To the Villain, It’s a Zero-Sum Game
The definition of a zero-sum game is if one side wins, the other side loses.
Whatever proportion of goodies Player A takes, by that exact amount is Player B’s stake diminished.
In a zero-sum equation, if I take a slice of the pie, there’s that much less for you.
This is the how the Villain in our stories sees the world.
In Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the executives at a major investment bank realize, over one long dramatic night, that their trading model is fatally flawed. The instant “the Street” gets word of this, the firm will implode—unless these same execs can somehow offload the contaminated securities before potential buyers realize they’re worthless.
Oh, I almost forgot. This act, should the dastards pull it off, will produce the most catastrophic market crash since 1929.
Paul Bettany plays “Will Emerson,” one of the firm’s senior officers. He is asked by a pair of younger execs, played by Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley, if such a stunt is even technically possible.
You can’t … it’s impossible. But they’ll figure out a way. I’ve been at this place for ten years and I’ve seen some things that you wouldn’t believe. When all is said and done, they don’t lose money. They don’t care if everyone else does, but they won’t.
That’s zero-sum thinking.
If the creek runs dry in Shane, either the villainous cattleman or the vulnerable homesteaders lose. No other outcome is possible.
In The Revenant, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio versus Tom Hardy. In One-Eyed Jacks, it’s Karl Malden against Marlon Brando. Only one can win. Every James Bond film, every sci-fi monster pic, every comic book and superhero saga is zero-sum, at least in the eyes of the villain.
In Margin Call, Kevin Spacey plays sales manager Sam Rogers, one of the few characters possessed of a glimmer of conscience. In a critical four-in-the-morning meeting, he confronts the firm’s CEO John Tuld, played by Jeremy Irons.
The real question is: Who are we selling this to?
The same people we’ve been selling it to for the last two years, and whoever else would buy it.
But John, if you do this, you will kill the market for years. It’s over. And you’re selling something that you know has no value.
We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price. So that WE MAY SURVIVE!
The Villain believes in a world of scarcity. His point of view is predicated upon the notion that if he is to survive and even prosper, he must take from you and me. No other equation exists for him. He cannot conceive of any other world.
Here’s gangster Johnny Rocco (a brilliant Edward G. Robinson) to ex-Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) in John Huston and Richard Brooks’ Key Largo.
I’ll tell you what he [Rocco] wants.
Go ahead, soldier. You tell ’em.
He wants more.
That’s it, soldier! More! I want more!
Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men understands that point of view exactly. Here he is on the witness stand facing off against Navy prosecutor Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise.
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? … 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!
Is life really zero-sum? Is this truly the way the world works?
The hero doesn’t think so.
The protagonist in most (but not all, be it said) novels and movies is the character who is capable of a non-zero-sum answer.
We’ll examine this in greater detail over the next few weeks.
It seems the key idea is “the Villain believes in a world of scarcity.” There’s only so much land or water or gold (Shane’s Wyoming, or most wars you can name, large or small). There’s only so much love to go around (our limited egos think), and what arises from that mindset but the vice of jealousy? Even on the smallest of scales, at a level that doesn’t approach evil, but is still far from virtue: envy. The neighbor has a nicer car. My coworker got the promotion meant for me. That kid got a bigger scoop of ice cream.
Isn’t it true that stories engage us so much NOT just because they’re entertaining us, but because they’re a vehicle to help us understand ourselves? If we can shed ego enough to see through the illusions.
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Yes, it is true that stories can engage us not just for entertainment but also for self-reflection and understanding. They can help us to see through the illusions of our ego and the scarcity mindset, which can lead to negative emotions like jealousy and envy. Through stories, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, our motivations, and our actions, and potentially make positive changes in our own lives.
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I really needed this reminder. Sometimes I get tempted to put just a little heart into my villain, and I have to slap my own hand away. Thanks for this post!
You might still be right, Mary. Tony Soprano had a heart – of sorts 🙂 He wanted the value of winning in a zero sum gain not just for himself and his ego but as a legacy for his family.
Thanks for the post. Your insights always come at the right time. I was having a hard time getting into my villain’s head and this is a great place to start.
That COLONEL JESSUP quote made me want to re-watch A Few Good Men.
Agreed. Such a great flick, and that last monologue is awesome.
The viewer as well as the reader must be given enough to anticipate an outcome, to start predicting what comes next.
Heroes and Villians are painted in political campaigns. It’s zero sum on steriods. Today it seems to be win at all cost just win.
One could argue its the ultimate zero sum game with massive consequences for the citizens.
This post could not have been more timely for me…it is *perfect*; exactly what I needed. All I can say is thank you so much, Steve–I am most grateful.
You can get to the point faster with a zero-sum villain, but life’s rarely that black and white. When you encounter a villain who has streaks of decency, it may mean more work for the writer, but think of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and know it’s possible.
I agree with this fully. I truly believe that the zero-sum game is absolutely the villain’s mindset. I have been thinking about the artist’s viewpoint of moving forward in abundance instead of this romanticized idea of starvation and loneliness and I wonder at times if this perception is villainy on it’s own. As if the external world is taking and taking from the artist and the artist is fine with that. I truly think that this perception takes away from the artist’s creativity and I hope that with blogs like this one (movies and other arts), we can move away from this scarcity mindset and create from full creative throttle. Thank you for this post. Very Inspiring.
I always feel compassion with my villain and somehow s/he turns out to be too good to actually be a villain. I then rewrite the piece or make the character stand out in the list of alter-egos of the main hero.
Villains want to win a Zero-Sum Game against the protagonist to get something for their Endgame (which is a Positive-Sum Game for the villain, or imagined to be). In Margin Call, the villains want to screw their buyers so they have the capital so that their Endgame (the firm) continues. To win that Zero-Sum Game, the villain wants a Positive-Sum alliance, sometimes by trying to suborn the protagonist.
It’s the same pattern in strategy (from the spy’s view). A Positive-Sum alliance to win a Zero-Sum Game of war to get the resources, people or places where the Positive-Sum Endgame can exist. There’s a graphic that shows it connected to the Hero’s Journey here: https://www.spysguide.com/single-post/2017/08/17/The-Heros-Journey-Is-A-Strategy
Is the structure of good stories the structure of good strategies?
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