What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, "hooray for our side"

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thinking of Villains - a Writing Question

I'm over halfway through the rewrite and I've hit a conundrum. So, a writing question.

How much do people want to know about the villains? It just kinda hit me this morning that while there's a lot of talk about them, the protagonists working to defeat them, and they show up to do their bad stuff, but you don't actually meet them. There's not preliminary "There ain't room in this town for the two of us" meeting and conversation. I think there's plenty of tension already between the protags (and here is where I call the villains "villains" because the antagonists aren't all on the other side). And now I'm thinking I should add in more.

But see, then there's the other side of me. One of the things I wanted to avoid with my writing is the standard cliche of "monologuing". People, when they're fighting, don't typically trade witty banter. And once the battle is over, the adrenaline rush ends and you just want to go somewhere and collapse, not say some one-liner to the smoldering corpse. And I guess it also goes to my habit of when the bad guy is obviously defeated he then gets to spout the "from hell's heart I stab at thee" line as I'm shouting, "just shoot the bastard already." (This is related to my concept of, "pirates boarding your ship, and they don't have pressure suits on? Vent their asses into space. Same with Data when he goes rogue.") But I'm a bastard in some ways.

Don't even get me started with the "You put down your rock and I'll put down my sword, and we try to kill each other like civilized people?" concept. This is a left over from the Western which, even though there are guns a plenty, the white and black hats have to have fisticuffs to settle their dispute over the widow's mortgage. Or that the good guy has to wait for the bad guy to make a move.

Han Solo shot first. Just saying. And that's why we loved him.

Hell no. The bad guy runs out of bullets, put a slug in his head and move on. Do I care that the Snidely Whiplash character had a troubled childhood which lead to his life of disfunction tying Nell to the railroad tracks because he thinks that's what love is? No. Even the twist of the bad guy faking the hero into putting his gun down to fight it out like men, only to pull a backup gun (which the hero then disarms him) is getting trite.

The villain is trying to muscle in on the territory, they're very effective at what they do, there's several encounters of which the protagonists (I won't say "heros" here) barely escape before finding the villain's layer and taking the fight to him (and even in the major confrontations, they only win because good guys do cheat). Does my villain need more motivation, more depth, than greed and that they're a mirror of the motivations of the protagonists (also criminals, btw)? Does the villain need to hit the high points of the Evil Overlord list? Does he deserve the microphone at all?

I'm thinking not. But, YMMV. What do you think? Do you need to know the villain's point of view to enjoy the story?

(And yes, I know having interesting villains are nice, such as almost any part that Alan Rickman has played in the past twenty years, including the Sheriff on Nottingham where he totally outshone Kevin Costner. But my bad guys are just interested in doing the job they've been tasked to do. The main movers behind the villainy never come on stage.)


Nathan said...

If you explain too much of your villain's pathology(?), evil motivation(?), you run the risk of making him/her another flawed hero. (Think Janet Leigh in Psycho -- if she hadn't gotten carved up, etc.)

I think villains can stick with bare-bones motivations; it makes them easier to hate and root against. Which also kinda brings us to stupid evil plots - Villain buys up massive swaths of the Mid-west at rock bottom prices and then spend bajillions of dollars on his space ray gun which has the sole purpose of melting the polar ice caps, submerging the coastlines and then, he's go all of the most prime oceanfront property in America -- TA DA!"

P.S. Best example of "just shoot the fucker" is Indiana Jones and the scimitar wielding douchebag. Love that moment.

David Klecha said...

If this is the story I'm thinking of... then no, I really don't think it needs much, if any more exposition on why the villains are doing what they are doing. The noirish tone, in fact, militates against it.

But, to the larger point, I think there is more expectation that villains get explanations for their villainy these days. More people seem to be demanding some kind of rationale. I watched yesterday the Red Letter Media guys (they of the famous Star Wars prequel video reviews) reviewing Cowboys and Aliens, and they said that one of the complaints floating around about a "plot hole" comes from uncertainty as to why they wanted a particular resource in the first place. The reality, though, is that it doesn't matter--the story doesn't address their need the way a Star Trek episode might (making a villain not a villain but the victim of a tragedy, say)--but that's because the story is about the cowboys, those characters, their struggles, etc.

It's a variant, that I don't think you see very often at all any more, of the "man v. nature" conflict structure. I was watching an old MacGyver episode last week in which... there were no villains. The "villain" was a burning oil well, and while there were complications on the "hero"'s side, they never rose to out-and-out villainy, they were the touch (just a touch) of human drama that was necessary to make the man v. nature story more than just a methodical recipe for dealing with the oil well fire in an improvised, MacGyverish sort of way.

I see your novel (again, if it's the one I'm thinking of) in the same vein. The forces arrayed are effectively (as far as the protag is concerned) forces of nature. There's little-to-nothing that he can do to affect them, or perhaps even completely comprehend them, other than dealing with the piece in front of him.

The caveat here being, I might be entirely alone in feeling this way. ;)

Eric said...

I don't think the question you're asking has an answer, Steve, except for the one that's specific to the story you're writing. Sometimes keeping a villain's motivations to himself--if he even has motivations*--is the most interesting and best thing to do. In other stories, getting into what the villain is doing or why is integral to the story. And unfortunately, it is something one can do wrong: there are stories that have been ruined because the author felt compelled to explain things that didn't need to be explained, and stories that are dissatisfying because the writer didn't explain enough. This is, I'm afraid, one of those things where you only know if you did it wrong (or right) after you're done.

Since David seems to have some knowledge of what kind of story you're trying to tell, I'd suggest taking his advice. Especially if he's read a draft, since that puts him in a position to say whether he was made unhappy by whatever degree of exposition you went into. As I said, it ultimately comes down to what kind of story you're telling and what kind of bad guy your villain happens to be.

*I can't resist one small example: Michael Myers as a force of nature whose only motivation is mayhem is a terrifying character; Michael Myers as a mental patient who's playing out some kind of soap-opera psychodrama with his sister is effing dull; John Carpenter intuited wisely when he just dubbed him "The Shape" in the credits of the first movie. For some kinds of story, any motivation beyond a primal "this is what he does" is too much. For an arthouse/"high culture" variant, see also Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's novel/the Coen Brothers' movie No Country For Old Men.

Steve Buchheit said...

Thanks Nathan, Dave, and Erich. It just hit me that most of the novels I remember had some integration of the villain's point of view (usually inserted as the tensions ramp up and the villain either tries to wave the protag off or win them to their side).

Yes, Dave has read the early draft, so it is that book he's thinking of. The villain's have their motivation, which is explained quickly and simply, and they definitely have A Plan™. I just didn't know if I needed to show more of their side.

And, yeah, Nathan, I still love that scene. As well as two scene's in Firefly, where Mal just caps the lawman after returning from dealing with Patience and when he kicks Crow into the jet intake. Those are the scenes that made me fall in love with that series.