Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Villains and Enemies

“A man is known by his enemies.” The growth of a hero is defined by the power of the villain. Enemies can be a great deal more interesting than heroes and can actually make the hero more compelling. How many books and movies have fallen flat because the enemy wasn’t very interesting? Or conversely, made the reader so uncomfortable that they didn’t finish the book? Villains are every bit as important as heroes, maybe more so.

One great pitfall for writing enemies is overplaying their evil and making them two dimensional.

I am currently reading The Lost Symbol and I don’t like the villain. The energy of the book keeps dropping every time he appears. He’s evil, strong and difficult to overcome, but there’s nothing truly interesting about him – he’s just a very sick, OCD, psychopath. I keep putting down the book and find myself reluctant to pick it up again. Dan Brown seems to like psychopaths, but in The Da Vinci Code the albino, Simon, at least has a background that justifies his murderous behavior and a great love and loyalty to his protector the Bishop Aringarosa. Indeed there is a question that Simon would have been as murderous had Aringarosa not misused that love. Those elements make him sympathetic, understandable, as much a victim as his victims and infinitely more interesting than a simply evil character. As a reader I have my limits in terms of how much sociopathic behavior I enjoy. For me as a reader and a writer the logic of the villain has to make some real world sense and to be other than simply sick.

Enemies must want the same thing as the hero from the opposite direction.

The villain wants to get something. The hero stands in the way of the enemy achieving his goals. The enemy by definition has to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than the hero. There has to be on-going doubt in the mind of the hero that he can overcome the enemy – but he always has to try. If the hero is powerful himself, then the enemy must be come in a pack, or at least one or two steps ahead of the hero. If the main hero is exceedingly strong, then there must be someone in the mix that is less strong who becomes the symbol of the hero’s growth line. Stories are about growth and change in the face of adversity. Transformers is about equally matched giants who do battle for good and evil, and to the extent that their transformations and interactions are fascinating the story would be one dimensionally interesting. It is the young Sam Witwicky who represents the growth curve of the hero. He doubts himself, considers himself to be something of a loser and persists in the face of overwhelming odds to emerge the human hero. The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and similar stories to the contrary, satisfactory stories do not generally end with the villain winning. The doubt in the mind of the reader should be how the hero can win, not if the hero can win.

Enemies can also be archetypes.

If you watch an American war movie, the enemy is always the guy on the other side – Germans, Russians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabs, Native Americans, the Confederate Soldier – the list is long and predictable. The other side is easy to identify and they generally have stereotypical attributes that make them more difficult to battle and sometimes provide the exploitable Achilles Heel by which they can be defeated. For example, in movies Germans are always super soldiers and punctual, the resistance always can tell when they will make their rounds – which works against them in the end.

Giving the enemy some sympathetic qualities can make for interesting story telling.

If a sympathetic enemy doesn’t get in the way of the story, it makes the story much richer. It’s well known that heroes pay heavy prices for their activities. Sometimes it’s interesting to make the villains pay as well. In life behavior is seldom black and white and by adding a heavy psychological price to the villain’s role, the story becomes much deeper and often more compelling. I tend to like to give my villains reasons to be bad. It doesn’t make them less bad. It doesn’t make them easier to defeat – in fact in some cases it motivates them to continue even after they logically should have been dead. The trick in making the villains sympathetic or at least comprehensible is to make their goal more horrific than they are – drop and A-bomb on Chicago for example – so that no matter how much you understand their behavior, you don’t see them as good and you still have to stop them.

Approaches to enemy development

Write a biography of the enemy as full as the biography of the hero. Who are the enemy’s allies or henchmen and how do they inform you about the enemy? What are the enemy’s goals and objectives? (Hint: they are very close to the goals and objectives of the hero.) How does the enemy contribute to our understanding of the hero? How does the enemy contrast to the hero? How do the goals and objectives of the enemy advance the plot? The better your understanding of the enemy, the better use you can make of him.

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