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.
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