"Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?"
— Glinda, in Wicked
Sometimes your villain isn't the Mad Scientist who wants to poison the city, or the Corrupt Corporate Executive who wants to control the world, or the greedy bank robber who's on a crime spree. Sometimes, your villain's just an average guy who's brought into villainy against their own will or control. This isn't Mind Control or possession, it's because they've been warped by events around them, and forced into villainy by forces outside their control. A broken shell of a human being, the only thing left is insanity.
To alter an old saying: "Some people are born into insanity, others have insanity thrust upon them." While their villainous actions have no excuse, their cause for becoming villains was entirely (or mostly) out of their hands.
It's rare to find a villain who is truly blameless in their origin, though it does happen. Even origins that lament the cruelty of fate, like The Joker's in The Killing Joke, eventually reveal that the origin is still largely due to the character's choices. Indeed, a villain who is fed up with abuse by others or out for revenge is still making the active choice to be villainous, and if it is still clear that the villain made the choice to be evil themselves rather than have it made for them, then they're not exactly broken, just enraged to the point of vengeance.
However, the trend seems to be that, the more arbitrary their fall into villainy seems to be, the more psychotic they become, as those screwed by the world become angry at the world, and seek to inflict their new madness on everyone. The end result of being Driven to Villainyis not a good person forced to do evil, but a legitimately evil villain, tragically warped by things they never had any control over.
A Sub-Trope of Anti-Villain. Compare Freudian Excuse and Then Let Me Be Evil. Contrast Trapped In Villainy. Such a character may become a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds. See also From Nobody to Nightmare. The more mundane version of this trope would be Society Is to Blame.
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
Quite a few examples in Naruto, whose author Kishimoto has turned traumatic childhoods into a fine art.
Gaara comes to mind - upon birth, a demon was sealed inside him, with his mother becoming a sacrifice, so that he could become his ninja village's ultimate weapon. But said demon also makes everyone in the village terrified of him, and he grows up reviled as a monster. Finally, his own father (who arranged the whole thing in the first place), finding him growing unstable, sends assassins to kill him. The first assassin is his beloved uncle, the only one who seems to care for him, who reveals that he's actually secretly hated him all these years for killing his sister (Gaara's mom, the one who was sacrificed to make him what he was), and that his mother had died cursing the village and hoped that Gaara killed them all - his name, given by her, means "The Demon who loves only himself". Naturally, he finally snaps, and spends the next few years killing everyone he runs across as a way of proving that he exists. Oh, and the demon in question prevents him from sleeping, less it starts eating away at his mind.
Sasuke is an even more literal example, as from a certain point of view his entire life has been orchestrated by at least two major villains for the purpose of making him evil, for their own ends, namely, Orochimaru and Madara; Itachi is either an anti-hero or a third major villain, depending on your POV and to what degree Madara is telling the truth; Danzou might qualify as yet another villain guilty of this, except that he didn't really care about Sasuke and saw him as collateral damage at best for his plans. The massacre of his entire family and clan by his beloved older brother (who brutalized him, and told him to hate more and murder his best friend), at the age of 8, was only the beginning of that. At present, the plan is working quite well indeed.
Johan Liebert from Monster. No, really. Hard as it is to imagine, he was once a frightened little boy clinging to his mother's leg before he was systematically warped by secret psychological torture that actually happened to his sister, and that he managed to accidentally create as a false memory for himself and then even more brainwashing to become the perfect little East German super-soldier. While he was already a full-on Enfant Terrible by age 6 or 7, he wasn't born that way, and would not have become how he ended up without these traumas.
It's implied that what actually broke him was, at the age of six, realizing that his mother favored one of the children more than the other when she willingly handed one over to Bonaparta. The knowledge that people were inherently different and that favouritism could drive people to do things like that
Mao, from Code Geass. A Yandere who shoots C.C. and proposes taking a chainsaw to her in order to make her 'compact' for a trip to Australia, as well as attempting to blow up Nunnally. Also adept at Breaking Speech-slash-Mind Rape, which he uses twice. However, he is also completely barmy because he cannot shut off the thoughts of others, thus mitigating his moral culpability for his above acts, as C.C. hints at before blowing his brains out.
Almost all of the Black Lagoon cast not in major leadership positions. Hansel and Gretel are a particularly sad example.
Perhaps the best example of this trope is Max Eisenhardt aka Magneto from the X-Men. His origin story is enough to drive anyone to villainy, and yet, throughout the comics (and the movies) he is shown as not fueled by revenge, blind hate against humanity, or the desire to do evil. His ultimate motivation is to fight for his own kind - the Mutants - which he sees as persecuted by the common humans for being different and perceived as dangerous.
In the Spider-Man comics, the Hobgoblin from the year 2211 is revealed to be this. She's the daughter of that years' time traveling Spider-Man, who is forced to arrest her due to crimes that she would commit in the future, and placed in a virtual reality prison, which is programmed into her brain to keep her in a fantasy world. Her boyfriend tries to free her with a computer virus, which instead adversely effects the fantasy, warps her mind and drives her completely insane. True to form, her imprisonment is what caused her insane criminal spree in the first place. She uses her knowledge as an inter-dimensional researcher to create time traveling equipment and goes on a history-erasing rampage through time.
Before it was retconned that he had actually been possessed the whole time, Hal Jordan'sFace-Heel Turn into the Knight Templar supervillain Parallax was portrayed as this, having gone insane with grief over the annihilation of his hometown of Coast City.
The Homelander in The Boys was never a saint, but he was driven to become a monster because he believed he was already hopelessly murderously insane when he saw images of himself committing horrible crimes (like baby eating) that he didn't remember. His clone Black Noir dressed up as him and framed him for his crimes to drive Homelander crazy so he could fulfill his purpose: to kill Homelander.
The Dark Knight's Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Given that he got his new worldview from The Joker while lying medicated in a hospital bed recovering from both a disfiguring injury and a horrible tragedy, you feel sorry for the guy as he performs his horrible acts throughout the rest of the film.
Francis Dolarhyde out of the Hannibal Lecter film Manhunter:
Will Graham: As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult... as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to fulfill some sick fantasy. As an adult, I think someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.
V. C. Andrews has this in the more infamous big bad's in the series. The tragic past of the main villain is usually revealed in a prequel.
Kissin' Kate Barlow in Holes by Louis Sachar was a sweet schoolteacher until the town she taught in lynched the man she loved because he'd kissed her, and they were different races.
In Aunt Dimity Goes West, it is revealed that an infamous local mine disaster was due to sabotage caused by a disgruntled employee who had owned the claim originally, sold it for a pittance ($5,000.00), and later learned it contained a rich vein of gold (worth $200 million!). It also turns out that his wife committed suicide, his son was sent to an orphanage, and his great-grandson later reopened the mine and set a bomb in it to destroy the house built on the site by the owner's descendants.
A character in an early episode was mutated by a combination of Kryptonite and hypothermia. In order to prevent freezing to death, he had to drain people of their body heat (which, if he waited too long to do it, would result in their deaths) in order to survive, and a case could be made that he wasn't truly villainous, and was forced to kill people in order to survive. However the guy was made such a self-centered, vindictive psychopathic Jerk Ass that the point became moot.
Another episode had a girl who had to regularly eat human flesh to prevent from starving to death (regular food didn't work). She never actually killed anyone, just left them near death from the damage to their bodies. This was clearly a case of Horror Hunger, and in at least one instance, she urged a potential victim to run away.
For real tragedy, see Davis Bloome in Season 8. A Nice Guy paramedic, Davis suffers from constant black outs and discovers that he has alien Serial Killer and Person of Mass Destruction Doomsday trapped inside him, and that the only way to keep the monster from taking over and slaughtering dozens of people is to kill individual victims. He thus becomes a Pay Evil unto Evil-type Anti-Hero, murdering those he considers to be deserving of it in order to keep his inner monster trapped. This eventually drives him completely insane, and results in his descent into true villainy.
In the Criminal Minds episode "True Night", we see a comic book artist become a serial killer after he survived an attack which killed his fiancee, his inability to protect her being the root of his villainy.
The Queen from Once Upon a Time. She did many horrible things, but they were done because she crossed the Despair Event Horizon after her mother ripped her boyfriend's heart out in front of her. It was also kind of Snow White's fault, though she didn't do it on purpose.
Prototype has Alex Mercer, who wakes up in a morgue to find out that he has Easy Amnesia and has been turned into a horrifyingVoluntary Shapeshifter. Cue Roaring Rampage of Revenge. This is played straight, subverted, and then inverted: Upon waking, Alex does horrible things like eatconsume peoplein order tofigure out what is going on. It's hard to blame him too much for being batshit crazy, though, considering he's been turned into a living virus and has no memory of who he is or what happened to bring him to this point and people have been trying to brutally murder him since he woke up. That's the played straight. It's then subverted when it's revealed that Alex himself is the one who released the deadly virus, dubbed "Blacklight", that turned him into a monster and is currently decimating New York state. Flashbacks show you that Alex is a sociopath who deliberately engineered an already deadly virus to become ten times more dangerous, and then stole a sample and unleashed it upon the general populace when he was shot dead with the mindset of "If I'm going down, I'm Taking You with Me." That's the subversion. Now the inversion shows up in this way: It turns out that Alex isn't the one who released the Blacklight Virus. Well, he is, but the twist is this: The Alex you've been controlling isn't the real Alex Mercer. When he was shot dead, he was actually killed off for real. Turns out that the Alex you know isn't even human; he's the Blacklight Virus itself in a human avatar. The reason this is an inversion is because it/he goes from originally being the Mad Scientist that the real Alex was, to a Sociopathic Hero, to a person who becomes empathetic enough over the course of the game to actually express disgust over who the real Alex was and risk its life to save Manhattan from being nuked.
Myst III: Exile has Saveedro, who's entire homeworld was apparently destroyed and who now wants to force the man he blames to see what happened, so he steals a book from him. When he finds out the player isn't the person he's looking for, he kills you if he gets the opprotunity.
Keiichi, Shmion, Rena, and, to an extent, Satoko in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. They don't choose to become villains when they do start killing people, as it's caused by a combination of the Hate Plague, Hinamizawa Syndrome and some overall bad shit that happens to them.
Isair and Madae, the Big Bads of Icewind Dale II. While their origins — half-demon half-elves shunned and misunderstood or manipulated by everyone, whose mother committed suicide when she first saw them — are undeniably tragic, it's very clear they've crossed the line into choosing villainy at the point the Legion of the Chimera started burning and looting the Ten Towns.
Kael'Thas Sunstrider in World of Warcraft. His homeland was wrecked, his people's allies in the Alliance turned on them, and long term exposure to the Sunwell followed by its' removal had given his people addictions to magic. The only way to escape the Alliance general hunting him was to flee to Outland, and the only place to get large amounts of magic in Outland is to absorb it from demons. Tragically, Fel energy is even more addictive than normal magic and makes one Drunk on the Dark Side, to the point where Kael is willing to align with the same Demon Lord who ordered his homeland destroyed in the first place to get more power.
Kael's boss Illidan a debatable example. His entire life consists of Well-Intentioned Extremist actions and being punished for them until he finally flees Azeroth altogether and bulids an empire in Outland in an attempt to escape the Burning Legion's ire. Like Kael, the influence of Fel magic made him more and more willing to enslave and slaughter anyone who didn't fall in line.
MAG ISA: Kyle, Alice, and Chu were forced by their tragic childhoods to join the cult known as "The Order".
In Worm, this is the case for many of the villains. Bitch never had an opportunity to be anything more than a villain after she killed her abusive foster mother, Regent was born to a family of villains and forced to commit crimes with them from the moment he got his powers, and Skitter started out as The Mole before being screwed by Armsmaster and realizing that the system was broken.
Electro is done this way in The Spectacular Spiderman. While working in Curt Connors' lab, he falls victim to an accident that leaves him charged with electric energy, unable to live safely without a suit covering him at all times. Over the course of the episode, his mentality degrades more an more as he fails to deal with the loss of his humanity and is repeatedly attacked by Spiderman (who doesn't realize the situation), and the cops (who do, but deal with it too harshly). His first criminal act is merely to try to hold Connors hostage until he can come up with a cure, but he eventually goes completely insane and detaches himself completely from himself and his sanity.
An even better example is John Jameson from the same. After piloting his spaceship safely back to Earth, he is exposed to alien spores, which infect his body and increase his size and strength. His father convinces him to become a superhero, but the spores eventually effect his mind, making him more aggressive and filled with rage, eventually causing an extreme personality change . After Venom, acting as Spiderman, attacks him, he flies into a rage and goes on a rampage to kill Spidey. Though he is ultimately cured, the experience took its toll; the spores had him enough that, with them gone, he is obsessively addicted to them. He's last seen in an insane asylum, with a cell next to Electro, who echoes his position. If he appears again as a villain, the cycle will be complete. This is somewhat more evident as this than Electro, as, in this case, Jameson was one of the more heroic supporting characters in the series.
Deconstructed with Demona from Gargoyles. If you ask her about it, she'd certainly tell you at length about how humans have always hated, feared, and mistreated gargoyles and all of her evil actions are justified to protect her race from the human threat, and she has a thousand years of tragic backstory to back it up. A closer examination of said backstory, though, shows that Demona's own track record of phenomenally poor decisions is responsible for at least as much of her suffering as outside agency and that her real motivation is somewhere between revenge and misdirected self-loathing which manifests as Fantastic Racism against humans. Ultimately, it is her inability to recognize her own culpability in the suffering of herself and those around her- and as a result, her inability to move on- which is the true tragedy of Demona.