Audiences love watching characters in dire situations work their way out. We want to believe that with enough determination anyone can lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. More than that, we want to believe that people have the power to look inward and turn themselves into someone better.
A character’s growth should account for shifts in his attitude, but if his personality does a complete 180 it will affect his believability.New situations should nurture the hero’s evolution, while his nature should remain the same. Inconsistencies in the hero’s essence will feel like a betrayal to the audience. The more the hero changes, the more parts of them need to remain the same. Continue reading Characterization Lessons from Pop Culture (Updated)→
A hero is only as good as their opposition, which is why their enemy has the power to bring down the entire story. Before card carrying villains can break your hero, they set their sights on the suspension of disbelief. If their motivation is world domination, who says they’ll stop at their own? They might make the transition into their writer’s reality.
How you ask? The monocle models, mustache twirlers, and glove rubbers, draw attention to their authors. The train track trespassers, the rope wranglers, and the damsel distressers, wink at the reader. The spark plug pinchers, the lever pullers, and the timer primers, blow their creator’s cover.
Every time the villain kills a henchman for no good reason, a light goes off in your reader’s brain. Every time their monologue reveals the details of their master plan, the reader questions your reasoning. Every time they choose the sinister option over the one that’s results driven, the reader wakes from your vision.
It’s good to have a clear antagonist, but you don’t want them to be transparent. Sometimes their desires are simply incompatible with the hero’s. Sometimes the hero and the villain share a common destination, only to differ on how to get there. Sometimes they start with the same beliefs only to have them tested by their environments.
Present your case against the antagonist, and let your audience come to their own conclusions. The subtler the evidence, the smarter they’ll feel for putting the pieces together. Too many reminders of who they’re rooting against will pull them out of the experience.
The skyscraper pacers, the power hoarders, and the top floor lorders, insult your audience’s intelligence. The quiet loners, the speech sputterers, and the monotone mutterers, spoil your twists. The police taunters, the body stackers, and the artistic killers, highlight how flimsy their basis in reality is.
Every time they laugh at their own quips, the reader flashes back to saturday morning cartoons. Every time they show up with skulls on, the reader flashes to Halloween costumes with pictures of the character on the front. Every time they play into a cultural stereotype, the reader doesn’t feel right.
When stock villains wander from production to production the audience is sure to spot a pattern.
Bullies in matching letter jackets transfer high schools, to stuff as many protagonists as possible into lockers. Men with loose ties and looser tongues are on a perpetual pub crawl, interrupting dates, baiting bachelors to brawl. Attackers in unseasonable wool caps tour back alleys, on a scavenger hunt for vigilantes.
They ought to recognize themselves in other stories.
What’s My Motivation, No Seriously?
As writers, sometimes we conspire with our baddies to drive our plots forward.
Gazing over the edge of the skyscraper, the screenwriter spun on his heel, “I know you don’t have a reason to do this, but I need you to abduct the hero’s love interest.”
Pacing the helicopter pad, the villain scratched the back of his head, “I’m more of a lawful evil person. I’d rather defeat him through litigation than harm his loved ones. I mean, if I’m the catalyst for everything that’s happening, shouldn’t my choices make more sense?”
Sighing, the screenwriter tented his fingers. “But we need to give the hero a reason to drive his motorcycle into the lobby, tear his way through the robot guards, empty a few clips into your henchmen,” he pointed to the roof access door, “Kick that down, and shoot you in the face.”
The villain made the universal sign for time out, “Wait, what? When did this become a video game? Why kill me? I’m not even armed.”
Widening his eyes, the screenwriter snapped his fingers, “You’ll snatch a gun off one of your boys and point it at the hero’s wife.”
A guard stepped forward to offer his sidearm.
Shaking his head, the villain pushed it away. “How would aiming a gun at the hero’s wife help me in anyway? I’m a billionaire, it’s his word against an army of lawyers.”
“He’s going to arrest you.”
“Let him. Billionaires make bail.”
The screenwriter ran his fingers through his hair, “Is it your name up on the marquee? No, it isn’t. This scene isn’t about you, okay. So quit your bitching and take your bullet like a champ.”
Sorry if this example spoiled the ending to a certain cybernetic policeman reboot, but it was my most recent reference for poorly motivated villainy.
Tyrants are Tattletales
Take a good look at your villain. Are they serving themselves, or are they slaves to a design? If they were under interrogation, could they tell us why they commit their crimes, or would they say, “It seemed evil at the time?”
What made them swerve off course? How were they seduced by the dark side of the force?
Poorly motivated characters have a talent for drawing attention to poor structure. They wrap Christmas lights around plot holes. They hang decorations from dangling threads. They ring bells at convenient coincidences. When you forget to payoff all your setups, they sit across from your reader with a package in the shape of Chekhov’s Gun.
While you try to keep your reader entranced, these villains snap their fingers in their face. Charging headlong into the forth wall, they break character. Chewing the scenery, they take the story down from within. They make their presence known, shattering illusions, and sabotaging sequels.
Poorly motivated characters stay with a story long after the thrilling conclusion. After the right brain does its song and dance, they sit on the left side criticizing it. After the applause, they set the buyer’s remorse in. They rain on the parade, raising awareness of unresolved questions.
The thinner your characters’ motivations, the more they fall apart upon examination.
Madness shouldn’t be so convenient
The audience doesn’t have to relate to every villains’ motivation. “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” Chaotic evil is allowed to be a mystery. Sometimes it’s more frightening the less we understand. Sometimes horror arises from abstraction. Some kill for riches, rage, and revenge, others kill out of curiosity, just to see what will happen.
We can revel in the character’s madness without being compelled to share in it, but the moment you reveal their motivation, we develop expectations.
Characters should develop, but radical change requires radical reasons.
If the villain is a geneticist developing a serum for regenerating limbs, his mutation into a lizard man wouldn’t make him hell bent on spreading his newfound “perfection.” Sure his condition might make him do crazy things, like keep a video journal so he can talk to the audience, but if he’s lucid enough to make decisions, it’s hard to follow how he went from a healer to a mad scientist bent on creating an army of lizard men.
Now that we’re picking apart the Amazing Spiderman series; I’m still trying to figure out why a Spiderman fanboy would turn on his idol, for not recognizing him, after his electrical powers altered his skin tone.
“I’m disfigured, so I guess I should kill everyone.”
Madness shouldn’t be so convenient.
Sympathy for A Good Villain
The best villains think they’re going to get away with their actions, because life doesn’t function like a narrative. They know something we forget: reality is ambivalent to their bad behavior. Karma isn’t rerouting their path off a cliff. Fate isn’t looking over their shoulder. They don’t turn away from the injustice of civilization, they use it to absolve crimes of desperation.
If the hero thinks they’re in a light hearted action thriller, the villain thinks they’re the lead in something grittier. Their actions are justified by an insight the hero is too naive to see. They’re not just competing goals, they’re competing philosophies: not just romanticism versus cynicism, or existentialism versus determinism, but pragmatism versus realism.
These villains teach heroes truths they couldn’t learn on their own. They force good guys to refine their arguments. Their plights can be so compelling heroes might take them up after they’re gone, using their heroic means to reach a juster end.
My favorite villains are the ones painted in grey tones, the ones who are unaware of their status, the ones on the border of becoming anti-heroes, the ones whose redemption we cheer for, only to watch them break our hearts in the end. They hold our interest in the palm of their hands. We keep hoping that they’ll change for the better, but all they change is our expectations.
Good villains get our sympathy, especially when the trial for their soul teeters back and forth until the last page. It’s what separates characters from caricatures.