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How Evil is Too Evil?


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Technically this question could work for any story from the point of view of any faction but I felt it more poignant for Chaos. How far can you go with a 40k protagonist's villainy before the audience checks out or hates them? How evil is too evil?
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Technically this question could work for any story from the point of view of any faction but I felt it more poignant for Chaos. How far can you go with a 40k protagonist's villainy before the audience checks out or hates them? How evil is too evil?

I'm just going to point you to Honsou and the Daemonculaba. Honsou is the protagonist of Graham McNeill's Iron Warriors novels, and the antagonist of a LOT of his Ultramarines novels.

 

As to how evil:

"The Daemonculaba was an attempt to create new Chaos Space Marines from the mutated womb of a human female, using the pure gene-seed stolen from the Imperial Fists' repository on the world of Hydra Cordatus. It was a project undertaken by the Iron Warriors Traitor Legion, and overseen by the Warsmith Honsou. It took place deep within the dungeons of Khalan-Ghol, Honsous fortress on the Daemon World of Medrengard. The project was destroyed through the efforts of Captain Uriel Ventris of the Ultramarines Chapter and his small band of allies.

 

The creation of the Daemonculaba began with the rounding up of human females present on Medrengard as slaves. Once corralled, they were shackled naked within iron cages and force-fed nutrients which caused their bodies to widen and bloat to grotesque proportions. Next, the Hereteks known as Savage Morticians utilised surgical and chemical techniques as well as the sorcery of Chaos to radically alter the slaves' internal morphology and embed within their wombs the stolen Imperial Fists gene-seed. Once this "birthing-womb" was readied, an adolescent human male drawn from Medrengard's slave population was sealed within through the use of a surgical procedure that was essentially a "reverse C-section."

 

Days later, the new Astartes candidate was reborn from the womb of the Daemonculaba lacking any skin. Provided they had not died from metabolic shock during the process, the candidate was inspected to see if he was physically worthy to be an Astartes. If he was not because his body had horribly mutated during the transformation process, he was literally flushed through the sewers of Khalan-Ghol to die in the barren wastelands of Medrengard surrounding the fortress. In rare instances, the rejected mutants survived being cast out and ultimately banded together as the tribe of scavenger-hunters known as the Unfleshed (who happened to worship the Emperor and built an effigy of him).

 

If the candidate passed the inspection, a new skin would be cross-stitched onto his body and his life as a Chaos Space Marine of the Iron Warriors would begin. The skin was harvested from the flayed bodies of human slaves whose flesh had first been painfully stretched to the necessary proportions to fit an Astartes before they were flayed alive.

 

The system could also use genetic material extracted from the corpses of Iron Warriors Astartes, which would then be implanted within the Daemonculaba and fed to the maturing Astartes "child" rapidly maturing within. As for the Daemonculaba themselves, if they happened to survive the birthing process, the nightmarish cycle would begin anew only days later until death finally brought release.

 

TL;DR: He created probably the most sick, twisted :censored:'d up THING in Warhammer 40,000's fluff. And that's COUNTING the crap Fabius Bile and the Dark Eldar do.

 

And he does all this, while being probably the most civil, polite person in 90% of Black Library's novels, set after the Horus Heresy. His general decency contrasts very heavily with his villainous moments, which is probably the reason why those moments look much more monstrous and terrible than pretty much the same things performed by Fabius Bile or Abaddon. In fact, his humanity and civility is what makes his evil so much more disturbing.

 

And yet, he's one of the most well-received Black Library characters. Probably because Graham knocked it out of the park with making him blatantly, unrepentantly evil and vile, and yet he's got a politeness that you only rarely see amongst Marines.

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Once again I find myself in agreement and was also going to cite the Warsmith Honsou, with that specific spoiler-tagged item as the prime example.  That went far but not too far, because it matched his personality/motivations/nature.  And that imho is probably the answer to your question.

 

Technically this question could work for any story from the point of view of any faction but I felt it more poignant for Chaos. How far can you go with a 40k protagonist's villainy before the audience checks out or hates them? How evil is too evil?

 

When it's "Stupid Evil", a term I learned from roleplaying games.  There's Lawful Evil, even Chaotic Evil, but then there's Stupid Evil when a character does something that is directly against his own personality/motivations/nature.

 

This isn't even Crazy Evil, where someone is totally insane and is willing to get himself killed just to prove how broken the world is...that actually would fit into his mad plan to prove a point...nor Ignorant Evil where someone did what he thought was best based on the limited information or his wrong beliefs.  In fact, there's a number of psychological experiments to prove people can do a great deal of wrong when they've been lead to think it's for a greater good.

 

The difference is when it's clear the authour inserted a pointlessly evil act that even a character wouldn't consider, just for the sake of plot contrivance.  It would be out of character for him, he wouldn't do it.  And the disconnect with the reader is that people understand people, it definitely looks out of place, it's like the "uncanny valley" not just of morality but personality.

 

And IMHO, so far, there are no obvious examples in 40k.  There are definitely some in comics and comic book movies.

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For me, "too evil" is to knowingly committing acts of evil, for no greater purpose than one's own pleasure. Honsou's evil doesn't cross my line, because I can understand WHY he commits it: He's fighting a war, he wants to win, and he'll stop at nothing to achieve victory. Were I in the same situation, I may cross the same (literally) damn lines.

 

Bile's evil is also understandable: He's a scientist who wants to unravel all mysteries in his chosen field of study, he takes pride in his work, and he tolerates no barriers to learning and his own personal knowledge.

 

"Too evil" would be the Drukhari (Dark Eldar), who inflict pain for no reason other than to make their victims suffer; I can't relate to that, and I don't want to relate to that. "Too evil" would be the Joker, from the Batman comics; he deliberately makes his own actions seem like acts of madness to others, making him near-impossible to relate to. People like sympathetic villains because the knowledge WE may end up committing the same damn crimes these villains committed, if chance and happenstance forces our hand, haunts us more intensely than anything an edgelord writer's creation can do.

Edited by Bjorn Firewalker
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In a setting where even the "good guys" are bad (e.g., exterminatus), there is no such thing as "too evil." The trick is in making the evil acts believable and relevant to the motivations of the villain.
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In a setting where even the "good guys" are bad (e.g., exterminatus), there is no such thing as "too evil." The trick is in making the evil acts believable and relevant to the motivations of the villain.

"Too evil" would be evil committed for its own sake, with no motivation more meaningful than "I was bored," or "For the lulz!" For most readers, "evil" is most terrifying when they see THEMSELVES committing the same crimes, because they feel, "I'm sorry, but I have no choice,"- hence the popularity of "sympathetic villains."

 

Let's say you're standing in front of an apartment building, with a torch in hand. Normally, you'd be horrified at the thought of setting that building on fire, killing scores of innocent men, women, and children, am I right? But what if an official from the Health Department tells you the building's inhabitants are bearers of a virulent plague, and if you don't set it on fire, the plague will spread and kill everyone in your hometown? If you're forced to choose between killing scores of innocent people, or killing thousands- including your own friends and family members- can you say with certainty you'll stay your hand?

 

That's the beauty of Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Graham McNeill's works: They let you see from the villains' POVs, so you can sympathize with them and understand why they commit acts of villainy, and SIMULTANEOUSLY realize these villains must be stopped at all costs.

 

On Exterminatus, a skilled writer makes you believe the one ordering an entire world's death, is put in the same agonizing situation as the aforementioned man with a torch: The act may be reprehensible, but it's also regrettably justifiable. On the other hand, edgelords- your Matt Ward, your Garth Ennis- make readers believe their characters are "too evil," because they EPIC FAIL to make such evil seem necessary.

Edited by Bjorn Firewalker
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And all of that was covered in the "believable and relevant to the motivations of the villain" portion.

Sadly, "believable and relevant to the motivations of the villain" is something many writers fail to depict in current year- too many write their stories as political sermons, and use their antagonists as straw men in the same sermons.

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As Brother Tyler said I don't think there is such a thing as "too evil" within 40K setting that would break the suspension of disbelief as long as it is well written. The setting is marketed with the "good guys" being the worst regime imaginable so I really can't see the opposite end of the spectrum to even have an end considering the setting also includes things (for a lack of better word) such as Chaos Gods.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Depending how far down the rabbit hole the followers of Chaos go whilst trying to appease their God, I can see them doing unspeakable acts for the laughs, especially Slaaneshii followers. 

 

Hell look at Dahmer, Gein, Fritzl, Chikatilo, the Manson Family - they were 'normal' people living on a 'normal' planet, imagine what they could do if they were actually devout Chaos worshippers in an environment where they could thrive and pursue their 'interests' at their leisure.

Edited by Brother Tyler
Gratuitous personal attack removed
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