“Let’s be bad guys.”
Or at least let’s talk about bad guys. Villains, I mean.
Film critic Roger Ebert says, “Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.”
As usual, this is true for novels, too. And if you think your book or screenplay doesn’t need an antagonist… just hold on, I’ll get back to you in a minute.
To understand bad guys, we’ll start with good guys.
Here are a few writer’s tools I’ve talked about before, used to make protagonists effective:
Eccentricity: memorable characters are not ordinary.
Envy: readers most love the characters that they wish they could be.
Yin-Yang Complexity: realistic characters have traits that are contradictory, making the character a paradox. (After all, you’re a paradox… aren’t you?)
Save the Cat: a scene that shows the reader that — despite moral ambiguity on the surface — this character has a moral center that makes him or her worth following.
So… can these tools make an antagonist interesting, too?
Some can. Let’s see which.
It’s difficult to think of a great villain that’s not eccentric, although it may be only their villainy that makes them so. Hans Gruber, in Die Hard, doesn’t seem wildly eccentric… and yet he is. His eccentricity lies in the brilliant plot he hatched to rob Nakatomi Tower.
Some antagonists have their eccentricity bound up with the fantasy world they inhabit. Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort is the focal point of all the supernatural aspects of Harry Potter’s life.
(Plus, he’s like a snake dude. Come on.)
Likewise, the land of Middle-Earth is extraordinary to the reader, but Sauron is extraordinary to the characters in Middle-Earth.
So eccentricity for villains gets a big yes.
(This is a trait in the reader, not the character. Although villains can be driven by envy too.)
Do we envy a good villain?
Of course! It may be their raw physical power, or moxy, or charm, or sangfroide in the midst of panic and carnage. Smart writers make their villains intriguing by having them do and say things we wish we could do or say. Robert McKee channels the thoughts of the audience watching Silence of the Lambs: “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”
So envy gets a yes, for bad guys like Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, and maybe for Darth Vader, too. (You know you want a lightsaber. And can think of someone you’d like to strangle at range.)
But wait… Sauron? And who envies Voldemort? Nobody — that guy is gross.
So there’s a split on Envy. Some antagonists yes, some no.
This one splits, too. Some antagonists exhibit paradox, like Hannibal Lecter (the polite cannibal) and Hans Gruber (the charming terrorist. And one of my favorite villains, Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is charming as well. Lots of writers make their antagonists more compelling by balancing their nastiness with charm.
Darth Vader’s Yin-Yang flip in Star Wars comes when he kneels before a hologram of the Emporer. Before that scene, Vader is simply a faceless tyrant, a bully. But when we hear him say, “Yes, my master,” we a new side of him. This contradiction (vicious tyrant vs. obedient servant) is just the beginning of Darth Vader’s complexity, which explodes when he says those immortal words to Luke, and his complexity becomes vicious tyrant vs. obedient servant vs. compassionate father.
What about Voldemort? Does he have a paradox? A flip-side? No. (You could maybe argue that his flipside is cowardice, since his fear of his own death motivates all his actions… but I don’t buy it.)
They are just plain evil. And off stage most of the time, serving as forces rather than characters.
So not all antagonists have Yin-Yang natures, but I think this sort of complexity makes more compelling, more memorable villains.
(To pay off the title, I’m saying that Vader kicks Voldemort’s keister in the compelling-villain competition.)
Save the Cat
This one’s easy — bad guys don’t do it. Ever. If they do, they become good guys.
Jayne Cobb is not a villain (though he lies, cheats and steals, and serves as a sort-of antagonist for Malcolm Reynolds) because he’s always Saving the Cat… usually by blasting away at mooks who threaten the crew of Serenity.
Jayne’s violence makes him good, and his guilt makes him complex. (Wow.)
Writers need to be careful with this stuff, or they’ll end up with a villain who’s more compelling than the hero. All protagonists must want something, and go after it. All antagonists must want something, and go after it. Antagonists, like protagonists, benefit if their writers use the tools of Eccentricity, Envy and Yin-Yang.
But “the primary characteristic of the villain,” says Dwight Swain, “is ruthlessness.”
Now, what about skipping the antagonist altogether?
The adversity your main character faces might be a mountain, a machine, a ticking clock, a screwed-up society, or a thousand other things. It need not be personified. You might not be writing that kind of story. I’ve written stories with villains and without.
SF writer Ben Bova even says that villains are unrealistic. “There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.”
I don’t buy it. I think Bova is arguing against crappy villains, not all villains. Keep your tools in mind, and you can write cool villains — compelling antagonists who set up shop in the audience’s psyche and never leave.
(I left out some great villains. Norman Bates. HAL-9000. Moriarty. Have you got a favorite villain? Tell me in a comment.)