Elements of a Great Villain
The shark in Jaws first surfaced in Peter Benchley’s novel in 1974. It’s still scaring the crap out of swimmers from Jones Beach to the Banzai Pipeline. The Alien first burst from John Hurt’s chest in 1979. The Terminator landed in 1984. And how about the Furies (Part Three of Aeschylus’s Oresteia) from 458 BCE?
What qualities do these Hall of Fame antagonists have in common?
- They cannot be reasoned with (Okay, the Furies did have a bit of a soft spot).
- They cannot be appealed to on the basis of justice, fair play, or the idea of right and wrong.
- They are internally, relentlessly driven to achieve their ends. Nothing can stop them except their own annihilation.
- Their intention is the destruction of the hero.
MATT HOOPER (RICHARD DREYFUSS)
What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine that is a miracle of evolution. It swims and eats and makes little baby sharks, that’s it.
Why is the Thing such a terrifying villain, or the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the nuclear-mutated ants in Them?
KYLE REESE (MICHAEL BIEHN)
Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop …ever, until you are dead!
So far these examples are all external villains. They exist in physical form. Their province lies outside the hero’s mind.
What about antagonists who reside inside the hero’s head?
Even they, even great societal and internal villains, share the qualities listed above.
Racism in Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, and The Help.
Greed in Wall Street, Margin Call and Bonfire of the Vanities.
JOHN TULD (JEREMY IRONS)
What have I told you since the first day you stepped into my office? There are three ways to make a living in this business. Be first, be smarter, or cheat. Now I don’t cheat. And although I like to think we have some pretty smart people in this building, it sure is a helluva lot easier to just be first.
JARED COHEN (SIMON BAKER)
Sell it all. Today.
Ahab’s rage for vengeance in Moby Dick is an internal villain. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel remorse, or pity, or fear. And it will not stop until it has killed its enemy or its host.
The insanity of war in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Jay Gatsby’s belief that he can recreate the past.
All these villains are relentless, indefatigable forces that heed no warnings, respond to no appeals, and will not stop until they themselves are destroyed.
A villain can be human. A villain should be human. He or she should have quirks and weaknesses and internal contradictions, like all of us.
But for you and me as writers, if we’re going to get down on paper a really memorable Bad Dude or Dudette, we’d better make sure that that villain passes muster on Points One to Four above.
Villians are those we love to hate, and this is a perfect description of how to make a character hatable. Most of us probably don’t go far enough in the hateful direction, though, external or internal. I think it’s too scary because it’s too real. Sadly, the whole time I was reading this post I was thinking about a real-life villian striking fear into everyone within striking distance of his missles tests now. I wonder if I could ever create a character that evil? Many authors have done it, with notable success. Maybe it’s the combination of inner and outer evil that makes a villian work, right?
I changed the spelling of the word villain today…
I will keep your four points posted on the wall next to my computer – thanks for this!
I love what you said awhile ago about starting with the villain/antagonist and then conceptualize the protagonist/hero to start the story. That advice and these posts have helped me a lot. Thank you!
Wow! A villain to make your skin crawl. The points which resonated most with me are “can’t be reasoned with” and “cannot be appealed to on the basis of right or wrong”. There is no right or wrong for the villain. Only the end, utter destruction. Couple that with evil forces like racism, greed, power madness, and you have all the resources for our present (maybe eternal) dilemma.
Steven, you make me think. This was another surprising, revealing post that there are internal villains as well. I have a LOT of those whose leader is Resistance.
Okay, back to writing my first novel.
I did notice the list at the beginning was reminiscent of the list naming Resistance… just sayin’
Great post. Enjoyed reading it.
I gotta make my antagonist more antagonizing. Thanks for the post.
Mitchell, I can relate to your post. I felt the same way. I certainly know how mean my antag is and what he’s capable of but I didn’t let the reader know. Workin’ on it now, though!
The Hall of Fame antagonist’s personality sounds like they could mirror the seemingly intangible qualities of the Resistance, no?
They cannot be reasoned with
They cannot be appealed to on the basis of justice, fair play, or the idea of right and wrong.
They are internally, relentlessly driven to achieve their ends.
Nothing can stop them except their own annihilation.
Their intention is the destruction of the hero [you].
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