Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Write Club - Villainy

Hey y'all. This post I wanted to discuss villainy. Villains in stories are in many ways as important as the heros, and they make a clear and specific impact on your story. Let me make it clear that by villain, I don't mean antagonist. An antagonist is the person (or persons) causing the conflict that your lead character has to face. For example, Apollo Creed in Rocky is the antagonist, but he's not evil so he's not a villain. He's just the guy that makes the plot happen, namely that Rocky is being given the one of a kind chance to fight the champion though he's nobody in the boxing realm. So, a villain is a type of antagonist, because they cause conflict, but an antagonist is not always a villain.

So what makes a good villain? Well, let's first put out some of the best and most terrifying villains there are out there, from various genres. I pick Hans Gruber from Die Hard, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Kerrigan from Starcraft (note that at this point I have not played Starcraft II), and King Edward I from Braveheart. There are other good villains out there, but I'm very familiar with these, and they're also well known. So let's look at what makes these villains the awesome villains they are.

The thing I look for the most in a villain is whether or not they engage the fight or flight response in me, if this particular villainy seems realistic, and if I want to see more of them. These kinds of baddies tantalize you and make you wish that you could join the book and save the lead characters from them, or help the good guys solve the case. I love to see monsters display the absolute worst of humanity in the most delightful of ways. Let's go over the picks and see what exactly is so fun about them.

Let's start with Hans Gruber, the man who held hostages in the Nakatomi building in California, only to find himself stopped by a New York cop wandering in the abandoned areas in the building. The thing that makes Hans distinct from other villains is his intelligence. He might not be the best for beating someone up or hacking a computer, but this guy is a real leader. He constructed a well thought out plan and did his best to keep it going despite the fact that everything was crumbling around him. Despite being surrounded by cops and hassled by John McClaine, he actually got fairly close to succeeding.

Just looking at the guy, we see his distinctive taste in clothes, his love for literature, and his persistent calm in the face of trouble after trouble. He always seemed to be in control, not only of himself, but of the hostages' fears and of his own tempermental men. He calmly probed the crowd for the one man he wanted to discover information from, never once letting this man's refusal to talk bother him. He cleverly faked out McClaine (for a while) by pretending to be a hostage. Even when one of his minions was freaking out because McClaine killed his brother, he kept control of his group's actions.

What made the best part of his character was that at the end, despite all of his cleverness, leadership, and saavy, he was just out to get money. Hans could have done anything with his life, and here he was just stealing paintings and savings bonds. This guy has an actual story arc. Hans' finale is a dramatic fall out of the window, right before he is about to shoot John McClaine in the head.
So the qualities of a good villain we learn from Hans are:
- smarts
- own story arc
- control
- a death deserving of his crimes.

Ursula from The Little Mermaid is a totally different kind of villain. I absolutely loved her villainy as a kid, particularly because she wasn't trying too hard to be an obvious monster, and yet you knew all along that she was only the most evil of octopi. I'm sure most of you are familiar with the story of The Little Mermaid, where Ariel half-fish being decides that she wants to live on land and is madly in love with Prince Eric. So she goes to the sea-witch Ursula to see if she can get legs.

The thing about Ursula is her total vanity. She uses make up, but at the same time she seems perfectly comfortable with her body, creating the image of a self-confident woman who is in control. See there? She and Hans share an aspect of villainy, just in a different way. Ursula's vanity is an additional flaw that the writers exploit to flavor her character and make her distinguished from other Disney villains.

One of the things I loved about Ursula was her more or less admittance to evil. She gives a vague excuse saying that she used to be evil, and now all she does is help "poor, unfortunate souls". This is so clearly a lie that you know Ariel doesn't believe it, and you find yourself shouting at the screen for Ariel to swim away before she does something stupid.

Ursula is someone who enjoys being evil, and who happily delights in her schemes. One of things I feel makes her unique is her love for Flotsam and Jetsam, her minion eels. This love, while more of a master to a slave, is actually somewhat genuine. Other villains might treat their servants like crap, but Ursula actually shows appreciation for her minions. This too fits in with her vanity, as her most intimate servants are like accessories, part of herself. She could no more dislike them than she could dislike her own personality.

What we can do with Ursula that we can't do with other villains is compare her to the villains of other Disney movies. Let's do that! Okay, so first up is the evil witch queen from Snow White. I feel that this villain is okay, but her problem is that she's mad at Snow White for being more beautiful than her. It's not a matter of power or anything big, just sheer jealousy. That's actually kinda sad. Also, her plan to give Snow White a poison apple was overly complex. Couldn't she just shoot Snow White with an arrow or something? I realize that this is a problem with the actual fairy tale than the Disney version, but this still applies.

Cinderella's stepmother was a pretty good villain, I just don't feel like she was used appropriately. The stepmother's anger at Cinderella for being gentler and more lovely than her own daughters should have been more accentuated. Like, she should have been more harsh at Cinderella for the slightest mishaps and proud of each minor achievement of her own girls. All in all, she was still interesting, but she wasn't the greatest villain.

Malificent of Sleeping Beauty was a marvelous stage villain. She was evil, bitter, and full of hate. However, she too misses the mark. It's awesome she can change into a dragon, but I find it weird that simply being snubbed for a christening party alone would cause her to want to ruin Aurora's life. In the book this jealously was explained very well, but here Malificent feels the need to find Aurora for some reason, even though she's already placed the curse on her to die at the age of sixteen. Why does she need to kidnap Aurora? In the fairy tale she placed the curse and left it at that, not to be seen for the rest of the story. I appreciate what Disney did with the story, but all the same, Malificent was just too concerned about it.

Also, her minions are useless. She's got all these goblins and warthog soldiers, but all they ever succeed in doing is kidnapping the Prince the first time. Before that and from then on, they accomplish nothing. They're deliberately idiotic. What kind of a villain keeps these idiots around? Ursula's two eels were more useful than the whole lot of these guys.

Next in line is Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. This guy is actually pretty hilarious as a baddie. My problem with him is that he's kind of a ham, trying way too hard to be a jerk and manipulate Belle. That was probably the point for his character, and it really was enjoyable. Overall he's one of the better Disney baddies, but at the same time he's too simplified. His lack of depth prevents him from being the best.

One of the best Disney movies ever is Aladdin, and it has the villain that I feel is second to Ursula: Jafar. Jafar is the assistant to the Sultan, and he is busily working on a way to steal the power from the Sultan and take his place. I like this guy because he's unashamedly bad, dastardly and always keeping his eye out on Aladdin. He's quick to discover that Aladdin isn't a prince and almost kills him. More than once, actually. He also has a sense of humor, sick as it is.

However, the real downfall of Jafar is two things: his cheat stick and the Sultan. Controlling the Sultan with a scepter is really cheap, and is a gimmick instead of Jafar taking power by cleverness. Also, if Jafar can make the Sultan do whatever he wants, then why does he need to take his place? Can't he just stay by the side and keep pretending to be loyal? When the princess marries, he can just control the guy just like he did the Sultan.

Also, Jasmine's dad is a stupid ruler. He's lame, easily impressed, and totally lacking in sense. As much as heroes are judged by the villains they fight, villains are judged by the heroes that they face and rulers they defeat. Controlling the Sultan wasn't hard by any means, making Jafar unable to beat Ursula in a contest of evil.

Eh, the villain in Pocahontas was lame. I don't even remember what they called the guy, but it was John Smith's leader or whatever. I didn't like that movie much, and the baddie was one reason why: he was shallow, stereotypical, and completely uninteresting. You can compare him to Gaston and Gaston's selfishness, but Gaston was fun to watch and made you laugh. This guy? Eh. Moving on.

Mulan's baddie, Shan Yu, was pretty good. He was evil, greedy, and merciless. He wasn't as distinct as other baddies, but he was someone you could really be afraid of. However, I found his vague beastness to weaken the character. His seemingly superhuman strength made him too cartoonish, like the point where he burst through the ceiling of the emperor's palace to fight Mulan. How in the world is that even possible? I really shouldn't question cartoon physics, but Mulan as a movie tried to be more or less realistic when it came to human ability, and if there was a part of other fighting that was fake, the movie convinced you it was possible. Also, there's this one point where Shan Yu could have gotten away and killed the emperor, but he cries out in...I dunno, beast-like rage or something, and Mulan hears him, causing her to go and stop him.

I say all that, but really this villain wasn't too bad. He wasn't distinct enough to rise to the level of others, but he served the appropriate purpose in Mulan that was required of him. In that, he did a great job. He's not the kind of villain that you'll appreciate well or remember much of, but there's so many other people in this movie to like and have an interest in that it doesn't really matter. That's a thing to remember about baddies, and actually characters in general. Sometimes the plot doesn't focus around them, and you have to decide, as a writer, how much influence you are willing to give to them.

If you don't have a lot of opportunity to talk about a character, then make them as interesting as possible in the short amount of time they have, and that way your readers will want to hear more about them, instead of feeling that your story is bogged down by too much detail (which will be the subject of another posting at some point). You can always do a spin-off story about them, or if you feel like you can just leave them as they are and your fans will write fanfiction to fill in the gaps for you. Leaving gaps for your readers is always a great idea to keep them interested in your story for longer periods of time.

Shadow Man from The Princess and the Frog had so much dang potential. So much! The plot for this movie was clumsily handled by the writers, leaving all of the characters but the firefly severely underdeveloped. Shadow Man was no different. He had so much going for him: his freaky magic, his sentient shadow, and his general entertaining demeanor. This guy was hilarious! However, he suffers from several things. First of all, if you look at this movie, you'll notice that he almost never does something himself. He's got those spirits running around for him and the servant pretending to be Navine. Only three times does he directly antagonize characters: the time he was trying to poke the Big Daddy voodoo doll, the time he stomps on the stupid firefly, and the time he tempts Tiana (his best scene, I think). Villains need to do things for themselves, facing the heroes and intimidating them with all the gall they have.

Also, Shadow Man's motives were unclear. In the opening song, he appears to be motivated by money, particularly as he tricks a man into taking a bad hair potion for coin. However, once he reveals his plan to take over New Orleans, it just feels weird. There was no foreshadowing for this. Then throw in the whole thing where he's trying to keep the spirits from taking him down into his afterlife, and he's scrambling, running around and trying to keep everything together. Where's the confidence and control?

The main thing that bothered me about Shadow Man is that he doesn't even know that Tiana is interfering with his plans until the very end of the movie. He knows she exists because he saw her at a restaurant, and he saw another frog leave with Naveen at the party, but he has no reason to assume that its her. Tiana is the lead of this movie, and Shadow Man is always off dealing with other people. How lame is that mess?

So, at the end of the day, Ursula really is the best Disney villain, from a literary perspective. What do we learn from her?

Villains should:
- be distinct
- have relevant help
- be interesting
- have a set out plan for power that has wiggle room just in case.

The next villain is one of my favorites of all time: Sarah Kerrigan of the Starcraft series. Now, Starcraft has this sequel out now, so I'm going on the original and the Brood War expansion set only. It always pissed me off that Glynnis Campbell wasn't the one voicing Kerri in SCII, and besides, if I ever talk about Star Wars characters, I will have nothing but complete disregard for the prequels, which I refer to as Not Star Wars. I don't think Starcraft II is all that bad, but for now it's just going to have to wait.

Anyway, Sarah is a great villain because of her deep history. The plot of Starcraft basically goes that there are three races out there, the humans, Protoss, and Zerg. These three races are fighting for domination of the galaxy (one not near earth). Sarah is a human fighting under Arcturus Mengsk, a man that once saved her life and is rebelling against the current human ruling faction. She becomes good friends with Jim Raynor, a simple but good man also in on the cause, and you begin to think that their relationship can get so much deeper. That is, until Kerrigan is betrayed by Arcturus in his quest for power. Mengsk abandoned her on a planet, believing that she would be killed by the Zerg, a malevolent race of creatures that take other species and turn them into new forms of Zerg.

The plot goes on without her until it is revealed that the Overmind, the leader of the Zerg, wanted Kerrigan to become his "daughter", and mutates her into a Zerg that is not just a brainless servant, but is a powerful, ferocious enemy of all who oppose the Zerg. Once the Overmind is killed, Kerrigan decides to take over the Zerg for herself and gain revenge against the faction that stole her childhood, Mengsk for betraying her, and Raynor for not saving her. In the end, she tears through all of the Protoss and human factions, making herself the supreme leader of all that exists....and it means nothing.

The reason why Sarah Kerrigan is such a great villain is because she didn't start out that way. She used to be a little naiive, trusting Mengsk even though his actions made it clear he preferred power above all else. She went through so much, being subject to experiments that tested and probed her telepathic powers. After Mengsk saved her, she trusted him not unlike a father. Once infested, the Overmind was like a really sick version of a dad, leaving Kerrigan with even more demented daddy issues.

This poor girl's troubles have risen up in her and filled her with an anger. That anger is hollow. Kerrigan might rule the galaxy in the end, but that was never what she ever wanted. Her entire conquest was to get back at everyone that had ever hurt her. Now that she's won, she doesn't know what to do with herself and her power. All she knows is that she doesn't want to lose control ever again, because she doesn't trust anyone to be an authority over her.

As pityable as she is, Kerrigan is responsible for many deaths. She kills off several characters that are beloved to the people that play this game, and she torments Zeratul, the most popular Protoss character, by brainwashing his Matriarch and forcing him to kill her. She spared Raynor's life at one point because he was someone that cared about her in the past, but once she murders his friend Fenix, he swears to kill her one day.

Hans and Ursula are valued for their skills and attitudes, but Kerrigan's interest comes from her depth. You can either feel sorry for her or hate her, and whichever you do is up to your perspective. There is no set in stone way to feel about her. Other characters are engineered for you to specifically hate or like them, but Kerrigan is open ended. You either want her to die for all she's done, or somehow become de-infested, or somehow make up for her crimes in the way she dies.  The game doesn't make this choice for you.

So Kerrigan shows that a good villain:
- has depth
- has ties outside of evil
- is still a person with aspirations and fears
- doesn't always realize how evil they are.

Okay, so my last villain is King Edward from Braveheart. I'm gonna be honest: crazy Mel aside, I love all the characters in this movie, especially Steven the Irishman. The real reason I like Edward as a baddie is because he's so hardcore. Okay, well the story goes that Edward is oppressing the Scottish people, and this local man William Wallace has to stop him so that Scotland can be free of British oppression.

Edward is portrayed as a man both harsh and strong, someone you just don't want to mess with, especially head on. In any direct fight, he's sure to win. This guy is smart, cunning, deceptive, and willing to take advantage of the slightest thing he can. Early on in the movie he tricks a bunch of Scots by saying he wanted to negotiate peace, but he slaughters all the people that show up to his meeting. This guy has no mercy in him at all. He firmly believes that the Celtic Islands should all be under one rule. That is, the rule of Britain.

Even in real life, Edward was someone who was hearty and physically strong. Even to his oldest days he was risking his life simply to show off his daring. However, he had one major failing: bad parenting. A lot of people objected to the portrayal of Prince Edward II in this movie, and I understand why, but the fact of the matter is his character in the movie was a natural extension of who Edward II really was. He was simplified for the purposes of the movie, but in real life Edward II was nowhere near as feared as his father. He relied so much on his father's hardcore nature and iron-fisted rule that he never achieved the political wisdom Edward I had. He always was so close with his pal Piers Gaveston that it actually interfered with his political needs. He and Piers made fun of the British Lords without considering that perhaps these men might actually be vital to his rule once his dad died. Notedly, Piers was replaced with Phillip in the movie, and they never showed this mockery (or the Lords much at all), but that is what actually happened.

So that was where Edward failed the most. In both real life and the movie, he never made his son realize that power isn't a static thing and it can slip out of your hands easily when a weak ruler gets the throne. In both, Scotland becomes free shortly after the death of Edward I, and despite all of the political and economic gains Edward did for Britain, Scotland reachieved its independence. Notedly, Scotland belongs to the United Kingdom mostly because of intermarriage, and it ended up that one of the kings of Scotland (James, I think) turned out to be next in line for the English throne through various circumstances.

Edward is a king with strong beliefs and strong greed, and he is unable to be swayed from this path by anyone. He is overcome in the end by sickness and secrecy, the only two things that could directly bring him down.

He shows us that:
- villains are selfish and don't see from others' viewpoints
- the audience wants to enjoy both the evil and the downfall of evil in the villain.
- villians need to be strong to be believable and feared.
- No villain is too strong to have a flaw.

So, who do I feel is the greatest villain of all time? That's hard to answer. There are many different types of villains, and each is enjoyable in different sorts of ways. Hans Gruber is a crafty villain, one that stays in control by using his brain. Ursula is a trickster villain, who uses anything besides physical strength (magic, tricks, servants) to get what she wants. Kerrigan is a damaged villain, who fights for herself and not for money or power. Edward is a hardcore villain, one that has to be worked around, not directly fought. So which type is the best? Isn't it really a matter of taste?

Well, just in case it isn't, I submit that Darth Vader is perhaps a good candidate for the greatest fiction villain of all time, as far as literary appeal goes (I'm sure there are more destructive baddies). He is not only strong in fights, but also in the Force, which enables him to do things that most people can't. Also, his dark costume and heavy breathing make him well known even among those that have never seen Star Wars or don't even like it. He remains one of the most recognized bad guys of all time, whose depth, strength, smarts, and control will ensure that he remains known for many years to come.

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