Tuesday, June 24, 2014


One of the most memorable bad guys in film was played by Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard film.  He was brilliant, interesting, had a great plan, was always in command even as things fell apart around him, and all the way to the end seemed to be better than Detective McClane.  From his ruthless shooting of the CEO to the laughing attempt to kill McClane at the end, he was always interesting.

Wanting to kill a bird makes you psychotic, apparently
And that's what a bad guy needs.  Its not enough to be bad, the bad guy has to be worth reading.  By contrast, consider Charles Muntz from the movie Up.  An otherwise well done movie, Muntz is one of the worst, most arbitrary bad guys in film history, as if the film makers just said 'well we need a heavy in this piece, so he's going to be one' without much thought.  At Cracked magazine, here's how Rohan Ramakrishnan puts it:

Carl, his floating house and a Boy Scout named Russell somehow make it to South America and inadvertently befriend the same strange-looking bird Charles Muntz has been looking for all these years. As a result, Muntz sets Carl's house on fire, kidnaps Russell and then tries to kill them both by sending an army of talking dogs to shoot them in little planes.

Uh, why?

And don't say, "Because he was evil!" Even in terms of carrying out an evil plan to kidnap a rare bird, it doesn't make sense.
It doesn't make sense from any angle for him to chase and terrorize the bird's friends for half the movie. If he had bothered thinking this through instead of instantly jumping to canine homicide schemes, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble and a lot of money in ammo and doggy parachutes.
Other bad Bad Guys they examine include the pointlessly hostile and cruel police department in First Blood who tormented and jailed a guy for not leaving town when they said to, and Good Morning Vietnam which although based on real events, invented a vindictive and humorless sergeant who wants to destroy the comedic DJ for no reason except "we need a conflict here."

The article is wrong about 5th element and Demolition Man - both were good villains, particularly the diabolically smooth and PC Raymond Cocteau but most people miss the point of that movie.  But its true that a story can suffer greatly from a weak antagonist, resulting in a dull or confusing, pointless tale.

A useful way to make a bad guy interesting is to make the reader root for him, or at least sympathize with his cause a little.  Consider Magneto in the X-Men, whose goal is to prevent his people, mutants, from suffering the same awful fate as his parents did in a concentration camp.  Magneto fears the same horrible things in the future for mutants and will do anything to prevent that.

Or look at Boromir from the Lord of the Rings.  Boromir wants the ring to protect his city and his people, he can't see having this amazingly powerful weapon and destroying it when Gondor is facing extinction at the hands of horrific evil monsters.

Another example is Long John Silver from Treasure Island.  You can never really tell what side he's on, and he seems to be the one character who genuinely likes and appreciates the hero and narrator Jim.  A boy surrounded by adults with their own agendas, he finds a friend in the often treacherous and even murderous Long John Silver, but you always find yourself liking the pirate a bit anyway.

Not until you tell me what conditioner you use, Vlad!
Books are full of these sort of villains, from the dignified and educated Captain Hook to the tragic, love-torn Dracula, a good writer can find a way to make the readers appreciate and even like their villains.  Each of these bad guys has a reasonable motivation and a turn to their character that you can appreciate or at least understand, if not agree with.

One way to approach this is to give them some human turn, some thing that they've been denied, or fear, some reasonable concern they are reacting poorly to, or some endearing quality that sets them apart.  That may be a loved one they care for in a particularly sympathetic way, a surpassing genius and cunning that one cannot help but admire, or some other characteristic, but the goal is to make not just a memorable villain, but one that the reader believes is a proper threat to the hero of the story.

This "give them a sympathetic back story" can be taken too far however, such as the way modern screenwriters feel the need to give every bad guy a sob story and broken home, explaining that Loki never would have gone bad if it hadn't been for his mean daddy lying to him and humiliating him in front of everyone.  This is turning into a cliche, with every bad guy being not really bad, but driven that way by mean people.  Where this stack of turtles starts (who was the first bad guy to make the next one evil and how did he start out that way?) no one knows, but it isn't necessary.

Professor James Moriarty didn't need a back story to explain his evil.  Its never looked at by Doyle, yet he's one of the most memorable, interesting, and famous villains of all time despite only being in one Sherlock Holmes story (plus a brief mention in a handful of other stories).  We don't know why he turned out bad, and it doesn't matter.

What makes him work is the fact that he's so skillful and gives the great detective so much trouble that ultimately he nearly kills Holmes.  Moriarty was unique in the annals of literature to that point: the super villain, the scheming mastermind who personally was not a major criminal, but was the brain behind the many deeds of evil, giving plans and coordination to thousands of lesser crimes.  And that made him interesting.

Padme fell for this chump?
What a writer needs to avoid is making the villain a snarly one-note thug.  If your bad guy is just bad without any distinctive quality or feature, then they are easily forgotten.  You can get this wrong in a lot of ways, such as in Star Wars I-III where Palpatine's motivation and even scheme is confusing and lost in the details.  And Anakin's alleged slide into evil doesn't work because he seems more whiny and petulant than evil, more a spoiled brat than a villain.  When he does suddenly turn bad, he becomes contradictory and arbitrary, nearly killing the girl he loves... because he's afraid she'll be hurt?

A good bad guy can make a book satisfying and give the main character(s) something truly challenging and intriguing to deal with.  The bad guy that's always one step ahead or seems just too tough to beat, or has everything on their side gives a tough fight for the hero, but an interesting bad guy makes the fight worth reading about.