Villainy and Monstrosity

I was recently drawn into a discussion about the amount of truth in the statement "A villain can be monstrous, but a monster is rarely villainous." It was fun but inconclusive, so I'm using this post to consolidate my argument for how monstrosity and villainy should be defined.

It's important to define the terms first, because "monstrous" and "villainous" are practically synonymous in some contexts. To start with the most contentious, let's define villainy as "a being with the capacity and opportunity for conscious choice choosing to carry out an action which harms unoffending, conscious beings." The important qualities are capacity for choice, opportunity for choice, action, and harm. We're not talking about evil (which may or may not exist) or legality. Captain America, who bashes the snot out of supervillains on the regular, is not a villain. Neither are farmers, as a group. People who fantasize about harming others but never act (in word or deed) on those fantasies do not meet this definition for villainy either. We could dig into what constitutes harm and offense, but let's not.

I'll define monstrosity as anything "animate, supernatural in nature, and having a high capacity for mayhem." Size is usually part of the dictionary definition, and there's a reason "giant __" stories are a subgenre of horror. However, I don't want to exclude the regular-sized-but-still-dangerous creatures (kuchisake-onna, vampires, werewolves, etc.) or the small ones (gremlins, murlocs, animated adamantium mouse skeletons that hunger for human spleens, etc.). Animation is a yes or no disqualifier. Breathing and metabolism count as animation. Scary statues are not monsters. I previously argued that ugliness is a component of monstrosity, but further consideration shows this to be some Western culture nonsense.

Now that we've got definitions, it's easy to see that the first half of the statement is true! A villain (a person who does villainous things when they could do something else instead) can certainly be supernaturally dangerous.

The second half of the statement poses more of a problem. How strong is the correlation between monstrosity and villainy? Nobody pays me to do science, so somebody else can create monstrosity-villainy assessments and assess some non-humans. Keeping in mind that villainy requires 1) multiple options, 2) a capacity for choice, and 3) choosing the most harmful option, here's my expectation for some key results. If you're inclined to argue I encourage you to do it elsewhere, because comments, as usual, are closed.

Figure 1: Villainy and Monstrosity of Various Non-Humans. Various non-humans are plotted on a graph in which the vertical Y axis represents a Villainous-Heroic continuum and the horizontal X axis represents a Natural-Monstrous continuum.

Further reading:

R. E. Stearns