Villains have become a problem… For writers. I realized this as I was binging my way through old TV series. On some of the oldest shows, like Have Gun, Will Travel and Route 66, the bad guys really got under my skin in a way the antagonists in more recent programs never did. For some good reasons — like the rejection of offensive stereotypes – and some bad reasons – like a hesitancy to present truly bad behavior as as morally bad rather than morally ambiguous — I think some writers pull their punches when they create villains.
There's plenty of room for antiheroes. They been as successful part of literature at least since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it might be time to revive some good old-fashioned villains that we can boo.
By that I don't mean creating melodramatic, all-bad characters. We do do too much of that already with monsters, aliens, and historical villains like Nazis. So giving the bad guys positive trains is fine. Similarly, it's okay – I would say essential – to have heroes who are flawed in important ways. But what's the value of a hero's flaw if the villain doesn't take advantage of it?
So here's a recommendation: create villains who will not hesitate to push against and use the greatest weaknesses or failures of character that a protagonist has. Not only does this create powerful conflict, with which readers can identify, but it makes the character arc, where the protagonist undergoes substantial and believable change, possible.
I mentioned that these villains got under my skin. I think I know why. During the stories, they caused real harm. The harm was (mostly) undeserved and certainly out of proportion. And the damage they did continued to get worse over time. As with an action film, where escalation is a requirement for audience engagement, making a bad guy do worse and worse things as the story progresses can bring out the instinct in readers or viewers to protect. Here I was, in the case of Have Gun, Will Travel, unable to stay in my chair for most of the shows because I felt such an urgency to stop the bad guy. And this response not was accomplished in a two hour movie. It was achieved in just 25 minutes. I have to tip my hat to writers who were able to do that week after week (39 episodes in season one!).
In many of the stories, there were people who could not defend themselves. They really had almost no chance. That helped to underline a very important aspect of some of the best villains. They have power. They demonstrate that power repeatedly during the story. And they create real doubt about whether the protagonist can succeed against them. In fact, in most of the stories that worked well, the hero suffered an important defeat. (This wasn't always done well. One 1950s series I watched repeatedly had the hero ambushed, clunked on the head, and tied up. I really came to wonder why he was such a dope that he didn't know enough to be vigilant as he walked down dark streets or rode his horse into canyons.)
So, an aptitude for finding exploiting flaws, an escalation of actions that cause harm, and the exercise of power all seem to be important to building these engaging villains. It's probable that many of your favorite antagonists (Darth Vader? Gordon Gecko? Hannibal Lector?) illustrate these points. But building a villain also means creating compelling reasons for their evil behaviors. What are their motivations?
We'll get into that next time as I continue this series on bad guys. In the meantime you might want to check out some of the posts I've done in the past that looked at villains.
Villains and the status quo
Crazy, bad villains
Why am I doing this? I'm deeply involved) creating a series of short dramas, under 30 minutes each, so I'm working to understand compressed storytelling and the roles of all the characters, including the villains, and how the best writers make these tales compelling.