I thought that this was a weird opinion, until I realised most women agreed with me
Ever since I was in a plastic tiara, I’ve always been more interested in the villains. Whether it was a wolf, a wicked magician or an obsessive cardinal, they were just so much more interesting.
This is particularly weird when you think about how absolutely horrible the villains usually are. Misogynist, greedy, cold, cruel, self absorbed, unfeeling, ill tempered and authoritarian. Yeuch. Real life villains like Farage, Trump and Weinstein all have me reaching for a heavy saucepan. There’s no way I’d want to dwell on their motivations, deeper sadnesses and traumatic childhoods. They are strongly allocated to my Men Who Are Irredeemable Pricks pile.
The same cannot be said for cinematic and literary villains. I love, love love them. Not in a crush way, that would be weird. Just in an intensely curious, analytical way. Long after I’ve forgotten who the guy who killed the villain and saved the day, I’ll find myself wondering about the villain. Was he really the villain for wanting power? What’s his perspective on it? Was he genuinely in love with the hero’s love interest? Did he want power to improve the world? Had loneliness and isolation sent him mad in a cruel, selfish world?
This is, I have decided, because usually the villain has had to have an element of complexity for the plot to work. If, in Act 1 Scene 1, you have him leaping about gleefully declaring how evil he is, it usually means you are in for a cringeworthy ride. If you know he’s the villain before he’s so much as had a close up, then you spend the next twenty minutes waiting for the dumb hero to realise he’s been duped. Dull, dull dull. So the interesting plots demand an interesting villain. Which demands complexity.
Observe my formula, mortals:
THE VILLAINOUS CALCULATION
(Motive+internal desire) > (negative traits) (positive traits)
Ultimately, a good villain has to have an internal struggle that outweighs either negative or positive traits to lead them to behaving in an antisocial manner.
If you have overly negative traits, the villain becomes a bit silly or overly dislikeable. There are truckloads of examples where someone is so evil that the internal struggle to actually behave badly is totally ridicuous. There’s no way Count Uber-Nazi is going to struggle to push for racist foreign policy. Even if he’s a sociopath, you still have to observe some form of duality, or it’s dull. No seriously, think of the well written sociopaths: all display some form of positive or at least, from their perspective, redeemable, behaviour. All the rubbish B movie slasher types just snicker around with a knife. It’s scary when you don’t know they are bad. When you watch them behave awfully. That means you make some form of empathy bridge to someone who is monstrous. That’s the most terrrifying thing, right- seeing a monster in yourself. No one is worried about morally turning into Freddy from The Nightmare On Elm Street. But loads of people have been freaked out by the thought of turning into a Nazi or genocidal mobster. Because we all have relatable moral conflict. That’s interesting.
Similarly, overly positive just makes us hate the hero. Why is he screwing things up for the decent academic who just wants a slightly less anarchist, violent world? If he’s an intensely nice person, or at least intensely not unlikeable, the moral decision he makes either seems unrealisitic or maybe a teeny bit justifiable. The hero is a jerk, he deserved to be kicked off the basketball team or fired from his job. Actually, the heroine probably would have a better life with a stable, well paid lawyer who genuinely knows her. So what. Doesn’t work.
And so, the moral decision outweighs both in a good villain. It must be a moral jump that overwhelms us and makes us think ‘What was the tipping point?’ or ‘Could I do that’? That gets you thinking. When it’s believable, and you can see good and bad, the complexity is just delicious. The decision that isn’t obvious. The anger, disappointment or heartbreak just shudders through you. It’s wonderful. An empathy trip beyond anything else.
And, I’d argue, this level of complexity is often far more evaluated and though through than in a hero. The hero, usually male, let’s not lie, is such a bland, boring and pointless part of the film or book that if you erased him and just watched what happened around him, it would probably be far more interesting. Because no standard author or director bothers to move beyond handsome, tall, has a gun, has a friend, has a dog.
Bland beyond the realms of flaxseed porridge.
Why does he love Pretty Lady? Eh, close up of her smiling and giggling. Why does he want to run the company? Eh, his workaholic dad died, here’s a photo on his desk. Why does he hate his boss? Because…he’s probably a better choice for Pretty Lady? You can’t have an underdog with nothing interesting or motivational to push the plot forward. When you highlight this with a fantastic villain, the film or book just becomes a mess.
What do you remember from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves? Alan Rickman. What do you remember from Silence of The Lambs? Hannibal Lector.
What do you remember from basically any film you remember?
A complex villain.
We need to complexify our protagonists.
Thus concludes the lecture.