I was listening to Lorde belt out ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack when I had a thought: ‘By Jove, she’s right!’ It isn’t like the song is new – or one I’m unfamiliar with – having been originally released in 1985 by UK band Tears for Fears. So why has it taken me so long to actually sit quietly, listen to the lyrics, and think about their implications? Maybe it is something you’ve accepted as truth for years… you’re sitting back smugly in your chair thinking about what a simpleton I am. Or perhaps you disagree completely. Or maybe you are just wholly confused and want me to get on with it and explain what the hell I’m talking about…
Here’s the thing: everyone craves power – to some extent. You might not be as extremist as I am, assuming that everyone is out to take over the world à la Salem the cat in Sabrina the Teenage Witch (yay for nostalgic references!), but at the core of every human (and probably other animals too – especially the cat) is a desire to have power over something, whether it’s the AC in the office or the entire tri-state area. Why has this thought struck me as something I should think on? It would appear that everyone has the potential to be a villain – perhaps not the ridiculous moustache-twirling kind – but definitely villainous. So why are villains always represented in the unbelievable extremes? And what is the difference between the ludicrous and the believable? Motivations and well-rounded characterization, for one.
I’m sick of unbelievable villains
I love a good superhero story. Even less dramatic tales of good vs. evil where one character is clearly meant to be the villain. I love it. What I don’t love is the idea that you can put the right window dressing on a character and say ‘look! He’s evil!’ This is the equivalent on relying on English accents to distinguish baddies in the Star Wars universe (thank the use of local actors for bit parts for that stereotype!). There are countless writing advice books and sites that will tell writers that characters need to have motivation for their actions. They have to want things. Got it! Most villains do want something, I’ll give you that. Be it taking over the street, the city, the country, the world… or something much smaller, such as ‘let’s kill that pretty jock so I can have the hot blonde girl’. You know what I’m talking about.
What seems to be lacking in the characterization of so many villains isn’t necessarily that they don’t want things – but we are given no reasons as to why they want these things (or, you know, we’re kind of expected to assume that they want these things simply because they are pure evil – I think not). People don’t develop desires out of thin air, there are always reasons. Maybe they were constantly bullied by the jock, maybe they asked the hot blonde to the Prom and she laughed in his face – there are always reasons (although hopefully a little more original and deep than those flimsy examples). When we are given ‘reasons’ for bad guys being the way they are, they tend to be pretty shallow and rely heavily on stereotypes (oh look at the poor ugly, geeky kid – he turned into an evil mad scientist, go figure!).
Take Heinz Doofenshmirtz, from Disney’s Phineas and Ferb, for example. Wait, don’t tell me you’ve never heard of our dear Dr. Doof? This evil ‘pharmacist’ thinks character motivations are so important he traps his nemesis just so he has enough time to give a backstory (aka motivation) for each of his evil schemes.
Write villains like they’re the main characters of their own stories
Peripheral characters are a necessary evil. It is an unfortunate fact of writing that not all characters in a story can have the same level of characterization as others. But that doesn’t mean that those characters should feel less defined to the reader/viewer/etc. For instance, even the girl your character orders coffee from has her own story – and in that story, she’s the star. The villain (or antagonist) is not just there to give the hero (or protagonist) something/someone to battle against. They have their own agency, motivations, history, secrets, conflicts, quirks, likes, dislikes, families, etc. They will make a far better source of conflict if they are three-dimensional characters rather than just men in military uniforms with European accents (cause – duh! – all vaguely political bad guys are like that!).
Just remember: all those tick boxes you go through to make sure you’ve got enough depth to your main character, do that for your villain too. Even if you don’t use that information specifically in the story, you will know your villain isn’t a flimsy cardboard cut-out, and trust me, your writing will be better for it.
Just because they’re bad doesn’t mean they have to be unlikeable
Why can’t villains be just as likeable (or even more so) as our heroes? And ‘likeable’ doesn’t have to mean that you approve of everything they do (come on, even the best heroes have their flaws). Take Humbert Humbert, for instance (yes, one of my go-two literary references, but he’s just such a damn good character). This guy is a sick, manipulative pedophile, and yet he is totally compelling. I love him – as do many others. I still think his actions are deplorable and wholly horrifying, but wow, what a character! I bet if you looked closely enough at even the baddest of the bad, there’d be something you liked about them. They might like the same brand of tea as you, or share your enjoyment of Raymond Chandler novels. Whatever. But I bet there’s something…
Isn’t it always more interesting if things aren’t black and white? And what about playing with our emotions a little bit, keep us guessing… should we be rooting for them or not? Who is the real protagonist?! Too much confusion is bad, but throwing in a little bit of ‘grey’ can really spice things up.
Some truly terrible creeps, miscreants, scoundrels, and rapscallions
Of course, I’m generalizing in my scathing indictment of villains across the board. There are some villains who have everything you could possibly want, the only problem is that they are few and far between. As most of you should know by now, I am a true Whedonite. Joss Whedon has created some brilliant villains with their own very distinctive personalities. All I’m asking for is for writers and creators to give a little more thought to their villains. Heroes aren’t everything, you know.