Tuesday, June 18, 2013

It's Fun Being Evil: A Word on Villains

I didn't post last week because I had the flu. Actually, as I begin writing this, I'm still experiencing the tail-end of this mother-of-all summer colds. It struck out of nowhere. I woke up one morning and sneezed all the way to the kitchen downstairs. Within an hour, I was back in bed. I spent the next few days in sort of a hazy stupor.This flu really caught me off guard, probably because it's been a while since I've been genuinely sick. In retrospect however, I think there were signs that I had been fighting this for a while. 

I think it was partly my own fault. I may have simply overworked and overstressed myself. The month of May was a whirlwind. With the school year winding down there came a seemingly endless run of concerts, open houses, graduations, and so on. At the same time, my part-time real world job suddenly got busy. In the midst of all this, I was working desperately to finish a novel before the kids came home for the summer. I had visiting relatives, parties, and a friend recovering from surgery whose demands on my time seemed to increase exponentially as I had less and less to give. I was also working hard to finish one of my projects (more on that in a later post) and that was where the exhaustion finally caught up with me. I felt worn out and I had a lot of aches and pains. I was having a hard time staying focused. And then, suddenly I was sick, and everything came grinding to a halt. 

Well, I'm feeling better now and I thought this would be a nice way to segue back into writing, especially because it's such a fun subject. I want to look at those cruel, evil antagonists working tirelessly behind the scenes to sabotage our heroes, to to trap them; to destroy them. They may be cardboard caricatures or they may be deeply damaged, multifaceted characters with motivations we can only guess at, but they all have one thing in common: They keep the story moving. 

They're not Evil, They're just Bad... right?

The earliest villains I remember reading about were the simplest. These were the wicked stepmothers of fairy tales, the cruel gods of Greek mythology, and the cunning thieves of Hardy Boys Mysteries. Most of them had simple motivations and they were easy to hate. They had a simple job and they did it well. But darker mysteries were to come. It wasn't long before I discovered fantasy and science fiction. I started reading books by H.G. Wells, Robert Howard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (OK, not fantasy but kind of...) and Tolkien. These new villains were darker, more dangerous, and they weren't motivated by simple greed like a ring of motorcycle thieves in a Hardy Boys book. These villains craved power and domination. They wanted to make themselves like gods. But, despite their twisted motives and cruel means, they were still fairly simple characters. Then came Dracula and Frankenstein, true monsters who played the role of super-villains with incredible strength and power, and who were driven by primal urges beyond their control or understanding.

The first real epiphany I had about creating villains came from a movie. I still remember sitting in a theater and watching Tommy Lee Jones play against Steven Seagal in the film "Under Siege." (I know, I'm dating myself.) Tommy Lee Jones plays an antagonist with a grudge against the Navy, and Seagal is an ex Navy SEAL caught in the crossfire. The premise of the story is basically "Die Hard" at sea. But as the story unfolds (spoiler alert) we learn that Tommy Lee Jones' character William Strannix isn't just a mindless terrorist: he has a past. Once, he was a special operative working with the CIA. When a mission went sour, the CIA disavowed Strannix and tried to have him assassinated. Strannix responded by becoming an illegal arms dealer. His final mission of taking over a Navy ship and stealing its nuclear warheads is meant to be his greatest achievement, his ultimate revenge against the government that betrayed and tried to murder him.

Ironically, Seagal plays the antagonist as a classic anti-hero, a long-beloved archetype here in the U.S. He's dismissive and even openly hostile towards authority figures. He behaves as if none of the rules apply to him. In fact, in the eyes of some people around him, Ryback isn't a good guy but a villain. I don't have the film here so I can only paraphrase the scene as memory allows, but at one point in the film, Ryback (Seagal) has a conversation with Strannix where they both acknowledge that they're really not that different. They've both been misused and mistreated, and have had their careers destroyed by the same corrupt system. Ryback's argument that he's a better man because he continues to follow the rules seems to ring hollow, and the entire scene does an excellent job of displaying the almost intangible differences between these two men. We actually wonder how close the hero has come to being the villain, and if there's really any difference between them at all. For an old action flick, that's pretty deep.

Bad Guys become Good and Good Guys go Bad:

I don't know if that movie started it, but the sympathetic villain became so popular afterwards that it's now basically a trope. For a while there, you couldn't turn around without tripping over a sympathetic villain in an action film. I suppose it was the natural evolution of this that brought us into the new millennium with sociopaths taking up the role as heroes. I've never watched the show "Dexter" but I've been told it revolves around the premise of a serial killer who works for the police and only kills bad guys. They bill the character as a sociopath but that's pretty far from the technical definition of a sociopath. It's a gimmick, and from what I've seen and heard, it plays well with modern audiences. This is a full evolution of the anti-hero into a villain, but still managing to play the role of a hero.

Another portrayal of a sociopath-protagonist is the character of Patrick Jane in the TV series "The Mentalist." Jane's background is that he was a stage psychic, a man gifted with the ability to read subtle signs (kind of like Sherlock Holmes) and who used that gift to shamelessly bilk unsuspecting followers out of millions of dollars. At one point, Jane taunts a serial killer who then slays his wife and child, and that's how he ends up working with the cops. Throughout the series, Jane gives us glimpses of a sense of honor and nobility that makes us wonder if he's really a sociopath or if he's just playing a role, but the rest of the time the character is practically a walking definition of the word. He shows no empathy or sympathy for others. He continues to shamelessly manipulate people for his own ends, disregarding their feelings or well-being. He seems to view his fellow human beings as tools and nothing more.

But the writers use that tiny spark of goodness as a tease to keep us watching to find out what happens to Jane and his team. They have to. Without that spark, Jane would be a pure sociopath and nobody would like him or care about what happens to him. Which ironically, is one of the ways sociopaths manipulate us in real life, because we want to believe that they're just misunderstood, even though they're not. One difficulty with this series is that with the protagonist so clearly defined as a sociopath, the writers had to figure out how to define the villain. They ultimately made him into a "criminal mastermind" archetype, but remained vague about his history or motives.

Maybe we're all just Bad Guys, deep down inside:

This brings us to my last example. At the top of the heap for bad guys and bad-good guys is the Netflix original series "House of Cards."  This series is filled with sociopaths. It takes place -where else?- in Washington, D.C. Our protagonist, Frank Underwood (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey) is a senator who will do anything to get what he wants, including destroying lives, careers, and even committing murder. He openly tells people he plans to use them and that when he's done using them, he will throw them away. And he does. Spacey's acting is riveting, and there's no shortage of talent anywhere in the series. Production and writing are top notch from the opening scene all the way to the end of the first (and only at this point) season.

But there's not a lick of goodness in most of these characters. They really are bad guys, even if we don't want them to be. We seem now to have reached an apex where one can no longer tell who is the hero and who is the villain. I'll leave you with a few more ideas for modern villain archetypes, and this link to a long list of villain tropes:

  • The Betrayer
  • The Manipulator
  • The Double-Agent
  • The Tyrant
  • The Assassin
  • The Godfather
  • The CEO
  • The Corrupt Politician
  • The Abused Child turned Serial Killer
  • The Criminal Mastermind
  • The Psychopath

It can be fun and educational to study other writers' villains and anti-heroes, but the real fun comes when we begin creating our own. If anything, lists like those above give us starting points so that we can make a villain who is new and different from any other. Why crank out another re-tread when we can take our characters to places new and exciting? And with all the attention we give to our heroes, don't the villains deserve that much? We've seen villains turn into heroes and heroes who are truly evil. Where else can these archetypes go?