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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

VILLAINS! Are they really such bad guys?

Look, I know it's not exactly nice when the Joker runs around laugh-gassing people to death, or when Walter White gets all mega-murdery. But the key to a good villain isn't that we look at what they do and go, "Wow, that's so bad". That's just the villain part. What makes a good villain good is the tantalization that they may, in fact, be an agent of good or rightness in their own minds.

Let's look at Walter White: the anti-hero turned villain. Don't believe me? As the main character, the show is designed for you to root for him. Even if you know that what he's doing is wrong (drugs are bad, mmkay?), you still want him to win (or, at least, you did at some point). But, despite being the main character, by the end of it the guy is absolutely a villain. He's the villain to his family, to Jesse, to Hank and to himself. And he is a terrific villain, all the more so because you didn't even realize he WAS the villain until you were already completely wrapped up in him. You were justifying his horrific crimes for him through about 80% of the series. And admit it -- you probably cheered for him way longer than you should have. Maybe even in the final episode, am I right? Look, no spoilers here. But the fact is, Walter started out a villain, you just didn't notice. Remember that first episode? Remember how he was a meth-cooking murderer aroused by danger even then? No? Well, he totally was.

Walter White: victim of circumstance or budding psychopathic drug lord?
This is what you should strive for. Not that your villain needs to be up to the caliber of horribleness that is Walter White. But your villain should be capable of being a main character. At heart, all good villains could be anti-heroes. You don't need to cheer for them, but it needs to be plausible for them to cheer for themselves.

Think about it. Who's more interesting to you: a bad person who runs around cackling, petting his Persian cat, and twirling his mustache as he declares how delightfully evil he is? Or the bad person who is compelled to be bad by her own conviction that she's good? Villains might know that they're villainous, but they still need to believe that they are right and that they are making the right choice. Otherwise, why do we care?

Mr. Whiplash: setting the bar high for mustache twirlers everywhere.
There may be some exceptions to this rule. For instance, bad guys who are consumed with the knowledge of how bad they are, but can't stop it. But they're really more antagonist than villain because, really, these characters cut more of a tragic figure than a villainous one.

A good villain can't just be bad. They need to be interesting. They need to be dynamic and complex and everything that your hero is. They need conviction. And that's what you need to write a good villain.

Which brings me to the lesson. You know those character charts and back stories that you've totally been intending to write? Yeah. You need to write those. Yes, I know they're not the fun part. Yes, I know you think your time could be better spent writing the novel. Yes, I totally still need to write mine. Look, this isn't about me, okay? Geez.

You -- we -- need to write these. They are necessary for all of your important characters, but especially for your villain. Your villain needs back story and purpose and substance. They need some heft behind them. They need to at least be as interesting as your protagonist. They need to be their own hero. Otherwise, they might as well be twirling their mustache.

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