Sunday, January 18, 2009

Villains, part 2: The Forces of Antagonism

Sorry, no posts for a week – lots of STUFF going on!

Okay, so I wanted to talk more about villains.


Last week I was trying to get you all to think specifically about the villains that have had a lasting impact on you, and list those characters so you can start to see the patterns and themes there. Gayle’s list of very female sociopaths was an exciting revelation, I think. When you’re able to identify these things in your work, and the work you aspire to do, it’s defining a personal theme that can become your brand as an author, and a major selling point for your books – not to mention that when you’re writing about something that really pushes your buttons (for whatever reason) your stories tend to come alive.

Villains have a lot to do with theme. In fact you could say that they are an entire half of a story’s theme. Again, I don’t want to disrupt anyone’s magical unconscious process of creating character, but I don’t think it hurts your process to think in meta-terms.

A story is very often a thematic argument between a hero/ine and an antagonist. (Remember Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis?). On a basic level, the hero/ine represents one vision of how to live, and the antagonist another. Very often the antagonist also presents a dark vision of what the hero/ine could become, or is on his way to becoming, and it’s through battle with the antagonist that the hero/ine is able to change.

(This might not be the kind of story you’re writing! That’s fine. That’s why I keep hammering the idea that you need to do your own analyses of films and books that you yourself respond to and see what’s really going on in the stories that particularly work for YOU.)

The original STAR WARS trilogy was certainly about a hero who was in grave danger of becoming his opponent – who has to overcome the opponent in himself.

But in THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy doesn’t have the slightest danger of becoming the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy is good, through and through. The meta question in that battle between the two is – can innocent good triumph over such an established, powerful, magical evil? It doesn’t seem possible at all, when you think of it (Dorothy even refers to herself as “Dorothy, the small and meek”). And yet this is one of the continual triumphs of human life – that good does triumph over evil, time and time again.

In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, it’s another head-on battle between inexperienced good and mythic evil. The theme that comes out of that book and film is ambivalent: yes, Clarice is able to kill Mr. Gumb and save Catherine – she wins that battle – but in the process a much greater evil is unleashed back into the world, as Lecter goes out to do his evil business. Myself, I particularly like this kind of ambivalent victory because I think it’s so true to life, and deliciously metaphorical at the same time.

There are other types of thematic battles that go on in stories – you’ve heard of all of these before: Man against Nature (JAWS, THE BIRDS), Man against Machine (THE TERMINATOR), Man against Monster (ALIEN), Man against The System (NETWORK, THE VERDICT), and if you see a lot of stories with one of those themes on your lists, you will probably want to take a look at the classics that have explored those themes.


In a lot of stories, too, the battle is going on on several different levels. There will be a particular antagonist that the hero/ine is fighting, but the real opponent is bigger. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Clarice is not just fighting Mr. Gumb – she’s fighting evil in a larger sense. In IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE George Bailey is not just fighting Mr. Potter but a whole way of life that is anti-community, that destroys community and individuality.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books are particularly good about portraying multiple levels of antagonism. L.A.P.D. detective Bosch may be pursuing a certain suspect, but there are always larger forces at work that create not just the particular crime that sets the case in motion but often a whole ripple of accompanying casualties. These forces can be a family dynamic in which everyone is to some extent guilty, the sins of the police department itself, racism, sometimes all of the above. And if that weren’t enough, Harry often is engaged in a painful internal struggle over whether with all his best efforts, he might be doing more harm than good. That is a LOT of conflict, there, and it says a lot about why the series is so beloved and enduring.

You can see a different example of forces of antagonism in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Indy is facing multiple antagonists, there: Belloq, Major Toht, Colonel Dietrich, as individual opponents, plus the Nazi army in general, and Hitler by implication. There’s also possibly the supernatural power of the Ark. So again, though less subtle as the forces of antagonism in the Connelly books, there is opposition that is not just one or a few individuals, but a larger force.

John Truby, in his story structure workshops and his excellent book: THE ANATOMY OF STORY, talks about creating a four-point opposition, and the Belloq/Toht/Dietrich/Hitler combination is a good example of how that works.


You will hear very often about how important it is to create a realistic psychology of a villain. I don’t disagree – nothing makes me toss a book faster than seeing a serial killer who is cleverly characterized with an artistic or poetic bent. Doesn’t happen in real life. Of course, a killer like Buffalo Bill doesn’t happen in real life, either, and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – in case you haven’t noticed – is one of my all time favorite books. So why does that book work for me when so many others just make me groan and throw things?

This is my theory, at least for the villains I love. The psychology is not as important as the theme. I don’t care how realistic a killer is as long as s/he makes metaphorical sense.

Thomas Harris’s Francis Dolarhyde, from RED DRAGON, is a masterpiece of archetypal imagery. There’s a lot of very well-researched police and criminal procedure in that book, but what really gets me about that character is how Harris has created a monster, both more and less than human, by blending the factual with the archetypal. Baby Francis is born with a cleft palate and is described as looking like a baby bat. He has a fetish for biting (true of many serial killers, but used very specifically here). He kills on a moon cycle (true of many serial killers as well), also bringing to mind supernatural monsters like the werewolf. He uses his Grandmother’s fake teeth (vampire). And he thinks he is turning into a dragon. He is also a large man and very pale. Not entirely realistic, these things, but they work for me because of the metaphor.

But too much detail can work against you. I mean, did you really want to know that Lecter was born an aristocrat and got turned into a cannibalistic killer because he saw his little sister eaten by German soldiers? TMI. Ruined the character. I just pretend to forget it.


I think it’s essential to be conscious not just of the detailed psychology, but the ESSENCE of the villain you’re creating. Take a page from the Lecter that I love, in SILENCE:

“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it, in itself, what is its nature...? ”

In THE PRICE, I knew I had to create a villain who knows that every human being has a price, and exactly what that price is. That essence of Salk drove the book.

In THE UNSEEN I had the challenge of creating a poltergeist – when no one has ever been able to definitively explain what a poltergeist is –the projected repressed emotions of an adolescent, a ghost, an extra-dimensional entity, a fraud. The solution that grew out of that conundrum was that a poltergeist is MANY things, and I was able to detail a confluence of events and people who brought the power of the poltergeist out in full force – in many subtle and unsubtle layers of attack.


Defining the nature of the antagonist will often help you define your other characters.

Going back to the dark mirror aspect of the antagonist and protagonist - when you’re aware of it, it can really help you to create a symbiotic and thematic relationship between the hero/ine and the antagonist. The antagonist can actually help you detail and deepen your hero/ine. In THE HARROWING, when I had hit upon a villain whose essence was anti-life, I made my heroine suicidal in the beginning. The villain is able to prey on her because her own life force is weak in the beginning – and it makes her character arc bigger to go from a broken soul who is ready to throw her life away, to a strong young woman who fights for her own life and those of her friends. Also, Robin and the antagonist are both isolated, discarded, broken, killingly envious and angry, just to name a few parallels. And the antagonist is able to play on her weaknesses because he understands them so intimately.

In THE PRICE I also wanted a very intimate relationship between my hero and the villain. My whole theory of the devil is that he has the enormous power he does because he understands people’s individual souls. So he knows your most secret desire and your most shameful weakness. That give him power, but also accounts for his seductiveness – no one will ever know you like the devil can. That omniscient nature of my villain made me have to understand the essence of each of the other characters in the story.

Another example – as I’ve said about JAWS, Sheriff Brody is designed as a man who is about the least likely person to face off with this shark: a city cop, newcomer to the island, born and raised in Manhattan, and afraid of the water. All the odds are stacked against him. Now, this works on that “everyone loves the underdog” level, but I would also suggest that the nature of the shark dictated the character of Sheriff Brody… there is a conscious design going on there. So be aware of the essential nature of your villain and it may help you detail your hero/ine – and other characters as well.

I can easily go on about all this for another post at least, but let me just end with two things. A villain is often essentially a shapeshifter, who plays multiple roles in a story: lover, mentor, ally. I strongly encourage everyone to read Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, based on Joseph Campbell’s much more intricate THE HERO’S JOURNEY. Vogler does a great job of defining the different story roles of various characters in classic mythic structure.

And Allison Brennan has a great post on villains here, which among many other essential points suggests that you be just as aware of the villain’s journey as the hero’s. A favorite story question of author/producer Stephen Cannell is “What’s the bad guy up to?” - and I agree with both Allison and Mr. Cannell. If you don’t know that at each point of your story, you’re probably not doing the story justice.

As with every character, it is vital to identify what your villain WANTS. That desire drives half of the story.

So, any examples of multiple forces of antagonism for me, or non-human antagonists?

Do you prefer your villains psychologically detailed or more mythic?

- Alex


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Bobby Mangahas said...

One movie (albeit not that great) that comes to mind is WHITE NOISE, starring Michael Keaton.

The basic premise was that Keaton played a grieving widower who is introduced to EVP (aka Electronic voice phenomenon), a way for the dead to communicate via images and voice through electronics such as VCR's tape recorders, etc. Of course he is warned by his wife about the evil that lie on the other side and that could possibly cross over into the world of the living (insert dramatic music). Not too mention, he also learns about disappearances and murders that happened in his area.

So here, the hero is dealing both with inner turmoil
(the loss of his wife) and the dangers of other worldly beings.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I actually thought that was a pretty good low budget horror.

Yes, inner turmoil is almost always one of the conflicts the hero/ine is going through. I debated putting that into this post and now I think I should just have done it instead of saving it for my posts on the protagonist!

In short, we are always our own worst enemy, right?

Gayle Carline said...

I'm thinking of three stories today with completely different hero/villain dynamics:

1. Dangerous Liaisons - Glenn Close's Marquise is deliciously pathological in her destructiveness, and I love watching the evil Valmont being tempted by Good, finally drawn into the light.

2. The Count of Monte Cristo - sure, Edmund's "friends" are the physical villains, but they are motivated by greed and envy. When Edmund comes back to exact his revenge, we want to see these characters pay for their crimes, but isn't Edmund guilty of his own greed for vengeance, and envy of his tormenters' lives?

3. Les Miserables - best juxtaposition of antagonistic forces I've ever read. Jean Valjean is Everyman, doing what he has to do without much thought of morality. He is destroyed and rebuilt as a man saved by grace. Inspector Javert has always taken the High Road. Altho he obeys Christian ideals, he has never felt the need for God's mercy and cannot give mercy to others. Balancing these two men is Thenardier, an immoral, Godless opportunist. Yes, the book is ponderous (2 chapters describing Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo just to introduce Thenardier & Marius' dad), but the dance between these three is worth the effort. At least, for me.

I'm guessing, from the way these stories are on my mind, I like my villains on the mythic side.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wow, those are definitely big, classic characters and character dynamics, Gayle. It's interesting that you describe them almost as moral traits (even some of the Seven Deadly Sins!) rather than psychological profiles.

That definitely makes for lasting stories.

Gayle Carline said...

See what you make me think about, Alex? My next adventure with Peri is supposed to be all about a rich, OC housewife who is an assassin on the side, but now I'm thinking about mythic villains and moral antagonists. ;-)

Seriously, I think my description of moral traits has to do with my age and upbringing. Although I find psychology fascinating, and understand the effect of upbringing on a psyche, I was raised before people cared whether serial killers were beaten as children (you know, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth). "In de old days", there was right and wrong: you knew which was which, and even if you wanted to (and often did) choose wrong, you knew you should've chosen right.

Anonymous said...

LOL, Gayle!

Look, I'm certainly not saying that you have to be mythic with everything you do, or aim to write a classic with every book! I think constantly doing depth analysis of stories - and having fun with it - is like doing scales on the piano or barre exercises in dance. You do it so that the technique and strength and flexibility is ALWAYS there when you set out to do your own creative work.

Also, don't get me wrong - psychological details are hugely important in creating character. But so are myths and moral concepts.

Unknown said...

...lots to think about, and I appreciate the way you linked back to old posts. I can't wait for your protagonist post.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Jodi - yes, I'm trying to make sure I'm putting the right links in.

Hmm, the protagonist post. Not that I've been AVOIDING it or anything...

Stephen D. Rogers said...

A movie that "recently" spoke to me was
I AM LEGEND. The leader of the Darkseekers
doesn't really work as a villain, nor does
the mass of darkseekers themselves. As in
THE OMEGA MAN, these antagonists actually
help the protagonist by providing a
structure to his life.

ADAPTATION, another favorite, again doesn't
really have a villain.

I'm not really sure I'd classify the shark
in JAWS as a villain. It's just the wall
against which the hero is thrown until he
breaks through.

Which brings me to my realization that my
favorite stories are those where the
protagonist doesn't so much fight villains
as ghosts, spinning and slashing at shadows.

The villainous shadows? I AM LEGEND and
THE OMEGA MAN = the desire of the scientist
(ahem, writer) for uninterrupted room to
practice their art. ADAPTATION = the
desire to be successful versus the desire
to be true to some higher calling. JAWS =
the desire to escape the weight of one's
past (your description of Sheriff's Brody
is all about what he was).

My current WIP is more mystery than thriller,
so the bad guy doesn't come to the foreground
until very late in the book, but then it's
not really about him. It's about the
protagonist's warring desires to both withdraw
from the world and tunnel inside it. (The
image system you MADE me develop is centered
around holes.)

So, to answer your question (ha!), I guess
I'll go with mythic. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, ADAPTATION most certainly has a villain - the brother. Every screenwriter recognizes that particular villain: the dolt who has this idea that anyone can write and dashes off a screenplay of ultimate stupidity in a weekend and makes a huge sale with an instant greenlight and instant A-list career.

Prime example of the banality of evil!

That villain is carefully designed to be everything the protagonist in ADAPTATION despises - and the ultimate insult is that the guy is his own brother.