One bit of writing advice I have heard is that a villain should never be completely evil and should instead be sympathetic to a degree or at least have meaningful redeeming qualities. People who give this bit of advice act as though this makes a villain more realistic. They will claim that villains without sympathetic or redeeming qualities are cartoonish and difficult to imagine as people that might exist in real life. I call bullshit. Anyone who thinks such villains are unrealistic is either privileged or willfully ignorant.
Case in point, Donald Trump. The guy used the presidency as an attempt to enrich himself at the expense of his own country’s people. In the process, he did things that comic book writers would consider unrealistic. At least Lex Luthor Sold Lexcorp to avoid a conflict of interest, so right off the bat Trump is less ethical than a comic book villain. Trump got even worse from there. He tried to legalize discrimination against vulnerable people, aided his own country’s enemies, took from the poor, caused environmental destruction bordering on Captain Planet villainy, had peaceful protesters tear gassed so that he could have a picture taken (not to mention the level of force he sought to use against the Black Lives Matter movement in general), and even more heinous things. And then when a pandemic hit, he downplayed it and it ended up ravaging the country to a far worse extent than it otherwise would have. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he undermined almost every attempt to mitigate the pandemic while blaming it on Chinese people. Oh, and he tried to take away people’s healthcare during said pandemic. Naturally, all this horribleness cost him reelection despite his efforts to rig it in his favor. So, what did he do? He tried to subvert the election results. When politicians and judges didn’t do enough to enable him in doing so (worth noting that many of the politicians in his party did try to subvert the election results along with him) he vilified them for being insufficiently loyal. He also incited an attempted coup, which thankfully failed (Side note: If I had tried to write “shirtless guy with a horned hat, a tattoo of Thor’s hammer, and American flag face paint storms the Capitol as part of an attempted coup” in a fictional story, I would have been told my writing was a laughable strawman, but that’s exactly what happened on January 6th among other absurd bullshit). When the coup failed, Trump tried to do more harm to vulnerable people on his way out of the presidency. After a real life villain like that, how can you claim that extreme and irredeemable evil is unrealistic? The guy was a freaking cartoon, and an extremely destructive one at that.
Trump isn’t the anomaly many would like to believe he is. His entire party is rotten to the core. Many of the horrible things Trump did had already been a mainstream part of what the Republican Party had been trying to do. What Trump did was escalate them. Republicans enabled him because his policies were what they wanted. When Trump committed blatantly impeachable offenses, republicans in congress overwhelmingly voted to acquit him despite damning evidence (twice). These republicans in congress were enabled by a combination of a fanatical voter base and aggressive suppression of the will of the people.
Now, let me bring up a show that is often brought up when people talk about unrealistic villains. Remember the rogues gallery in Captain Planet? They pollute the environment because the damage it does pleases them. This seems unrealistic right? Well, there are many people who cause destruction for the sake of the pleasure it gives them. Internet trolls associated with certain hate movements will try to destroy the lives of innocent people over something as minor as a video talking about sexism in video games. There are entire websites and hashtags dedicated to organizing this kind of harassment too, which has real world consequences for vulnerable people. In addition to destroying individual people’s lives, these people have gotten laws passed and rulings made that hurt marginalized groups. As of this post, there is a deadly pandemic going on and republicans are making transphobia a legislative priority. Among the bills they are trying to pass, there are bills designed to outlaw medical transitioning for trans youth. Let that sink in. Amidst a pandemic, a major political party is trying to deny vulnerable children life saving medical care. Apparently they think the coronavirus isn’t killing enough innocent people. Compared to that, is a supervillain who finds pollution appealing really that over-the-top?
I never really understood this desire for villains in fiction to not be completely evil. Yes, villains need a reason for what they do. However, sometimes a villain’s motive only makes sense in their own twisted mind. Not always, but sometimes. Furthermore, things such as bigotry can bring out extreme and irrational levels of evil in certain types of people. Irredeemable evil that ventures into absurdity is unfortunately something that exists and portraying it in fiction is thus not unrealistic.