The Villain Doesn’t Think He’s the Villain
You and I as writers, when we want to create a really dastardly Bad Guy, may find ourselves conjuring a mustache-twirling, Simon Legree-esque, Filthy McNasty ogre, tying an innocent damsel to a railroad track.
But remember, the villain doesn’t see himself as the villain.
From his point of view, he’s the good guy.
To him, the real villain in the story is the hero.
Consider this all-time-great Villain Speech, written by Aaron Sorkin and delivered to such memorable effect by Jack Nicholson as Marine colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men. When you read these lines (which are clearly intended to make the audience think, “Boy, is this dude evil!”), see them, if you can, as honorable and noble, not to mention absolutely true to hardball-world reality:
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.
From Jessup’s point of view, Tom Cruise is the villain. Just look at him. An impeccably-groomed, headquarters-based lawyer who sleeps on clean sheets every night, who is not only living in a dream world with his high-minded ideas about how wars are fought and freedom is defended but who actually dares to accuse me, who stands in harm’s way, of a crime—and then paints me as the bad guy!
Or how about this villain:
I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.
We’re going to talk in detail about Villain Speeches in another post. Suffice it to say, for now, that a great villain has his or her own point of view, and that point of view should be just as valid, if not more valid, than the point of view of the hero.
What makes a great villain is that, though what he does is truly grisly and horrifying, possibly even planet-threatening, he’s doing it, from his point of view, for the most normal, and even honorable, reasons in the world.
The shark in Jaws is just trying to find his next meal. What’s wrong with that?
The Alien is only trying to procreate and self-actualize, to grow from a baby Alien into a grownup Alien.What’s so horrible about that?
And the Terminator? If you stopped him and accused him of wrongdoing as he’s blowing away one Sara Conner after another, he’d turn to you with an expression of shock and bewilderment.
I’m just doing my job!
Great post Steve.
Strange but true coincidence: I just watched A Few Good Men a couple of days ago.
However, it was dubbed in Spanish and playing on a small television mounted at the front of a south-bound Mexican bus.
Why you ask?
I took a 40 hour bus ride to Guadalajara to try out the expat life as a writer…
I was considering living in a van in Hollyweird, but I decided Mexico was much safer and I can afford an actual room here…and the food…I may never be skinny again.
No puedes manejar la verdad!
I don’t speak Spanish, so I hope Google translate got that right.
What, you ask: You moved to a third world country with barely any money and you don’t even speak the language and you know not a soul?
Ah, yes. But I make friends easy enough and did I mention the tacos are really really cheap?
Mexico isn’t a third world country
Excellent post as always. The perspective of our characters is everything with regard to their actions and how they view them, and more importantly, how our readers view them.
Thanks for the great insight and I look forward to the post on the villain speeches.
Love this one! My villain(ess) is an elderly grandmother who bakes banana bread for the church bazaar and, by her own rationalization, is just trying to protect her way of life.
“The Villain Doesn’t Think He’s the Villain” – have to change “he” to “she”. In the real life story hard to admit I’m the villain, the protagonist and “the player” of all “the roles” of one’s life struggle. IOW’s the major cause for what I wholeheartedly condemn? On the razor’s edge or edge of the cliff a very scary place to be. What would happen if I didn’t have all this stuff to hold on too? What in the world are you talking about – if I jump I could/would soar like an Eagle? What kind of an insanity is that? WOW you mean to tell me there is another way of looking at all this; IOW’s it is NOT all there IS. There is a possibility to BELIEVE IN THE JOURNEY OF MY DREAMS. Holy Cow this is a foreign language to me. “If you believe there is a space between you and your brother/sister you are insane.” ~Eckhart Tolle through The Course of Miracles~
The rare exception is Shakespeare’s Richard III. He lets us know in his opening speech:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
O f course, you have to be Shakespeare to pull something like that off.
Here’s what I think is a fairly accurate description of 007:
He can’t be bargained with, he can’t be reasoned with, he doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and he absolutely will not stop until he completes his mission.
You might recognize it: it’s (with a few minor changes) Kyle Reese’s description of the Terminator.
“From my point of view the Jedi are evil.” — Darth Vader (Mark I).
Great Post. It almost seems like the villain must believe in her righteousness so deeply that the audience is torn between the hero/villain. It isn’t that crystal clear…
COL Jessup is right in much of his speech. We do need him on that wall, and below the surface, want him on that wall.
Passion and belief are contagious, and when a villain passionately expresses themselves it is alluring.
Good timing. In the middle of a brief outline for a new short story are questions to myself that I added several days ago: “Who’s the bad guy,” and “What’s his agenda?” I added another note in bold, “Make it sane from his POV.”
Given what one hears on TV or reads in the New York Times it makes one understand what happened yesterday in Alexandria. His friends thought he was’normal’ and not really an extremist.
Great timing. One man’s hero is another man’s villain. But it’s not up to the villain.
Hedley Lamar, A true villain who knows he’s a villain, like’s being a villain, and doesn’t care who knows it.
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