11 July 2013

The Straw That Stirs The Drink

by Brian Thornton

Don't let the title fool you, I'm not talking about Reggie Jackson (which is who I lifted this line from). Rather, today I'm going to talk about the prime mover in most any work of fiction- the antagonist.

In other words, let's talk "villains."

In my own work over the years I've had to do a fair amount of wrestling with the notion of what constitutes a "villain," and of course I've read the thoughts of others on this. The list of sources I've got on this subject includes but is no way restricted to: Christopher Vogler, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, James N. Frey, Donald Maas, and Stephen King, just to name a few. So going forward, my thoughts as expressed herein are my own, but any credit for originality of thought on this subject likely goes to one of the folks listed above, and anything that stirs up violent disagreement amongst any and all who read this should fall squarely at my own doorstep.

Point the First: The Importance Of The Villain.

Not THIS kind of villain.
Without question the villain is the second-most important character in a good story, nearly as
important as the hero/protagonist. Some of the folks I've credited above even maintain that the entire creative process behind a good story must begin with the creation of the villain. Either way, to be truly effective the villain must be fully-realized, well-drawn, and pretty much the mirror-image of the hero.

That last part is important. If you can work it so it seems that your hero and your villain are two sides of the same coin in some ways, Thesis and Antithesis, Yin/Yang, you've got the beginnings of a truly compelling story.

And just like it's crucial to have a protagonist your readers can relate to (whether or not they like him, are sympathetic to his situation, etc.), it's equally important that your villain/antagonist and his goals/reasons for doing what he's doing are believable. Even if it's a crack-pot idea to build a Dr. Evil-type of doomsday weapon and extort money from the governments of the world, it doesn't have to be plausible that the scheme would work, so long as it's plausible that this villain would believe that such a scheme would work. So it's pretty much a rule of thumb: the more improbable the villain's plans, the harder you as the writer must work to make it clear that your villain absolutely believes that he can and will prevail in the end. If you can establish that, you're on your way.

Next all you have to do is write the hell out of your story such that your villain very nearly succeeds. So again, the more improbable the villain's plans, the harder you have to work to make all of this come together.

What happens if you don't?


Nor THESE two, either.
You could very well wind up with a villain who falls into one of two particular types. Either a cartoon villain or what I call an ubervillain.

Cartoon villains are exactly what the name implies: one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of characters with no real feelings, no depth, no self-doubt, nothing but palm-rubbing elation at the thought of doing evil somewhere, anywhere, to anyone, but most especially to (insert name of your protagonist here). And you just know they're planning to victory dance all the way home afterward, rubbing their palms and cackling, waylaying widows and orphans for rent and lunch money along the way.


If this type of character appeals to you, I suggest you devote yourself to more time spent with the Cartoon Network.

As for the ubervillain, you know the type: the guy who is so good at what he does, such a chess
player, so meticulous and brilliant, that for a good 245 pages of your 250 page novel, he's out-thinking your protagonist every. step. of. the. way.

I'm sure others will disagree with me here, but I find ubervillains even more tedious than the one-dimensional cartoon variety. Not least because they're even more improbable to find in real life.

Look, because of my day gig, I know a ton of really smart people. And among those smart people are a fair number of folks who are flat out, impressively, couldn't hide it if they wanted to brilliant. We're talking full-on genuises, here, including some chess champions.

And every one of them is a deeply flawed human with weaknesses, blind spots, vanity, prejudices, etc., that cloud their ability to do everything all the time exactly perfectly. No human being can have that fool-proof a run of luck. Not. One.


 (Wait for it....)

They're BORING!

And what's the one cardinal sin we as authors must never commit? Like Oscar Wilde in his prime, we must never be boring. But don't just take my word for it. Let me give you a couple of excellent examples from two different yet thematically similar televisions series that have revamped a beloved fictional detective and updated his story for the modern day.

I'm talking, of course, about Sherlock Holmes.

And for the purposes of this discussion, also about his arch-nemesis: Professor James Moriarty.
The only mis-step by the producers of the BBC's excellent Sherlock.

The otherwise excellent BBC update, Sherlock, completely drops the ball when it comes to updating Moriarty's character. The modern day Moriarty is an ubervillain to trump all ubervillains. Not only does he out-think Holmes at any number of junctures, he has him in his sights (literally) from the first time they officially meet. He even (SPOILER ALERT!) fakes his own murder, committing suicide and perfectly framing Holmes for the crime.


Both Adler and Moriarty! Both floor wax and a dessert topping!

Balance that against NBC's surprisingly superb Elementary, and there's no basis for comparison. In Elementary, with Sherlock Holmes (played to the hilt by Johnny Lee Miller) a recovering heroin addict (sounds cliched, but boy do they make it work) relocated to New York as part of a deal with his wealthy, absent father, working with a female Watson (seriously, I didn't know Lucy Liu had this in her!). This Holmes was driven to heroin by remorse over the murder of the only woman he ever loved: Irene Adler.

And just who was responsible for Irene's murder?

Yep, you guessed it. A shadowy figure, spoken of (if at all) only in hushed tones, known by the name of Moriarty. Holmes is convinced of this. And he's right.

Sort of.

Because as it turns out at the end of season one (SPOILER ALERT REDUX!) Irene is alive! And it appears that she's been taken captive by Moriarty!

Needless to say, the discovery of this plot point turns the carefully recovering Holmes' world upside-down.

But there's more.

Turns out appearances are deceiving.

Irene wasn't kidnapped by Moriarty. She is Moriarty (watch it, seriously. It's brilliant how they layer all of this stuff together). Holmes being Holmes soon uncovers this, and then it's really on. Turns out that Moriarty, intrigued by the possibility that there might be someone out there just as exceptional as herself, created the identity of Irene Adler, at first just to get close to Holmes and study him. But she stays (for a while) because she falls for him. That scares her. She bails, only to turn up later where Holmes can easily (for him) find her in New York.

And when, after a see-saw back-and-forth, this plotline plays out to its inevitable conclusion with a final confrontation between the two of them, Holmes and Moriarty, Thesis and Antithesis, at her moment of apparent triumph, Irene admits what Holmes had already surmised and used against her: that he was her on-going, never-get-past-it, completely captivating weakness.

The writing and acting in this completely sell this plotline. AND it buttresses the earlier assertions about the best villains being grotesques, mirror images of the heroes they face.

More THIS kind of villain
Point the Second: Does Our Villain Actually Know He Is The Villain?

In Paradise Lost the great English poet John Milton famously put the following words into the mouth of the fallen angel Lucifer as he is being cast down into the pit (and equally famously echoed, if indirectly in the "Spaceseed" episode of the original Star Trek by Ricardo Montalban's character Khan Noonien Singh):

"Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven."

This single line provides the reader with such a wonderful insight into the mindset of "God's antagonist," Lucifer. He does not see things God's way (obviously), hence their conflict. In fact it's pretty obvious that from Lucifer's perspective, he's the aggrieved party, not the Almighty, and by association, Mankind.

And since the reader is ostensibly on God's side, the reader sees Lucifer as the author of the troubles between himself and the Almighty. Milton hardly takes Lucifer's side, and he certainly does not excuse the fallen angel's actions.

But what he does do is offer insight into our antagonist's viewpoint. In the antagonist's mind he's not a "bad guy." He's "misunderstood." He's a "rebel." The Good Guy is a "tyrant." "Someone has to stand up to him," and so on and so forth.

This sort of insight can only help make your "antagonist" more well-rounded, more believable, more (forgive the phrase, especially since the example I've used is of an angel-become-devil) "human." And humanizing a villain in the long run both makes the story more interesting and the writer's job more clear. (See "believability" above).

Point the Third: The Villain Is "The Straw That Stirs The Drink" In Any Good Story.

Think about it. Who sets the tone in a great story? The Bad Guy. I'm not talking about those stories with antiheroes as the protagonist, like Breaking Bad. Nope, I'm talking about the real "Good vs. Evil" stuff. Moby Dick? Either Ahab or the whale (personifying Nature, in which Nature is seen as the embodiment of Hobbes' dictum that life is "nasty, brutish and short"), take your pick. These twin antagonists drive the action, as Ahab's quest helps both define and doom his crew. Take Pride and Prejudice. The charming, smooth-talking Wickham is the real villain of the piece, and as such it's his execution of his own agenda that throws the Bennett household into such turmoil. And doesn't Mr. Darcy come off so much the better when finally compared with the sly, deceitful Wickham?

And then there's The Lord of the Rings: Sauron's return to power sets off alarm bells among elves, dwarves and men, and our intrepid heroes set about marshaling their forces in response to him. In the Harry Potter novels Voldemort has the good guys so cowed that they fear even speaking his name, and this is even early on in the story, when they think Voldemort (Which is French for "Deathwish") is dead after his confrontation with Harry's mother in front of Harry's crib!

The role of the hero in any good story is, by nature, a reactive one. S/He rises to the occasion and saves the day. BUT there has to be an "occasion" to which to rise. Absent Grendel, no Beowulf. Without the Alien, no Ripley. 

I've heard it said that our choice of heroes helps to define us. In the best stories, those who oppose/challenge our heroes help to define them.


  1. Great points here. The rounded villain has to be, I think, someone you'd want to write a story about as the protagonist. My historical mystery Game of Patience began as a non-mystery novel about the character who would become the chief antagonist in Game; only when I realized early on that it wasn't working, did I decide that the story would work much better as a mystery with Character X as the antagonist. Perhaps we should all imagine writing a plausible novel about our villain, casting him/her as the hero of the piece, before writing about him as the bad guy.

    P.S. I think a better translation of "Voldemort" would be "flight of death" or "theft of death" which use a direct double-meaning translation of "vol"; while "wish" is "voeu," which is something of a stretch.

  2. Brian, I wish I'd read this years ago! Lots of great thoughts there. Was it Lee Marvin who said he didn't play villains, he just played guys who were doing their best to get along with what they'd been given? (I may have got that wrong - it's under a lot of other layers in the memory.)

  3. I once heard George Lucas say it would not have taken much to make the rebels the bad guys in Star Wars. Even though the prequels were horrible, they do give a glimpse of that as the bad guys in those three movies actually were rebels.

  4. Great column, Brian. And Ruth, it WAS Lee Marvin.

  5. Great column - the best villains are the complex villains. (My favorite Moriarity, actually, is in The Seven Percent Solution.) I love Khan, Zeck, Mrs. Proudie (Trollope), Mapp and/or Lucia (depends on who you're rooting for). I hate ubervillains, and find them boring, tedious and unbelievable (mainly because in my various shifts in working with the criminal justice system, I haven't met a one - of course, all I've met are the ones who got caught...).

  6. Great piece. I have said before I love the fact that Elmore Leonard's bad guys always think they're the good guys.

    And oh, how I hate ubervillains, especially serial killers.

    I have to point out this video that went up last week. My daughter's band Cheshire Moon recorded (without her) a highly relevant song she wrote: "The Witch In Your Story."

  7. Brilliant advice Brian. Thanks! Timely too. I'm putting the finishing touches on my medical thriller The Neah Virus. I think I'll go back and put another coat of gloss on the villain. I can't humanize it, because it's not human (If you guess "The virus!" guess again). Now as far as what TV and Hollywood do to stories, you again make some good points. Can I just say, though, that the whole Moriarty thing with Holmes was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's BIG mistake. I have read the whole Holmes canon, and I find every story with Moriarty at its core to be less interesting than the stories with non-recurring villains. Each fresh villain seemed to be more well-crafted than Moriarty, and the feelings and motivations of each villain were teased out by Holmes in interesting ways. With Moriarty, who stands as my personal prime example of an ubervillain as you put it, there was a need for Doyle to leave the bad guy uncaught, unexplained, and as far as I'm concerned, uninteresting. Moriarty never worked for me once in all the Holmes stories I have read. Now Hollywood has cast him as a her. That, to me, is, um, uber uber uber uber uber-- and out! Oh well, at least they tried. I suppose they're attempting to fill the huge blank that Doyle left in the character.

  8. Terrific piece. In re the heavy mirroring the hero, I remember an essay I read years ago about Westerns that makes this point. For example, Jack Palance in SHANE is evil personified (his entrance, the dog slinking away, the lap dissolve so he seems eerily supernatural) and Shane the knight on the white horse, but the gun is what they have in common: "There's no going back from a killing." In other words, Shane takes on Wilson's mantle, the two men both forces of anarchy, a necessary evil to effect safety, but Shane of course has to leave the valley, because he's done violence, and it has no place there.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments! Individually:

    Susanne: You're probably right on the "Voldemorte" meaning in French. I suspect your French is far superior to mine! I guess it's possible I was thinking of "vol" as its Latin root? ("will, free will, free choice; to wish; personal desire").

    And either way your series is NOT to be missed (said the guy who has gotten behind

    Ruth: Definitely sounds like Lee Marvin. His nuanced performance in THE BIG HEAT waaaaay back in the '50s when he was just getting started is not to be missed!

    Jim: Great analogy. I couldn't stand the second trilogy either. But if anyone understands Jungian archetypal tropes in story-telling, it's a guy like Lucas.

    John: Thanks!

    Eve: Interesting your take on Moriarty and your fave also not being a canonical "Holmes" one. More on that in my response to Tom below.

    Rob: Great quote of Elmore. I should have mentioned him outright as well. He's definitely influenced my take on how to construct a good "villain." And great song link!

    Tom: Your main point is well-taken on Moriarty. You do realize that Doyle was sloppy with him because he created Moriarty for the express reason of killing off Holmes? He'd tired of the character and wanted to move on and write other things, which is why he came up with Moriarty. I completely agree with your other comments vis-a-vis this character. Truth be told (and this goes back to Eve's statement above) my favorite take on Moriarty was (surprise surprise) the holodeck Moriarty in the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION episode "Elementary, Dear Data," mostly because of how he was played by Daniel Davis, and because of how the character eventually did what Doyle's character by and large never did: transcended his flat, one-dimensional role, "grew" and "learned" in such a way as to become a sentient holo-life form, and hence, more "real."

    That said, Tom, I challenge you to watch the first season of "Elementary" and see what they've done with the character. As reboots go, it's compelling! YMMV.

    Thanks again to all who commented!


  10. Oh, and David, thanks also for your comment! Hadn't thought of SHANE, which, as you rightly point out, fits the mirror/mirror trope AND is redolent with mythic structure, right down to the violent man not being able to remain in the valley he helped to make peaceful. Great points, wonderful insight, and thanks again!



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