The Villain is Not Always a Person
Or even a creature.
Sometimes the villain is entirely inside the characters’ (almost always the protagonist’s) head.
The villain can be a fear, an obsession, a desire, a dream, a conception of reality, an idea of what “the truth” really is.
The villain in Blade Runner 1978 would seem at first glance to be the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his team of Leon (Brion James) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), who have escaped off-world and come to Earth sowing destruction. But the real villain is an idea—the conception of creating faux-human slave labor.
The replicants are actually the innocent victims of this idea, which in fact has been deemed by the world to be brilliant, epochal, even salvational, and whose progenitor, Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation, is universally lauded for his genius in conceiving such a notion.
But a slave by another name is still a slave, and the idea of creating soul-less, expendable creatures whose only purpose is to do the dirty work of the greater society (no matter how exceptional or beautiful these creatures may be) is still evil.
This is the same villain, by the way, as in Birth of a Nation (2016), Twelve Years A Slave, and The Help.
The villain in Blade Runner 2049 is another idea—the idea of the willing acceptance of one’s role as a soul-less cog in a greater machine.
Often these “idea villains” are embodied and personified by human or creature antagonists who have actual physical being in the story. In David O. Russell’s The Fighter, the idea-villain—the self-sabotage of the individual of talent and destiny (in this case Mark Wahlberg’s character of Micky Ward, “the fighter”—is personified by his family of mother, brother, and seven sisters. They’re undermining him and sabotaging his career at every turn.
But the deep villain resides in Mark’s own head, as it does in K’s (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049 and in Nat Turner’s (Nate Parker) in Birth of a Nation.
In other words the villain in these stories is not sabotage, but self-sabotage.
The hero is enslaving himself by his own belief.
The turning point in all such stories is the moment when the protagonist snaps out of it and says to him or herself, “I am in control of my own destiny. I will no longer believe the lies that others have told me about myself and that I have abetted by repeating them and believing them in my own heart.”
In Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, the villain is 1950s suburban-American conformity. The hero is Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) who believes at the story’s start that she is one of the lucky ones, blessed with a handsome, successful husband whom she loves and who loves her, a beautiful family, wonderful friends, and a perfect, secure life in a prosperous, upwardly mobile community.
Suburban conformity is a great villain, not only because it is internal—existing entirely, as it does, in our heroine’s psyche as well as within the community—but also because it’s invisible. Julianne has no idea that this idea is evil. She believes in it like Stalinists believed in the Workers’ Paradise. To her it is the universally-desired state of being, i.e., what every human on Earth would aspire to if they had the chance. In Julianne’s mind, at the story’s start, she is living the American dream, and her family embodies this fantasy perfectly.
By movie’s end of course Julianne will have lost husband, friends, community, as well as her self-conception and self-assurance as a secure, happy wife and mother. The movie’s final image is Julianne with young kids in tow, driving off in her station wagon into a totally unknown (and probably for quite a while desperate) future.
This is a happy ending. Why? Because Julianne has emancipated herself, however excruciatingly, from this villain that is only an idea.
She has seen it for what it is and seen through it.
This act puts Julianne light-years ahead of her self-enslaved neighbors/replicants/Stepford wives in Suburban Hell who are still “living the dream.”
We said in an earlier chapter that
Every villain is a metaphor for Resistance.
What this means is that the ultimate antagonist is not a man-eating shark or a monster from space. It is an idea carried in our own heads (we’re the heroes, remember, of our own lives) and as invisible to us as Julianne’s and K’s and Nat Turner’s self-enslavement was to them before they woke up.
The turning point for us too comes when we see through the Wizard’s curtain and reject this idea once and for all.
[…] morning, in the latest in his Writing Wednesdays series, Steven Pressfield […]
Thank you for this. This solves a problem I was having in my Work-In-Progress: namely, who the villain really was. Who I thought he was wasn’t working and I didn’t know why. My protagonist’s villain is really his obsession for revenge.
Thanks for this, and for using the wonderful film “Far From Heaven” as one of the examples.
Working on a military/war themed project, so this was really helpful.
Thank you, Steve. The timing was amazing, as if you knew what I needed.
This is so timely, as this is basically the main villain in my current WIP or rather the driving force of the story. Still having a difficulty putting it into an controlling idea/theme sentence, but it’s really what I want the story to be about. About the cost of sacrificing your own freedom in exchange for false safety and security.
It doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue and it’s even harder to convey when its a dark action fantasy @[email protected]
Just LOVE what you’re doing in this series. And this post might be your most profound yet. Getting into the meat of the idea-villain, and it being in our own heads is as deep as you can get.
The really sexy achievement for writers, is when we can combine the man-eating shark with the self-created limited and solve both together in the climax. Rapture ensues. -RG
So cool. You’ve affirmed the villain, war, in my wip. I’d wondered if my approach was ‘allowed’ or if anyone would ‘get it.’ Resistance keeps telling me it’s a stupid, vainglorious attempt and who do I think I am anyway? I appreciate this validation more than I can say.
Strangely, I had the same idea these days!
Thanks for giving us great hints about how to write better e every week!
Keep it up!
The power of the idea, in this case for ultimate evil, is often forgotten or blurred. Often the evil is just that: blurring the evil as necessary for a greater good. Another thought-provoking post!
I’ve always had an aversion to the suburbs. Now I understand why.
Wow. And yet again art imitates life….
One of my favorite books is the YA tragedy Summer of My German Soldier where a girl in the Deep South has a problem: Not of believing her racist society, (she is too good for that) but of believing her own parents. The girl is too honest and loyal to realize that her own dear parents are (mistaken or) lying to her about herself.
The poor girl doesn’t know that sometimes the “poor but honest” are the biggest liars, having only a “cash register” honesty. As a writer I have to know this, but I can’t help, rightly or wrongly, feeling judgemental.
Come to think of it, America’s first Great Novel was about a parentless boy on a raft coming to see that his entire dear community was mistaken, and choosing to go to hell when he died rather than turn on his friend.
It is my attempt to contact with you from INDIA where I am in the middle of a Great 3 months Jurney – by myself!
If you shall reply…I might visit you in March or April in California upon my next visit with Herman Wouk – by then 104 years Young!!!! and hopefully upon the publication of his Book he is about to finish the final writing! An amazing FORGOTTEN Great writer and Author ( Not every Writer is an AUTHOR…in my mind…! YOU are BOTH….
From “GOA” on my way ro the SOUTHEST POINT in INDIA…on a BUS….with Mobile Wi-Fi…since the 1/4 Billion Indians are ahead of US U.S.A and…Israel in…all the Smartphones field.
HAPPY HANUKA to YOU – the Great AMERICAN JEW!
Yours Sincerely SHALOM – Yosi.
Once again, perfect insight at the perfect time. Thank you Steven Pressfield!!
Great insight about villains being ideas that can take any form– so true and so well explained.
I am grateful that you posted this as the story I am working on has no villain except the history of the protagonists and their families. Their struggle is to overcome their history, to resist the temptation to take the easy way rather choose the more difficult path.
[…] can’t give a big enough WOW for this post by Steven Pressfield: The Villain is Not Always a Person . “Or even a […]
Thanks!! As always, brilliant!!
This post is special. It really helps against the Resistance. Fear and panic is reduced away, if I follow the principle described. But other than that, this principle helps to grasp the essence of the problem, which I describe. The essence of what I’m writing about.Thank you very much.
[…] the villain is self-sabotage, an article by Steven […]
I missed this post and so I’m just catching up. Thanks for the explanation of BR2049 which I did not get… at all. I commend you on clarifying the meaning of a confusing movie.
Far from Heaven was exquisitely done and it is so nice to revisit it here. I hope you will do an essay on Algiers (Charles Boyer and Heddy Lamar) one day. Or maybe that’s up to me. 😉
Great blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or
go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally confused ..
Any tips? Many thanks!
Villains can be things, like monsters or demons, or they can be people who do bad things. Sometimes a villain is someone who’s just misunderstood. Get instant assistance for historical and theoretical essays and assignments from law assignment writing at economical prices.
People are not born heroes or villains, they’re created by the people around them. If you have question then feel free to get online exam help for better understanding.
This topic is well written, thanks for sharing this wonderful knowledge, actually well all know our inside villain, any one on the world is not born hero or villain, the society tag them with the name hero or villain, by looking at their work, be hero or its all up to you, I am basically head of development department at Sales comp, we are team of professionals working to provide corporate sectors a commission software which is free for them, its about the handling if you use it wisely you will become a hero of your office cauz it will save a lot of your time on that time you can do some productive work.
Hi Steven Thank You
This is a well-written topic; thank you for sharing this wonderful knowledge; we all know our inner villain.