Writing a Great Villain
The easiest villain to write is the external villain. The Alien. The shark in Jaws. The Terminator. Doc Ock, Bane, Immortan Joe. Or force-of-nature villains—the volcano in Volcano, the oncoming Ice Age in The Day After Tomorrow, the Mayan-prophecy-end-of-the-world in 2012.
External villains present existential threats to our physical existence. These sonsofbitches will kill you, eat you, freeze you, boil you.
The problem with external villains, though they may occasionally deliver bestseller sales and boffo box office, is they don’t often bring out the best in the stars who must confront them.
Why? Because the stars only have to duel these villains on one level (and the most superficial level, at that): the physical.
Much higher on the Villain Food Chain are
- Societal villains.
- Interior villains.
The villain in Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night and many, many others down to The Hurricane, Precious, and The Help, is racism.
Racism is a societal villain.
An individual character or characters may personify this antagonist in our narrative, as the jury or the mob or Bob Ewell did in Mockingbird. But the real villain is all-pervasive. It’s that cruel, ignorant, evil belief—”I have a right to dominate you because my skin is a different color than yours”—that exists only in men’s minds and hearts.
Societal villains are great villains, and they have produced great stars/heroes to confront them.
Do you remember The Way We Were? The Way We Were was a vehicle for two superstars in their prime, Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, and it provided both of them with roles worthy of their peak power.
Who was the villain?
The villain, again, was societal. It was the ethno-racist belief that “Park Avenue” was different from “Brooklyn” and that people whose characters were formed in such environments—WASPy, athletic, born-golden Hubbell Gardiner and Jewish, striving, up-from-the-streets Katie Morosky—could never truly come together.
The chasm between them because of their ethnicities and the different worlds they grew up in was so vast that it could not be bridged even by a great love.
The villain wins in the end of The Way We Were.
But the battle against this antagonist—the passionate, complex, tragic struggle by Katie and Hubbell to maintain their love—is an epic, world-class throwdown, with layer upon layer of emotional and psychological depth. The clash with this villain was worthy of two superstars.
The stars made the roles, but the villain made the stars.
The third type of villain, and the most satisfying dramatically, is the interior villain.
The interior villain is inside the star herself.
Karen Blixen’s need to “possess” the things she loves.
Hamlet’s inability to make up his mind and act.
Gatsby’s dream of recapturing a past that never really existed.
External villains exist as metaphors. The Alien represents … what? Pure evil? Death? Pitiless fate?
But interior villains show us the demons you and I really deal with in our real lives—the crazy shit inside our skulls.
Silver Linings Playbook made stars out of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
One reason: a great villain.
The villain in Silver Linings Playbook is interior. It exists inside Bradley Cooper’s head. The villain is his obsession, fueled by his bipolar disorder, with winning back his wife Nikki, whom he has alienated by his extravagant behavior in the past.
This villain is in every scene of the movie, from first to last.
PAT (BRADLEY COOPER)
[Nikki and I] have a very unconventional chemistry. It
makes people feel awkward, but not me. Alright? She’s the
most beautiful woman I’ve ever been with. It’s electric between
us! Okay, yeah, we wanna change each other, but that’s normal,
couples wanna do that. I want her to stop dressing like she
dresses, I want her to stop acting so superior to me, okay?
And she wanted me to lose weight and stop my mood swings,
which both I’ve done. I mean, people fight. Couples fight. We
would fight, we wouldn’t talk for a couple of weeks. That’s
normal. She always wanted the best for me.
TIFFANY (JENNIFER LAWRENCE)
She wanted me to be passionate and compassionate.
And that’s a good thing. You know? I just, look, I’m my
best self today and I think she’s her best self today, and
our love’s gonna be fucking amazing.
It’s gonna be amazing, and you’re gonna be amazing,
and she’s gonna be amazing, and you’re not gonna be that
guy that’s gonna take advantage of a situation without
offering to do something back. So think about that
See the villain in there? It’s in every word and it’s more terrifying than the Alien and the Predator and the Monsters of the Id from Forbidden Planet. This demon will devour not just Bradley’s soul but Jennifer’s too if it can, and it’s in every cell in Bradley’s body, as invisible to him as water is to a fish swimming in it.
What a hero Bradley will be if he can somehow, either alone or aided by Jennifer, see the real love that’s staring him in the face and recognize this Nikki-self-delusion for the monster it is—and change himself.
Spoiler alert: he does.
That’s a hero.
That’s a star.
(And count Jennifer too, because she’s fighting the same villain.)
What made that star was the scale and depth of the villain he (and she) had to fight.
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