Mythic Villains: Bring on the Big Bads

With this post, we’ve reached the end of our Hero’s Journey, the monomyth based on the writings of Joseph Campbell. The Villain is the last of our cast of characters, and like the Hero, he has a very specific list of qualities.

Much like the Hero, who is supposed to be unambiguously good, there needs to be no question that the Villain is evil. Remember the motto from the producers of Seinfeld: No learning and no hugging. Your Big Bad can’t be misunderstood, can’t be redeemed, and can’t be conflicted. The Villain is often called the Evil One in the monomyth and with good reason.

Seinfeld finale in jail

The Seinfeld finale drove home the “No Learning” lesson. Your villain needs to be just as selfish as these four.

Interestingly, he or she shares a number of qualities with the hero:

  1. Hubris, although in his case, it might be a straight up big head.
  2. An outlaw, but in the true sense of the word. The Villain is a criminal, not just a little rebellious.
  3. Clever and resourceful. A stupid villain easily duped isn’t a worthy opponent. Also, someone who was tricked into doing the wrong thing isn’t truly evil.
  4. May be wounded, giving him an excuse to do evil. This characteristic is terrifically important for making a three-dimensional villain. The mythical Evil One can easily descend into a cat-stroking, cackling caricature. The wound explains the motivation for his actions, but it cannot make us sympathetic. Don’t make your villain evil for evil’s sake, but make him appalling enough that even knowing his back story, we find him despicable.
  5. Have a special talent, which he’s using for evil. If he has a knack for chemistry, for heaven’s sake don’t have him making medicine for babies and puppies. He should be concocting fowl poisons.
  6. Have great sex appeal. This isn’t required, but I’ve always found the good-looking villains infinitely creepier than the wart-covered oozy ones. However, you can’t have any great love affairs here. He or she will be using and manipulating their lovers for personal gain. Sure, they could fall in love, but they are first and foremost selfish, and nothing will change that. Remember, no learning.

The Evil One also has a number of qualities that are directly opposite of those listed for the Hero:

  1. Is motivated by greed, avarice, lust, lust for power, vanity, narcissism, and other moral flaws. With a list like that, it’s easy to slip into posturing and sneering, but keep the wound in mind.
  2. Is never motivated by idealism, only selfishness. There is one exception: the Evil One’s family. He’s allowed to do nice things for his family, but ultimately that is also a form of selfishness and vanity. They reflect on him.
  3. Is often cruel.
  4. Can win by luck.
  5. Is not forgiving.
  6. May quit, but only at the end.
  7. May whine, grovel, and complain. No need for him to suffer in silence.
  8. May not be loyal.
  9. May not be physically superior, although sometimes he has a sidekick or minions that are.
  10. Has no special birth or destiny, although he may claim one.

Not nearly as much direction is given about the Evil One as the Hero, but that should not mean that you spend any less time crafting a deep and well crafted antagonist. Kristen Lamb recently wrote an article about how a lot of writer’s block and sagging middles could in fact be due to poorly constructed antagonists.

Ben Linus LOL cat

When do you know you’re villain has captivated the public? When they start making LOL cats about him.

I, myself, realized that my first draft contained a cartoon villain. A strong antagonist can make a story come alive. How amazing was Lost after the writers added Michael Emerson’s Ben character? Did I like him? No. Did every scene he was in crackle with energy? You betcha. Why was the third season of the Vampire Dairies so amazing? The Originals, lead by Klaus. That set of villains was so good, a year later the CW has spun them off into their own show! Why was season four less interesting? Because the new Big Bad, Silas, is booorrrrring.

A word of caution, though. In your effort to make your Evil One interesting, don’t make him or her more compelling than your Hero. In this summer’s Star Trek, it became clear that someone was going to have to die. As the final showdown between Spock, Kirk, and Khan approached, Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain was so amazing that he was not my first choice to go. I’m not even sure he was my second. And I like both Spock and Kirk.

Related Reading:

Did That Monster Come Out of You? (Reflections on how to write the truly evil villains from the always great Charles Yallowitz)

Sort of Related Art:

I found this post on the art of Kiersten Essenpries, who did a series of pieces on what villains do in their spare time.  If you like her brand of kooky, you should check out the whole series at her website.

A Lesson in Dialogue from Benedict Cumberbatch


Left to right, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk in Star Trek: Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch (BC) is a magnificent actor—hardly a newsflash to anyone who has seen BBC’s series Sherlock. He’s been nominated for more than one Emmy and I’m sure an equal amount of awards in Britain. I enjoyed the first Star Trek, but I admit I was even more excited for the sequel when I heard BC was cast as the movie’s villain.

I saw Into Darkness opening night and was not disappointed by BC’s performance. He was so compelling that there were times I was secretly rooting for him, and I’m a fan of Pine’s Kirk and Quinto’s Spock.

As the weeks passed, I wondered why I found BC’s villain so gripping. Last week a friend who had been overseas when Star Trek was released returned home. She was searching for someone to go see it with her. I quickly volunteered to see it again, driven by my desire to study BC’s character.

Since I knew how the story turned out, I was more detached this time. From the first scene with BC, I scrutinized his movements, speech, and facial expressions. Was it just because I had grown fond of his Sherlock character? I didn’t think so, as his Star Trek character was markedly different.

As BC paced in his containment cell, lecturing Kirk, I realized even more than his costume, facial expressions, or movements, Cumberbatch’s character was conveyed with his speech. While I’m certain some of the credit here belongs to the screenwriter(s), BC’s delivery was critically important. Thinking back to episodes of Sherlock, which are written by a different person, I remembered that BC does the same thing with Sherlock, although in a way appropriate to that character.

I’m not talking about his British accent here. I’m talking about how he lorded over Kirk without touching him. He did this with his word choice, intelligent reasoning, short clipped commands followed by longer explanations spoken with a condescension that belittled Kirk. BC barely moved his hands or body throughout this, and his face was nearly frozen as well. His diction and cadence alone expressed that he was a dangerous man of great intelligence and brutality.

I have read a number of writing guides that state your characters should each have a distinct way of talking, so that even if you took away the speaker attributions, you should know which character is speaking. I had a hard time understanding this advice. How was that accomplished exactly? As I watched BC on the screen, I understood.

So how do you make your characters spring to life as if Benedict Cumberbatch had lent his magic to enliven their dialogue? On Monday, I’ll walk through some examples of how to make each of your characters’ dialogue distinct.