On The Origins of Supervillains Part 1

I’ve said before on this blog: villains are often the most impressive, exciting and just plain fun character to both write and read. Bad guys are always just less limited than heroes, can get away with more and get to be cool or powerful without working for it.

No surprise then that eventually my eye would turn toward the origin stories of various villains to analyze in my own ‘what works’ fashion. It’s actually one of those subjects I have some pretty strong feelings about in some cases, as you will soon see.

So this week, sit back and let’s discuss such villainous origins as…

Traumatic Empowerment

In what may be his most well-known story, The Killing Joke, The Joker reveals one of a long line of his ever-shifting backstories, this one detailing how he became the Joker. In addition to the now-standard bits about him being the Red Hood (for the day at least) and taking an acid bath, it reveals that those were just the end of a single long, traumatic day for him, the acid bath finally breaking him completely and transforming him mentally as well as physically into the Joker.

The Killing Joke is all about what makes a character like Joker, as the man himself has decided to prove that it could happen to anyone, specifically Commissioner Gordon, by putting him through his own traumatic day.

In a larger sense, the story is about the prevailing supervillain origin of the day—even this day; that being a normal person exposed to terrible stress and an empowering accident losing their hold on sanity. Depending on the era, Batman’s rogues are famous for this with Joker,Two-Face, Clayface and one or two of the Clock Kings leading the charge.

All told, it’s also one of my least favorite type of villainous origin. Essentially, when you tell a villainous origin like this, you’re saying that the character as we know them sprang fully formed from the ether at that moment and what came before in their lives is of no consequence—everything that formed who they are exists in the lead-up to that trauma and the trauma itself.

Sometimes, this is fine. For example, when it comes to Batman, Batman himself has the same sort of origin (Bruce Wayne’s story before that fateful night is unimportant because Bruce died in that alley with his parents at the same moment that the seeds of Batman are planted. Therefore, having many of his villains being similarly created creatures of circumstance makes a certain level of literary sense in sthe same way that many of Spider-Man’s villains are examples of either science twisted to evil means, or accidents of science.

My problem with this specific type of villain origin is that it limits stories, particularly fleshing out back stories. It literally does not matter who Joker, or Clayface were before they transformed. It barely matters who Two-Face was because that only has value in terms of how Batman feels about it.

Compare this to Curt Connors, AKA Spider-Man foe, The Lizard, who was transformed, but whose past remained important. Connors (until Bad Writing were declared) had a family that was affected every time he changed into the Lizard to do evil. From a writing standpoint, this gives more opportunity to delve into Connors’ past for stories where, again, someone like Joker’s past is no longer relevant to the character.

In terms of villains who get their start as a supervillain as part of a traumatic event, I personally prefer character who were already bad people to begin with. As I’ve said time and again, I like characters who are bad people without being fully villainous, and in this case, I like when they have those traits and then become villainous.

Take for example Doctor Otto Octavius. Movie version and mind-controlling tentacles aside, Otto, is usually shown as a largely amoral and driven scientist in the ‘I’LL SHOW THEM ALL’ vein. This actually caused the fateful accident that fused his initial set of tentacles to him: when his funding ran out, dude decided to continue his experiments out of pocket with no safeties on (to cut costs. These days that’s just a normal lab job).

More importantly to me, the accident doesn’t drive him insane, or break him in some way. He’s still good ol’ ego-tastic Otto, He just has the power to take what he wants in order to prove himself and feed his ego now. From a character standpoint, Otto was always a villain. His transformation into Doctor Octopus is really about him gaining the means to make a go at it. For him and villains like him, it isn’t really a choice, it’s an amplification of who they are.

Long story short, I feel that if you’re going to have the villain go through a transformation to get where they are, it should have been a light push instead of a hard shove or 360 degree shift.

Abusive Childhood

I’ve detailed this before a bit when I lambasted DC’s Villains Month, but it bears repeating: I hat this one. I loathe it. I grit my teeth in rage whenever it comes up. My fury for this trope will pierce the heavens.

I don’t like it is what I’m saying.

Basically, this is where the villain is evil because they were abused as a child. Often in ways that would straight up make the 11 o’clock news if anyone found out. Literally every person these people ended up meeting treated them badly at best.

And of course, they don’t come out of this with the normal mental scars the require treatment that real abused children do. Nor do they generally continue the cycle by abusing people the same way they were abused or trying to take control of their environment—again, like real abuse victims. Nope! They’re usually just omnicidal, or in the most stunning cases, just really greedy.

In the aforementioned Villains Month excrement, pretty much every featured character is shown to have been abused as a child and that’s clearly shown as linked to their later villainy and they’re on some level trying to get vengeance on the world for what happened to them. Even ignoring the terrible implications I pointed out before (that abused children will become evil), it also isn’t how abused kids think.

I believe I’ve said this already, but I’ve volunteered with an organization that works with abused kids. They… are not nursing a deep and abiding hatred for all of humanity for what was done to them. In fact, they generally aren’t even angry at their abuser. No, the truth is far sadder: they often wonder what they did to make someone hurt them, or what went wrong. This is where the ‘trying to control their environment’ thing comes in. They start thinking they can do something to make sure they won’t be hurt again and desperately try to keep a handle on things and themselves to that purpose.

And that opens some doors if one still wants to use abuse as a start of darkness. I’m still not happy with it, but a lot of authors, many of whom I know personally and who get mad at me for complaining about this on Twitter, feel that treating terrible and unfortunate experiences with neither respect nor actual research is their artistic right, so what are you going to do.

But if—IF–one were going to go this way, that’s the part you can snag onto. Not some idea of anger and vengeance against people who are in no way involved, but the need to control things. Which makes it pretty odd that the planners, the schemers, the general thinking villains rarely have this backstory. Again, terrible implications.

I also find it odd that the real life version of this doesn’t turn up more:

The Petty Incident

Batman’s Clock Kings tend toward this when they don’t have a major instant transformation. This is where a character becomes a villain because of a single petty grudge that they’ve blown so far out of proportion that they can’t even see the concept of proportion anymore.

The classic version of this is where someone inconveniences a person or is rude to them at the start of that ‘one bad day’ Joker was on about in The Killing Joke. In the case of the Clock King from Batman: TAS, this was future Mayor Hamilton Hill giving him generally good advice that he took at the dumbset possible time resulting in him being late to an important court hearing.

The key to this is the Evil Is Petty trope, and I generally like this a lot. The implication here is that this person was already an explosion looking for something to light the fuse and they’re really just making an excuse of someone else’s mistake. These people had already made the choice to be villains, but were too cowardly to act on it until they had someone else to blame.

It’s also one of those times where I’m really happy to see realism in play because this is one of the reasons real people have for becoming simply awful. I’ve already said my piece on Gamergate, but a new wave of petty malevolence has shown up recently that illustrates my point:

Reddit is a messageboard site where basically anyone can set up their own little board and th order of the threads is based on voting them up. Now, as you all know, the US Bill of Right’s 1st Amendment is binding all over the world and reads: the right of being a complete ass to people for no reason shall never be called out or disallowed even on private severs’. This means Reddit is powerless to stop people from setting up hate group and outright terroristic boards. I’m sure you can feel me rolling my eyes from where you’re sitting.

Among the traditional hate groups, like anti-black groups and anti-women groups… there’s an anti-fat people group. They recently managed to break one of like the five rules even has and got one of their sub-boards banned and like the mature adults they are, they decided to threaten and spam Reddit writ large as a result. Out of morbid curiosity, I went and read some of their posts and about half of them are along the lines of ‘DUR WEN DD U START H8TING FATTIES?’. And every single reply to all of those was a variation on ‘a single fat person did something unpleasant to me that any thin person could have done, AND NOW I MUST DESTORY THEM ALL!

Every. Single. One.

And that’s how it goes. GamerGate is mostly made up of people who had one run-in with a woman and/or someone who told them to stop saying ‘fag’ every thirty seconds and now feel that there is a conspiracy of ‘SJWs’ (people with the evil agenda of asking people not to be jerks) out to get them and now they’re at war.

It’s sad, it’s pathetic… and it’s human. There’s some delicate wiring up there in our brain boxes that in some people is already in need of some serious therapy that can get crossed by the dumbest things and suddenly we’re starting a message board all about why women who get french tips on their nails are the scum of the Earth and posting all the personal information about a random woman with french tips in the hopes that someone a little more broken then us does something to them.

If there were a real life, dramatic birth of a supervillain, I think this would be it. Just a tiny, pointless thing to a person who does not recognize they needed help already with their inferiority complex and blam. Don’t think that if superpowers or a technological or mystic equivalent were available, some of these internet douchebags wouldn’t be on the hotline to sell their soul for it right the hell now.

I like this kind of fictional origin (despite it not being used often) in a larger literary context because it has the potential to force people to recognize something of that in themselves or someone close and get them to really think about their path. Obviously, they won’t be destroying Iceland, but they could help ruin an innocent person’s life.

Remember my motto when it comes to my own writing: I want to make the world better; whether that just means entertaining someone and making their day a little brighter, or inspiring them to some kind of greatness, that’s a win in my book.

By the by, I kept him all mysterious and crap for his first appearance, but this is the origin of Joykiller. He pretty much got angry that someone who happened to have a much better and meaningful day than his and decided that no one deserved that, building a twisted ideology around it (as some tend to do). But you’ll see more later this volume.

Well, that’s it for this week. Part 2 will be up next week. I kind of ran out of time here because of the past two weeks involving internet outages, my phone going freaky on me and assorted other enraging situations. As a bit of a consolation prize, watch the forum all this weekend for a raft of new World of Ere d20 content including magic and magic item rules, combat maneuvers, and the first magic items!

Highlights include:

Invest – a means of powering magic items with ones’ personal power for greater effects

Ere Rituals Including: Excavation, Akua Creae, and Purify.

Spells including: Coppergonne, Aqueous Shard, Plant Shaping, and Sound Lance

Until then, have a great week, everyone!

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
Bookmark the permalink.


  1. A variant of the ‘petty incident’ I feel is one of my least favourites: The ones that decide that because a bad thing/several bad things happened to them/someone they care about, that means humanity/the world is evil and should be destroyed entirely.
    Why I don’t like this is because in addition to being very lazy writing it’s also so unbearably childish. It’s a combination of teen angst and the basic mentality of throwing a temper tantrum and kicking the board over for not winning a boardgame.
    And also because it’s like seven out of ten anime villains so it’s way, way overdone.

    • The weird thing is, they’re always portrayed as deeply philosophical when, as you said, they’re just throwing a tantrum. They’re not even trying to fix anything, they’re just spreading the pain around.

  2. I sort of like the “twisted version of the hero” origins, but it does tend to be forced and overdone, especially for Batman.

    I also like the “thinks he’s a hero” deal, a heroic origin twisted into villainy. Some interpretations of Doctor Doom qualify. Oddly enough, Joykiller could be this. He thinks that he’s right, that the rest of the world is ignorant, and that he needs to teach them. Many terrorists easily fall into this group as well.

    One thing I strongly recommend is a variety of origins. Like anything else, you don’t want to do the same thing again and again.

    As for the Invest magic, I’m glad to see the “Coppertone” spell. Sunburns are the worst.

    Or did I misread that?

    • The Dark hero is going to be next week, wherein I prove Magneto is a hero and Frnak Castle is a villain.

      I never thought of JK being like that, but that does describe his thought processes

      Also, you don’t want this gonne on your skin. Ever see To Aru Majutsu no Index? You turn a penny into a railgun shot.

Comments are closed

  • Descendants Serial is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.