Heroes And Villains
It’s been said that “Without Judas, there would be no Jesus.” Now sparing you a religious/ethical debate, partly because I am ignorant in both, the world’s greatest and timeless stories are derived by a hero (including his/her ideals) or “Protagonist”, versus a villain (and his/her ideals) or “Antagonist”.
Of course who is the hero or the villain comes down to perception and point of view. For example, let’s imagine I’m spilling my guts about my ex-girlfriend to you at a bar. I tell you that I came home from work to find my babycakes cheating on me. Well, in my version of the story, I’m the hero and my ex is the villain (due to her actions). Let’s say my ex-girlfriend is in the same bar the next day and is telling you (who apparently lives at this bar) her side of the story. She says that a census guy came to the house to conduct an interview and before he could ask a question I storm in the house, throw a tantrum, and leave. Is my ex-babycakes still the villain?
Your hero is only as strong as his/her villain. It’s a twist on that whole “chain is only as strong as its weakest link” axiom. This time the chain is your screenplay or manuscript, and your characters (and plot points) are the links. One dimensional villains are a surefire way to undercut your entire piece in one fell swoop.
Evil heavyset guys wearing a cloak and top-hat twirling their mustaches went out with silent films. This is problem that affected films in the up until the 80s. Your mercenary hero (Like Stallone’s “Rambo”, or Schwarzenegger’s “Commando”) would be plopped in some exotic locale and they would lay waste to hundreds of extras on his way to their particular goal. Now, this still happens in films (See Liam Neeson’s “Taken”) but by the end of the 80s, people were becoming jaded. They wanted to see their heroes in danger. Now, the best way to do this is to strengthen your villain.
In the late 80s, heroes were getting hurt. This had a chain reaction effect, as screenwriters tried to rationalize why would someone who got dominated by the villain in first and second acts would continue on their quest while struggling to stay alive. This gave rise to what’s known as the Anti-hero. Now, Anti-hero characters have been around since the days of Greek theater. Hollywood, however really embraced the trait in mainstream films starting in the late 1980s. In fact, the original “Die Hard” film is seen as one of the vanguards for the phenomena.
If you haven’t seen the film, you should. Instead of being a guy who took down soldiers without breaking a sweat, “Die Hard”‘s John McClane…well, broke more than a sweat..
Anti-heroes are a littler harder to write because you as the author have to present your audience a good reason why the hero would forgo his status quo and partake in the story. Hack writers have done this many of times. The most cliched way works like this:
G-man: Jack Amazing, the government needs your help on this mission.
Jack: I told you, I’m retired.
G-man: I understand. But if you do this, your criminal record will be wiped clean.
Jack: *Growls* I’m in. But this is the last time… You know, unless there are sequels.
A guilty favorite of mine, “2Fast2Furious” works that plotline to a tee. Also check out “The Rundown”.
Many writers (understandably) regulate their villains to a plotpoint/or MacGuffin. You see, in a 120 page screenplay you are on average going to have the hero on screen for 75-85 of those pages. Just say Mr. X wants to take over to world and let the good guy get to work. No back-story? no problem!
Television cop dramas do this often. You see, an average hour-long cop drama TV show isn’t an hour at all. After commercials each episode runs about 39-44 minutes on average. A lot of times, these shows have to run on short-hand to move the story along. For example, if some girl dies of a drug overdose in act one and the cops have to interrogate the drug dealer to make him snitch on the drug lord, instead of giving the dealer a proper back story, a lot of times a minority is cast (wearing appropriate gang-related colors, bandannas or head-ties). This tells the audience “he’s bad news, just trust us”, so they can move on to the next dramatic beat. This doesn’t affect white actors as much. Usually if a white male (wearing modest middle class clothes) is brought into a interrogation, they are usually a victim of coercion from someone else or they have incredibly bad luck. The exception being pedophiles. For some reason pedophiles are almost always white guys on TV and…
….I’m getting off topic.
Anyway, the hardest character type to pull off in my humble opinion is the anti-villain. Arguably the newest archetype of the four, it’s someone who is the bad guy but usually against their will or someone who is doing heroic things but is still being perceived as the villain. Back to the cop show example, the Internal Affairs Bureau rep, (the officer responsible for making sure the other cops are working within the law) are usually hated by the other (non-internal affairs) cops for just doing their jobs. Forrest Whitaker’s character from “The Shield”, Jon Kavanaugh is a top notch example of this. Seriously *jumping on soapbox*
“The Shield” is one of the best works of fiction. Period.
A more comical example: If I walk into Los Angeles wearing a black T-shirt with a crossed out marijuana leaf with the words “Illegalize It” written underneath it, any bet I would need a police escort home. Unless the police were in on it too. Can’t be too sure, they have nightsticks.
This November, It’s the National Novel Writing Competition month, aka NaNoWriMo. I’m taking a crack at it, and I hope the preceding has got you in the mood to try it yourself.