Friday, January 09, 2009

What makes a great villain?

I suppose you all who have been following along with these articles have noticed by now that I haven’t yet done a dedicated post on character – hero/ine, villain, supporting, or otherwise.

That’s probably because while I feel comfortable expounding on how to create and structure a story, I am not so clear about how to explain how to create character. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a very explicable process, for me. I think what I do is create a space for them – a situation, a theme, the beginnings of a story - and pray that the characters will show up to inhabit it. Which, thank God, they always do. And then from there they do most of the work.

In other words, it’s magic – or possibly my friend Dusty Rhoades is right, it’s mental illness - and I don’t know how to explain magic OR mental illness. Quite possibly I don’t WANT to know.

But I think – I’m pretty sure - most writers have characters in their heads from a very early age. Maybe ALL people do – because that’s what fantasy is, and we all daydream being other people, or superfantastic versions of ourselves. So in a way we’re all creating character all the time.

I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s AUDITION, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, and it will translate to writing.

All that being disclaimed, I want to start talking about character, and I’ll start today with great villains and how one might – MIGHT – go about creating them.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a villain will just come to you whole, right? I’ve dreamed a few. I love that, when your subconscious does the work for you.

Sometimes you have a real, heinous person in mind, either a criminal you’ve read about who sparks such an outrage in your soul that you have to create him on paper just to destroy him the way he needs to be destroyed. Sometimes it’s a heinous person you really know – in the novella I recently finished I took great pleasure in detailing all the banal viciousness of a producer I know and then bashing his brainless head in.

But other villains I’ve written have been more conscious creations, have grown out of the specific situation of a story. So, while allowing for the pure magic of it - it’s not purely magic, is it?

I’d like to suggest that you can develop a great villain – or any other character you create – through the same process that I’ve been advocating for creating the structure of your story.

Make a list.

Who or what are your top ten villains? And I don’t mean make a list for the ages, or for popular consumption – I mean FOR YOU. What is it about these particular characters that makes them so delicious, or terrifying, or both? What turns YOU on in a villain? What particular qualities are you responding to?

You don’t have to think too hard about it, either, when you’re listing. It might be more useful to do it fast and see what comes up, because that non-thinking list will be more relevant to your present project, or a brewing project. These lists are never written in stone, either – you can make a whole different list tomorrow.

Breaking it down, analyzing the specifics, is like doing scales on the piano, or doing dance technique exercises at the barre. It gives you the foundation and the strength and mental coordination for the magic of art to happen.

My favorite villains, off the top of my head.

Hannibal Lecter.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME.
Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
Tony Perkins in PSYCHO.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD.

Now, I can look at that list and already identify a lot of patterns going on. I like my villains sexy, perverted, bizarre, insane, diabolical, and preferably a combination of the above.

But now it’s time to go deeper. What is it about each of those villains that really works for me?

Rumpelstiltskin. The twisted dwarf is an archetype I particularly respond to. In Jungian psychology, the dwarf, or perverted little old man, is a strong recurring archetypal figure for women who have been sexually abused or have sexual trauma issues. I haven’t been, but with all my near-misses with predators, I can relate to that analysis. And studying Jungian and other world archetypes is great fodder for brainstorming interesting villains.

Dracula. The sex thing, obviously. Vampires are supposedly about addiction issues. I can relate to that, too. Marion Woodman has some hugely intriguing books about these archetypes.

Hannibal Lecter. The devil archetype, my absolute favorite. Thomas Harris created a monster for the ages by turning a serial killer into a mythic archetype (although for my money he should have stopped with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). But what really does me about Lecter is the magician/mentor aspect of him. Here’s this evil, psychotic genius – who sees something in Clarice that makes at least part of him want to mentor her, even protect her. More than that, he UNDERSTANDS her – better than any other living soul. That to me is the ultimate seductiveness of the devil – that he GETS you - right down to your very soul. There’s no greater intimacy – and that’s a lot of what I was exploring when I wrote THE PRICE.

Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME. Gorgeous, sensual, ruthless schemer, played by one of my favorite British actresses, Polly Walker. Her relationships with her son and daughter are completely perverted and I love it. I understand her, because living in such a patriarchal society would twist any intelligent woman, and I love seeing her WIN.

Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR - one of the most chilling portraits of a sociopathic child that I’ve ever seen. The final scene with the grandmother taking responsibility for her is particularly haunting. I love stories about evil children. I have to admit, I find small children frightening. They are ruthless, narcissistic and irrational; they operate according to some inexplicable set of rules that they are constantly making up as they go along. And they wield enormous power, totally out of proportion to their actual physical strength and stature. Is that not the definition of a villain?

Norman Bates in PSYCHO. The concept of multiple personality fascinates me even though it’s been done so badly so many times that I’m not sure I would ever attempt such a character myself. But you feel such poignant sympathy for Norman even as you fear “Mother” – it’s a terrible portrait of an imprisoned soul.

“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9. Is he a demon? A fragment of personality in a multiple personality patient which has assumed autonomy? It’s, well, mindblowing to try to wrap your brain around. And the slippery inexplicableness of evil is a theme that draws me again and again.

Bob Sugar in JERRY MAGUIRE - the blond, blandly sociopathic agent. Not hard to see why I respond to that! But I love Sugar as an example of an effective comedic villain. He’s pitch-perfect – there are hundreds just like him in Hollywood, soulless, narcissistic, casually malevolent. But he also makes a perfect foil for Jerry because he is a mirror image of Jerry – this is what Jerry is on his way to becoming before his attack of conscience in the opening scenes – Sugar is the thing we don’t want him to become. A villain’s story function is often to be the dark mirror of the protagonist, and Sugar is a stellar example.

Stringer Bell in THE WIRE. Oh, all right, that’s pure sex. No, also I love the reversal that Stringer is trying to get out of the drug lord business – that he’s taking business school classes, investing in real estate – and it’s the far greater sociopathy of the politicians and city developers that destroys him in the end. As with Atia, this is a man who has been forced toward villainy by the ruthless inequities of society.

Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD. Also pure sex – I’ve had a crush in Ian McShane forever. But there again, the devil archetype – a powerful, brilliant, sexual, violent man who has his own occasional staggering moments of morality and transcendence – the kind of man that draws women like moths to the flame. As with Lecter and Clarice, there’s a Beauty and the Beast undercurrent here - the monster that we just might be able to tame. I will never forgive creator David Milch for ending that series before Swearengen could have his way with Mrs. Garret – and she with him.

You see how that starts to work? I truly believe that taking the time to analyze what you love and respond to in a villain in the stories you love will get your subconscious working on crafting that perfect villain for YOUR story. So much of creativity is the DESIRE to get it right. Make your wishes specific, and the magic will start to happen.

Next post I’d like to talk more about villains and get into not just the story functions of single villains, but the idea of forces of antagonism, and non-human villains, since the opponent in a story can be multiple, animal, environmental, historical or societal, as well as just the classic single bad guy.

But for today – you don’t have to give me all ten, but who are some of the villains that really do it for you, and why?

- Alex

I’m going to be teaching an online workshop of these techniques we’ve been talking about, for the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, during the month of February, and it’s open to non-members for just $20 for the whole month-long class. Yes, I know, you’re getting it all for free, anyway, but if you’d like to sign up for a more private intensive with assignments and whip-cracking and everything, here’s the info and sign-up page. RWA and its local chapters does amazing things to promote and support authors and reading in general, so that very minimal fee goes to a good cause.



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Gayle Carline said...

I think my favorite villains are the sociopaths, the characters who have emotional blinders to everyone's needs except theirs. Two of my favorites are Rhoda of The Bad Seed, and Vida, Mildred Pierce's daughter. It's not even that they're willing to ruin other people's lives to get what they want - it's that they don't even consider the other people in their quest. Their lies, manipulations, schemes fascinate me.

Watched a movie the other day, Harriet Craig. Joan Crawford stars as a woman who appears to be making a beautiful home for her husband and his sister, being a wonderful wife and friend. But what we eventually see is that she has lied and manipulated in order to keep everything the way SHE wants it. Her husband thinks she can't have children because she doesn't want any. His boss thinks he's loyal but unable to handle money because she doesn't want him to travel for business. She even breaks up her sister-in-law's romance because she doesn't want her to leave. Great study of evil disguised as beauty.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, it sounds like you like your villains not just sociopathic, but feminine!

Rhoda and Vida are great examples - I thought of both of them myself when I was throwing down my own list. I think Mary in THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is a more convincing young sociopath than Rhoda (but I love the camp of THE BAD SEED).

And having worked with opera singers, I love the concept of a sociopathic coloratura, though perhaps that's redundant. (JUST KIDDING).

I've never even heard of HARRIET CRAIG but I'll be checking that one out for sure, thanks!

Bobby Mangahas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobby Mangahas said...

Okay, off the Top of my Head:

* Iago from MACBETH (He's just so straight forward and makes no apologies)

* Hannibal Lecter (Have you ever seena more polite villian?)

* Stringer Bell and D'Angelo
Barksdale from THE WIRE (The fact that they were both conflicted about their current plots in life)

* Darth Vader

* General Hummel from THE ROCK (He believed he was doing what was right and fair)

* Dracula

* John Shooter from SECRET WINDOW,
SECRET GARDEN (See Genreal Hummel)

"---and it’s the far greater sociopathy of the politicians and city developers that destroys him in the end."

Well that, and the shots from Omar and Brother Mouzone.

Maria Lima said...

Atia is a brilliant villain!

Some of mine:

Caprica 6 - Battlestar Galactica
D'Anna (#3) - Battlestar Galactica

Lex Luthor - Smallville

Severus Snape - not a true villain, but we think he is for a long time. And Snape as portrayed by Alan Rickman

Professor Moriarty


-- I'm with you on the sexy, twisty, SMART, mysterious - someone who is worthy of being an opponent.

Gayle Carline said...

So I've been thinking all day about why my favorite villains are sociopathic FEMALES. It might make an interesting subject for a paper, or a seminar, or a blog. Altho I do like a good strong male villain, I'm fascinated by evil women because they are so unrecognizably dangerous. Sweet little girls, confident women, who'd guess they could turn on you like a rabid pitbull? Let's face it, you know Hannibal Lector will be up to no good; he has that "bad boy" gleam in his eye.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oy, Maria! That is one hell of a list!

Let me just say - Alan Rickman as anything. But he does the evil sexy thing so very, very well.

DIE HARD, for example...

You know, I still haven't everr seen BATTLESTAR. Don't hurt me!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

But Gayle, I think that's fabulous. I love seeing a ruthless female villain, and you don't see it half often enough. Go for it and corner the market, is what I say. I will be the first in line.

Ace Antonio Hall said...

Perhaps, I have never been so disturbed as I was by Cary Grant as Johnnie Aysgarth in Alfred Hictchcock's Suspicion and Kevin Spacey as the dark and elusive Keyser Söze/Verbal Kint are probably my favorite villians.

Although I shamefully loved Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil in Disney's 1996 live-action remake of the animated film, 101 Dalmatians.

And I hated Hannibal Lecter, the Wicked Witch of the West played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz and Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ace, Aysgarth is a wonderful villain, just mesmerizing - great example!

Kivt/Soze is a classic - your entire list is great.

Do you write about master manipulators, then?

Kelli Stanley said...

What a wonderful list, Alex!! I was particularly glad to see Mary Tilford on it--when I was thirteen, I played Mary in a local theater company production. I still remember the line that gave me her character: "my father killed himself, but Grandma won't admit it--I can manage her, all right."

Ironically, I played Christine (the long-suffering mother in The Bad Seed)in high school. I agree--I think Mary is a much more naturalistic character, more fully developed. Rhoda is almost too simplistic to be believable.

Perhaps my favorite female villain of all time: Lady Macbeth. Medea's a great role, too.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog!!!

How come I can't get the link to Elements of Act Three - Part 2 to work?

Anonymous said...

Never mind! I got it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, man, Kelli, I would have KILLED to see you play Mary! And that line really sums it up - now I'm going to have to reread the play to see where that comes as a revelation. Totally chilling. I am obsessed with Lillian Hellman.

Have we even had the theater conversation before? Sounds like you did as much acting as I did back then.

Totally agree about Medea and Lady M. - you don't get better villains than that. Have never played either but have done Lady M. monologues...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Tory! Probably just a case of too many people accessing at the same time - we got a lot of hits yesterday.

Let me know if you have any more problems.

Holly Y said...

Wow Alex, I just realized I don't think a lot about villains. My list:
Darth Vader
Jaba the Hut
Fairy Queen who steals people, as in Thomas the Rhymer
Hitler, Pol Pot, Ceausescu
Atia of the Julii

Hm. Powerful political people who terrorize others?

I must think about this some more. Thanks!

ccallicotte said...

Lots of great food for thought, Alex. Thank you! You've picked some great villains here. Gotta love hating sociopaths. My favorite villains often end up being those who hover on the edge of a choice - one that could send them down the path to good or to evil. Thus humanizing them but ultimately bringing on their descent into villainous behavior. I suppose Darth Vader can fit in here. I'm blanking on other specific examples.

I'm so bummed you won't be at SCWC this year! We'll miss you. Your classes are always some of the best. I guess I'll have to settle for reading your blog for now.

Anonymous said...

Have always been particularly fascinated by villains such as:
Detxer morgan's blood brother, hannibal, adolf hitler, the joker (very entertaining at times), recent interpretation of the riddler (he has class), darth vader and hades from disneys hercules

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Stringer Bell is a villain? :)

Jake Nantz said...

I know this post has long been passed over, but here I go anyway. Always liked:
The Joker (has fun with maniacal)
Vader (of course)
Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze
I also love Iago (from OTHELLO)
The Coffin Dancer (Deaver)
The Terminator (unstoppable, thus gratifying when he's finally stopped)
Bin Laden, J. Mengele (just because you want to know they will suffer at the hands of some kind of justice in the end)
Hannibal Lecter (also of course)
The Dragon from Gardner's GRENDEL
and James Spader's hitman character in TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY

But I think my most intriguing of all-time has to be Jigsaw. Something about a guy who believes he's teaching the wicked of the world a lesson (in a very permanent way) gets me. That idea (not him, just that premise) is what my next protagonist is based on.

Anonymous said...

ok, here goes.

General Woundwort, _Watership Down_
Wicked Witch of the West
Flagg, _The Stand_
The Big Bad Wolf
Tyler Durden, _Fight Club_
Agent Smith, _The Matrix_
Captain Hook

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jake, classic list, great to read! I've been doing my hero list and villains are so much easier.

James Spader makes a great villain, always. Love that guy.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anon, embarrassingly enough, I've never read WATERSHIP DOWN. Now I'm intrigued.

Agent Smith is a unique villain - great example!

Hmm, Randall Flagg and Tyler Durden have come up a lot on men's lists. I don't think of those two immediately but I see the appeal. Interesting.

Gene said...

One of my favorites to "recoil with" is the mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore, in ORDINARY PEOPLE. Wow, she was scary - I think mainly because she hid her true feelings.

But, you just knew...

Also Alan Richman, in DIE HARD. "..Clay. Bill Clay.."

(Cringe and...Shudder).

Anne Lyle said...

I know this is an old post, but I can't resist adding my all-time favourite villian:

Londo Mollari, from "Babylon 5" - he makes a "deal with the Devil" in an attempt to resurrect his people's fortunes, and has to live with the terrible consequences

I'm definitely drawn to ambiguous, untrustworthy characters - Snape, Jayne Cobb from "Firefly", Lord Gro in E.R. Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros" - traitors and maybe-traitors rather than out-and-out Bad Guys. Not sure what that says about me... :)

Unknown said...

Hi Alexandra- I've just read your book 'screen-writing tricks for authors' and I've realised that my WIP might have a dilemma with the antagonist.. there is no single 'entity' that makes the antagonist. It's not a person, nor a monster, nor a mystery. Essentially it's a story about a man who loses everything and ends up alone and on the streets, fending for himself. It's a 'hero vs the system' story and more than anything, his greatest opposition is that he won't let himself get the help he needs. His biggest enemy is inside himself; his own pride.

I'm concerned that keeping the antagonistic forces indiscernable will disrupt the clarity of the hero's fight, but if I create a create a character to personify that fight, I run the risk of losing the feel of isolation I've been working so hard to create.

Can you share any insight? Am I making this too hard for myself, or can I whittle my way through to a satisfying resolution with just antagonistic forces?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Bradley, I love stories in which the antagonist isn't personified and it's all about the protagonist's inner conflict and inexorable societal forces. You don't HAVE to personify the antagonist. Think of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. A faceless antagonist is the scariest, sometimes.

Novels and movies about dystopian societies often have those faceless antagonists. And inner conflict can be an even worse antagonist!

Unknown said...

My list (at the moment - it tends to be transient):
*Voldemort - he's scarier than most middle-grade/YA villains, who tend to be mean and unpleasant but not necessarily a danger to the masses. I appreciate Rowling's not trying to tone him down, and his motives are well-crafted, i.e. the extreme fear of death, cowardice, and lust for power. In the films, Mr. Fiennes's portrayal was chilling as well.
*Darth Vader - a tragic figure: once a Jedi but corrupted by lies and, like Voldy, greed for power. And it complicates things when he is revealed to be Luke's father - it'd be hard for me to face my own dad to the death, evil or not, because he's responsible for my existence. Also, his Force powers are awesome.
*Gollum - like Lord Vader, Smeagol was corrupted, though he had less of a choice in the matter. I dreaded and pitied him simultaneously, which is a powerful conflict, and he was unpredictable. Crazy characters, ones you'd never want to hang around, can be quite frightening (like the Joker, which I'll get to momentarily), yet Frodo and Sam needed him to reach Mordor. Tough thing.
*Frankenstein's monster - Mary Shelley's novel, my all-time favorite read, gave me more sympathy for the creature than for its creator. He went sour because he was misunderstood, not out of inner malice. You can probably tell by now I like to have conflicting feelings about baddies, eh? But I also like them to be very despicable. I just had to add this one, though I sympathized with him.

Unknown said...

*Napoleon (pig from ANIMAL FARM) - based on Josef Stalin if I am not mistaken. A greedy pig (figuratively and literally) whose love of dominance and control knows no bounds. He climbed the farm's political ladder using lies and trickery, molding the other animals' minds to agree with his every move. Even if it was not based on real history, it's a scary message regarding people's mental and emotional malleability.
*The Joker (specifically Heath Ledger's interpretation) - what can I say? Sadly I have never read the comics - not yet - but in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008 film), he scared the daylights out of me. Mr. Ledger was a great actor, and it's a shame we lost him so soon. Anyway, the character has no plan, and his only motive is a primal desire to "watch the world burn": he is literally insane, with no loyalties, and just being around him (even as an audience member) makes one's insides churn. Again, he is unpredictable. Ugh.
*The Terminator (the original Arnold one) - "He can't be bargained or reasoned with; he knows only destruction." Kyle Reese says something along those lines, if not verbatim. Half-machine, he has no emotions, and wishes to annihilate anyone who gets in his (its) way. Arnold's portrayal was good, though Robert Patrick in the second one was scarier in the one regard of not being as intimidating (what I mean by that is that you wouldn't suspect someone so subtle). But as for the first film, the very concept of apathetic computers and robots taking over is an eerie concept. Very original, too, though it has been copied since then. One other thing I loved was the near impossibility of destroying one of those things: it keeps getting up again after seeming to die, and almost nothing can harm it. I like it when villains are difficult to defeat: it adds tension.
*Count Dracula: OK, you probably see his name a lot. But what more to add? He's the most famous vampire (not counting [no pun intended] Edward Cullen and his ilk; I mean the demonic kind of bloodsucker). He can also control humans with his willpower and gaze.

Unknown said...

*Hannibal Lecter: I know Dr. Lecter is disgusting and creepy, but I like him. He has a certain morbid charm, not to mention being a psychotic genius. The best way to stay alive, I think, is not strength of body but intellect: just think of that trick with the guard's face and the elevator shaft! (Ew!)
*Iago from OTHELLO - It's been a while, so I don't recall his exact motives and details, but what I do remember is a passionate loathing for the man and sincere hopes he would die slowly. He was just rotten. Perhaps a rereading is in order!

I hope all that fits in a comment box: it was a bit verbose, but I feel that justifying my reasons for choosing them enhances them, to myself and perhaps to others as well. I didn't have room for more than ten, but I also like (despise) King Claudius, Randall Flagg, Macbeth, Annie Wilkes, Saruman the White, Grendel, and even mythical figures such as Satan and some Greek monsters.