I started this off (last post) by saying that I like villains. Then going on to say I like complex characters, and going on about making characters three dimensional.
Now I’d like to shine the spot light on the villains themselves.
There is an old saying: you can judge the character of a person by the quality of his enemies. While trying to find who said this, I came across several origins, from an Arabian proverb, to Oscar Wilde, to presidents who have all said this. With so much history behind the quote, you’d think most writers would pay more attention to it.
It’s always a shame when reading a good story to find that the villain has been added seemingly as an afterthought. As if the author was half way through the story before thinking about who the villain would be, waiting until they had to reveal them before looking at them. These paper doll villains are often caricatures of themselves, either easily beaten, often comically so, and are often just there to show how good/powerful the hero is.
This is a shame, because, done right, villains bring a whole story of their own with them. A story that, many times, parallels the hero’s story, and makes the villain a dark reflection of the hero. Yes, the villain’s presence shows us how good the hero is, but only because of they are held up to the comparison of how the bad the villain is.
You may be saying to yourself: That’s all well and good, but how do I make a good villain?
I’m so glad you asked, and I would like you to keep this in mind. This is a quote from John Barth that several of the people in my writing group liked to toss about. “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” To put it another way: everyone is the main character in their own heads. And to connect it all the way back to this post: the villain doesn’t see themselves as the villain, to them they are the hero.
Let me break it down for you (because quotes are all well and good, but advice is better). The villain should have their own reasons and motivations to be in the story than just, ‘I hate the hero’. Let’s do a for instance, (I love theses).
For instance, in the story of Aladdin, the evil vizier is trying to find a mystic lamp to grant him power. Aladdin isn’t even the start of the story, he’s pulled in by the villain, and only after that do the two become at odds. It’s not even that the vizier hates Aladdin; it is only that Aladdin is in the way of the vizier’s ultimate goal. So, the vizier is in the story even before the hero, it is his motivations that begin the story, not Aladdin’s. To point out the dark reflection stuff: both characters are stuck in their positions due to society’s rules, though one seems happy with himself if not his position, while the other lusts for more. Both characters steal, but one does it to survive while the other does so to increase their own power. Both want the mystic lamp to elevate themselves, but one is humbled by the elevation while the other sees it as overdue.
That’s just one aspect of: the villain should have their own motivations for being in the story.
Remember though that the quote says we’re all the heroes in our own minds. So, let’s look at a story where the hero is the bad guy and the villain is the good guy. I am, of course, talking about the classic of eighties cinema, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If you haven’t watched it, you should…Right now…I’ll wait.
All caught up? Did you love it? I bet you love it. Good. I love it too.
But Mr. Eden, sir. Ferris is the hero of the movie and Principal Rooney is clearly the villain.
To that I say: Really?!? Is that how it is?!? Okay.
Let us examine the two characters of Ferris Bueller and Principal Rooney. Let us go over what the characters do in the movie. One character: lies to his parents, ditches school, hacks the school’s computer and deletes files, he then convinces his friends to ditch school, steals a car, steals an expensive lunch (because you bet they couldn’t afford it, and just put it on the man’s expense account), and disrupts a parade (a heritage parade), commandeering it for his own adolescent ego. The other character is just trying to do his job, making sure a minor under his charge gets the education they are required by law to receive. Does he go a little overboard? Perhaps, but he keeps getting the shit kicked out of him by life through the whole movie; you’d break to I’m sure.
The beauty of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, of any good literature, is that the stories can be told from multiple character viewpoints. This can be done because each character has their own motivations for being there. In the Ferris Bueller example, we see Ferris as the hero and Rooney as the villain because it’s from Ferris’s point of view. We could easily have a movie from Rooney’s point of view where he’s the hero. (In fact, I believe that movie is called Election ironically starring Matthew Broderick as the Rooney character that time around.)
It for this reason that I’m not a fan of the terms, ‘hero’ and ‘villain’.
But you said…
I know I said I like villains, and I’ve been using those terms through this whole post. As the Ferris Bueller example illustrates, as the quote that’s the meat in this essay sandwich states, the terms hero and villain can be tricky and complicated. Luckily there is a handy piece of literary jargon for just this situation. The terms are, ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’.
If you’re a fan of my writing, you’ll know I don’t write your traditional “heroes”. For one thing, I have numerous stories from the point of view a villain/bad guy. For another thing, my “heroes” aren’t exactly the best people. That’s why I like the terms, ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’. Protagonist means the person that the story follows, and antagonist means the person/thing that opposes the protagonist. I like these terms because the allow for the grayness, the muddied waters, that writing (and life) can get into. So, Ferris Bueller is the protagonist of the movie without necessarily being the hero, and Principal Rooney is the antagonist of the movie without actually being the villain.
I will leave you with that.
Remember: be yourself, be well; write yourself, write well.