we see Thanos as part of T’Challa’s crew and he says that they talked about his plan and found a way to fix the problem that doesn’t result in wiping out half the universe. It’s amusing in the moment but it also make sense if you think about it. A villain usually becomes a villain because their goal, that they think is just is unachievable through normal means (and fixing societal ailments is usually very hard and is heavily opposed) but they have the drive, the ambition, and the dire need to get it done so they break societal norms and go off the rails to do it. But if the heroes could focus on finding the root of the issue and pushing the fix through normal means, maybe the whole ‘boss battle’ thing can be avoided?

P.S. Small comfort: If you have a bully in your life and they seem fixated on you then they are making it about you. They are playing an antagonist role, an NPC, in your story. You could use that to your advantage.


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