Villains (Part 5)

So after a series of posts about villains, we come to the question of how to make a good villain. As always with writing, the answer is, “It depends what serves the story best.” But since that’s too vague to be much help for beginning writers, let’s try to get some more specific suggestions. (Suggestions! Not rules, suggestions.)

Villains only exist because they make the heroes’ stories better. If a villain is a great entertaining character, but doesn’t fit with the hero’s story, the villain has to go. (Save such villains for later; maybe give them stories of their own.)

So what does it mean for a villain to “fit” with a hero’s story? At the very least, the villain must provide enough opposition that readers think the hero might fail. If a villain is a pushover, there’s no dramatic tension.

But that’s the easy part. There are plenty of straightforward ways to make someone imposing: make them stronger, smarter, better equipped, better prepared, more connected, less inhibited…the list goes on. But which qualities from this list are best suited for opposing a particular hero?

That depends on the hero’s personality and character arc. How is the hero going to change in this story? What are the temptations that might lead the hero astray? What kind of villain might threaten to induce such changes? What kind of villain reflects the hero’s personal demons? What kind of villain may have strengths that the hero lacks?

As a case study, let’s take Batman. He’s famous for having some of the best villains in comics. Some are just physically imposing (e.g. Killer Croc or Solomon Grundy). But many are more distinctive and tailored to Batman himself.

The Penguin is a rich kid gone wrong…as opposed to Bruce Wayne, the rich kid with moral fiber. Poison Ivy crusades for a noble cause (just like Batman), but she takes it too far and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Two-Face went through a traumatic experience (much like Bruce Wayne losing his parents), but instead of gaining a purpose in life, he gave up and decided that everything is completely random.

All these villains (and more) are twisted reflections of Batman, suggesting ways he might have gone—ways that he still might go if he loses his resolve. But of course, Batman’s foremost enemy is the Joker, because of Joker’s threat of corrupting what Batman is.

The Joker kills for fun. Batman never kills at all. The Joker is guaranteed to keep on killing—he’ll never stay locked up long before he escapes and starts killing again. Everything about the Joker is aimed at tempting Batman to kill him, thereby saving numerous future victims. That’s the challenge that the Joker presents: not whatever scheme the Joker is up to, but whether Batman is going to resist resorting to murder. And the Joker knows exactly how to push Batman’s buttons to bring him to the edge of finishing the Joker once and for all.

Of course, the Joker is also colorful, unpredictable, and sometimes even funny. But that’s not why he works so well in Batman’s stories. The Joker is the guy who does something awful, then laughs in Batman’s face and says, “What are you going to do about it?”

The Joker is perfect for making Batman prove himself. And that’s the sort of villain that’s worth aiming for in any story you write.

Villains (Part 3)

In previous posts, I talked about villains being useful in stories and about their need to have a reason for their villainy. It’s a cliché to say that villains consider themselves the heroes of their own stories, but it’s pretty much true—even villains who know they’re terrible people still tell themselves they’re justified in what they do. Their excuses are the same ones we all use: “I didn’t have a choice” or “Everyone else does it too.”

Essentially, villains try to fulfill their desires and allay their fears, just like we all do. This brings us to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as shown in the picture above. It’s a useful model for thinking about human drives.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are basic physiological needs: food, water, air, etc. Villains driven by such needs are just trying to survive. In science fiction and fantasy, we mostly see such villains in very desperate situations, e.g. post-apocalyptic wastelands where people have to fight over everything. In such contexts, villains are easy to understand; perhaps too easy. Who can blame them for wanting to live? And if everyone is fighting for scraps of food, distinguishing heroes from villains is a characterization challenge. The usual writing technique is to show that there’s enough for all if everyone works together. Heroes are the people who play nice; villains are the ones who try to take it all.

The next level of the hierarchy is safety. Perhaps you’ve eaten enough today, but what about tomorrow? And what if there are active threats to your life? A classic example of villains in need of safety are people who want to kill anyone they perceive as a danger. “You know too much, so I can’t let you live.” “I’ll never be safe as long as there’s still a legitimate heir to the throne.” The wonderful thing about such villains (at least from a writer’s standpoint) is that their fears never end. There’s always one more person they have to kill before they feel safe. The villains can keep on driving the plot until the heroes stop them.

Next up is love and belonging. Doing bad things to win someone’s love is a time-honored tradition in stories. The villain is in love (or lust) with someone, and kills all potential rivals, or carries out some scheme to force the beloved to give in. Once upon a time, this may have even had overtones of romance. These days, however, readers are much more sensitive about anything that smells of sexual coercion. Today, a villain who kills for food may still be sympathetic, but a villain who kills for “love” almost certainly won’t be.

Then we come to esteem. Ego. Prestige. Status. These are standard motivations for villains in positions of privilege. Rich people never have to worry about starving, but they may have a desperate need to outdo their neighbors. I have a feeling that more villains fall into this category than any of the others—in a story context, such people have the power and resources to be dangerous to almost any type of hero. Often, they’re also “villains you love to hate”: people who have almost everything, but do despicable things to get even more. It’s satisfying when such villains get stomped…which is why writers use them so often.

At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization: becoming the most you can be. Occasionally, you see villains with this motivation, but it’s rare. Self-actualization is a little too spiritual and abstract to produce much villainy. A few characters in fiction do bad things for purely aesthetic reasons—Thanos comes to mind—but it takes a lot of work for a writer to pull this off. More commonly, a villain may claim to be acting from such motives but is actually driven by something lower down the pyramid.

So those are some useful possibilities for why villains do what they do. Next time, I’ll write about how this all shakes down in writing an actual story.

Villains (Part 2)

In Villains (Part 1), I talked about how useful villains can be.

  • In terms of plot, they get in the way of what the protagonists want to do, thereby creating action.
  • In terms of character, they often demonstrate qualities that the protagonists lack, thereby indicating ways in which the protagonists must grow in order to become better rounded people.
  • At the same time, villains can also demonstrate unwholesome aspects of those qualities. The reader then wants to keep reading in order to see whether the protagonists can develop the qualities in a healthy way, without becoming as bad as the villains.

Villains generally need a good reason for what they do. Admittedly, horror stories occasionally get away with villains being incomprehensible. The first example that comes to mind is Hill House, the villain in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Hill House is a haunted house that drives people mad. There’s no clear reason why it’s haunted, or why it does what it does—we get hints about its unsavory past, but Jackson never tries to spell out explicit causes. It’s simply a bad place, and it has bad effects on people who go there.

But apart from such rare exceptions, villains need a reason for their actions. Readers want to understand motivations. In fact, the lack of motivation is one reason why Hill House and other motiveless villains are so disconcerting: they’re evil just because. You’re never going to make sense of it.

But a villain’s motivations shouldn’t be trivial or simplistic. The great screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, mocked “The Rubber-Ducky School of Drama” which invented lame excuses for why villains did terrible things: “Someone once took his rubber-ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.”

Villains need better reasons for being villainous. And in the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about some possibilities.

Quickie Writing Tips: Establishing Shots

In  movies, it’s common for scenes to start with an establishing shot: a second or two that shows the audience where the scene will take place.

For example, if a scene is going to take place in the kitchen of a suburban house, the movie often doesn’t go there directly. Instead, the movie might start by showing an external view of the surrounding suburbs. Then when the movie cuts to the kitchen a few seconds later, you understand that the kitchen is inside a house that’s in the suburbs. Otherwise, one kitchen looks a lot like any other (at least if we’re talking modern day), so viewers may not be able to tell if it’s in a city, the country, in a desert, on the coast, wherever. The establishing shot orients the audience so that they have a better appreciation of where and when this is happening.

In fiction, quick establishing shots are also useful…but typically what you want to establish isn’t just where and when but who. Who is the viewpoint character whose experience you’re going to read about?

People connect to people. It’s as simple as that. You connect your reader to a story by connecting the reader to a character. Once in a long while, the character can be a persona assumed by the writer. When I think of writers assuming a persona, I always think of Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett. Both have a habit of opening their books with little preambles, where the author directly addresses the reader. They basically send the message, “Sit down and let me tell you a story…”

But usually the viewpoint character is someone who actually takes part in the story. Whether the story is written in first-person or third, it’s almost always desirable to give the reader an immediate sense of who the viewpoint character is and what that person is like. Some simple examples:

  • I was nursing my third cup of coffee, trying to avoid going into the office because I expected I was going to be fired. This gives you an immediate feeling for what kind of person is telling the tale. You don’t know name, sex, or other particulars, but you already have a sense of personality. A connection has begun.
  • John Ling always hated trying to get the blood out afterward. In this case, you have a name, a probable sex (indicated by “John”), and a sense that this is someone who often experiences violence. Again, there’s the start of a connection—you don’t yet know if John is a “good guy” or “bad guy”, and you probably don’t have a lot of experience with bloodshed, but you can still sympathize with a guy who gets stuck with lousy jobs.By the way, it may be a cliche, but starting the very first sentence of a scene with the viewpoint character’s name is a damned useful technique. Hiding the character’s name seldom buys you anything. Even if you’re writing in the first person, it’s a good idea to reveal the character’s name as soon as possible.

Contrast the above openings with something like this:

It was a rainy night in Los Angeles. The headlights of cars reflected on the wet streets, occasionally accented by flashes of lightning and… 

<Snore…> This is the sort of establishing shot you might see in a movie—it shows the place and time—but it doesn’t connect the reader with a person. It doesn’t even present an interesting situation. Yet so many novice writers write this kind of opening. Maybe they do it because they’re used to seeing it in movies, but books and stories work differently.

People connect with people, not weather. Unless you’ve got a hell of a good reason, give the reader a person to connect with in the very first sentence. Better yet, give us a interesting person doing something interesting. That’s what makes a good establishing shot.