Guard Rails Around the Bottomless Pit
The Villain, Considered as Safety Tool
What makes a good villain?
This question comes up at bookstore signings and convention panels a lot, and the most common answers circle around theme and character—presenting the villain as the ‘dark mirror’ of the hero, or the antithesis to the hero’s thesis. (I’ve never been comfortable with this lite-Hegelian conception of drama, but that’s a whole other essay.) I haven’t been to a lot of convention panels recently, for all the obvious reasons—and I think that distance helped me see a new side to the question when it was raised recently on one of my Slacks.
To ask what makes a good villain, we should first ask what a villain does, so that we can understand what it means to be good at it. To call, say, Darth Vader or Keyser Soze or Sauron a ‘good villain’ is not to make any claims about their absolute moral character. It’s a statement about how good they are at doing the thing they’re in the story to do.
A complete list of the things ‘villains’ do in a story would be beyond the bounds of this essay. Here are some bullet-point gestures in that direction, by way of establishing the prior art in the field:
Oppose the hero’s efforts.
Embody one extreme of a core thematic tension.
Zap people with lightning bolts from hands.
Turn into a snake.
Bloviate incoherent philosophy and hope nobody notices (the “Thanos Gambit”)
Say “Weeee are not so different, you and Iiiiii,” even though you in this scenario are a farm girl with a magic sword and a talking fox companion and I am an eight foot tall shadowy half-man half-demon thing with forked tongue and burning eyes who betrayed his master, poisoned the Sky Tree, killed his entire family and ushered in the Lost Age.
Most discussions I’ve seen on this subject describe the villain’s function in terms of theme, and maybe character. The villain’s role is to challenge the hero in some way, and perhaps challenge the conceptual framework underpinning their heroism. But that approach often fails to consider the villain’s methods, affect, general personality, and overall vibe, which leave it feeling incomplete.
Recently, I found myself toying with a new way of looking at the question. I haven’t subjected it to the kind of rock-tumbler polishing that would let me boldly state it as one of the Core Vital Functions of Any Antagonist, but here it is, for contemplation:
A villain structures threat within a narrative, and conveys its limits.
Which implies, and this is the part that I can’t stop thinking about:
A villain is a safety tool.
It’s dangerous, going into someone else’s mind. Within a story, the writer can do anything at all. Your only protection as the reader is your ability to call bullshit and end the game. You can do this whenever you want, but the sunk cost fallacy is real. Once you’re invested in a book, in its characters or setting or its cute talking animals, it’s hard to abandon them to the writer’s tender mercies—even if you know your presence can’t really change anything. You care about what happens to these people, even if the writer has demonstrated that he or she doesn’t.
So one of a storyteller’s many jobs is to set boundaries, terms of engagement, and communicate them to the reader—effectively and implicitly. Those boundaries do not have to be nice or pleasant or moral in any sense, to be clear. But for tension and pacing and plot to function, it helps if the reader understands what might happen in the narrative: how, in general terms, we intend to do whatever it is we intend to do, whether (at the roughest level) we plan to use gentle affirmation or shock or gut-churning revulsion.
Genre is one resource here. We have a rough sense of what sorts of things happen in particular genres, and more to the point, of how they happen. People die in science fiction stories or thrillers all the time, but they don’t tend to die in quite the same way as they do in, say, novels about the tragic aftermath of car accidents, or horror novels. I think this is one reason why some avowed genre fans resist what’s sometimes called ‘literary fiction’—a sense that the real world is full of gutting and dark shit, too treacherous to engage without ground rules. But genre is a broad brush, and any given writer may decide to veer off into the woods at any point.
Another storyteller resource is trust. We return to the same writers over and over again because they surprise us, yes, but also because we trust them—because we get a sense of how they handle story, and we believe in their judgment. If they take us to a dark place, they know what they’re doing. The ability to generate this trust is what’s meant, I think, when we talk about an author or a character having an “authoritative” voice.
If you want an efficient tool for communicating the shape of your story’s project, though, it’s hard to beat a really effective villain. A good villain serves as a strange attractor for Bad Things That Might Happen in Your Story, at least as far as your heroes are concerned. By their very existence—once they enter the picture—a villain concentrates and directs threat in a way that makes it clear what might, and what might not, happen to our heroes. If you’ve ever seen The Dark Knight, think about the role Heath Ledger’s Joker plays in the story. He doesn’t make the circumstances less dangerous for Christian Bale’s Batman—quite the opposite—but once the Joker enters the picture, we know anything bad that happens to Batman will involve Joker stuff, and Joker-shaped stuff, because if it didn’t, it would detract from the Joker. Batman won’t die of a brain aneurysm, or slip off a roof and break his leg, or get hit by a car while crossing the street. He won’t suffer any of the thousand ills that flesh is heir to. Alfred won’t be shot by a convenience store robber.
Or, to switch genres: in The Little Mermaid, the instant the sea witch Ursula enters the scene, the world gets a lot less dangerous for Ariel. There are no more sharks, no more storms. And, critically: Ursula enters the drama, the cause-and-effect unfolding of scene, immediately after King Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto in a seething fury. If you haven’t seen the film since you were a kid, you might not remember just how disturbing the Triton scene really is. It’s about magical fish-people, sure, but it is a dark place: an enraged tearing his daughter’s room apart, pulling the band photos off the wall, smashing beloved keepsakes. Ariel’s world is threatening, unstable. Ursula anchors all of that threat. Once she saunters on camera, other bad things stop happening, because this is Ursula’s show now, baby.
Darth Vader’s presence in Star Wars means that we don’t have to worry until he shows up. Stormtroopers are not dangerous because we really believe they might shoot and kill Luke—they’re dangerous because they might bring us to Vader, which is where the bad shit happens. The Imperial war machinery threatens the Rebellion, but only Vader (and the Wampa, I guess) ever plausibly threatens Luke. Part of the heightened terror of Emperor Strikes Back comes from the fact that Vader is almost always there-he, himself, personally on Han and Leia’s trail. In Return of the Jedi, once the Emperor appears, Vader stops being as much of an immediate threat—save as a conduit to the Emperor. Conversely, on Endor, the Stormtroopers become a real threat for Han and Leia and the rest of the team at the exact moment the Emperor projects himself—thematically—into that arena. “An entire legion of my best troops awaits them.”
As the villain monopolizes peril, the villain’s character provides clear guard rails to that peril. Darth Vader is ruthless and singleminded, he tortures and he murders, but he does not degrade. When he’s chasing the Millennium Falcon, he even makes clear that he “wants them alive!” We’re worried that he will defeat Luke, or that he will turn Luke to the Dark Side—that’s how bad it might get. But, when considered as the sum total potential malevolence of interstellar wizard fascism, is that so bad? The Joker’s central threat, by contrast, is disfigurement and revelation. The Joker might kill you, he might kill your friends, sure, but the worst he consistently threatens to do is reveal you, probably by cutting or damaging your face. He doesn’t want to change you. He’s coming for what he believes to be your pretense and illusion. And—as the story shows—he might just be wrong about your underlying truth, and he doesn’t have any resources if that’s so. Ursula has the fewest limits of the three—she does want to humiliate, to transform, to rule, to degrade—and her payday-lender schtick connects her to a real and terrifying thing in the actual world, but I think this is part of the reason she’s played so camp. The camp nods to the audience, the winks: yes, true, there’s evil in the world, and I’m standing in for it, but for this hour and a half, it’s a joke, it’s fun, this is play, even the part where I get impaled by a ship.
A villain also provides a form of safety by gathering the thematic peril of the story into a concrete entity with which heroes can engage, even defeat: Sauron’s ring tempts, Ursula controls, the Joker reveals (or claims to), Thanos just wins because the writers want him to and there’s nothing you can do about that (I was joking when I started writing that sentence but the more I think about it the more sense it makes of those movies, thematically). In life, we often don’t even realize when we are being tempted—let alone have a handy symbol, like a ring we can pick up, put down, take off, put on, etc, to crystallize that experience. The internal forces that promise to reveal how awful we reallyare, in their inchoate hordes, can’t be argued with—but the Joker is just this guy, right there, he’s right or wrong within the dramatic context of the story, and as a last resort you can always punch him? Once the threat becomes a person, rather than an invisibility, we understand that it can be confronted, and even defeated, which is a source of hope and comfort, even if we are not able to do the defeating just at present.
I like the theory I’m outlining here as a functional description, and as a corrective to a naive sense that the most important thing about a villain is that they be really transcendently awful, just the worst on every possible axis, and by extension that any bad stuff the villain does in the narrative must be justified because “what do you expect, they’re evil!” . Sure, the villain may terrify, threaten, unsettle, commit depravities of any sort, but a functional villain does these things in a way that structures and orders the threat of the story (even if that threat is something like “raw chaos”!). That structure is part of the paradoxical safety a storyteller offers their audience, the assurance that the storyteller cares about the audience’s experience, and is not there to hurt us or to waste our time. If there is a villain, they communicate something vital about the tale, about its risks and about the way it is being told. After that, we can decide on our own whether we stick around.
That’s the current state of my thinking, subject as always to development and change. A good villain really does have to say “Weeee are not so different, you and Iiiiii” at some point, though. Sorry. Them’s the rules.
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