The other day, I was listening to "No Good Deed" from the musical Wicked. Every time I hear it, it strikes me again that this is exactly how a hero becomes a villain. A morally struggling person reaches a hinge-point, make-or-break decision and chooses to fully embrace their own darkness. Even in the rare event that the person later reforms, the line they cross here will in some ways "forever . . . dominate [their] destiny." It's a raw, powerful, heartbreaking moment that I call the Tipping Point.
I don't believe anyone is born evil. Thus, I think every villain, real-life or fictional, experiences a Tipping Point. But the audience/world doesn't always get to see it, especially for real people. Here are a few examples (warning: here be spoilers):
In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin's Tipping Point comes as he watches the battle between Chancellor Palpatine and Mace Windu. Should Anakin help destroy a Sith Lord who's caused years of war and suffering, or should he rescue the one person who (in Anakin's mind) can help him save Padmé?
In season 1 of Once Upon a Time, Regina's Tipping Point arrives when she learns that she can only unleash the Dark Curse by cutting out the heart of the thing she loves most.
In the season 2 finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko faces his Tipping Point when he has the chance either to help Aang and embrace his own growing goodness or to fight alongside Azula and get everything he thinks he wants. (Granted, Zuko has become more of an antihero than a villain by this point, which may be why the door to redemption is clearly left open for him.)
In the New Testament, Pontius Pilate reaches his Tipping Point when he faces an angry crowd demanding the life of Jesus, who Pilate knows full well is innocent. (Whether you believe the New Testament is nonfiction [as I do] or fiction, it's an intriguing moment.)
Arguably, the Tipping Point came for President Richard Nixon when he had to choose between coming clean about his involvement in the Watergate break-in or covering it up.
We know little about the early life of Ilse Koch, the so-called Witch of Buchenwald. But since most people don't engage in the kinds of atrocities she reputedly committed, she must have experienced her own Tipping Point before or during her time at Buchenwald.
What makes a Tipping Point so tragic is that it's the moment we see a (potentially, at least) good person fall. They have the opportunity and the power to make the right choice. Maybe they even lean toward it for a moment. But they ultimately succumb to their own flaws, pressure from others, and/or the lie they believe. In many cases, they quickly erase any doubts about their new allegiance by doing something irreversible and/or unforgivable: killing or betraying someone, destroying a priceless object, etc.
When we write nonfiction about real-life villains, such as Queen Mary I or Timothy McVeigh, the Tipping Point is a key part of understanding who these people become and why they make the choices they do. Of course, we often can't definitively identify someone's Tipping Point. Especially if we're discussing historical figures, we might never meet the people we write about. Still, as when writing any type of nonfiction, we owe it to our readers to provide our best hypotheses and the evidence for them.
In fiction, the Tipping Point often occurs before the story begins. However, just as with real-life villains, the Tipping Point is a critical factor in the villain's subsequent motivations, attitudes, and actions. Therefore, we writers need to know the details of our fictional villains' Tipping Points, even if we don't spell them out in the story.
This is not to say, of course, that one choice spontaneously makes someone evil. All people have both good and evil inside them. If we decide to show a Tipping Point "onscreen," we have to set it up by showing the person's earlier experiences and decisions that ultimately lead them to this moment and make this choice so difficult.
Speaking of difficult, the Tipping Point scene can be one of the hardest to write in your story. And I'm here to help. If you'd like some assistance with pushing your villain over the edge, click here to book a coaching call with me.
(Thanks to Casey Horner for sharing their work on Unsplash.)