CREATING CHARACTERS: On Villains

Michael T. Kuciak is a producer and director, known for Fade to Black (2013), Killer Party (2016) and Sh*t Fantasy Football Players Say (2012). Follow Mike on Twitter @mikekuciak.

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Ian Mckellen as supervillian Magento in X2, written by Zak Penn and David Hayter & Bryan Singer (Story); Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris and David Hayter (screenplay). Photo: 2003 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

There are only two important characters in every story: the hero and the villain. Every other character serves them whether the story is a tale from myth or the studio tentpole opening on Labor Day weekend.

Every writer’s best buddy in the whole world, Joseph Campbell, spent several books exploring the structure of the Hero’s Journey. Joe’s got it covered, so let’s talk about the other side of the equation.

MOTIVATION AND DESIRE

Just like the hero, the villain wants something, and there’s a reason he wants it. The main difference between the hero and the villain lies in the ways the villain is willing to fulfill his desires. Heroes try to do the right thing the right way. Villains just get the job done, by any means necessary.

The hero and villain are frequently very similar. In Raiders of The Lost Ark, Dr. Rene Belloq is an adventuring archaeologist just like Indiana Jones. You could picture these guys chatting it up at a university function. Belloq has the same set of skills and, in the opening scene, shows he’s even a bit better than Indy. The difference: Indy collects artifacts for the furtherance of knowledge. Belloq chases artifacts for the money. He scoops up golden heads to sell them to the highest bidder and doesn’t mind working for Nazis, so long as they can cut a check. He’s cynically lost all interest in a higher purpose. Belloq only cares that he has dresses and wine for wooing pretty Hero’s Journey. Joe’s got it covered, so let’s talk about the other side of the equation. brunettes. Because they’re so similar, when Indy threatens to blow up the Ark with a bazooka, Belloq calls his bluff without breaking a sweat; he knows precisely how this guy ticks. Though it’s never explored, Indiana seems one bad choice away from following Belloq down the same road.

In a lot of ham-fisted thrillers, when the detective finally catches up with the serial killer, the baddie hisses something like, “We’re not all that different, you and I.” And the hero screams, “I’m nothing like you!” and pumps a full clip into the killer.

On a side note, please don’t write those lines into your script.

Raiders of The Lost Ark is a good example of a story where the hero and villain both want the same thing. Everyone’s chasing a McGuffin. You typically find this structure in action thrillers and romantic comedies (where the hero and villain vie for the girl’s heart—more on that later).

Another paradigm is where you have the hero and villain wanting exactly the opposite. In meta terms, one side always desires change, and the other wants to maintain the status quo. Look at sports movies: From The Bad News Bears to Miracle, the villain is always the arrogant evil team which wins every year. My personal favorite example is Shaolin Soccer, in which the evil team is called … “Evil Team.” The villains want to maintain the status quo; they win every year. The misfit underdogs want to effect a change and win the big championship. One twist I like is in Bring It On where the hero is the head of a team that used to be the arrogant villains who won every year and now try to compete with honor.

Now, flip the script where the hero wants to maintain the status quo. The most broad stroke examples are monster movies. In Jaws the status quo involves tourists coming to Amity Island every summer and not getting eaten by a great white shark. Police Chief Brody wants to maintain that situation, but the shark desires a change, as the hunting is good in these waters. Serial killer thrillers typically act on the same dichotomy—though sharks rarely hiss, “We’re just the same, you and I … ”

Primary and supporting antagonists may have differing desires or want the same thing for different reasons. The best example is RoboCop. Clarence Boddicker and Sal are both criminals trafficking in drugs, though they almost kill each other when they meet. Later, Clarence gets into an argument with Dick Jones because Clarence doesn’t want to go after Murphy. Dick tries various tactics and finally bribes Clarence into taking the gig. All of these characters are villains at odds with the hero, but each has his own agenda.

Villains are the heroes in their own movies. Even if they know they’re doing something bad, they rationalize their behavior. Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park knows it’s wrong to steal the DNA and let the dinosaurs loose. But, hey! If Hammond just paid him what he was worth, no one would have a problem. Hans Beckert in M knows he shouldn’t kill little girls. He tries to stop himself. Yet he’s too weak to fight down the toad in his brain and too cowardly to turn himself in.

Far more interesting are the villains who have very good—often heroic—motivations for doing very bad things. In the X-Men films, Magneto survived the Holocaust as a child and is afraid America is heading down the same road with mutants. He’s willing to kill a young girl to power a machine that will slaughter the world’s leaders. It seems extreme but, given the alternative, still understandable. What makes Magneto a villain in this situation is, if he really believed this was a heroic sacrifice, he’d stick himself in the machine’s gas tank instead of Rogue. He’s a cynical guy willing to take any steps to achieve a laudable goal, so long as he personally doesn’t have to pay the price.

For a far more searing take, the two characters in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance do truly horrific things. Neither is really a hero or villain because each has very good reasons for going down this road. What makes this film masterful is the fact that the real bad guys are very minor characters. We’re forced to sympathize with the motivations of two people who, on the face of their actions, are at times human monsters.

The line between supporting protagonists and antagonists blurs when it comes to the fine lines of motivation. Minor characters may try to do the right thing but get in the hero’s way when he’s working to effect a greater good. In 24, Jack Bauer is constantly at odds with other agents. They want to uphold the law. Same as Jack, right? But every season Jack has an uber mission superseding the rote machinations of the system. With antagonists, problems usually arise when someone has an attack of conscience. Lando Calrissian starts out in The Empire Strikes Back as a minor antagonist for laudable reasons—he wants to protect Cloud City from destruction. But, when Vader tortures his old buddy and goes back on their deal, Lando’s motivations change to higher, good-versus-evil goals.

I cannot stress how important it is that your villains have believable human desires and motivations. I’ve read a lot of bad scripts where the villain is just kinda eeeeeevil for no apparent reason beyond giving the hero something to do. It’s shallow, unsatisfying writing.

MEANS TO AN END

As mentioned above, the only thing that really separates the villain from the hero is what he’s willing to do to get what he wants. This fact is also indicative of what kind of person the villain is.

It’s interesting to pair heroes with villain who are their polar opposites not only morally, but also physically. Take Othello: The titular hero is a renowned warrior. His resumé is completely geared toward problem solving through violence. Iago is the exact opposite. He’s the master of the whispered lie and the planted clue. Othello’s skill set is worthless off the battlefield. Iago plays Othello like a fiddle. It’s a matchup of brains versus brawn. Given the battlefield of the court and bedchamber, brains win every time.

On the flip side, Clubber Lang of Rocky III is bigger, tougher and hungrier. The guy is a wrecking machine. He can beat Rocky to death inside of three rounds and pities the fool accordingly. Rocky is smaller and faster. The Italian Stallion eventually wins by pawing at Clubber’s stylish mohawk, thereby tricking Clubber into wearing himself out with enraged swings.

As Mr. Glass points out in Unbreakable, the villain and hero are always opposites. If Mr. Glass is mentally brilliant but physically fragile, his archenemy, therefore, must be a bit slow upstairs and physically, uh … unbreakable.

Predator offers an interesting twist. Dutch is a big, tough guy leading a team of big, tough guys with big, tough guns. They “ain’t got time to bleed.” Being big and tough is how they operate. When they meet the Predator, he helps them find time to bleed. Dutch alone survives. He’s flexible enough to realize big and tough doesn’t work anymore. Now he has to become smart and sneaky… and muddy.

I recently helped to develop a spec script comedy in which the heroine is a psychic. Her antagonist’s main weapons are lies. You’d think this is the worst kind of villain for a psychic character, that the hero would immediately pick up on the falsehood. But in a clever twist, the antagonist seems like the hero’s best friend. When things go wrong for the hero, she never thinks to turn her mental powers on the person who is behind everything.

SYMBOLISM

Not to get all film school, but if you really pop the hood of the hero, you’ll find the main protagonist generally represents an ideal response to a particular problem as seen by the writer and/or society. For instance, every war movie seems to end with the heroes facing an overwhelming enemy force (Saving Private Ryan, The Alamo, Glory, etc.). The enemy is the problem. The hero exemplifies how the writer and/or society would like to see someone react. In this case, we all like to think we would take on the overwhelming enemy with dauntless courage, faith, heroism, intelligent tactics and camaraderie. In Erin Brockovich, Erin starts the movie with a problem: She’s broke. So, she gets a job, which we think is the right thing to do. But, then she has another problem—Erin uncovers a corporation polluting the environment. We like to think that a sassy, all-American heroine will take on that corporation against all odds and win.

Similarly, the villain tends to exemplify either what you should not do, or what you should do but not how or why you should go about doing it. In The Iliad, Agamemnon says he wants to end warfare by uniting all the nations into one big, happy empire. That’s all fine and dandy, but Ag’s using the whole “peace” thing as an excuse to conquer everyone in reach.

Paul Freeman as Dr. Rene Belloq in Raiders of The Lost Ark, written by George Lucas (story) and Philip Kaufman (story) and Lawrence Kasdan.

Villains are also sometimes the people who start out with the best of intentions, consistently make choices we can understand along the way, and somehow end up doing bad things. Rosalie Mullins in School of Rock is the epitome of the anal, bitchy school headmistress. But, play some Stevie Nicks and peel back the tweed, you find a woman who just wanted to be a good teacher. That’s a goal anybody can get behind. Along the way, however, she got into the habit of believing the system was always right and obeying the rules furthered her teaching career. Everything seems fine until one day she wakes up and realizes the anal, bitchy school headmistress… is she. Even though she hates what she’s become, instead of working to change herself (as we’d all like to see), she takes her bitterness out on the instructors and kids (which we feel is the wrong way to react). She becomes even more anal and bitchy, and it’s a potentially endless cycle of loneliness and self-hatred for poor Rosalie, the girl who wanted to grow up to be a good teacher.

In almost every story (outside of Greek tragedies and the like), the protagonist would never become a renowned hero if the villain didn’t present a challenge to overcome. If the pirates never showed up in Pirates of The Caribbean, Will Turner would have spent his whole life as just a dopey blacksmith, hopelessly pining for Elizabeth Swann. (It would have also made the movie’s title somewhat confusing, but I digress.) Luckily for Will, pirates both good and bad appear to set him on the course to adventure. In a strange way, Captain Barbossa is the best friend Will ever had. The same goes for just about any classic adventure story.

Look at Conan The Barbarian. John Milius and Oliver Stone were brilliant enough to realize this hidden storytelling truth. They make it a strong theme of the movie. If Thulsa Doom had never raided little Conan’s village, he’d be just another gruff Cimmerian hanging around his hut. Thanks to Thulsa’s villainy, Conan is filled with a desire to become strong and take revenge. When Conan finally confronts Thulsa on the steps of Mount Doom with his murdered father’s bloody, broken sword in hand, Thulsa just smiles and purrs, “I am the wellspring from which you flow.”

The only way to effect this is if the villain is such a serious challenge to the hero that he has to become a better, stronger person in order to win. I’ve read a bunch of scripts where the writer is so eager to show what a swell guy the hero is, the villain becomes a complete pushover.

There’s an old Monty Python skit in which we follow a boxer as he trains for the big fight. He’s a really dumb guy and goes through a series of comic situations; but by the end of the process, it seems like he’s ready to box. He climbs into the ring, and his opponent is… wait for it… a little girl. The boxer knocks the snot out of her.

The skit is funny because it’s an unexpected development, but it’s also indicative of what happens when the antagonist doesn’t present a serious opposition. Sometimes the villains do really dumb things just so the writer can get their hero out of a scrape. This is bad, lazy writing. When it appears onscreen, the audience laughs. A villain can be flawed, and the hero would take advantage of those flaws. However, it should be the one chink in the armor of an intelligent, strong antagonist. Die Hard remains the action-movie standard because Hans Gruber consistently has John McClane outmanned, outsmarted and outgunned. From one cliffhanger to the next, we have no idea how John will get himself out of this situation. We’re thrilled when he does because he’s pushed to the limit to escape and, each time, by the skin of his teeth. If Hans made a dumb mistake only because the writers couldn’t think of any other way to save John’s life in this scene, the audience would be lost—it would be an unearned win, and we would not care anymore.

SOMETIMES THERE’S NO CLEAR VILLAIN

In the opening line, I said the only two important characters are the hero and the villain. As with anything in storytelling, there is an exception to every rule.

One primary example of this exception is the buddy action movie. We go to see these movies because we’re curious to watch how two different movie stars will play off each other. Being an action movie, there’s always a bad guy, but he’s mostly just a plot device to give the stars something to do while zinging one-liners off each other. Mention Bad Boys, and I’m immediately thinking of Mike and Marcus. Who was the villain and what was he up to? Ummmm… a lot of stuff blew up, right? And, uh… Mike and Marcus were shooting at a bunch of guys …

Romantic comedies are also all about the two main leads. The villain, even if he exists, is more of a plot device than anything else, a speed bump for the love interests. The real “antagonist” of a romantic comedy is the threat that these two people won’t get together and find love. It’s an internal struggle. A minor character may exist who externalizes the threat, usually in the form of a rival lover like Zack in Wedding Crashers. But Zack is such a cad, that he only truly presents a threat to John and Claire because Claire still has conflicting emotions. The moment her internal issues are resolved, Zack is out of the picture—at the very end of the movie. Just as easily, you can have a 40 Year-Old Virgin in which there is no clear antagonist. Trish doesn’t have another guy vying for her affections. The only “villain” is Andy’s social ineptitude and fear of change.

SOMETIMES THERE’S NO CLEAR HERO

No one goes to horror movies for the screaming teens. No one makes horror movies about how interesting the screaming teens are. There is no such movie as Nancy vs. Alice. However, there is such a movie as Freddy vs. Jason.

Here’s the cool thing about horror movies: The villain is always the most interesting character. Yet we watch these no-name kids defeat the villain at the end of the movie… only to go back and see the sequel, frequently featuring the villain as the only remaining character. The nameless supporting protagonists get hacked up in horror movies the same way the nameless supporting antagonists get gunned down in action movies. Naturally, you can point to examples like Sidney in the Scream franchise and Ripley’s reappearing in Alien movies whether it makes sense or not. But again, these movies aren’t called Sidney and Ripley. When pitching horror projects, I’m always answering the same questions: What is interesting about this horror villain? What is the unique twist to this horror movie?

MY POINT

There are some stories that do not depend on a strong villain, but they are few and far between. For effective storytelling, remember this basic equation: The villain is just as important as the hero because the hero is only as great as the villain. Take the time to breathe life into your baddies. They make your heroes look all the better.

Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2006

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2 thoughts on “CREATING CHARACTERS: On Villains

  1. Bonzohead

    Who is the hero and who is the villain in The Godfather? Is Michael both? Certainly neither for half the film. Is the titular character just a supporting character? Sollozzo is dead half way through the film, who becomes the villain then?

  2. LFabry

    Holy S–t! This is exactly the solution to my problem with my latest opus, ie my villain isn’t much more than a moustache-twirling jerk. I haven’t made his motivations clear and commendable. I’m off to do just that! Thanks so much!

    FYI, it was this line that did it: “I’ve read a lot of bad scripts where the villain is just kinda eeeeeevil for no apparent reason beyond giving the hero something to do. It’s shallow, unsatisfying writing.”

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