The Villain Believes in "Reality"
It seems like a long time ago—pre-Trump, pre-Obama—but I remember vividly when Vice President Dick Cheney declared in the wake of 9/11 that to counter the threat of terrorism the U.S. was now going to have to start “working the dark side.”
Cheney articulated this thought with barely-suppressed glee. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, this guy is the ultimate movie villain,” not just because he was expressing a classic Dr. No/Dr. Evil/Dr. Strangelove sentiment but because his point of view contains more than a modicum of truth.
I’ve always wished that Dick Cheney would write a book. Not the typical self-serving, bullshit politician’s book but a straight-ahead, from-the-heart articulation of his brass-knuckles worldview.
Why? Because that worldview contains a lot of truth.
We should hear it.
We as Americans should debate it.
What I’m getting at is the “this is reality” school of villainy.
In Three Days of the Condor, Cliff Robertson plays senior CIA officer J. Higgins whose secret war plan for the U.S. to invade Saudi Arabia and capture its oil fields has been exposed by the movie’s hero, Joseph Turner (Robert Redford).
Does Cliff react with regret or shame over his nefarious deeds? (His operatives have also murdered seven Americans to cover up their scheme). Hell no. He doubles down.
It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Not now—then! Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for ’em!
Boy, have you found a home.
Cliff remains unfazed. His position: “This is Reality. This is the way the world works. Only sentimentalists and weak-minded dreamers believe otherwise.”
How many villain speeches have begun with this phrase:
Oh come, come, Mister Bond …
How about his exchange from an interview between Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump? O’Reilly was questioning Trump’s often-stated admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
But he’s a killer!
There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?
Villains love “reality,” i.e. the hardball view of the world, which declares that human nature is inherently evil, that left to their own devices people will always choose the selfish, the vain, and the expedient.
It is their role, the villains claim, to counter humanity’s innate wickedness. They will take it upon themselves to act preemptively to quash this evil for the greater good of the slumbering masses. Here’s Jack Nicholson, from Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men:
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.
Remember what we said in an earlier post, that the villain doesn’t think he’s the villain?
To these “reality villains,” the believer in progress or human good is a self-deluded fool. Worse, he is a clear and present danger to the survival of the greater clan/community/nation.
Is there truth to this?
Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King said?
Or was MLK, for all his greatness, deluding himself and the world with a dream that, however brave and kind and noble, will, given the reality of human nature, never come true?
Reality to a reality-villain is always zero-sum, dog-eat-dog. It is the world described by Thomas Hobbes in his book, Leviathan, where life without an externally-ordered structure would be
solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Is that reality?
Is he or she who believes this a villain or a hero?
Good post. Cheney’s view seems to have expanded under Obama’s use of the deep state to spy on citizens. Cliff Roberson’s character reminds me of the Benghazi debacle where Clinton and Obama were running guns through that fragile state so that they could keep the Muslim Brotherhood armed. And then use of the FBI to try and derail a Presidential race. The use of blackmail and murder to convince witnesses to remain silent against the political machine run by Clinton and Obama.
Unfortunately Robert Redford’s character would have been whacked early in the movie like that poor kid in DC who was suppose to testify in the scrubbed server case that Clinton is involved in. Hats off to Mr. Pressfield. Thanks
Seriously, Charlie? You use this forum to spout that dreck? This forum is for writers and about writing. Go away. Go troll Reddit.
Geez I’m sorry my post upset you.
I do realize that this is a writing forum and I had the sense that one purpose of this forum was to expand the boundaries for story lines and characters for novels and do so by open discussions (in this case) that make the villain real.
Mr. Pressfield opened this forum by connecting VP Cheney’s words and actions to a character in a book (and a good movie). He artfully goes on to expand on the description or role of a villain by bringing in Pres Trump’s interview with O’reilly and the suggestion that Trump is similar to someone like Putin because of Trump’s answer. Words spoken can translate into being a villain.
The problem with that is (if this type of writing was used in a book) we would have to assume that all readers have the exact same opinion of Trumps character and Putin’s character. If we were all cut from the same cloth that might work, but it runs the risk of having a near majority of readers finding difficulty in applying the title of villain to a character (in Mr Pressfield’s example-Trump) simply because somewhere in the book a character says one sentence that appears to be supportive of a true villain (Pressfield’s Putin).
My post was intended to expand on that thought. Words alone don’t make a villain. Actions are more often a far better and more complete view into the soul of a villain, which is why I suggested the Benghazi and FBI angle (keeping with Mr. Pressfield’s use of political figures and intrigue). If Mr. Pressfield had used sports I would have used that venue.
Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum and Mr Pressfield’s examples aside, even a untrained writer would have to admit that the complexities and different occurrences surrounding Benghazi and the other FBI issue provide a treasure trove of potential areas where a good writer could develop solid plots, twisting conspiracies and having a great foundation to find and expose the villain, or let the reader do so.
As Mr. Pressfield wonderfully points out It is one thing for a villain to simply announce for the good of the country we must do something evil (Cliff Robertsons admission to Robert Redford) the reader needs action as well. As he points out in Three Days of The Condor, there is murder and mayhem.
My post was expanding on Mr Pressfields use of real life political persons and events. The Benghazi and FBI stories are fertile grounds that provide great opportunities for writers to look at the reality of an occurrence and look past whatever ones political underpinnings are and learn that evil is often well concealed in what others claim is a proper governmental action. Like Cliff Robertson tries to do in the movie.
Certainly if our government is supplying arms to villains for the “greater good” the reader needs to be led to a point where he believes that the villain is right or feels the opposite. Redfield didn’t disagree with Robertson because he was portrayed as a war hawk, but rather because what Robertson advocated and the actions he had taken. Redfield knows they were wrong and illegal. My post attempted to reveal the same dynamic. Don’t look at life through a voters registration card.
The biggest mistake, I think, that a writer can make is assume that all readers are lemmings who think the same and fall in line with the usual set up of what type of persons make the best villains.
Readers don’t live in the mind of writers, we want them to live in the mind of the characters and our stories. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with wether or not the reader has our same political belief, but rather have we done a good job in revealing a true villain (staying of topic).
It is easy to hate the ones we think are obvious villains by how they speak, but it makes for a much better story if we force the reader to come to the realization that a character that was thought to be a “hero” or savior is actually as evil as the obvious one. As Mr Pressfield points out….the reality is that evil is usually better at concealment than most readers believe.
By the way what in the world is Reddit?
Move on by Charlie, Your fodder is not for this forum. I’m sure social mediums will welcome you and your propaganda.
Only a true cad would respond to a piece like this with such drivel.
Thanks for another great post and another great year – Happy New Year!
Steve, awesome post.
I know you addressed this in a previous post: when the villain is not a single entity, but I’m hoping you’ll delve deeper.
I’m thinking of the movie (based upon real events) Kill the Messenger.
Where the villains are the “government” and the “press” and the institutions that conspire (not necessarily consciously) to suppress the truth.
That story ended when Gary Webb committed suicide by shooting himself twice in the head…
I’ve noticed most of the thrillers that are purely fictional give us an evil character (like Gene Hackman playing any number of villains) but I thought the account of Gary Webb’s life was really well done.
Do I only like it because it’s based upon reality?
great post! make that: great posts all year!!!
thank you again for all you do for we who enjoy reading your work.
happy new year!
You have brilliantly explained the paradox of the end justifies the means. The villain tells himself and others, “I am doing this (bad deed) for the good of the people. I am sacrificing myself for the greater good. I am the good guy. Trust me.”
Is the supporter, who wants the greater good, an enabler, a colluder, a hero, or a villain?
In reality, who gets to determine the greater good? Conversely, do the masses know what’s good for them?
Thought provoking. How many stories are out there of the “good guy” who defends the truth, but is thought to be a villain by the other players because the truth is just too hard to take? The hero is locked into his “reality” but in this case it is real, and because he won’t relent, he is ostracized. The only character that comes close that I can think of is the Roy Scheider character in Jaws. (“We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”) I’m sure there are some others out there. How about the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park? There is a true story of an officer in the Soviet Union who was given the order to launch a nuclear attack on America because their sensors indicated an American nuclear attack was on the way. He refused, because he thought the sensor were wrong. Of course, the sensors did turn out to be wrong and his actions (or lack of it) avoided a nuclear holocaust. He was courts martialed anyway for failure to follow an order. Jesus might be another example.
“Is he or she who believes this a villain or a hero?”
And, of course, like all the eternal binary questions, the answer is “Yes.”
Is this Satan’s whisper in the ear, or is it the reason Christ told us to sell all we have and buy a sword?
And yes, there’s another essay/story/novel/movie there.
Jesus also said “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…” Sword? Don’t need no stinking sword.
Merry Christmas everyone.
We need both, dreamers and realists, and the tension between them is a dynamic, never ending interplay. An expression of what it is to be human, capable of ideals, subject to desire, dreamers and realists each often self-deluded or conflicted as to which drives their motivation.
Insert Robert Mueller for Gus McCrae and Trump for Jake Spoon and this dialogue from Lonesome Dove says it well:
Gus McCrae: [Call is about to hang Jake] You know how it goes, Jake. You ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw. Sorry you crossed the line.
Jake Spoon: I never seen no line, Gus. I was just trying to get through the territory without gettin’ scalped.
Gus McCrae: I don’t doubt that’s true, Jake.
This post made the other posts about the villain fall into place. As I read each example, at least the one’s that I recognized, I felt the ‘realist’ inside me stir.
Maybe it is the ranking of truths from base to spiritual. Jessup is correct that we need him on that wall. He’s also correct that many use ‘honor, duty, loyalty’ as a punchline.
While in Afghanistan, I felt the need to ‘work the dark side’. Reports of the beheading of women school teachers at a school the US military built, honor-killings of daughters (Did you read ‘The Book Seller of Kabul’?), the savagery of the terrain, the untimely death of one of our Soldiers…
One quick story:
I was the Operations Officer, and my roommate was one of the Company Commanders. I was a CPT filling a Major billet. Matt, the CC, was also a CPT. One of his Soldier’s was killed by an IED. I stayed up with Matt all night as we (mostly Matt, Bernard was his Soldier) talked through everything. Is there a God? Did Matt train is Soldiers properly? How to inform his parents? How to tell is girlfriend (who was a Soldier in Iraq at the time)…Why the f-bomb we were in this dark side of the moon? Who cares? Is it worth it? Does the war matter? Guilt, shame, fear, dread, deep sadness, pain, and a loss of bearing. The order of the world is no longer clear.
We knew the brothers who killed CPL Corpuz. We had a mission to roll them up.
Matt said to me, “Brian, I want to go on that mission with my men.” (I took all missions to the Battalion Commander for authorization/signature, although the same rank & buddies, all of Matt’s requests/missions went through me).
“No Matt, you’re not going anywhere near that place. What you’re talking about is murder, and that is not how we roll. They will be rolled up, and will be in the detention center by the end of the week.”
We both wanted to ‘work the dark side’ once the pain became personal. I was not ‘enlightened’ to refuse Matt–only one echelon removed. I was able to remain more rational, and therefore able to maintain the ‘higher order truth’.
The villain’s truth must be attractive at both rational and base levels. Jessup was wrong because he’s charged with protecting the Santiago’s of the world as well–but there is a rather large kernel of truth as well.
All this said, I’m eager to read your new book–and when are you going to do a podcast?!?!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Great Post Steve!
In every man lies the pendulum of realist and dreamer and finding the balance is a dynamic thing based upon the context of the situation…..those who tend toward dreamer need to temper with reality while those whose steely realism is tempered with the “reality” of a higher calling…..in either case the Human Condition leads to imbalance and in that imbalance and overreaching in the name of one’s worldview is the stuff of great stories….BTW, if one looks at Dick Cheney’s arc from his childhood all the way through to 2008 it is far more insidious and scary than one could ever imagine…..
I much appreciated this post. In my humble opinion, the question as to whether this reality-oriented view of the world is heroic or villainous misses something critical: No hero can be effective if he too does not hold a realistic view of the world and its dangers. The defining quality of heroism, then, is not realism itself, but the willingness to utilize realism in a moral way.
Since you brought up politics, what did Obama’s “idealism” give us? The Middle East on fire, ISIS, etc. What did “idealism” give us over decades of non-action with North Korea? Nuclear weapons in the hands of a psychopath.
To argue that realism is quintessential to the villain is only half the story; it is also quintessential to the hero.
Joshua van Asakinda
Have to agree with the post by Joshua and Charlie. I have a thought. Lets leave politics at the door and keep the punches above the belt. We all become better writers if we focus on the trade and avoid the slams on the President, past or present.
The “this is reality” school of villainy.
This blog post is about the villains who have a dark view of the world and think of themselves as realists. There are also villains who do not believe in “Reality” but this post is not about them.
Realism is not quintessential to all villains, but it is to the villains discussed in this post.
There is a school of villains who believe that they are not evil because they are doing the right thing according to their idea of reality.
Well said! You inspired me to redo a character in my latest piece. Does that qualify you to be a muse? I always think of muses as being feminine. Silly of me. As always, Thanks.
Love the site. Lots of info.
Excellent post because it avoids easy answers. Anyone who believes that “people are basically good” is either ignorant of history, or is suffering from amnesia. The atrocities of the 20th Century argue otherwise. Not that most people are evil — they’re not, but they are easily dominated. In other words, human nature typically falls on a spectrum, with a few (a precious few!) saints & heroes on one side … an equally small number of stone cold psychopaths on the other … and the rest of us falling somewhere in between. Those of us in this “Great In-Between” are typically prey for the Maos, the Stalins, the Huey Longs, the Hugo Chavez’s, the Fidel Castros, and the Adolph Hitlers of the world.
It cheers us to say, “People are basically good.” It makes us feel sanctimonious to say so. But we ignore the ugly side of human nature at our peril.
And that’s one reason why that terrific last scene in Three Days of then Condor truly resonates.
I reading about blogging because I am launching one, and then it dawned on me.. I could read about writing.. so I googled Blogs on screenwriting and there were MANY.. so I clicked on a top 10 list and saw the sample about Marines.. in your post on PERSONAL CULTURE.. that post has more value than you may realize.. I intend to use it in my #22pushup challenge (if you are aware of the 20 or so Veteran suicides per day.. you may not know that Marines are actually killing themselves too and Women Veterans of any branch have the highest risk.. because they have trouble IDENTIFYING as a Veteran…) THANK you for that post.. I am commenting her because I wanted to read your latest post which popped up when I subscribed. I am like, “Yay” a post on VILLIANs.. brilliant help for me in an instant..Have an awesome Holiday.. I am happy to have found you today. Semper Fi, Kam Parker, USMC AND USCG Veteran
Never thought about it in that way–good stuff. Thanks, Steve.
One dictionary defines REALISM as “the attribute of accepting the facts of life and favoring practicality and literal truth.”
I visualize the men in Apollo 13 wearing those literal shoes. Does a villain require a real or imagined motive?
I cannot picture Hannibal Lector or Marcus Aurelius Commodus in Gladiator caring a bag of screws for the good of the masses. Who of us delves into analyzing Dr Mengele and his innate passion for “research into the human composition?”
Evil need not be expressed. Jessup made that point to Danny Boy and Weinberg. Lincoln and Roosevelt sacrificed many for the common good. Scrooge subscribed to the purging of the least. The list is endless — even the good guys carry a shillelagh to bash a skull or two.
Let the villain just be the baddie… no modicum of truth to make her/him human. it tarnishes the reputation.
Another great read which evoked real-life experiences. Thanks, Steve.
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