Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Villain is Key

I’ve heard that some actors prefer playing the villain to playing the lead character. I won’t go into why they prefer that role, but as writers it might do us good to pay attention to this. So many times, it seems like we give the most attention to the protagonist, but I would like to suggest that the most important character in any story is the antagonist or the villain. For our purposes here, we need not go into the finer points of the differences between an antagonist and a villain and we’ll simply focus on the villain, though I suspect those finer points are part of the reason we don’t more readily see the antagonist as the most important.

To demonstrate my claim, let’s consider a simple comic book story in which we have a Superhero and a Super Villain. In this story, the villain is bent on taking over the world. He has commandeered a fleet of ships and is on his way to Washington D. C. Our hero discovers his plot, swoops in and saves the day. Now, let’s look at the next issue of this comic book. In this issue, we have another Super Villain bent on taking over the world. He has developed a machine that can reduce the global temperature to below freezing. He has turned it on and refuses to turn it off until all the world governments relinquish their power to him. Our hero discovers the location of the device, swoops in and saves the day. If we pay no attention to the contribution of the villain, these stories are essentially the same. A villain is plotting to destroy the world. The hero swoops in and saves the day. We see something similar when we look at television shows. Watch them on DVD and you’ll see many similarities in the stories from week to week, but the villains are always different. In our two example stories, there is a great difference between a villain who is about to take over the world with a fleet of ships and one who is freezing the world. So it is the villain who makes our stories special. It is the problems the hero faces that make a story interesting, not the hero himself.

A Villain Can Be Likeable

If we’re writing a comic book, we can get by with a villain who is bent on taking over the world and hates everyone, but a much better villain is a character that the reader would rather not be the villain. It makes for a hard balance, but we want the reader to be torn between seeing the villain get what is coming to him and seeing him get off the hook. I think of Fagan from Oliver Twist, or The Artful Dodger. They are villains in the story, certainly, but we like them all the same. Bill Sikes, we don’t like him so much, but that’s good too. We need a few characters like Bill Sikes.

A Villain Has a Good Reason for Doing Evil

No villain sees himself as a bad person. A business owner is closing down a factory, putting many people out of work and moving the production lines to Mexico. We could play him up as being vindictive in nature, but if we examine the situation more closely, we find that the reason he is doing this is because the company will go bankrupt if he doesn’t and instead of putting three hundred people out of work, he will be putting three thousand people out of work. But our protagonist disagrees with what he is doing and wants to save these jobs. Both of their hearts are in the right place, but they can’t both get what they want. That creates the best kind of conflict, because people won’t move from their position when they know they are doing the right thing.

A Villain Should Do Interesting Things

It doesn’t really matter what the protagonist does to defeat the villain. He can shoot him, if he can get away with it, but we want the villain to do interesting things. The villains in Oliver Twist were interesting. Bill Sikes put Oliver through the window of a house and killed Nancy. He wasn’t good, but he was interesting.

The Villain is the Focus of Our Story

A lot of writers would find it easier to stay on theme if they would focus on the villain instead of the protagonist. As we tell a story, what we should be doing is telling how the protagonists faced a problem in his life. If we follow the protagonist, there are many things that he may do that have nothing to do with the problem we are exploring, but if we focus on the villain through the eyes of the protagonist, then we can hardly get away from the problem.