Give Your Villain a Great Villain Speech
I’m a huge fan of Villain Speeches. There’s nothing better in a book or a movie than the moment when the stage is cleared and Satan gets to say his piece.
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.
A great Villain Speech should ring true. It should masterfully articulate a valid point of view. Here’s cattleman Rufe Ryker (played by the great character actor Emile Meyer) in Shane:
Right? You in the right! Look, Starrett. When I come to this country, you weren’t much older than your boy there. We had rough times, me and other men that are mostly dead now. I got a bad shoulder yet from a Cheyenne arrowhead. We made this country. Found it and we made it. We worked with blood and empty bellies. The cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers. They don’t bother you much anymore because we handled ’em. We made a safe range out of this. Some of us died doin’ it but we made it. And then people move in who’ve never had to rawhide it through the old days. They fence off my range, and fence me off from water. Some of ’em like you plow ditches, take out irrigation water. And so the creek runs dry sometimes and I’ve got to move my stock because of it. And you say we have no right to the range. The men that did the work and ran the risks have no rights?
A great villain speech possesses three attributes.
First, it displays no repentance. The devil makes his case with full slash and swagger. His cause is just and he knows it.
Second, eloquence. A great villain speech possesses wit and style.
Third, impeccable logic. A villain speech must be convincing and compelling. Its foundation in rationality must be unimpeachable. When we hear a great villain speech, we should think, despite ourselves, “I gotta say: the dude makes sense.”
Here’s Wall Street CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons at his unrepentant best) after laying waste to the life savings of thousands in Margin Call.
So you think we might have put a few people out of business today? That it’s all for naught? You’ve been doing that everyday for almost forty years, Sam. And if this is all for naught, then so is everything out there. It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on them, so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than it’s ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, ’37, ’57, ’84, 1901, ’07, ’29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus, didn’t that one fuck me up good—’92, ’97, 2000, and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers, happy foxes and sad sacks, fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages, they stay exactly the same.
How will we know your character is the villain if you don’t give him (or her) a great villain speech?
[Hats off to the writers of the above gems: J.C. Chandor for Margin Call; A.B. Guthrie, Jr. from a novel by Jack Schaefer for Shane; Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone for Wall Street.]
And don’t forget Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.
Col. Jessup: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Col. Jessup: 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? You, Lt. Weinberg? 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!
so well written and so well delivered by Jack Nickelson.
Might just be the Marine in me, but Col Jessup has always been more of an anti-hero than villain. Either way, it’s one of the best speeches/performances put to film in my opinion. I remember that sticking a chord with me as a kid and it being one of the things that inspired me to become a Marine. That and killing dragons! I’m doubtful that was their intended purpose, but its true, and I bet if most Marines were polled, echo the sentiment.
Great Great speech! Thanks for recognizing it.
Hat’s off to you – thanks for finding such great examples for this post!
I don’t think I’m tough enough to write these great speeches about ruling the earth and economics. But I love them. Thanks for bringing up Margin Call. It takes a great actor to give weight to those words and a great one to show the devastating efffects of that knowledge. I recall the point in Irons’ speech when he talks about the finger on the scale that gave people artificially low mortgage rates. Why shouldn’t everyone have a nice house? And Stanley Tucci’s character is utterly broken. His sense of self and the world he lives in is gone. I can’t get it out of my head that we relate to each character through his running narrative. Narratives are at war in great stories.
Hi Renita –
I wonder why you feel you aren’t “tough enough” to write something like that. In part, I wonder because I bet you are tough enough, and I wonder why you feel you aren’t. But also because I wonder if I’m “tough enough” to really ratchet up the escalating difficulties against my main characters in my own stories, and I am interested in finding out why others feel that way.
My thought this morning after I read your comment was that I should write a few villain speeches that are lower in consequences, but still villainous. Such as the guy who refuses to tip at a restaurant “on principle.” That sort of thing. A practice run or two. So thanks for your comment, and inspiring me to do something that is (for myself) low stakes, but high practice.
Steve – I’ve been absorbing this villain series thinking I’d apply it sometime in the future to a fiction piece. Instead, I worked out and identified the “villain” in the non-fiction I’m writing now.
Without more fully developing the villain’s role in my story it wouldn’t have been effective. Shawn’s said stories are about change, so of course the villain’s inability to change is necessary counterpoint.
You just helped make my book better. Thanks.
Excellent, Julia. I’m delighted for you. One of the points that Shawn always makes is that the principles of storytelling in fiction apply to nonfiction too. Great that you identified your Villain and that it helped. Good for you!
Wow. How do you find something like those?
I’m relatively new to Writing Wednesdays but already look forward to it each week. The “villain” articles have been very helpful. However, several weeks ago we had an article offering that the “villain” could be an internal one. That is, not represented by a specific character (antagonist). The villain is the protagonist’s mind, the protagonist’s flaw, weakness, limiting view of the world, etc.
Many of the subsequent articles about villains can be fit into that understanding: “What does the villain want?” “To keep the protagonist down, to ensure that the protagonist fails, etc.” But, does anyone have thoughts on a “great villain speech” if the villain is internal? Further, how would it meet the “three attributes” identified in this article: no repentance, eloquence, impeccable logic?
Could the ‘great villain speech’ be delivered by the person at the mercy of the internal villain – a great villain speech in code, a cypher?
Patrick, I think the internal villain might also be one that intends to protect the individual, to keep them safe from ridicule or failure or loss. I can see the speech in a written story convincing an abused woman to stay with her abuser; a man from quitting his job and doing the work he longs to do; a person in a loveless marriage; an employee (think up-and-coming actor or musician or athlete) to accept abuse at the hands of those in charge. Movie: Matt Damon played the role of an underachieving math genius who worked as a construction laborer in Good Will Hunting. Can’t hear the internal villain there, but the counselor exposed it and his best friend challenged it. Cool. I know I’ll use this, now I see it.
Cathy, that’s good – I like it. In your Good Will Hunting example, the counselor and the friend together delivery the “speech” over time and offer the requisite three elements in short doses: no repentance, eloquence, impeccable logic. A little involved (and I have a head-ache) but good stuff.
Excellent answer to Patrick, Cathy. Good Will Hunting is perfect: another character puts words to the thoughts inside the protagonist’s head. (In this case, two characters). Right on.
Just on page 27 on my next novel, but I already have the end game in mind and yes, there would be an great opportunity for a villain speech (at the obligatory Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene) – Thanks for the 3 points and the great examples.
Steve, great post! What movie lover doesn’t appreciate a great villian’s speech? What about Al Pacino’s character John Milton’s speech in The Devil’s Advocate.
Speeches like that seduce us into considering, if only for a moment, that the Devil himself might have a valid point.
Pure gold, Steve! The part about the three elements, especially #3 about how it should possess impeccable logic. You’re giving us the goods! Thank you.
Hi Steven and all others.
I am plotting right now – very difficult for me as I prefer writing into the dark, but I’d also prefer to do less editing on the other end.
My question is, since I am plotting, is there a good place for the villain speech or is it something that you think writers might intuitively place. I am wondering if it shouldn’t come in the first act but then when i get to my midpoint I am thinking that a Villain speech might be better in this area as I have made some things very clear to my MC that she wasn’t aware of before. I think if I had a villain speech before now it might give away my midpoint. However I could do it without the MC present – however I still think it might ruin the midpoint for readers. Not sure about this one. It could make him scarier if the reader knows what’s going on sooner, yet the MC doesn’t. OR am I overthinking the whole thing? 😉