Long overdue, I know. I could make excuses but... well, the honest truth is I just took a few weeks off to recharge the batteries a bit. I watched some movies. Built some LEGO sets and a few little toy soldiers. There may have been some drinking, too.
Yeah, selfish of me. I’m not a nice guy.
As some of you know, a few years back I was hired by Amazon Studios to do a movie treatment for a very loose idea they had about robot soldiers (nothing ever happened with it). I even went in and chatted with some folks at the production company they’d farmed the movie out to. As we talked about stories and motivations, one of the producers told me about a great sign she’d seen outside the door for one of the development heads at Warner Brothers.
WHAT’S THE BAD GUY’S STORY?
Let me follow that up with another story before I explain. You may be aware of a CW show called Arrow which chronicles the adventures of the Green Arrow and a number of related DC heroes and villains. Well, a while back one of the characters they started hinting at for season three was Ra’s al Ghul, the leader of the League of Assassins. And one actor name that briefly floated around was Liam Neeson, who’d played Ra’s in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Much to everyone’s surprise, when MTV asked him about it on a press tour, Neeson said he’d take the part again in an instant if they offered it to him (they did not).
He also offered some advice about why Ra’s was an interesting character and how an actor should play him. “They have to believe in their philosophy,” Neeson explained. “Ra’s al Ghul absolutely believed what he was doing was ultimately saving civilization, and it was quite a good argument he comes up with. Throughout the ages this fraternity, that brought the plague to wipe out a section of mankind because it needed to be regenerated again. Very dangerous, but you have to believe it.”
See where we’re going here?
Pretty much every story has an antagonist of some kind. A flat-out villain, maybe a misguided but well-meaning opponent, perhaps a few mindless pawns of the system, but somebody. It’s the rare story that has no antagonist of any sort.
As both of those stories above explain, the antagonist has to have their own reasons and motivations for what they’re doing. That producer had gotten tired of villains who twirled their mustaches for no reason, or for extremely weak reasons. If one of my characters is going to shut down the prom, rob a casino, or blow up the United Nations, they’d better have a real reason for doing it.
A lot of stories fall apart because they don’t have a good villain. All too often, writers just think their antagonist just needs to do bad things and—done! Why are they doing it? Well, they’re the bad guy. Bad guys do bad things, right?
And, please, for the love of Tzeentch, do not say “because they’re insane.” That’s the cop-out answer. If I say my villain’s motivation is “they’re insane” I’m aiming about three inches below the dirt-simplest, first-choice answer.
Why do I need a well thought-out villain?
Well, my villain’s arguably the second most important character in my story (after my hero). He or she is why the story is happening. After all, if they weren’t posing some sort of challenge to my hero... well, heck, why even put pants on today? Why do anything? My hero might as well spend the day in underwear and a t-shirt, drinking and getting caught up with Star Wars: Rebels or Animaniacs.
The problem, of course, is that it’s tough to logically explain why someone would decide to be the villain, right? Aside from vampires or demons or some kind of inherently evil thing... why choose to be the bad guy? Why would anyone decide to be a Nazi? I mean, how could anyone do that?
As it happens, that Nazi reference did set something up for me (go Godwin!). A great way to explain this is with Magneto, the X-Men’s recurring nemesis. If you aren’t a big X-Men fan, Professor X and Magneto used to be allies. They were friends who shared the same beliefs and goals. But at some point, Magneto decided he needed to follow a different, more extreme path. He became the villain of the series, and the arch-enemy of the X-Men.
So....why did Magneto decide to become a villain?
That’s the interesting point and what this is really all about. He didn’t. Magneto decided everyone else was doing things wrong and that—much like Ra’s Al Ghul up above—he was going to start doing them right. In his mind, Magneto is the hero of the series while his old friend and the X-Men are a bunch of well-meaning idiots who, alas, keep getting in the way of his bigger-picture goals.
Y’see, Timmy, for every character, the story is about them. In the same way I’m the main character in my life story and you’re the main character in yours, the villain believes the story is all about them. Try to think of the most reprehensible character you can, then put yourself in their shoes. They all believe they’re in the right. Yes, even if it’s a drug lord or a DVD pirate or a mutant master of magnetism.
Part of my job as a writer is to get inside their head and figure out how someone could rationalize things like this. What makes someone think being a bully or a hit man or a far-right fascist Nazi is a good decision? What’s their motivation? How do they continue to justify it as time goes on, and how do the people around them justify it?
We’ve talked about something like this before—triangles. In a romantic triangle, all too often one of the two choices is made absurdly ridiculous. We’ve all probably made a bad choice in partners at some point in our lives, but not one that bordered on being a flat-out evil dictator or sociopath.
When someone’s significant other shows signs of being cruel, a bully, manipulative, dishonest... that’s usually when we end up asking “why the hell are these two people together?” These triangles fail because that first choice isn’t a person, they’re just a caricature. We don’t see why someone would act like that, let alone why someone else would choose to be with them.
And let me toss out one last bit of advice. I heard years ago—and you may have heard it, too—that the three most common motives for murder are love, money, and revenge. If I’m going to pick one of these as my villain’s motivation... man, it better be spectacular. The greatest love story ever committed to paper (without being even slightly cheesy). A sum of money beyond imagining (but, of course, not so huge it would destroy the world economy). The most elaborate revenge-worthy crime ever (yet not taken to such an extreme that my antagonist becomes a joke). If I’m going to have someone wear the bear suit... I have to earn it.
A great villain deserves no less.
Next time, I want to talk about big ideas. And ides that may not be as big as they seem at first glance.
Oh, on another note, if you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, this Sunday is another Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. It's open to writers of all levels, it's completely free, and it's at least as adequate as this blog. This month we're going to be talking about editing, drafts, and some social media stuff. Stop by and check it out.
Until then... go write.