Monday, November 30, 2020

From the Writer's Studio: Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White...and Sometimes Bad Guys Do! - Writing Complex Villains

Welcome back to the often loquacious Gauntlet of Balthazar for another foray into the deconstruction of literary archetypes, and hopefully a growing primer of techniques that will enable you to arm your growing screenwriting palette with the "oomph" necessary to craft the greatest possible scripts your abilities will allow. For all the rest, if you prefer only to consume art, then hopefully this post will just make for some compelling reading.

In this installment of the Studio I'd like to take a look at the hero versus villain duality, and how the grey areas even within seemingly polar opposite foes, can be laced with nuance and counter-indications which will help make those characters come alive off the page. In this, I'm talking about full extremes - not just moving the characters into the protagonist versus antagonist zone. So, you're welcome!

Back when I was a kid, my father used to take me to the movie theater, and afterwards would sometimes announce, "The quality of the hero is defined by the qualities of the villain", and in this he was for the most part correct. I say that he was mostly correct only because in my mind if all that defines the hero is his or her opposition to the villain, then while this is a motivation that can be easily understood by audiences, oh what a cardboard character must he or she be. 

Saying that, the audience has to in general understand what has driven the villain to "evil", or the character will appear to them as a melodramatic caricature, and in the worst cases will seem all but comical. To address this an element of loss, suffering, abuse, or a slow change over time can be inserted to justify the reality of the character.  Notwithstanding, evil for evil's sake does have an appeal. But even the most archetypal baddies - the prideful Christian Lucifer, Shakespeare's scheming Lady MacBeth and Hamlet's presumptuous Uncle, Star War's tragic hero cum villain Darth Vader, The Manchurian Candidate's manipulative Eleanor Iselin, the despicably self-motivated Colonel William Tavington of the Patriot, Disney's mysterious Maleficent, the Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West, Batman's chaos-psyche filled Joker, Harry Potter's sinister Lord Voldemort, and any other looming figure in print or on celluloid all possess a history of causal events, sometimes justifiable doctrinal beliefs, and / or personal motivations that can be easily understood by everyone - even if their actions and machinations are revolting to the average person.

One practical exercise that could serve as a technique for building nuance into your villain might be to think of superhero costumes. Yes, I know. Silly. But yet, we routinely find both sides donning masks. The hero has only two reasons for obscuring his or her identity. One, to protect the identity of his or her loved ones from being drawn into his or her conflicts and and suffering reprisals, and two, to appear as symbolic of an ideology, such as Captain America, standing for, uh, the American way - liberty, freedom, individuality, and all that.

Villains on the other hand, wish to conceal their identity so they are harder to identify by the authorities, right? But this is simplistic approach, since the majority of masked malefactors are in positions where their evil persona is all that they are, or have become. Sure they can wear their costume as a symbol of their ideology just as some heroes do, but true villains - especially the very worst of them, don't really care about the fate of their loved ones, right? So why bother with a mask? Well, it could be that the villain is aware on a deeper level that what he or she is doing is absolutely repugnant, and so the mask is worn out of shame. 

Shame is the fulcrum on which a villain teeters - the miasma between the actual human part of their personality and the persona they have adopted. It is this conflict in which you can explore the grey areas of these sort of characters souls while maintaining their status as your book, script, or film's overarching threat.

Of course, implied or overt threat can be presented without malevolent intent - such as the shark in "Jaws", who merely hunts, as is her nature. But it is that lack of malevolent intent that defines a threat generator not as a villain, but as an antagonist. You might fear or hate the shark, and project intent onto her, but the feeling is not mutual. Sharks don't feel hate for you. They are what they are.

But back to characters who possess malevolent intent and have an overarching plan - the two main definers of villainy. If the character you have designed appears to pursue his or her "plan", with consistency and malevolence, then by default, they will not be perceived as simply an antagonist - no matter how much shame, introspection, sympathy, regret, or even likability, you imbue them with.

I personally really enjoy writing compelling villains, (especially in an serialized context), who present the trifecta of "P" motivations - personal, philosophical, and plan. Add to this the malevolence, and all you need is back-story, interpersonal relationships, and the power structure in which they enact their villainy. 

It has often been said that a villain believes he is the hero of his own story, and this is absolutely not only true, but it is essential in designing a nuanced and layered villain. Marvel's ultimate bad guy, the Mad Titan Thanos, is a great example of this, in that he fulfills all of the requirements listed above. However, I should point out that in the comic books and graphic novels of yore, one of his primary personal motivations for his proposed "universal reset" was that he was in a relationship with Mistress Death - a personification of death itself. Thus, he was in it for love. This element was unfortunately removed from the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, probably because it would have presented as "too weird" for the average movie-goer, and the writers instead shifted his Thanos' love relationship to his adopted daughter, Gamora. I personally would have included the original element in some way. Then again, I would have also included Thanos's brother, Eros (the embodiment of love), as well as his anti-hero nemesis, Adam Warlock, as well.

But hey that's just me.

Well, that's about it for now. So go out there and craft your protagonists, your heroes, your antagonists, and even your out-and-out villains. But remember, if sometimes good guys don't wear white, then sometimes villains do!

Till next time.

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