Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 5 - Dare to have a bad guy

Nobody wants to be the bad guy. That includes the writer. This may be why I see fewer of what I’d call old-time villains, who wreak havoc in stories without becoming monsters, in contemporary films and books.

Historically, a lot of antagonists have been members of out groups. When I was a kid, anyone other than a straight WASP — including American Indians, Asians, Blacks, Italians, Gays, Nazis and Irish — made an acceptable villain. You can find all of them in noir films, TV westerns, and cartoons. Today, if you look at that list, only Nazis are still fair game, and it's safe to say that terrorists of any sort can show up in a story and be booed with impunity. Mostly.

One trick writers have used to hang onto some former go-to villains is to have someone of the same ethnicity on the side of the good guys. (See folks, we aren’t bigots. Look, we know some of “those people” are good.)

The legacy of bigotry is enough, in and of itself, to make a writer reluctant to create a villain.

At the other end of the spectrum is the explained villain. A writer, who doesn’t really believe it him/herself, cooks up a cliche Freudian reason for the bad behavior. It’s a segmented sort of insanity. Yes, the writer has an excuse and can point to it, but that does not make the story less disappointing. It's easy to see why writers avoid this path.

An approach to this problem that’s in between is the antihero. Sometimes these are characters who do the right thing because is serves their own selfish interests (or more likely because they have a selfish excuse for doing the right thing, and so don’t see themselves as being “suckers”). Han Solo more or less fits this type and ends up being a hero, despite himself. But I think it’s notable that Han is flanked by a traditional hero, Luke, and an old-time villain, Darth Vader.

I guess it could be said that the Godfather’s Michael Corleone is an antihero. He’s certainly the story’s protagonist. I see him as a tragic figure who is corrupted by circumstances — mainly a society that is even more broken and flawed than his criminal family.

Science fiction and fantasy helped social critics (and their ideas) make it through the McCarthy era safely. And, as long as the pixies and aliens don’t look too much like contemporary groups, these genres can provide rich and safe opportunities for villains. The problem comes in when the worlds these creatures live in are too distant from our own or the nature moves so far from human that it becomes easier to think of these villains as monsters than reflections of ourselves.

To me, the answer to restoring villainy is bringing authenticity to the work. I’ve tried to present some of the approaches to this, such as reflecting the hero or just going to extremes when faced with an intolerable loss or insult, in previous posts. That provides a “how,” but writers still need to have the courage to present villains that will be unacceptable portrayals to some readers or audience members no matter what. As soon as an antagonist is fleshed out enough for people to identify with, the negative aspects will be taken personally.

Good villains get under people’s skin. Writers who present good villains will be attacked.

Which brings us to the “why.” Why create characters that irritate people when you can always soften them or make them into monsters? The answer is villains are necessary if you want to make the most of many story concepts.

All you need to do to prove this to yourself is to list ten of your favorite villains. In fact, you probably can make the case just by listing ten to twenty of your favorite stories. The best argument for daring to make really bad villains is right in front of you — in the movies you’ve watched and the books you've read, over and over again.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 4 - Rousing the beast

I watched a Dragnet episode from the 50s recently, and it starred Lee Marvin as the villain. He was, by far, the most interesting character I ever saw on the show -- part of regular viewing with my dad in it's 60s incarnation.

Marvin took standard Dragnet comments and presented them in fresh ways. He somehow drew Detective Friday into a fist fight (though it was somewhat unconvincing). Also, he was on the screen though almost all the show. That and the culprit's earning a trip to the gas chamber stand out as unique in all my Dragnet viewing. 

The character was a serial killer who was more angry about how society pumped up murder as something special than he was upset in any way by his victims. He barely cared about money he gained. He wasn't especially angry with them or envious. He didn't seem to be thrilled by the process of murder. And he didn't kill to get even or find justice.

I am not a fan of villains as forces of nature without motivation, but I was fascinated by this story, which played out in less than 20 minutes. Was this character just a killing machine with no human dimensions?

The episode contained some of the obligatory psychiatric tropes of the time -- a dream of victims and a report of dissociative behavior-- but I think the answer was away from the main plot. Instead of looking at the police working to put the story of a murder together and get their suspect to confess, the payoff was in murderer's interest in food. 

He was always hungry and particular about what he ate. He even agreed to provide information on where a body was buried once they took him to a favorite, vegetarian restaurant. And he kept his promise, but much of the scene, which revealed a lot about the scope of his murders, was focused on appreciation of the food.

Here's the thing: he was as much wrapped up with sharing his eating experience and appreciation of the bread, the beets, etc., as he was with the murders and his disappointment that people got all that wrong. He could not connect with the importance others put on murder, but he was desperate to connect in a way he thought might work -- a good meal.

Trying to connect on that level with Friday and his partner -- on whom the trip to such an exotic and wonderful restaurant was wasted (both got cheese sandwiches) -- brought tragedy. The serial killer was truly isolated and alone, and he always would be.

Apocryphal story: Marvin was asked how he created such brilliant villains. His answer was that he never played a villain.

It is valuable to look to see how a story is catalyzed, what puts things in motion. For protagonists, that's all about finding the inciting incident (which can occur before the novel or movie begins, but often is in the first act). But it's valuable to see what puts villains in motion, too. What happened that made the antagonist behave in an antisocial way and, in particular, oppose the protagonist?

In the Dragnet episode, I have to presume the villain was so lonely he looked for connection through murder. This is subtle and difficult to portray unless you have a Lee Marvin at hand. But there are more accessible and more easily portrayed catalysts for villainous action.

Betrayal can set off an antagonist. Being turned into the police, left for dead, or not defended by a friend when insulted, slandered, or abused -- any of these can make a villain focus on revenge against an individual or that person's friends and relatives (no matter how innocent). Having a target be a sympathetic hero is usually enough, but, as I stated in the second post in this series, it's valuable to have the reaction by the villain be disproportionate. Make "making things right" go out of control.

Putting a scare into a character can turn one into a villain. None of us wants to lose what we value. A threat to power, in particular, can lead to bad behavior. History is littered with kings who executed (or had executed) potential claimants to the throne, including innocent children. But the cause can be as simple as having someone the villain imagines loves him or her show interest in the protagonist. Since the hero's success could draw away a loved one, the antagonist must take all steps necessary to make the hero fail.

Similarly, when a character will only feel complete if the treasure or person he or she wants in attained, the person who has it may be dehumanized and marked for destruction. The same thing is true if knowledge is a problem and the villain needs to hide his or her guilt. There's a Bible story that has both of these. Once King David got Uriah's wife pregnant, the soldier was marked by the King, which ultimately led to his death.

The prospect of defeat, especially when the villain sees his or her vulnerability, can push the character into unfair behavior, often expressed as "evening the odds" in a competition. I love it when the villain is the only one who sees and understands the great talent the hero has. A scene where the hero innocently reveals the talent and doesn't even realize he or she has done so -- and thus creates a formidable enemy -- can be a highlight in a story. And the superior position of the reader or audience can make that scene irresistible.

One more thing to explore -- the context of rousing the beast. If you create such a scene consider the following:
  • How to make sure what happens is important to the villain and the readers/audience knows this.
  • Not having the villain reveal him or herself. I like it when the antagonist does not appear to be powerful (like Uriah Heep in David Copperfield).
  • If possible, use emotional triggers that have been established in the story or that are universal.
  • Create more impact by setting it up with mood (comic relief can precede a catalytic event and double it's emotional effect) or setting (a betrayal on the antagonist's home grounds, say the family dinner table, or in a place with imagery, like a church).
Yes, there are plenty of villains who need no catalyst. They are "compelled" or their reason is "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." But it's worth exploring the opportunity to find more.







Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 3 - Who's bad?

I favor villains of some complexity. Creating a monster is much too easy. And less engaging for a story.

I was binge-watching a TV series, and a villain showed up with lots of power, a clear flaw (greed),  a philosophy that hinted at a sophisticated worldview, and evil henchmen. He also seemed to be pretty smart. Though he did not show up again in the episode after his introduction, I knew I had not seen the last of him. And I had hope.

Sure enough, he popped up a few episodes later in the season.

Great! Get the popcorn.

But all he turned out to be was a hero-torturing monster. Sigh. (Even worse, his evil henchmen were inept, and their security measures failed completely.)

The villain escaped. I don't care to see him again. And that is the problem with monsters in general and unimpressive ones in particular.

So... the first rule on a villain. Make him, her, or it (but not them) a worthy adversary. Even actual non-human monsters, can reach that level if there is real doubt about the hero's victory. This means providing a demonstration of huge physical power (King Kong), unpredictability (The Thing), a special talent/skill/power (almost any comic villain). Show a tough opponent being beaten.

Now, to go beyond this kind of a monster with humans, I think intelligence is necessary. It is too simple for a reader or an audience member to imagine a fool being beaten. This does not mean the villain can't hide his/her capabilities. Uriah Heep is all the more loathsome because he pretends to be humble and subservient. And it's always fun to have a master villain pretending to be a minion, putting his/her second out front as a shield or bait. Surprises are always welcome.

People are always looking for how the hero might triumph, and it is harder to triumph over a smart villain so don't loose tension by making the bad guy/gal a fool.

As I've written before, Damon Knight advised having a ratio of about 70/30 good to bad for protagonists and the opposite ratio for villains. I'll take that further on villains. It is pure gold to have a villain people can really hate. But the gold gets transformed into platinum when there is a piece of them readers or audience members love and connect with.

As with heroes, talent, humor, and having been wronged can help us to connect with a villain. I think there is also value to exposing doubt in a villain. Or compassion for their foes. Or past good done. Or one wrong turn that set them on an evil course. When I see myself in a villain, when I think, "There but for the grace of God go I," the appeal jumps. Darth Vader, not Godzilla.

Story-wise, making elements of the villain reflect elements of the hero enriches their conflict. It shows the duality of powerful human traits. And, if the hero sees him/herself in the villain, that brings everything up another notch. Then we have the character we are identifying with wondering about what's right and wrong, what's good or bad. And it's personal, leading to a necessary look inside and a reevaluation.

One more thought -- this on the "wrong" turn. Certainly, a promising character can become a villain because of a trauma. Have the most talented kid in the community first witness the deaths of family members and then be kidnapped, abused, a brought up in a crude and ruthless community, and you have a super villain. Loss, deprivation, isolation, and injustice to a vulnerable individual can turn out badly. Good, but perhaps too simple.

I think exploring corruption provides more of a payoff. There are amplifiers that reveal character. Think of celebrities and powerful people who have been caught taking a vice to its limits. Think especially of those who have touched our hearts or braved adversity or made us laugh or gained a victory at great personal sacrifice for human rights -- and then shocked and disappointed us. In almost every case they have been corrupted by amplifiers. Wealth. Power. Fame. Honors. The social gifts that delay, diminish, or destroy accountability.

Lead us not into temptation. Perhaps it means don't put me into a position that amplifies my weaknesses by making me unaccountable. Don't give me gifts that corrupt my character.

But, as a writer and a creator of villains (and, to an extent heroes), it may be your job to corrupt promising and outstanding characters. It seems evil, but, with villains such as these, you can develop exquisite human moments within you story. 

Next time, I'll continue this exploration of villains with motivation, how to rouse them to extreme action.