The Villain Doesn’t Change

 

The craziest working arrangement I ever had in the screenwriting biz was when I worked for a producer I’ll call Joan Stark.

Joan insisted that I write in her office. I had to come in every day. Joan gave me a little cubbyhole beside the photocopy machine. I’d work on pages all morning and half the afternoon. Then we’d meet and Joan would go over the day’s work and give me corrections.

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as the heroes in “Thelma and Louise”

Every day she had problems with the same character—the villain.

She kept making me rewrite his scenes. One day I asked why. What mistake was I making?

 

You’re having the villain change. The villain can’t change.

 

I didn’t get it. “Why not?”

 

Because if the villain changed, he’d be the hero.

 

I remember thinking, That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Don’t we want the Bad Guy to be interesting? Shouldn’t he evolve like the Hero?

Answer: No.

The Alien doesn’t change. The shark in Jaws doesn’t change. The Terminator in The Terminator doesn’t change. And when he does in the sequels … OMG, he becomes the hero (or co-hero)—and we have new Terminators (who don’t change) who now become the villains.

I realized I had to start thinking more deeply about this.

Indeed external villains don’t change. Every antagonist in a James Bond movie. Every super-villain lining up against Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men. Every force-of-nature villain (volcanoes, tsunamis, Mayan-predicted worldwide destruction, asteroids-crashing-into-Earth, Tripods invading New Jersey, global climate catastrophes). None of these is capable of change.

Zombies don’t change.

Vampires don’t change.

The Thing doesn’t change.

All these Bad Guys have one single-minded desire.

To eat your brain.

To suck your blood.

To destroy (or dominate) the world.

To give birth to baby Bad Guys.

Societal villains (as opposed to external villains) don’t change.

Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, BlacKkKlansman.

Homophobia in Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers’ Club, Moonlight.

The societal villain in Thelma and Louise, written by Callie Khouri, (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) is male contempt for and domination of women.

The film depicts men as loutish husbands, leering truck drivers, sneak-thieving hitch-hikers, trigger-happy cops and FBI agents, and the arch-villain Harlan Puckett (Timothy Carhart) who commits the initial sexual assault on Thelma (Geena Davis) as a brutish, contemptuous, would-be rapist.

None of these Bad Guys changes.

What’s interesting about Callie Khouri’s character construction is that she does give us one decent man—Arkansas State Police investigator Hal Slocomb (Harvey Keitel). Hal is the only one among the cohort of law enforcement lummoxes pursuing Thelma and Louise who actually has sympathy for the women’s predicament and wants to help them. Hal even strikes up a bit of a telephonic friendship with Louise (Susan Sarandon) as he seeks to keep the police chase from getting out of control and devolving into a bloodbath.

Does this make Hal a villain-who-changes and thus an exception to my producer boss Joan Stark’s rule?

In the movie’s climax, when Thelma and Louise flee from the cops toward Grand Canyon thin air in their ’66 Thunderbird convertible, it’s Hal who rushes forward on foot into the path of all-out police gunfire to try to stop (and save) the ladies.

Does Hal’s act make him a villain who changes?

Yes.

But our employer Joan Stark comes out right in the end.

 

 If the villain changed, he’d be the hero.

 

Hal becomes by his actions not a villain but the protagonist of the “C” or “D” story—the Police Chase Subplot.

He becomes a hero.

The villain never changes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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15 Comments

  1. Toby LaVigne on January 9, 2019 at 6:17 am

    So interesting…never thought of it that way…but of course….we fear the villain because of its obvious threat…the truly SCARY part is that we KNOW it will not quit until it destroys its target OR the hero “kills” it.

    Resistance is the ultimate villain

  2. David Strom on January 9, 2019 at 6:39 am

    What’s your take on Darth Vader’s change over the course of the first 3 Star Wars films?

    • Ted Kusio on January 9, 2019 at 7:13 am

      In Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader becomes a hero Anakin Skywalker, just as described in the blog. Despite killing and terrorizing all those poor rebels, he still gets a sparkly seat next to Yoda and Obi Wan.

      What’s interesting to me is that he’s again portrayed as “the villain” in the prequel Rogue One. But having already seen him as frail, kind old Anakin, it’s hard to really see the return of the evil, sadistic Space Hitler, even though h’s REALLY mean in the movie.

  3. J. Hicks on January 9, 2019 at 7:03 am

    That is a very interesting and salient point. I can see how it is tempting to want to make the Villain change. With all the focus on the protagonist’s arc and the subplot characters changes, it would be easy to want to make the Villain change or grow. The Villain has to be like the Terminator. Makes me think of the parable of the scorpion and frog. The scorpion can’t help but be a scorpion. Even when it goes against its self-interest.

  4. Jan on January 9, 2019 at 7:20 am

    Can he get worse?

  5. Andy Dent on January 9, 2019 at 7:47 am

    Jan’s question is about a nuance I was thinking – the villain may not change, but the reveal of their villainy may be staged across the story arc? Or there’s room for tension between the hero and side-kick in that one is arguing the villain *has* changed.

    • Claude Knaus on January 9, 2019 at 8:54 am

      Many super-hero origin stories seem to develop the villain over time. The causes seem circumstantial (often an accident), but is there always a immutable core trait that gives rise to the villain?

  6. Mary Doyle on January 9, 2019 at 8:01 am

    Thanks for this important reminder! Sounds like your time in Joan Stark’s office was well spent.

  7. Simon Townley on January 9, 2019 at 8:27 am

    John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, describes an admittedly rare technique which he calls the ‘double reversal’:

    “An advanced technique for showing character change in a story is a unique kind of self-revelation, what I call the “double reversal.” In this technique, you give the opponent, as well as the hero, a self-revelation. Each learns from the other, and the audience receives two insights about how to act and live in the world instead of one.”

    He adds:
    “The double reversal is a powerful technique, but it is not common. That’s because most writers don’t create opponents who are capable of a self-revelation. If your opponent is evil, innately and completely bad, he will not discover how wrong he has been at the end of the story. For example, an opponent who reaches into people’s chests and rips their heart out for dinner is not going to realize he needs to change.Not surprisingly, you see the greatest use of the double reversal in love stories, which are designed so that the hero and the lover (the main opponent) learn from each other. You can see examples of double reversal in films like Kramer vs. Kramer; Adam’s Rib; Pride and Prejudice; Casablanca; Pretty Woman; sex, lies, and videotape; Scent of a Woman; and The Music Man.”

  8. Johnsie Krause on January 9, 2019 at 8:56 am

    The new series I’ve been watching on TV. Dirty John,just when you think he might change ,wow he does something worse.I understand now,

  9. Bruce on January 9, 2019 at 9:23 am

    Actually a Darth Vader change works with “The Villian Never Changes”. For instance just like in the Thelma and Louise story The Society remains the villain while Harvey Kartel switched over , so also Darth Sidious the evil Lord of the story remains the villain, while Darth Vader switches over to the good side

  10. Alex Cespedes on January 9, 2019 at 9:45 am

    THIS!! The biggest insights often come in the smallest phrases, so thank you!

    It totally follows the logic that stories are about change–about the hero needing to change in order to solve a problem (or adapt to a changing world). So if the hero by definition HAS to change to solve the problem, then the villain –being the Yang of the story–by definition CAN’T change. You are a star, Mr Pressfield!

  11. Adam abramowitz on January 9, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    Great friggen stuff. I’d never thought of the villain never changing. In my mind, I felt like you did. If the villain changed, it would be a more dynamic story

  12. Addison Brae on January 9, 2019 at 3:04 pm

    Hi Steven. Cool topic and you oresnted it well. I agree with you but have seen it done more in TV series than books. Breaking Bad has a great example of what might be double reversal that Simon mentioned in a comment . Walter White started as the protagonist everyone loved with Jesse a villain out to do Walter and many others wrong. By the end they had swapped roles completely . Please -Antony who watched the series say so if you disagree.

    Tony Soprano in the HBO series The Sopranos was a villain who changed for the better.

    Your thoughts?

    I hope to try the villain morf in one of my novels someday. It will be hard to do but I’m up for the challenge. Thanks for the motivation.

  13. BarbaraNH on January 9, 2019 at 7:21 pm

    I love, love, love this. Great, over and over again. Thanks, Steve!

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