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!