The Villain Embodies the Counter-theme

 

 If our hero’s object is to save the world, our villain’s object is to destroy it.

Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser in "Casablanca"

Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser in “Casablanca”

Whatever the protagonist wants, the antagonist wants the opposite.

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Every story must have a theme.

It must be about something.

The theme, as Blake Snyder so helpfully declares in Save the Cat!, is the case that the story is making to the reader.

 

Better to sacrifice oneself (or one’s personal happiness) for the greater good than to live a life of prosperous selfishness.

 

Or

 

We are defined by our past and cannot escape it.

 

These are the themes of 1) Casablanca, and 2) Shane.

(Please note that themes do not have to be universally “true.” A great theme can be completely debatable, even spurious or “wrong.” It is enough, for storytelling purposes, that a theme be a strong statement about some aspect of life or the human condition.)

The hero embodies the theme.

Rick in Casablanca (Humphrey Bogart) declares in the first half of the story

 

I stick my neck out for no one

 

And

 

I’m the only cause I’m fighting for.

 

In the movie’s climax, however, it’s Bogey who’s putting Ilsa Lund, the love of his life (Ingrid Bergman), on the plane to Lisbon and freedom …

"We'll always have Paris." Bogey and Bergman in "Casablanca"

“We’ll always have Paris.” Bogey and Bergman in “Casablanca”

 

BOGEY

Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life …

 

while he himself heads off into the desert with his sometime adversary Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) to join the Free French and fight for freedom.

 

BOGEY

Louie, this is the start of a beautiful friendship.

 

The hero embodies by his words and actions the “case” that the movie is making. He is the personification of the theme, in this instance, as we said,

 

Better to sacrifice oneself (or one’s personal happiness) for the greater good than to live a life of prosperous selfishness.

 

But what about the villain?

The villain in Casablanca is the idea that there is such a thing as safe neutrality, that it is possible to sit out a conflict between good and evil without taking sides.

The city of Casablanca itself represents this, being at that time (1941) the capital of a nation that was neither Allied nor Axis.

Bogey’s cabaret—“Rick’s Cafe Americaine”—represents this same idea, a little Casablanca within the greater city of Casablanca.

Every character in Rick’s place is trying to work some self-interested angle, to escape the Nazis, to profit off others’ desperation to flee, or just to hang on and survive in this transient purgatory on the Mediterranean.

The physical villain, SS Major Strasser, represents the personal force of evil—the Nazi thugs whose aim is to arrest and no doubt torture and murder Ilsa and her husband, the valiant Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).

In other words, these elements constitute the counter-theme:

 

To defeat your enemies, make each of them reject solidarity with their fellows and instead strive only for their individual selfish ends.

 

When you and I as writers find ourselves struggling to make our stories vivid and compelling, it’s often because we haven’t truly defined the theme for ourselves and have failed to make 1) the hero embody the theme, and 2) the villain embody the counter-theme.

If we can lick these problems in our story, everything else will fall into place.

 

 

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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16 Comments

  1. Renita on December 20, 2017 at 8:07 am

    Yes. This theme and counter theme clearly stated is what makes a movie or story work. After seeing The Last Jedi the other day— in 3D complete with D box chair that shudders and moves— I got home and put on Out of the Past (1947). For me it was a much more satisfying movie. The themes and conflicts are clearly told. As the mysterious woman Kathie (Janet Greer) pulls Jeff (Robert Mitchum) into her web we see him falling more deeply into a situation that he can’t get free of. I just love this great film.
    The screenplay was written by the novel’s author. That helped. And the director was raised by his French director father. Can’t recall his name right now but he knew his craft and how to create mood. He started directing at RKO on Cat People. A really well done horror film.
    How to create a theme and counter theme when no one is all good or all bad (except HER) is masterful writing. I don’t know why The Last Jedi tried and failed to do this for me. Maybe somebody can explain it. But the many characters it seemed to me did not serve the main theme. And so it was lost in the scuffle.

  2. Mary Doyle on December 20, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Thinking of this in terms of theme/counter-theme is very helpful – as always, thanks!

  3. Erik Dolson on December 20, 2017 at 8:39 am

    Renita, if I had to guess, the theme of The Last Jedi, “Let go to progress,” or “self sacrifice to the greater cause,” (thank you for your performance, Laura Dern), was lost in the noise of explosions, light sabers and franchise history, unlike Casa Blanca which kept reenforcing its similar theme, though I’m reluctant to type the two titles in the same breath.

    I’m off to find Out of the Past.

    • Steven Pressfield on December 20, 2017 at 11:34 am

      Erik and Renita, to complete the circle you might watch the remake of “Out of the Past” called “Against All Odds,” starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward, and James Woods in the Kirk Douglas role, with the theme song sung by Phil Collins. The movie ain’t “Out of the Past” but it does start with a very cool set-piece of a race along Sunset Boulevard between the hero and the villain. Also Jeff Bridges in this flick looks as far away from “the Dude” as it is humanly possible for the same person to be.

    • Erik Dolson on December 23, 2017 at 5:05 pm

      Someone wrote about the film’s depiction of “toxic masculinity.” Hard to disagree.

  4. Julia Murphy on December 20, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Our lives are stories. Maybe when our lives aren’t working it’s also because we haven’t created clearly defined our theme.

    Sometimes it’s hard to tell the players without a program. So maybe without a theme, it can be hard to know the hero from the villian.

    Sorry, Steve…I feel like I was suppose to get something different from your post…thanks.

  5. Sonja on December 21, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    I have to check out Against All Odds, and re-watch Far From Heaven mentioned in last week’s post. These are like mini-masterclasses in structure. Thanks, Steven!

  6. G.R. on December 22, 2017 at 1:47 am

    Ohh… Not so easy task, if the villain is not a person, but our narrow-mindedness… ))

  7. Owen Deeeeee on January 8, 2018 at 5:13 am

    Yo what up fam, this article is dank as hell. I really like the part about licking the problem. I think you can solve any problem by licking it.

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