The Villain Adapts, but Does Not Change
Consider the Alien.
It adapts but does not change.
It starts out (I’m thinking of the 1979 Alien, directed by Ridley Scott) as an egg.
OMG, it springs onto the visor of Kane’s (John Hurt) space helmet!
Wait … now it’s an ugly, tentacled blob attached to his face. Hold on—it just leapt out of his chest and scurried out of the room!
It’s medium-sized …
It’s bleeding acid-blood!
The villain adapts. It comes after the hero in protean forms, from all directions, using all kinds of ploys and stratagems.
Human villains too keep attacking from all angles. Bond villains. The mother and sisters in The Fighter. The cops in Thelma and Louise. The impis in Zulu.
But they don’t change.
They have one goal—to destroy the hero.
They cannot be reasoned with.
They are incapable of altering themselves on their own.
They are as fixed and immutable as the stars.
Do you remember the principle we cited in an earlier post from Stephen Cannell, the master of a thousand plotlines from The Rockford Files, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street?
Keep the heavies in motion.
What Stephen meant was
Keep the villains coming at the hero from everywhere.
Have them pop out of the toaster, drop out of the sky, spring forth from the glove compartment. At any moment. In all forms and shapes and sizes.
The villain should not to stupid.
Like the Predator or the Terminator, the Bad Guy should shape-shift like a chameleon. Make him cunning and ruthless and loaded with guile.
Even internal villains, like Dr. Morbius’ (Walter Pidgeon) possessiveness of his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) in Forbidden Planet or Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne) implacable hatred of Comanches in The Searchers, don’t change.
They may be overcome by the hero (in which case the hero is the one who changes) but they themselves never draw up and declare, “Gee, now that I think about it, maybe my desire to destroy the world/devour the protagonist’s brain/suck the heroine’s blood was really not such a good idea.”
The villain adapts but does not change.
The greatest villain of all, Satan, pulls out all the stops trying to break his arch-enemy, Jesus of Nazareth. He invokes the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, the Roman legions. He causes Judas to betray his master. He undermines Peter’s love and loyalty; he cracks the resolve of all the Apostles.
But his goal never changes, and neither does he.
That’s why he’s the villain.
Remember our principle:
The hero is the one who changes.
The villain adapts, but does not change.
Or as my old boss Joan Stark expressed it,
If the villain changed, he’d be the hero.
I think the reason this is such a revelation for many of us is that we don’t really want to change either. It’s time-consuming, difficult and expensive. We would rather surf funny stuff on the web. The part of each of us that doesn’t want to grow and change is the part that LOVES reading the antics of all kinds of villains, even though we are blissfully unaware of the psychology. We want to feel smarter and safer and better than those guys in the story. I didn’t read fiction for decades and then embarked on my fiction education. I was a non-fiction snob and proud of it. Now I realize the subconscious education in fiction is basically this thing, this thing about our own inner adversary we do not ever want to see or know. I will always be grateful to you for the clarity with which you wrote this post today, Steven!
Right on. I fantasize about getting into great shape, but don’t do what it takes. Being in great condition might be needed by a hero sometime. But I’m refusing the call.
Yeah I like this. I was actually writing about this on my own blog about Barbara Stanwyck’s character in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Still at work is amazing as a very focused woman who wants to control money and power and expand that money and power over a town: Iverstown. Her character Inherited when she was young, And did so by some nasty means. One thing leads to another and she evolves into a powerful woman. In her case, the sacrifice was true love. Her goal then becomes to get that love back. To do that she has to be willing to destroy the false love she lives with. And to do that would destroy the object of her love What’s great about a woman in this kind of film noir is that a woman shifts and changes in a deceptive way. Women—bad or good— don’t change in film noir but they appear to change. This sets up tension…. wonderful tension.
So true. Such an crucial point you’re making about the villain. I love these posts. The villain doesn’t change. The villain won’t inspect his actions, won’t look at the harm done and certainly will never take responsibility for his actions. He’s always “right.” There’s no chance he’ll ever see what he’s doing is wrong. Whatever has the villain locked into permanent attack mode keeps him bent on destruction, and destruction equals survival to the villain, who sees others as his enemies.
Psychologically, the villain is psychotic or at the very least a sociopath, stuck in a past incident where he is fighting the enemies around him.
Indeed Satan is the epitome of a villain, “a liar and the father of lies,” “a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.”
While villains may appear to waiver and feign friendship, even that is fleeting and often just a ploy at trickery. He shifts into covert tactics instead of making overt attacks. Yet, he forever remains the hero’s enemy.
Oh I like that. Very helpful
You just perfectly described a typical judeo-terrorist from Brooklyn in Palestine. Thx.
Great point, very illuminating! Implacability is really scary.
Steve any time I read you I’m always thinking of the same story that I’ve rewritten about 100 times. Today was fun because several months back I realized I was the hero AND the villain in my story. As the villain I’m the one who’s always changing; doing everything in my shitty power to derail, confuse, trick and sabotage. It’s so interesting how you can be both, the Antichrist and the worshipful. That tricky ego has got it covered. Sort of like addiction, you get one handled and there’s another one bringing up the rear. Ya always gotta be on guard.
Brilliant! And inspirational. It makes me want to write again! And, so perfectly composed. Bravo!
For, where would the hero’s journey be without one? or two? It would never get off the mark. Forever stagnant.
“The greatest villain of all, Satan, pulls out all the stops trying to break his arch-enemy, Jesus of Nazareth. He invokes the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, the Roman legions. He causes Judas to betray his master. He undermines Peter’s love and loyalty; he cracks the resolve of all the Apostles.”
And he’s still at it. With each of us. In our story. In the journey of our soul. As we swim in distraction. Addicted. Deeply asleep. Or, soul crushing betrayal. I know. I loved him.
And in a dream, he appeared, and revealed the Third Act twist — All the time, he was working for God. That there’s more to our story, than meets the eye.
Without crucifixion, there ain’t no resurrection. Ergo, Jesus’ kiss of Judas.
“If the villain changed, he’d be the hero.”
Please thank Joan Stark for that one.
Fantastic. All of it!
Judith, do you know what really fantastic? Liberated Palestine from judeo terrorists from Brooklyn, Odessa and so on.
From the river to the sea Palestine will be free. Never forgive. Never foget.
I think the little alien was scarier than the big alien. You never knew where that little chipper was hiding.
Yes! Fear the tiny!!
I absolutely love this site. Love everyone’s comments. So refreshing. It gives me hope.
Got it. Once again, thank you.
The Alien is a jew from Brooklyn in Palestine. It even looks similar.
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