Watch: What Makes a Perfect Movie Villain (It's Not What You Think)
Who wouldn't want to be the novelist who came up with Hannibal Lecter?
Satan. The Penguin. Cruella de Ville. The Grinch. Sauron. Darth Vader. Kayser Soze. Frank Booth. What do all of these characters have in common, besides being the most interesting characters in the movies they're in? They're villains.
The core set of beliefs a villain represents drives his or her actions, and subsequently, it drives viewers' reactions.
If you can count on little else, you can always rely on the fact that villains have an inimitable allure in whatever story they happen to occupy. But what is that allure based on? Well, part of it must be that they're complex, and they require more effort to write than other characters might require, on the screenwriting side; there may be an extensive backstory (see the aforementioned Joker or Darth Vader for evidence) that's quite sad, for instance. They can't give knee-jerk responses; their lines have to be torqued to produce maximum dread in the audience. But, above and beyond that, there's something else: they touch our nerves. But why they do that is the subject of Daniel Whidden's newest Think Story video essay.
Whidden goes into a fair amount of depth on the basic point that what draws the eye ever closer to a villain is not so much the pyrotechnics, the evil deeds, the explosions, the violence, the terror: it's the ideology. The core set of beliefs a villain represents drives his or her actions, and subsequently, it drives viewers' reactions.
Thus, any screenwriter or director trying to create a Truly Bad character must think, first, about what's inside that character. And the harder the work is on that score, the more reward will be reaped. Think of it: who wouldn't want to be the novelist who came up with Hannibal Lecter? Whidden digs into a couple of the most renowned movie villains for analysis, which might yield some useful takeaways. Here are two examples:
You Have Nothing to Lose But Your... Die Hard
Sure, sure, the idea that Die Hard, everyone's favorite Christmas movie, might secretly be a socialist fable is a bit of a stretch. But not really, when you look at the ideology of its villain. Hans Gruber claims, sure, to be taking hostages at a vast corporation for punishment, but the punishment, as Whidden points out, works out very well for him.
His opponent, Scruffy Good Guy John McLane, is present when Gruber makes his first attack because he is pursuing that most noble of all goals: family unity through making up with his now-estranged wife. On one hand, we have a creature motivated by desire for his own gain; on the other, a man trying to preserve a human relationship. On the one hand: materialism. On the other: humanism. Make sense? Screenwriters: When you write your own villain, try to see if you can make the dichotomies and ideologies at play boil down this simply. Not so easy!
The ideology Vader represents is easily identifiable and understandable—and hateable.
Star Wars, or The Triumph of Free Will Over Dark, Cold, Sad Determinism
Well, not really. But when you think about it... perhaps. Consider, for a second, what Darth Vader, his descendants, and his ancestors all represent: the pursuit of power. But it's not simply power—it's power over others, through the expansion of territory, through regimentation, through intimidation. If you object to those things, then naturally you would object to Darth Vader.
The key here is that the ideology Vader represents is easily identifiable and understandable—and hateable. Luke Skywalker casts Darth Vader into relief; it's no surprise that the first time we see him, he's working on his adopted parents' moisture farm, a self-sustaining entity that pulls water right out of the air. In other words, he's steeped in self-reliance and freedom. Whereas Darth is steeped in its opposite. On the one hand: Independence. Possibility. On the other hand: "I am your father." Again, the stronger the ideology, the more disturbing the villain.