A few times, I’ve heard an author say something along the lines of “A villain is the hero of his own story.” More than not, I believe this truism in that it reflects life and the people around us. Not everyone, but most people. There are self-loathing people and self-loathing characters, but this is not the case generally.
But what does the truism really mean? It means that everyone has motivations and goals. Heroes always have goals: save a kitten, stop a runaway train etc. But so do villains: steal the art from the museum’s wall, kidnap my child from the custodial parent etc. The real point is that people, good or bad, justify their actions.
There is one justification that villains do not use: evil. Nobody says “What can I do that would be evil today?” Nobody. Except Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, Gru from Despicable Me, Megamind . . . characters that are sympathized with. Hardly the case for evil for evil’s sake.
Nevertheless, fantasy and urban fantasy writers sometimes lean into EVIL as a reason, or as a justification. The book I’m reading now describes a character as “evil personified.” This does not tell me anything concrete. Nor do I believe it. To a certain extent, evil is in the eye of the beholder, especially those that are wronged, appalled, victimized, or made vulnerable. The monster could be acting out of territorialism, hungry, greed, rage, self-preservation, ignorance, or directed malice. This is more specific and less dismissive. Claiming something, or someone as evil avoids the issue of trying to understand the actions. This is a mistake.
Maybe the character is a fictionalized Hitler, Dahmer, or even 911 terrorist–all have been called evil. But that description averts the issue of facing the actions and motivations. Hitler did unspeakably horrible things, or ordered them, but he did not do it to “be evil.” He was driven by hatred, racial ideology, megalomania and ignorance among many things. The result was evil. But not the motivation. The 911 terrorists were driven by religious fanaticism and a sense of purpose. The result was evil. But not the motivation.
In writing, leaning on “evil” is a crutch. The aliens in Alien are not evil no matter what they do to the humans. They are ghastly creatures the feed and breed in ways that do not bode well for humans. That’s what predators do. I’m sure rabbits and chickens and pigs are not always pleased with human ways. Passenger pigeons and dodos went extinct, buffalo and many whales nearly so. But humans didn’t do this out of evil. We had screwy, myopic motivations that deserve to be properly addressed.