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.
MULTIPLE LEVELS OF ANTAGONISM
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.
PSYCHOLOGICAL VS. MYTHIC
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.
THE ESSENCE OF A VILLAIN
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.
THE HERO/VILLAIN MIRROR
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?
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