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Friday, February 13, 2009


Really good villains

Here's a thought: it's surprisingly rare to find a really good fictional villain that doesn't fall into one of various possible categories.

1. Grudging admiration. A lot of fictional villains are definitely bad people, but it's hard not to admire their style. Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, for instance, villain of Die Hard, cold-bloodedly murders a decent family man early on in the script, so we're clear that he's not supposed to be a loveable rogue - but his skill in planning, his dry sense of humour, his charming sophistication, his great charisma, tend to overwhelm such considerations and we end up liking him. Of course, people can be like that in real life and we generally end up regretting having liked them; The Last King of Scotland is a superb depiction of how dangerous it is to be seduced by the charm of a wicked man. In real life, someone who's villainous to others is probably going to be villainous to you in the end, but in fiction, the characters can't screw us over while we're enjoying their antics, so enjoyable bastards remain a common feature in fiction.

2. Fascinating grotesquerie. The Last King of Scotland is a case in point: Forest Whitaker's performance humanises Idi Amin to a great degree, but he remains such a bizarrely frightening man that it's hard to actually dislike him. He's more like a force of nature: terrifying, but so extreme that it overturns the usual standards you'd judge somebody by. Such villains cease to be villains and become character studies. This can produce some outstanding works, of course, so there's nothing wrong with that - in fact, it often produces a more sophisticated film than one with a straight-up villain - but if we're looking for a villain, fascinating grotesques are probably not the place.

3. Pity. Tim Roth's slithery crook Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy comes to mind: the guy's a thief, a rapist and a ruiner of lives, but at the same time he's rather a sad specimen, ashamed of his illegitimacy and burdened by the fact that his mother is unable to tell him who his father is - there are three candidates, and his mother appears to be a good-time girl who isn't very clear on such matters. Archibald clearly loves his mother but finds it difficult to feel any pride in himself for being the son of such a woman, and many of his worst acts appear to be attemps to cover up his insecurity. No excuse, of course, but it's hard not to feel sorry for him. Pitiable villains can actually make things very interesting - a drama where you can see everybody's point of view is a thing to be treasured - but the sorrier we feel for such a character, the harder it is to peg them as a straight-up villain. The edge closer and closer to being an ensemble player, which is a slightly different thing.

4. Vagueness. A Dark Lord we never see much of isn't really a character, they're a plot device. We may know them by their fruits, but it's hard to get much sense of someone's personality if they're continually off-stage and have no quirks, except in a generic 'they're bad' way. In terms of story it has its uses, but in terms of character development it's rather dull.

The classic villain, one that we simply hate and really, really want to see lose, is a surprisingly rare bird. Two examples occur to me: Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, played by the great Robert Shaw, and Marlo Stanfield in The Wire, chillingly portrayed by Jamie Hector. These are men we cannot admire, even as we recognise their power, intelligence and success; they remain normal enough that we cannot suspend the usual laws of morality - in fact, their horribleness demands that we apply those laws as they violate them left and right. We do not feel sorry for them: they outrage us. We just want to see them go down. How is this done?

The main distinction, I would say, is this: these are men who do not love. They only want. By this I don't just mean that they seem to feel no love for people; they don't love anything.

Stringer Bell in The Wire, for example, is an intimidating and ruthless figure, but it's hard not to feel some sympathy for him: his ambition to build a financial empire that will lift him out of the world he was born in, his genuine interest and enjoyment in the workings of the business world and his entertaining attempts to impose a board-meeting style on his volatile corner boys are all rather appealing. Stringer loves a few people - not many, but maybe one or two, even though he's prepared to put his own interest ahead of them - but he also loves business, and that gives us a point of identification: most of us love something.

Marlo, on the other hand, is a detroyer who tears down what Stringer has built, but he doesn't seem to have anything in mind while doing this except total dominance. He keeps homing pigeons, but he doesn't seem especially fond of them; he has trusted lieutenants, but he doesn't seem fond of them either: he seems to keep them around more because they're dependable than because he cares for them. When Stringer plans, we can see he has a vision of a better future in mind; Marlo's plans are all about destroying his rivals just for the sake of being on top. An older man warns him that the prisons and graveyards are 'full of boys who wore the crown', to which Marlo simply replies that the point is, 'they wore it.' It's the crown for its own sake that he wants. Not what the crown can get him, be it a better life, the admiration of those around him, or anything warming, but just the crown, so he can be king. It's a cold and deathly ambition, hard to like.

Doyle Lonnegan is a similar beast. Like Stringer, he's socially aspirant, but unlike Stringer his pretensions of gentility seem to give him no pleasure. Rather, he wears them like armour, as signs of his success, furiously angry when someone acts loutish but taking no joy in elegance. His behaviour towards others is aggressively controlling while cold, and, like Marlo, he's prepared to destroy anything and anyone if he feels his pride has been in any way compromised. Marlo will have a shop security guard killed for asking him not to shoplift; Lonnegan will have a man killed for stealing money that 'wouldn't keep him for two days'. Our friends in The Sting's analysis of Lonnegan could equally be applied to both villians: 'He's vindictive as hell ... He kills for pride.'

It's this quality that makes them particularly hateful. Idi Amin as portrayed by Whitaker is somewhat lost in a fantasy world, driven by impulse and only intermittently aware of reality, but our cold villains are deeply engaged with other people. It's just that their engagement is entirely vicious. When they're aware of people they want to dominate them, and they're always aware of them. There's a kind of mean relentlessness that's particularly easy to dislike in these characters.

It's interesting to note that both characters are also gamblers. Lonnegan is drawn into a trap by tempting his instinct to cheat at gambling; Marlo is something of an enigma because he's so unresponsive, but his main idea of recreation is gambling and his drive to succeed no matter what it costs, including the risk to his own life, is the drive of a man for whom the main aim is to win, rather than what he wins.

And this is a big part of it. Nobody likes a bad sport; as any mother could tell a child, 'If you want to win all the time, nobody will want to play with you.' Gambling is a good expression of this character trait: a desire to interact with other people not just because they've got something you want but because it's important to you to triumph over them. Ultimately, what these villains want from other people is not their money or their flattery: they want the satisfaction of beating them.

Which is to say, their happiness isn't just indifferent to the suffering of others, it depends on it.

For a villian you really want to lose, it helps a great deal if the villain really wants to win - not just to get the money or to capture the princess, but to win. I read a study somewhere that I can't cite (anyone who can, please weigh in) that looked at competitive and cooperative dispositions. The gist was that if you put two cooperators in a situation, they'll cooperate; if you put two competitors together, they'll compete - but if you put in one of each, the cooperator will quickly begin competing because they realise they're playing with a bad sport and there's no point trying to cooperate. (This is the likely reason why competitive people believe that deep down is as competitive as they are: they never give anyone the chance to act otherwise.) I can remember a demonstration of this principle I encountered at a party: we were outside, and there was some badminton equipment lying around, so two of us started knocking around the shuttlecock. We weren't particularly keeping score or trying to knock it where the other couldn't reach; we were just batting back and forth for our own amusement. A couple more people joined the game, and it quickly became clear that they were determined to win. They played hard, they kept score, they crowed when they gained a point. The other girl left the game because it wasn't fun any more, but I got annoyed with them for turning a pleasant knock-about into a pointless challenge, and started playing to win. My reaction was basically punitive: 'You want to make me lose? Fine, let's make you lose and see how you like it.' I won, too. It was very satisfying, but frankly I'd had more fun when it was just an amiable rally; it was being competed with that got me emotionally engaged in the outcome.

Now, the audience to a work of fiction may be cooperative or not, depending on their natures - but given a character who simply competes out of aggression and self-aggrandisment, and even the sympathetic audience members will switch quickly into competitive mode. A villain who's playing for something is easier to identify with: there's a reason why he wants to win, even if it doesn't excuse his methods. But a villain who wants nothing more than winning for its own sake isn't just being selfish in placing his desires ahead of other people's rights, he's being selfish in his entire attitude towards the world: it exists only for him to crow over, and nobody likes someone like that.

We like people who like people, and we like people who like things. People who like nothing but winning for the sake of winning, dominance for the sake of dominance, are far harder to feel for. And that's a thought that can make for some really good villains.

Anyone got other thoughts on good villainy?

I wonder if one might more broadly state that villains we genuinely hate are those who display human dimensions and at the same time lack not merely love, but empathy almost entirely.

With the villains you mention, for example, even hatred doesn't seem to exist. Hatred would still require an investment -- a negative one -- in someone else's state of being, their human existence.

When Marlo has the shop security guard killed, it's not because he hates the man, but because he hates "disrespect," and he suffers the wound as if the person wounding him were merely the mechanism of that wounding. When Lonnegan seeks revenge on the men who've conned his runner, it's not only impersonal but even unbusinesslike. He's been stolen from, and the offense to his person requires that he strike back at whatever element of the world he can identify as the source of the offense. Even the bad sport, in the end, sees the game as more important than the people playing it, as the mechanism by which they might demonstrate something about themselves to no one in particular.

Since villains exist as part of plots with characters, or, if you like, as people in a world of people, their inempathy and unreflective nature -- they lack even the solipsist's involution of empathy, self-feeling -- permits them to interact only with a world of processes and methods and mechanisms by which gain becomes possible and the possibility loss is replaced by a vicious sense of entitlement.

Material loss and personal insult are the same thing -- reputation, pride, and appearance are just material quantities to these sorts of characters and people -- and the unpleasant directness of the pain, coupled with the unimportance of its cause, allows a kind of boundless viciousness against any cause without regard to its degree.

They're entirely uninvolved interpersonally or intrapersonally -- i.e., they aren't even self-involved in the usual sense -- but rather mechanically, materially involved. When the external world doesn't work in accordance with their purposeless acquisition of the reified or unpleasurable, the outside world is brutalized into submission. People are just elements to be so brutalized when necessary, or employed when all is working properly.
For examples, Ben Bova's "Moonrise" and its sequel "Moonwar" both have good villains that really simply hateful.
Your definition of an idea villain reads like a textbook example of a sociopath. Perhaps that why we have such strong revulsion and are glad to see them defeated?

Recommended reading: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout.
Hmm. The first villain I thought of that met your description was MacHeath in Brecht's Threepenny Opera.

The next I thought of was the father of a child in my daughter's daycare, umpty um years ago. When the teachers rounded up the parents to play "Simon Says" with their kids, most parents dropped out when their child was eliminated.

Not this guy. Oh, no. He was going to play to WIN, by God, and he wasn't gonna let a bunch of toddlers defeat him.

Like you said, the teacher quickly picked up on the fact that this guy was, um, just a *tad* competitive, and the "game" quickly became a contest between him and her.

When she finally psyched him out and the remaining four-year-old won, all the parents watching cheered.

I guess that's the other thing that makes a really good villain -- unfairness. Bullying. It's easy to have a sneaking sympathy for an underdog, even if he's evil; but someone who starts with all the advantages and uses them to crush his opponents ruthlessly?


(word verification: "inice", a downloadable app for your music player or phone that prompts you to be pleasant even when you're feeling cranky)
Oh, and a further, writerly thought -- Kit, how do you go about writing villains?

Thinking it over, I don't think I've ever really written a villain, not even a vague Dark Lord or a mwa-hah-hah caricature of Eeevill. I wouldn't even know how to begin.

I tend to fall madly in love with all my characters, even the jerks and idiots. I don't know how one could go about writing a character one doesn't truly understand; and I don't know how to understand people without loving them, at least a little.

I don't think I could ever get into the head of a character like you describe. I'm not sure that I WANT to.

I realize that this is a real problem, writing-wise. How do you deal with it, if you don't mind sharing?
Hapax--a villain isn't always a requirement for a compelling story, merely an antagonist.
As a classic villain, Vorbis of Terry Pratchett's Small Gods. I can't find the quote right at the moment, but someone in the book remarks that his evil consists not so much in doing evil himself but in the effect he has on others--being around him makes them act evil. Curiously, Vorbis' opposite, Brutha, is in many ways quite annoying.

What does one do with Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? One has some sympathy for him, although much of that is residual, from Jane Eyre, but he ends up being someone I'd consider a villain, someone so focused on himself that he fails to connect with Antoinette at all and locks her up primarily for his convenience. It's hard not to see that as villainy and the perpetrator as a villain (as opposed to an antagonist).
My reaction to her description of a good villain, and this may speak to my personal experience was "malignant narcissist." Image is all important to them, and people are nothing more than suppliers of attention.
Good question, hapax; so good, in fact, that I think I'll answer it in my next post.
I guess this is my comic book fixation coming to the fore again, but the first villain that came to my mind was Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor. Prior to a company-wide continuity reboot in 1986, Luthor was your basic mad scientist, another member of the Dangerous Gizmo of the Month Club. After the reboot, the character was transformed into a corporate robber baron, still brilliant but now with "real world" power and influence. The "new" Luthor was motivated by lust for power, and continually felt the need to assert his power and dominance (one facet of this was that his inner circle of staff consisted entirely of beautiful women). His initial animosity towards Superman could best be explained by the need to prove that he, Luthor, was the most powerful man in Metropolis, and not this clown in a cape and blue union suit.
Abel, disagree completely about Luthor. From the early sixties on, he was portrayed as motivated overwhelmingly by hate more than greed, evil or ambition: In one story he shows his henchman a room showing every day he's spent in prison crossed off on a calendar; when he starts to feel himself losing the urge for revenge, he goes into the room and stares at the wall until he gets the hate back (in the same story he steals Fort Knox from under Superman's nose, discovers he only tricked a Superman robot and gives the gold back with a grimace). Which is a characterization that always fascinated me.

The villain in Edmond Hamilton's Star Kings books is a great reluctant-admiration villain: Totally cynical, totally ruthless, but he's having such cold-blooded fun it's hard to dislike him.

You left out my personal favorite category; good old-fashioned batshit crazy.

Course, I tend to be one of those people who likes villains, and adores a good sympathetic one. It's difficult to inspire me to seethe "Ooh, I hate that guy!", and it's not something I find all that appealing in a story anyway.
Can we speak of villainy and not mention Shakespeare's delightful Richard III?

(Verification word: "sitint." To which I can only say, "I beg your pardon???")
No, we can't.

Nor may we omit the dreadful Mr. Krook who came to so unpleasant an end in Bleak House, an end "inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself."

"Stron:" an oaten bread shaped like a wheat sheaf, eaten in February.
Fraser: In my mind the characterization of the "old" Luthor is undermined when you get to the root cause of his hatred: Because he was bald and it was Superboy's fault. Ultimately, that's why the giant robots, the new variants of kryptonite, the bizarre transformations, all that stuff. Because of that shiny pate.

I dunno, it never really impressed me as a villainous motivation.

hyllyptu: A sound I made a lot when I had my cold last January.
The examples mentioned in the four types are all stage/screen villains. Does it make a difference if they're on the page? If Richard III (to take my favorite) were a character in a novel (as he has occasionally been, not, IMO, to much good effect), I think it would be much harder to get across the charm-plus-evil combination Shakespeare manages by having him directly address the audience as a confidant.

I imagine Vorbis played by the late Ian Richardson, for example, would be quite a different character than Vorbis in the book. There would be room for charm and delight in watching him that there simply isn't on the page. With of course the concomitant danger that we'd actually end up liking Vorbis more than we should--rather as Rickman's Gruber is a heck of a lot more interesting as a character than Willis' McClain.
Abel, the origin for Luthor makes it quite clear that it wasn't just the baldness--Superboy also destroyed (accidentally) Lex's successful attempt to create living protoplasm in a test tube, so Lex took that as a sign that his supposed friend couldn't deal with having Lex become even more famous. This gets left out from a lot of recaps, presumably because it justifies critics adopting the "Oh, we're soooo much more sophisticated than those old books."
> I read a study somewhere that I can't cite
> (anyone who can, please weigh in)
> that looked at competitive and cooperative dispositions.

What you describe reminds me of the Prisoner's Dilemma. That theory has inspired many studies.
In my writing, I run the line that Hapax does, and in doing so, I wonder if it isn't far more common than we want to admit....writers loving their villains. After all, (and someone else noted it...) to hate someone requires quite an emotional investment in them, even if the emotion is negative. Without that ability to empathize and to "take in" the villain as valued and important, both for the story and the viewer/reader's satisfaction, I doubt that a writer would be doing his/her job correctly.

And yes, I do wonder if it isn't harder to create a written villain as portrayed in these examples since so many seem to involve screenplays.
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