Cool villains are a stereotype that gets repeated over and over by our modern entertainment industry. According to them, in order to make a good character cool and interesting, you must inject a little evil. They must be ‘morally ambiguous’ and perform actions that are ‘morally complex’. It’s as if interestingness is viewed as a spectrum between good and evil, with extreme or pure good as boring, but interesting as a midway point or mix between the two.
But there are other ways to make a character interesting beyond moving them away from the good towards the evil. One of the many reasons Tolkien’s works are masterpieces is because he was able to make unabashedly good characters interesting. The three primary heroes of The Lord of the Rings – Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn – are not morally compromised to any degree and yet they are certainly not boring. But they do undergo a movement, a change from one thing to almost its opposite.
The Cool Hero’s Journey
Gandalf is interesting because he moves from the weakness to strength. We see him initially as a wizened old man, a wandering conjuror, a specialist in mere party fireworks. Then we see him as a member of the White Council and equal to a Balrog. Finally, he is the Enemy of Sauron, who in the end was “proved mightiest” (as Treebeard put it).
Frodo is interesting because he moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary. At the start, he’s another plump hobbit with a thirst for mini adventures. By the end he is the Ring-bearer, who earns the right to cross into the Undying Lands and who even gains praise from fallen Saruman.
Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much.’The Return of the King
Aragorn is interesting because be moves from the hidden to the revealed. When we first meet him, he’s just a grim, weather-beaten Ranger, hooded and haggard. Then we learn what the Rangers are – tragic remnants of the race of high-men from fallen Númenor. And we see the high place Aragon had among them – his lineage and ancestors, his upbringing and life, his gifts and potential. He is the King who was prophesied to return.
Evil as Uncool and Uncreative
So, it is possible to make good characters interesting by providing them with imaginative movement as the plot progresses. But there’s more to it than this. Good characters are intrinsically more interesting than evil characters because good itself is intrinsically more interesting than evil. This is a view that Tolkien himself held. Tolkien has this to say about the first and greatest dark lord, Morgoth, who isn’t among the cool villains!
Whereas Melkor spent his spirit in envy and hate, until at last he could make nothing save in mockery of the thought of others, and all their works he destroyed if he could.
Tolkien’s point here is that the greater the evil, the lesser the ability for genuine innovation. Evil can only destroy, it cannot create. This means that evil fundamentally boring i.e., repetitive, derivative, deadening. Frodo said something similar in The Return of the King about the origin of orcs.
The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined and twisted them, and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.
The Banality and Monotony of Evil
If evil made people interesting and created cool villains in real life, then we would expect the Nazis to be some of the most interesting people of all. Or, if a mix of good and evil is required, then half-Nazis might prove the most interesting. But we know that the opposite is the case. As Hannah Arendt famously demonstrated in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), the vast majority of Nazis were for the most part “terribly and terrifyingly normal” bureaucrats who were “genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.”
In my opinion, the French philosopher Simone Weil makes the point most clearly in her book Gravity and Grace (1947).
Monotony of evil: never anything new, everything about it is equivalent. … It is because of this monotony that quantity plays so great a part. A host of women (Don Juan) or of men (Célimène), etc.
Evil can to vast amounts of the same thing, it cannot make different things. That’s how the small band of different races called the Fellowship of the Ring could defeat all the endless orc-hordes of Mordor. Evil can only take what good has already created and twist it, copy it, or inflate it. Weil helpfully applies this insight to fiction.
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.
Ethically conflicted or morally mixed individuals are hardly the most interesting people in the world, since they are the most common sort of people in the world – us! And the ‘cool villains’ trope itself is such an overused formula for fictional character development exactly because it requires so little imagination. The best authors create heroes that are too good at fighting evil – Sherlock Holmes, Steve Rogers, Atticus Finch, Clark Kent – to need evil as some sort of marketing ploy.