Screenwriting Tip #69: The Clueless Villain

Photo by JD Hancock

Screenwriting Tip #69: When designing your antagonist, remember: evil doesn’t know it’s evil. Evil gets out of bed in the morning and goes to work with a song in its heart, knowing that what it’s doing is right.

Is there anything cooler than a really nasty villain?

There are the skin-crawling monsters in human form – Noah Cross in Chinatown, Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. There are the manipulators – Al Swearengen in Deadwood, Hannibal Lecter, and Gordon Gekko. And there are the ones that overwhelm with sheer power, charisma, and force of personality – Count Dracula, Lex Luthor, Darth Vader, and the Joker.

All brilliantly written and brilliantly acted – screen legends. They couldn’t be more different from each other…yet they all have one thing in common.

They think they’re the good guy.

There’s a saying that “everybody is the hero of their own story,” meaning that everybody places themselves at the center of their own life’s narrative. If that’s true, then it goes double for villains. They’re not just the center of the narrative; they’re the center of the goddamn universe. For whatever reason – probably due to an unbelievably overdeveloped ego – these villains place their own narrative importance above the lives of virtually everyone else. They’re so absolutely sure that their worldview is correct that they’re willing to kill, torture, or otherwise inflict suffering in the service of that worldview.

Remember how the protagonist has to want something so badly they can’t live without it? The villain is the dark mirror of that. They want it just as badly as the protagonist, if not more so. The key difference is that they’ll never accept or understand the fact that they’re emotionally flawed.

(Let’s make a distinction here between “villain” and “antagonist”: antagonists are active forces who directly oppose the protagonist. They could be anything from romantic rivals to callous bosses to forces of nature. They may not even be acting deliberately against the protagonist – they just somehow happen to make her life harder. Villains, on the other hand, are almost always people. They know exactly what they’re doing and why. They’re often dark reflections of the protagonist who represent the twisted, evil or perverted reflection of the protagonist’s own values or goals.)

So what would drive someone to become a villain – a driven, active “hero” of their own sick narrative?

Unbelievable greed. Money and power, baby. These villains are convinced that there’s nothing more important in the world than money and/or power, and once they’ve got it all under their control, they’ll be able to forget all the horrible things they had to do to get there. “The end justifies the means” their narrative arc, and if the protagonist gets in the way, then she’ll become just another unfortunate but necessary casualty along the road to the villain’s ultimate goal. Naturally, the best way to harm this villain is to convince them that there’s something more important than their mad goal.

Who cares? These villains are either brutal nihilists, mentally ill solipsists, or someone who’s been screwed over by random chance one too many times. They know there’s no god, no fate, and no order to the universe – just random, pitiless chaos. They can hurt others and take human lives because they’re absolutely certain that it just doesn’t matter. There are no rules, no taboos, and the only thing that matters is the story they make for themselves. These villains can be defeated only by convincing them that there really is a rhyme and reason to reality – that actions matter and that fate is watching out for us. (Easier said than done!)

Total lack of empathy/psychopaths. These villains just do not comprehend or care about the emotions of others. In the case of psychopaths, they may even enjoy manipulating and destroying other people with no qualms whatsoever. They’re sickos – they actually get off on cruelty and destruction. They’re distinct from the power/greed villains because their goals may be minor – still, they care far less about others and have no problems justifying their actions to themselves. However, they’re more predictable than the “who cares?” villain, because they know that some things do matter. Namely, they matter, and everything and everyone else can jump off a cliff. Attacking their sense of self is a good way to harm these villains. Unfortunately, they’re often masterminds with elaborate justifications and mental defenses.

A noble purpose gone dark. The opposite of the “who cares?” villain, this kind of villain cares way too much. Something happened to them, something awful and life-changing, and it caused some part of them to die. They pursue typically “good” goals – say, hunting criminals, uncovering secrets, or building a religious mission to save the world – but with a ruthless, amoral twist. They take everything too far because they’re absolutely sure of their own purpose. Beware the zealot and the true believer, because those are the guys who will kill, maim, and torture you … and then sleep like a baby at night. They’re often presented as the most evil and terrifying of all villains (not without historical precedent). The only way to combat this villain is to cast doubt on their mission.

Villains – they’re not so cool when you have to think like them, but that’s the price we pay for being writers. Always remember that no matter how menacing and charismatic the villain, behind the mask is a scared, confused, or mentally ill human being who wants to believe that they’re the hero of their own story.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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