When Does a Victim Become a Villain?



When does a victim become a villain?

What is it that turns someone we would love to protect into someone we love to hate?

Is it the first act of violence against another living thing? Does it have to be human? When does the child who has been brutalized at home become the bully? Is there a magical age when we stop feeling sorry for the child or is it simply a response to the child’s actions?

When I read a book or see a film, I want to know about the villain’s history. He did that?! What on earth happened to him?

That’s just me. Others might not care. Good guy vs bad guy. The end.

I want more. I want to know why the bad guy is so bad. Is he pure evil? Did he make a mistake? Is he mentally unstable? Is he out for revenge?

When it comes to villains, grey matters. Har. Yes, the brain. Psychology and whatnot but, also, areas between the black and white world of good and evil. It’s not simple.

Of course, sometimes, it is. Simple, I mean. Other times, it’s extraordinarily complex.

In searching through the biggest baddies of all time for the Villains Blogathon, I saw some surprising selections.

Carrie from Stephen King’s Carrie is listed as one of the top villains. Hmm. The whole movie sets up those last scenes. She is bullied horrifically at school and abused sadistically at home. Also, she’s unsure (and afraid) of her powers. Then, well…burn, baby, burn. Returning home, Carrie is taken in by her mother who hugs her to hide the great, big knife she’s about to stab Carrie with.

Then there’s Regan. A disgusting-looking, in-need-of-a-facial, pea-soup-projectile-vomiting little girl. The girl from The Exorcist is one of the top villains? She is possessed by the devil, people. Just saying.

Norman Bates is, um, Psycho. This kid, the one who grew up to be his mother (literally), had an extremely disturbing relationship with his cruel, possessive, demented mother. His entire life was abuse and isolation, leading to his inevitable insanity and the infamous stabby shower scene.

If you’ll allow me to delve into the realm of television for one teensy moment, I must talk about one of my favorite victims/villains of all time: the beautifully insane Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer played by the incredibly talented Juliet Landau. Oh, yeah, Drusilla is nasty. No argument there. But it’s her backstory that makes me seriously sick. She was an innocent young woman who caught the attention of a vampire who, patiently, goes to great lengths and takes great pleasure in torturing and tormenting her. He waits for the perfect moment to take her soul and make her immortal—right as she is driven insane.

There are also the people who were victims because they were sort of…magically (or in some other unnatural way) morphed into villains: Jack Torrance (The Shining), Gollum (Lord of the Rings), the kids who lived in Gatlin, Nebraska (Children of the Corn), Bucky A.K.A. Winter Soldier (Captain America/Civil War), Regan (The Exorcist)…

I’m not defending any actions. I’m not denying their villain status. I’m asking when, exactly, do these characters become villains?


When does a brutalized or brainwashed victim become a villain? What pushes the helpless victim into the role of evil villain?



This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon. Click here for all the participants.  #Villains2017

Read my Matrix contribution to VILLAINS2016 here. Working within the constraints of the Matrix was tough but chatting about the villain of the flick was wicked fun and philosophical and *psst* not Agent Smith.


A joyous thanks goes out to the hosts of The Great Villain Blogathon 2017: Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy. This is an annual festival of fun. Evil fun. 😈



60 thoughts on “When Does a Victim Become a Villain?

  1. Great questions, Sarah. I wonder the same things myself; but not so much about fictional villains as real villains. What makes people do the vile things they do? What has happened to them in their past to treat others so badly? If only we could prevent that switch occurring. I don’t think villains are born. I think they are made. Somehow, but probably not all in the same way. Epigenetics may explain some of it in the future.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Absolutely. This is interesting for me both in fiction (films and books) as well as in real life. What makes people do the things they do? Yes, that. And when do we, as a collective “we”, decide they are no longer the abused child who we want to take under our wing but are a horrific bully we want to keep our kids away from? When is that moment? When they hurt someone? When they get “old enough” to know better? And what’s that age?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a tantalizing question. I’ve always thought this concept was a challenging one for filmmakers – or, rather, it would be challenging for me if I were a filmmaker.

    I’m just thinking out loud here… If you make a villain’s past très sympathetic, will the audience root for them as they would a traditional hero? Does the filmmaker expect that? Or will the audience shed all sympathy once they realize the character has become a villain? If so, does that change what the movie is trying to say?

    I need to give this idea more thought, and I’m so glad you posed the question. I’d never really explored this concept before. … Although, now that I think about it, my upcoming entry for the blogathon skirts around the edges of this topic.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon, and sorry for rambling on and on. I’m going to give this some more thought.

    Liked by 4 people

    • “If you make a villain’s past très sympathetic, will the audience root for them as they would a traditional hero?” I suppose that’s what you call an anti-hero, eh? 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t know. Sure, a “villain” who is helping others (Wolverine? Iron Man?) is an anti-hero and we would root for them. But what about someone like Punisher or even Rorschach. Pretty brutal but…we know he is a man with a brutal past. A victim. So do we root for him or is he too villainous or too disturbing for us to care about his past anymore? This is way too fun. 😉

        Liked by 2 people

      • Punisher and Rohrschach are anti-heroes, sure. The thing is, how does the context present them and their deeds? Are they right only because we like them? Are they wrong only because we don’t? Are horrible deeds less horrible if we get to see that they were an act of revenge? Etc. So much to think about )))

        Liked by 1 person

      • I would think, yes, we’d need to see them suffer and/or know their past in order to feel they’re “justified” or, at least, not hate them. It’s complicated, as in the case of a vigilante, when he goes after the worst kinds of people who have committed horrific acts of violence. Sooo much to think about. (And, absolutely, a podcast on this, too!)

        Liked by 1 person

    • I always think out loud here. It’s what I do. Totally agree, it’s difficult to create a great villain. If you make villains “très sympathetic”, I don’t think the audience would necessarily root for them but, perhaps, not detest them.

      You hit on EXACTLY what I’m wondering here. When does the audience shed all sympathy for a character? When is that moment when they switch from “save him” to “hang him”? Or is it gradual? It totally changes what the movie is saying. Don’t you think? I mean, if you give enough backstory to make the villain interesting before they do their evil, it just makes them an interesting evil-doing villain. Layered. If you give tons of sympathetic backstory then a little bit of bad behavior, you’ve got yourself a different movie. And a different message.

      You’ve made me think of something else. Does the type of backstory matter? Yes, of course. How bad was bad? And what kind of bad are we talking about here? A few kids bullying at school or sadistic abuse from a parent or something in-between?

      Wow. Apologies right back. This comment got out of control. I have villains in my computer. (Plus, I love rambling. Always feel free to ramble here. We’ll ramble together.)

      Looking forward to your entry. And thank you for hosting this and letting me get all philosophical. Again. 😈 Love the Great Villain Blogathon.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thought provoking post, Sarah. I also find myself wanting to know more about villains. I wonder sometimes, however, if people even understand what a villain truly is.

    As some of the ones you listed above. Some of them are not villains at all. Carrie, was never a villain in my eyes. It’s unfortunate the way it ended up…but…you can plainly see why it came to that.

    Another one that has me baffled is some believe that, Elsa in the Disney movie Frozen, is a villain. I don’t know…sometimes I think people just go with whatever is on the surface.

    Have a great day, #wonderfulwordsmith!

    #MAST ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Huh. Really? Elsa? I assumed Hans was the villain in that one. Although, even though I loved that movie (totally not ashamed), his surprise evil kind of popped out without warning. That’s a good twist and all but, when no one was watching, he didn’t act villainous in any way. Made his switch not altogether believable. Despite the fact the whole thing was a cartoon. 😉 More to the point, I don’t see Elsa as villain but what if she had killed someone? Would that change your mind? What if it was by accident, like in a landslide? What if she killed someone close-range, knowing full well he would die? How many people could she kill before she DID become the villain? Because that ice monster could have killed a lot of people. But it didn’t. That’s the thing. It didn’t. But what if it did?

      Anyway, Carrie. Yeah. I don’t agree she’s one of the top villains of all time. Also, Bucky. The guy was brainwashed. As far as I can tell, he didn’t have control over what he was doing. *shrugs* It’s all very mind-boggling and fun. 😈

      Cheers, my friend. #mast ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, Sarah. I really like getting the backstory on villains too, at least something that makes their villainous nature plausible. I read a book that had twin boys from a nice home – one incredibly sweet and the other a super predator (without explanation). I just couldn’t get beyond the “Why” of it and it became a credibility issue in reading the book. The “why” is also a way to make the villain more nuanced and slightly sympathetic – a richer character than the flat stereotypical psychopath. Heading over to read your Matrix contribution 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes, there is that plausibility, too. Villains are flat without backstory. That “why” is crucial to a great villain and, like you said, if it’s missing, it’s tougher to believe. That twin story is fascinating. Really. Because sometimes, whether it makes for good fiction or not, there isn’t a backstory. Sometimes it just is… Scary thought.

      Thanks. Writing about The Matrix for this blogathon was so fun last year. Too much fun. 😈 Hope you like it. (I had a heath issue but, luckily, had the post already written so could participate. I’ll get on those comments…)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “When it comes to villains, grey matters.” Brilliant!

    Yes, a villain without an unfortunate backstory is just a paper doll. I think we need to have the gray matter and our beating hearts engaged for the villain to be someone whose name is worth remembering. And we can do it from the safety of our E-readers because all we have to do is shut it off if it becomes too much.

    But then, what are we doing when “news’ tries to do the same thing in describing a sympathetic backstory for REAL villains, like Norway’s Anders Breivik, or the US’s James Holmes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Paper doll. That’s awesome. And being behind the screen (or page) is a really nice way to experience villains, you’re right.

      News. Yes, well. The news is always going to try to spin a story, isn’t it? Sometimes, it really is just a matter of explanation. Some people want to know why. It’s human nature, I think. Other times it’s excusing and/or blaming. I don’t know… It’s messy.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for your contributing your unique and interesting spin on villainy to the blogathon, Sarah! I must admit you raise questions I’d never thought of, and I especially appreciated your discussion of Carrie, who definitely started out as a normal, run-of-the-mill bullied teen, and transformed into a full-blown don’t-mess-with-me villain. Really good stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Unique…” Yes, that’s me. 😉

      I can’t help but get a bit philosophical when it comes to villains. It’s fascinating. Carrie…definitely. She’s a bit scary at the end there but, honestly, so bullied and abused throughout the film (and, more so, in the book) that it makes her more than just an interesting villain. She makes you question what it means to be a villain. Thank you so much for hosting this blogathon. 😈


  7. Gray matters! But such a thoughtful question… When? Maybe it’s an extension of victim-blaming, or maybe why we blame victims in our culture. When the victim lashes out, has a psychotic break or becomes the monster she was believed to be then somehow the audience feels justified and satisfied in hating her. I think the complexities are our own, not just that of the victim-now-villain.

    Liked by 3 people

    • In many cases, yes, the victim does get to that point and there’s no one to show them acceptable behavior. Other times… Well, there’s a lot that can happen.

      Ooh, thanks! 🙂 I’ll check it out.


  8. That’s beautiful! Nothing to add, this is something that keeps me thinking as well – an interesting villain keeps the story going, after all. In real life though, some people are born with a twisted and cruel soul, there is no “interesting journey” behind. Oh, and what I also find fascinating in films (or books), is the twist on the villain who turns out to be a hero, of course with a dramatic reveal and a rich story (looking at you, Severus Snape).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! 😈 It does make you think, no? Interesting villains are great but the ones with such dramatic backstories are the ones I am drawn to and wonder about. Either way, they both make for a great film (or novel). I suppose sometimes there is no interesting journey…or perhaps there is but we don’t know about it. But completely agree about villain turned hero (ALL OF THE LOVE for Snape). That is a fantastic twist.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fantastic question. In writing fiction, I try to make the villain human. There is a fine line between victim and villain. Humanizing a villain makes them more believable. But even protagonists are usually flawed. I think a lot of it depends on whose story you’re telling. Just my 2 cents on it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are some fun good vs evil stories but, I agree, in general, the villain who is portrayed as human is much more believable and interesting.

      There really is a fine line between victim and villain. Depending how much backstory is shown to the reader (or audience), it can be a very fine line. Don’t get me started on flawed protagonists. To me, there is no other kind. Okay, there is. But flawed ones are the best. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I LOVED Drusilla too! As my kids would say, that lady was cra-cra. I also thought they did a fantastic job with her back story, but then again I’ve been happy with most of Joss Whedon’s brain-children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am SO happy with Joss Whedon’s brain-children. He’s awesome. There are very few characters I don’t love. But Dru… She’s in a league of her own. Possibly because Juliet Landau played that part so brilliantly. She’s amazing. 😍 😈 (I’m fangirling!)


  11. Awesome post Sarah. I think as much as you may want to know what caused the villains to become that way, if the storyline has no bearing on their past then it’s not called for, and may have people sympathizing instead of hating or fearing the villain. In a story where their past is relevant to why they became that way, then that’s different. You just have to take the villain for who he is in some stories. 🙂 That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. LOL 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do like to know what caused villains to become the way they are. But there is something to be said for a good guy vs bad guy story. Like some pulp fiction, which can be very entertaining. You’re right, if you give too much backstory, there is a chance the audience (or reader) might not hate the villain but that could be the writer’s intention. To have mixed feelings and make the villain more interesting. Or not. I’m just wondering about those who have been victimized and when, exactly, they become a villain to the audience (or reader). When that hatred or fear develops and why. Just thinking out loud. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I think there’s some victim porn thing going on here. Why can’t we just have some undiluted evil and some solid goodies too. All this, ‘give him a reason for his evils’ stuff. Ha! He was just born a sh*t, end of. Some people are really nice too, but that doesn’t sell; I suppose it’s the obsession with cutting down tall poppies or something so we can blame the media. But then it’s not their fault; they were brought up that way by a demanding public etc etc. Personally my worst nightmare was the villain in Marathon man, the ex Nazi who drilled out Hoffman’s teeth; it still makes me fear the dentist. And having the national luvvie of the British theatre Larry Olivier play him made him all the worse. Lovely post Sarah; hope you disagree so I can be the villian…

    Liked by 1 person

    • We can totally have evil, moustache-twirling villains and shiny, cape-wearing heroes. Why not? Those are fun, too. (Occasionally.) I do like a layered villain, though. 😈
      Would you like me to disagree? Then I can write a story about Geoff, the villain with a past…is he evil or is there a secret lurking in the depth of his psyche?

      Liked by 1 person

  13. With my background in psychology, I so identify with these issues, Sarah. And it’s actually the theme of my forthcoming novel, Underneath. Is the man who keeps a woman captive in the cellar a villain? Most definitely, but it feels more of a victim and there’s some evidence to back it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought you might identify with this. I’m looking forward to reading your new book. I knew the premise but so interesting that he has a backstory like this. Intrigues me even more.


  14. Interesting point you’re making here. I understand now why you asked me about my villain’s home life and childhood. I totally agree with you when it comes to “villains” such as Carrie, Bates, and Regan. I’m pretty sure I had similar thoughts when I saw their names on a villain list. Not their fault! Your great post actually made me think of other villains I should at some point write about – The Lost Boys,1987. There’s a supposed “missing” image of the four boys going viral somewhere on the net and it made me super curious, nevermind it being a fiction. I am super curious to know the “real” story of these four vicious teen vampires when they were just teenage boys. Anyways, great post!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, your post made me wonder about her. Right? I mean tortured, transformed, brainwashed… I’m iffy on the whole “villain” label. Then, again, they can be evil. But when does it turn around for the audience? So what’s this about the Lost Boys? About a month ago, I had an 80s movie-a-thon and that was one of the movies I watched. Wild. Now I have to look that up. 😈 Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s an awesome idea – an 80s movie-a-thon. I should definitely be doing that! I love that movie and I was so infatuated with Kiefer Sutherland’s David, so I nominated him my favorite vampire. I’d be happy to get some 80’s recommendations 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • It wasn’t intentional but, once we started, it was tough to stop. Let’s see… Trading Places, The Lost Boys, St. Elmo’s Fire, Ghostbusters, Grosse Pointe Blank (90s), Better Off Dead, Stand by Me, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Breakfast Club, Princess Bride (doesn’t count…watch this all the time), Beetlejuice… There were probably more. Now I’m slightly embarrassed. 😉


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