The Villain Doesn’t Change, Part Two

It’s unfortunate that the term “McGuffin”—meaning that thing that the Villain wants—sounds so dopey.

Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in Ron Shelton’s “Bull Durham”

Unfortunate because there’s a lot of meat to this idea.

I suspect Alfred Hitchcock, the person we associate most with the term McGuffin, wanted the name to sound silly. In his mind it didn’t matter what the McGuffin was—the nuclear codes, the letters of transit, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. All that mattered for him was that the villain wanted it.

But the idea that the villain wants something—that he or she has an object of desire—is a topic worth examining in greater detail.

We’ve said in previous posts that

The villain never changes.

And further that

If the villain were capable of change, he’d be the hero.

Another way of putting this is that

The McGuffin never changes.

The villain wants the same thing at the end of the story as he or she did at the start.

King Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus.

Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) in Blade Runner 2049 wanted to kill the baby replicant.

Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) in Jurassic World wanted to weaponize the baby velociraptors.

We’ll never know of course, but it’s a pretty good bet that King Herod was not capable of waking up in the middle of the night and declaring, “Gee, this is a bad idea, killing all the innocents in Judea. Let me summon my generals and rescind that order.”

The villain never changes because what he/she wants never changes.

On the other hand, let’s consider the hero.

The hero does change

And

The hero is capable of wanting something different at the end of the story than he or she did at the start.

In fact you could make a strong case that the hero MUST change her or his want … that, in fact, that’s what makes her or him a hero.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs goes from wanting to be a good little FBI agent to wanting to come into her own as an independent individual.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) in Far from Heaven goes from wanting to be a good wife and proper suburbanite to wanting to find out who she really is and what her real best life ought to be.

Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) in Bull Durham goes from wanting to keep playing ball as long as he can (and being a cool single dude) to wanting to make it to the majors as a manager (and bring Annie Savoy [Susan Sarandon] along.)

In other words, it isn’t just that

The villain does not change

while

The hero does change.

It’s that what the Villain wants doesn’t change, while what the hero wants does.

 

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17 Comments

  1. Vanya Erickson on July 31, 2019 at 8:11 am

    Thank you for this. Totally made my morning. It’s lovely when my instincts are spot on, having just realized my protagonist’s wants have changed.

  2. Hiram on July 31, 2019 at 8:34 am

    So what we want can change day by day and its normal.
    Follow your instincts is the way to go and don’t let the fear of the villains hold you. Thank you Pressfield!

  3. Mia Sherwood Landau on July 31, 2019 at 8:36 am

    Oh, oh, oh how I love this. so refined and brilliant. Just heard Shawn Coyne in a recent interview and he was describing the dynamics of this, but didn’t say THE sentence, “It’s that what the Villain wants doesn’t change, while what the hero wants does.” Somebody else might call it personal growth, but your sentence nails sharp-pointed reality. If what we want doesn’t change, we will never change. Period. We just rot as we are. Just love this, Steven.

  4. John Braddock on July 31, 2019 at 9:04 am

    Interesting that your insights on the villain’s wants not changing aligns with an Alinsky technique to turn the other side into a villain: “”Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

    In the spy movie Ronin, there’s a classic McGuffin (briefcase), with Robert De Niro’s character chasing it. You’re not sure who the villain is right away, but as the villain is revealed, it’s clear he’ll sacrifice anyone/anything to get it. De Niro’s character changes and chooses something greater. It’s a great movie, and the CIA’s Head of Recruitment recommended it to me: https://medium.com/@spysguide/a-spys-guide-to-spy-movies-ronin-500ccea44a69

    • "Smoke" Stoker on July 31, 2019 at 10:23 am

      Umm… John? That little bit of intel on the movie was just supposed to be between you and me, buddy. My Netflix queue is a matter of national security. Now I have to change my passwords again.

      Ernesto “Smoke” Stoker
      CIA Directorate of Recruiting, Retention, and Retribution
      Head (ret’d)

  5. Bane on July 31, 2019 at 10:55 am

    The Muse has recently kicked my ass into an ALL IS LOST MOMENT. Inciting incident/all is lost moment/epiphany. Text book. And in the dust that is my life this post could not have come at a better time. Thank you.

  6. Allderdice on July 31, 2019 at 11:33 am

    Dick Cheney would make a good villain. Here’s a description of him on 9/11 “whipping his neck around” to say “Of course the order (to stand down a hit on the flight headed for the Pentagon) still stands!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlM8Sui6-X0

  7. Paul Garrett on July 31, 2019 at 7:49 pm

    Intetesting. Darth Vader came immediately o mind. How does his last minute repentance figure into this?

    • Joe Jansen on August 1, 2019 at 5:04 am

      I’ve always thought of it as Vader and Anakin being two separate entities. Vader, machine-like, remained unrepentant and a servant of the dark side, and might be viewed as having taken Anakin hostage.

      Anakin the man, the source of Vader’s ostensible and occasional ambivalence, was able to reawaken and reclaim his humanity in those final moments. If we view them as two separate beings, we don’t have to break the credo of “the villain never changes.”I don’t know if that was George Lucas’s intent, but it’s one way to read it.

      • Steven Pressfield on August 1, 2019 at 8:31 am

        Right on, Joe!

        • Joe on August 7, 2019 at 4:14 am

          This reminds me of the time Tony Bourdain said my soup had just the right amount of salt.

  8. Beverly Cashman on August 2, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    I was searching for books but it’s not available easily can you please guide me to get it?

  9. Kim on August 2, 2019 at 9:20 pm

    Awesome. I totally hear you! 🙂

  10. Vicki Madden on August 6, 2019 at 2:24 am

    Such a helpful post. It makes me realize that even in a family history investigation — why did my grandfather have my 18-year-old grandmother sterilized without her knowledge? — identifying the villain/McGuffin makes structure more clear. At a moment of self-doubt, this has given me fuel for the process. Thank you.

  11. Robert Farrell on August 15, 2019 at 7:00 pm

    What about the Big Lebowski? He wanted nothing, was dragged into bizarre circumstances and then, when the case was solved, went back to being the same person.

    • Travis Fields on August 21, 2019 at 12:38 pm

      Robert, I don’t really think The Dude in The Big Lebowski changes either, and I love that movie.
      You could probably call that a “Fool Triumphant” type of a story.
      Or perhaps a parody of Film Noir.
      Or maybe both.

      The Big Lebowsky starts off with the tumbleweed aimlessly going wherever the wind blows, and I think Sam Elliott does a Voice Over in that scene as he describes The Dude, appearing to be about as motivated as a tumbleweed. Clearly he’s lazy and lacking direction. And given how many times he’s made the butt of jokes, it would be easy to see The Dude as just a bumbling fool, blown about by fate, but The Dude is also cool in his own way: he knows who he is and isn’t especially impressed by anyone else’s money or status.

      Although Walter is excessively active in the sense that he’s much quicker to go to confrontation and threaten violence and even get violent, The Dude (reluctantly) becomes an active character and is definitely the protagonist of the story. In the end, Sam Elliott’s Cowboy character, who “likes his style”, kind of confers respectability on The Dude and leaves us feeling like we kind of *need* him “taking it easy fer all of us”.

      One could even say the Cowboy has kind of knighted The Dude and given him what he really lacked:

      Respectability.

      As a fellow Icon of the West…

  12. Travis Fields on August 21, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    I agree with all of this, but I can think of a couple of exceptions to the general rule of “the Hero changes”:

    Superman and James Bond.

    Superman changes from a boy to an adult, of course, but once he’s become Superman he doesn’t really change.
    Superman is so powerful he can change the world around him, rather than needing to change himself.

    As for James Bond…well he’s not a super-hero in the traditional sense, but he might as well be, because he has so many extraordinary skills. He’s extremely intelligent, charming, and adept in combat, tactics, and strategy. I’m not so sure why Bond doesn’t change: perhaps it’s because he’s already the man he needs to be to complete the mission.

    I only know I don’t want him to change. But I fear he’ll be forced to soon, to appease critics of his womanizing, hard-drinking, loose cannon ways. If (perhaps I should say when) Bond does change, will the character be better for it?

    I doubt it, but perhaps I’ll be proven wrong.

    Scorcese has made a number of great movies where the hero doesn’t necessarily change for the better — or change for the worse. I call those movies Tragedies and those heroes Tragic Heroes.

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