The Danger of One Dimensional Villains

Villains are fun, or they should be. Even if they make us physically ill there is entertainment from loathing their very existence. So why is it so many villains end up cackling mustache twirlers? The answer is the same as why so many protagonists end up reading the same as others, writing a role and not a person.
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As I was typing this up I almost wrote that the mistake was making characters evil for the hell of it, but I realized that has never been a problem. A well written villain can just enjoy being wicked or flat out evil just like a protagonist can enjoy being good for compassion’s sake. Some of my favorite villains have been those who are just quite simply evil. In my opinion one way to make these characters work is by giving them the illusion of having other motives and complexities. Another way is by making the villains motives unknown until the protagonist gets to ask. I don’t remember what show this was, but years ago I remember this exchange between a protagonist who’d just been captured and the villain of the show. The hero basically asked why, and ,without a single laugh or any other stereotypical sign of insanity or wickedness, the villain just said “Because its fun for me.” That moment always stuck with me.

The reason that stuck with me is because so often villains are just evil to fill the role of being evil without ever convincing you that they are the villain for a reason. Often there are mitigating forces writers mistake for backstory such as insanity, which is borderline offensive in most cases, or not being loved. But those traits and a thousand others don’t automatically make a villain complex. Those traits like any plot element become cliches when you fail to understand how to use and portray them well.

Why do people love Loki from the Marvel films?

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Well, look at him.

Putting aside Tom Hiddleston’s acting(And face) Thor begins by showing Loki as an outsider not because of who he is, but because he is a methodical intellectual more than a traditional fighter. He is constantly compared to his brother who is more traditionally handsome, more of a warrior, and the first born. Thor is arrogant, but light in all places where Loki is dark. Thor’s arrogance came from entitlement, while Loki’s arrogance came from his actually being smarter. Loki’s most complex relationship comes from a father, Odin, who is moderately detached, set in his ways, and quicker with punishment than with a kind word. The great irony of their interactions is Odin, in trying to bring out the best in his sons, often brings out the worst…and the funny part is Loki’s worst parts are in many ways the parts that make him most like Odin. Does he hate Thor? Does he hate Odin? Yes…and no. He is a man who would gladly kill them both…and we constantly get glimpses that despite that he still loves them…and hates that. He is in conflict with his actions, wants, and feelings which are shown to be somewhat justified. All of these things make Loki a complex character and a protagonist in his own head.

When you watch him these things aren’t just thrown out to the audience. The complexities of his character play out in how the characters move, how they respond to traumatic events, and what brings them together just as much as what pulls them apart. Loki doesn’t spend all his screen time being the caricature his comic book persona really is(trust me on that). Loki isn’t just a villain, but a whole present person in a world where he chooses to antagonize the common good. Those traits are elevated because Loki doesn’t just act like a boring villain whose one purpose in life is to be in Thor’s way. He has his own goals…and Thor is just the one in the way.

Our villains can be simple, but that doesn’t stop them or their motivations from being complex. Another example? Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. He is a complete bastard who gets away with everything because he is a “man’s man” with good looks and supposedly little fear. Why does he fascinate people beyond his inflated sense of ego? Gaston thinks he is doing everything right. Everyone thinks he is. Belle is the problem, not him. In his eyes she should be fawning over him because that’s how it should be. His entire view of the world isn’t just based on him, but on a value system of how everyone should and should not be. In his mind every passive aggressive “compliment” at Belle is legitimate help, and he is doing her a favor by even speaking to her at all. Why be smart, he wonders, when you are a woman…and a beautiful woman.

I love the picture below because it captures everything about him and how he sees himself in an image. You understand him the moment he comes on screen because the moment he strikes that pose you learn everything. He is arrogant, self-absorbed, and superficial. Oh and a jackass. But the movie takes the time to situate him and those traits in his world. It’s not just him, but the whole village who is superficial because they all hold the same values. He is just the embodiment of every wrongly held value of that village. He is still a person with  insecurities that make him lose all of his senses. Insecurities he probably never knew he had. He isn’t like the wicked step-mother from Cinderella who just is evil. Side note: the film Ever After does an amazing job of conveying why she is so cruel. Gaston is a product of toxic masculinity, of hubris left unfiltered, and of a world where pretty things become trophies even if they aren’t things at all.

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Some of you may be wondering what is the solid difference between a villain having traits of substance and not. I said earlier I hate when insanity is used to justify a character’s evil actions. I am an advocate for mental health, but I will tell you that I still disagree with people who say mental illness should never be a part of a character who is evil. The problem with mental illness is that it is just glued on. All traits tend to be exaggerated in fiction, but mental illness is exaggerated to the point of mockery without any nuance. The villains run around talking to themselves doing crazy looking things because crazy. That’s just fucking lazy. It’s poor writing. It’s a cliche. And it sure as hell ain’t your average mental illness. There is a way to craft a character with mental illness as an aggravating factor to their actions. The trait has to be there not as an excuse, but as part of the character. No mentally ill person is defined by just being mentally ill. The problem too is plenty of mentally ill people are perfectly regular members of society, but we rarely see that portrayed. Instead we get a lot of mustache twirling justified because…evil.

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Keep your villains as complex as possible.

When you are creating your villains don’t ever say “Ok here is the villain” because you should be creating a person with goals, dreams, and insecurities. Unless you intend it to be so don’t make your characters just be empty roles with traits glued on. Make those traits have real weight. Portray them as being individuals who are no less fully realized than your main character. It may take some time, but your story will be all the better for it. My dearest hope is people will take my advice, and I will never have to see a shitty villain again. That won’t be the case, but a girl can dream.

Why death Needs to Matter in Fiction

What does a world look like without any weight?  What happens when death ceases to matter? Most would say life loses some of its meaning, and those people would be right because in stories where life is on the line death should matter. So why is it we treat it so flippantly when we write?

A Scottish friend of mine recently described X-Files as saying “Well, it’s an American show so it runs on way too long, but its good”. It was sort of jarring because I realized that’s how a lot of American shows look to the rest of the world. Our stories go on for years and years until the audience tapers off out of boredom. Part of why death often stops mattering in fiction is because we just keep bringing characters back, so the show never has to end. But there gets to be a point where no matter how much you love a show your ability to actually invest in it or recommend it to others suffers.

That doesn’t mean a story  with meaningless death can’t entertain you or offer a good time. Look, I enjoy comics and Supernatural. So trust me when I say a lack of death doesn’t necessarily ruin anything. However when a show, movie series, or books begin to constantly subvert death the tension lessens. Unfortunately this is automatic because death is the ultimate loss and many of the stories within these fictional worlds hold up that standard. These stories agree that dying is the biggest way to lose and the worst. Your ability to be a free agent is gone, and unless death is framed as being free of your body it is the end of who you(or a loved one) are as a human. Death is the universal period. For those reasons it appears in virtually every story ever told.  So why do so many stories undermine death? This isn’t me talking smack about happily ever afters. This isn’t me being a morbid person. What happens when death is off the table? What happens when you flip page after page of characters droning on about wanting to live and how much courage it will take to fight to stay alive only for none of the central characters to ever die.  The risk lessens. The tension is the only thing to die.

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I stopped watching Supernatural regularly because it got boring and I couldn’t care if Sam or Dean died because they were always dying. Several seasons ago they had an entire Groundhog Day episode where Dean was forced by the Grim Reaper to learn that death was unavoidable by endless loops of Sam dying. It is a brilliant episode rendered utterly pointless and undermined by later seasons. You see The Reaper is offended after watching the brothers circumvent death time and again. While they may see it as a sign of their strength and love for each other The Reaper sees it as the brothers as believing the rule simply don’t apply to them. It is unnatural, manipulative, selfish, and against the cycle of things to constantly manipulate the rules of death. Everyone has a time to die and you can’t always save everyone. Lesson learned…or maybe not.
Years later it seems the rules really don’t apply to them. At its core the show is about family thematically, but it’s a monster of the week. The problem with most monsters of the week is that you end up repeating yourself. The trouble with Supernatural is they repeat death to almost comic levels. At this point the show is entertaining, but how can I not roll my eyes as another season builds up to “sacrifice” and “Death” that is ultimately undone  an episode later? How can I feel tension when this has been rinsed, washed, and repeated every single season? How can the writers keep doing this then think the audience would legitimately feel any weight with the brother’s lives?

Now, I’ll say that there is a good thing. Audiences know what they’re getting. Low stress, high entertainment value, and good looking men come to their screens every week. But there gets to be a point where people fall away. Nothing is at risk. Nothing is under threat. Nothing means anything. You’ve seen this all before. Different season same seasonings, and it didn’t matter before so it won’t now.

Supernatural, long standing comic books, games, movies, and novels of all kinds seem to have devalued death. Now each media has its reasons as do the authors. Bottom line is you want people to come back and they’ll probably come back to a character they love. Once again you sit down, open to the page, and know what you’re going to get. But when a writer takes away the real risk, the universal risk, and then keeps saying “Oh this is bad” then you’ll find yourself not believing them. That’s fine for some light reading, but it sucks when you love something and then one day realize it isn’t thrilling you. One day you’re reading intently, but then you feel yourself sliding back. Your favorite character lives, your heart should have skipped in your chest, but no. Why? That’s not normal for you. Well, after some long thought you realize you didn’t believe that character would be killed. Mindless entertainment can’t last forever. And a writer will never be remembered for it.

image-w1280Do you know why Beaches stuck with people? Besides great acting, great writing, universal themes of love and friendship….there came death. Do you know why Steal Magnolias dug into people’s chests and made them cry? There. Came. Death. They were uplifting, but they used death to show the value and the strength of their characters. Everything ends, and it showed the beauty and pain of living. Death made life worth living, fuller and richer and messier, and that’s very human. Without death there is very little life. Without death there is a facsimile of it, a grotesque mirror…a dull mirror with no shine left.

No story has to be chalk full of death and misery to have tension or weight. I am not saying that and never would. But if death is on the line then death should be on the line. If your readers have seen you write Benny nearing death several times across three books and nothing has been lost, no one close to Benny has died, and nothing is really present as the greatest risk and cost then they won’t believe you the eighth time.Maybe that is the time you finally decide to kill Benny, but that won’t necessarily validate all the times you didn’t and Benny walked away unscathed. Death has to have meaning. People we like have to die at some point. IF the only people dying are bad guys then the story isn’t full of real conflict for 2017, and unless you craft exceptionally well you won’t be able to ignore most of the flak. If you keep devaluing death eventually, consciously or unconsciously, people will notice and begin to not see the tension as real whether they stay in the audience or not.

There are ways of getting around devaluing death. A lot of horror posits that the aftermath of death is the problem. The Hellraiser series is a favorite of mine and it isn’t so much the death that is the weight, but the dying. Death is horrid, but it is what becomes of you in the hands of the cenobites, in the hands of someone the cenobites have corrupted, and so fourth that is the ultimate cost we want our protagonist to avoid. And the way this is done is so beautifully simple. The cenobites have grown numb and no longer can differentiate between pleasure or pain. They’re sort of a play on the notion of demons. They aren’t malicious or evil. They invoke and experience sensations. They are not innocents, but they might as well be with their myopic view. The demons don’t tempt you in order to trick you so they can do you wrong. They tell you things without detail, promise sensations you’ve never experienced and simply do not see the big deal about pain. It is sensation. Sensation is good. With creatures like that death is triviality, and if they learn to keep you alive, which they have, they will give you endless sensations of unimaginable horrors. Death isn’t the enemy here. Life after “death,”being stopped from death, and being hunted are the costs. We get that from those monsters.

firefly20cast20364700While some people may not forgive Joss Whedon for killing off characters the notion that he engages in senseless deaths is a wrong one. Sorry to break it to ya’ll but Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse wouldn’t give you the same feeling if death wasn’t always on the table. He and his writing teams designed characters who felt like they were part of the main crew or who outright were. Maybe you didn’t know the story or see the adventure, but you knew from the dialogue that the characters saw them as an honorary part of the team. By snuffing those characters out those writers seeded doubt. They taught their audience how to fear and not to trust that everything would be wrapped up. And 90% of the central teams still made it to the finish line. Realistically you could look and say “Oh one character will tap out and it’ll be done” but did the audience do that? No. Whedon’s shows were crafted strategically to make us believe every person was fair game despite the obvious fact that they were not. They weren’t senseless deaths for the writing of it. They weren’t bad writing. If you believe that then you believe wrong. Death can just happen and sometimes it doesn’t need to be built up because life is pain and suffering with real consequences. That is what makes the good parts of life so important.

Truthfully all death is senseless and it can strike at any time. Our media often likes to forget that, but by showing you these characters who get killed you learn not to trust. That makes you hurt and ache and invest. Some of you may turn off the screen, but that’s your loss because:

Death Matters.