The Hero, sweat on his brow, happily plows the field for his Father, who is away on business. He smiles at the Fair Girl, his great love (though of this she is unaware), across the way, pausing for a moment. The Hero enjoys life, enjoys giving it.
A dark shape covers the sun, taking away the happiness from the Hero’s world for reasons it alone knows. And out of the sky descends an evil presence…
Here, obviously, we have the classic beginning of what could be a great story. A selfless, hardworking hero, a beautiful girl, and an evil presence that threatens to destroy everything. We can naturally guess where the story will take us next; perhaps the girl will be captured, and the hero will leave behind the world he knows in pursuit of the villain. Or maybe we can create another dimension in the story, where the girl is killed, and the hero pursues revenge, his selfless spirit suddenly driven into dark places, until he becomes like the villain. So that would raise the question, what is the villain, anyway? Is the villain the evil character, or something deeper? If the hero can become the villain, maybe a villain isn’t so much a character as a state of mind. Or is it?
It’s been said that a story is only as good as its villain, which means if we are going to make a good movie, we’d better understand the ins and outs of the antagonist, and how he contrasts with the hero.
So we know the hero is good and the antagonist is evil. To explore these archetypes, we need to establish what exactly good and evil are. Notice how I immediately recognized the hero as a selfless person, who is at peace with himself and desires to give, not take. This defines good as selfless giving. Or is it? What if a person selflessly gives poison to people, believing that death is a better way than life? Notice how you are immediately repulsed by this idea. That is the instinct of good in you reacting to evil. Good is selfless giving of life, which is synonymous with Love. Evil, then, does the opposite; it is selfish taking of life. One of the best descriptions of evil I have ever read is in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Screwtape Letters’, a darkly humorous correspondence between two devils. Lewis describes them as bureaucrats, beings totally devoted to finding something weaker than themselves and consuming it. In Lewis’ view, the end goal of the Devil is to consume everything, so that the only Self is the Devil. It has no motivation but greed and impulse.
That’s all instinctual, though. It simply helps frame the Hero and the Villain as absolutes. In my opinion, in a story there is always a Hero and a Villain, even if the absolutes of each are not manifested in particular characters. This fact allows for the peculair archetype of the Anti-Hero, which I’ll get to in a moment. Sometimes, the absolutes are personified, but not as characters. A good example is the ‘Star Wars’ series, where there is the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force, eternally struggling against each other, with the characters constantly being tempted to either side.
The Anti-Hero is a character whose personal traits are more in line with a Villain, but he is ultimately a Hero by serving good. On the opposite side is, (drum roll please) my first examination of a type of Villain, which I shall call an Anti-Villain.
An Anti-Villain is a tragic figure. He is a version of what I hinted at in my story illustration, in which a Hero becomes a Villain. His personal traits are of a Hero, but he is ultimately a Villain by serving Evil. A good example is Anakin Skywalker in the ‘Star Wars’ prequels. He wants good for his loved ones, but he is driven by fear, which forces him to make selfish choices in an attempt to be noble. He then becomes Darth Vader, the chief antagonist of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, and by the third film he comes full circle as an Anti-Hero, destroying the Emperor.
Which happily brings me to my next type of Villain, who I shall unfortunately refer to as a Flatagonist (!). Emperor Palpatine, the Dark Lord of the Sith that rules the Galactic Empire, lacks the complexity of an Anti-Villain. His only motivation is selfishness. An Anti-Villain is still concerned with his own morality, but a Flatagonist doesn’t care. If it benefits him, it is acceptable. At the end of the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, he tempts Luke Skywalker to become a Sith, daring the young man to kill him. He does this knowing that Darth Vader, the Anti-Villain, with his misguided nobility, will protect him. The interesting thing about a Flatagonist is their natural tendenancy to manipulate Anti-Villains. Palpatine wants Vader dead so he can have a fresh, bold Anti-Villain in Luke. When his plans go awry, he lashes out, and ironically it is the Anti-Villain he had so successfully tempted before that kills him. Other good examples of the Flatagonist are: Sauron (‘Lord of the Rings’), Joker (‘The Dark Knight’). Yet even the Flatagonist has a master…
Which once again brings me to the next Villain, which I touched on previously. This one I’ll simply refer to by ‘Star Wars’ terms as the Dark Side. The Dark Side is machinery, a malevolent system with intelligence, an idealogical force. Even Sauron in ‘Lord of the Rings’ is the not the ultimate machine of evil. He is the latest manifestation of the Dark Side’s pull. There is not much to say about the Dark Side that has not already been said.
So which Villain should we use? I think the success of ‘Star Wars’ reaches us to use all three. How’s this for an exercise: go Villain hunting. Watch a film and see if you can spot all three Villains.
There is another aspect of Villainy that we have to explore: execution. Since these archetypes are so common, it is more important how we portray them than what we portray. The key to a good Villain is the same as to a Hero, being complexity. Complexity breeds conflict. This is why we need Anti-Villains and Anti-Heroes. The more complex the character’s struggles, the greater the drama. And outside of their inner goals, the characters must come in conflict with each other (obviously), even within the same side. Anti-Villains must have a Flatagonist to struggle with, and vice versa.
Still don’t think you can construct a good Villain? I find your lack of faith disturbing…