Everybody loves a good villain. There’s something chemical deep inside our monkey brains that just loves it when we can point to someone and, without any equivocations say ‘this is a bastard. Behold their bastardliness’.
As a writer, I also appreciate them for how they bring that glorious plot fuel; conflict, to the party. But one thing, I’ve noticed is that most people don’t think of villains in the same way I do. They’re usually categorized by their prominence in the story (Big Bad, The Dragon, Mook) or their style (Chessmaster, Brute, Femme Fatale).
And don’t get me wrong, hose are useful categories I use all the time. The thing is though that sometimes I’m not creating or reusing a villain for who they are, but rather the effects they have on the heroes and the world. Over the years, I’ve developed another system to classify bad guys based on that and in this article, I’ll be codifying and discussing them.
So sit back and allow me so you my menagerie. Here, we ignore the exotic and the majestic and concentrate instead on a sampling of these villainous breeds like:
The Unpunishable – In another article, I mentioned a concept my friends and I came to call the ‘belligerent dwarf’ (named after a Knights of the Dinner Table strip); a character whose presence instigates conflict that cannot simply be dealt with by beating them up or arresting them. The Unpunishable is an expansion on that idea.
The point of this type of villain is that they are clearly a determent and a constant source of annoyance, stress or even danger to our heroes, and yet, they cannot be defeated in a traditionally acceptable way by the protagonists. Typically, what they’re doing isn’t actually illegal, just mean, cruel or deliberately inconvenient.
This puts the heroes in an interesting situation, as their standard operating procedure is either unavailable, or would come off as disproportionate retribution. The only ways they can deal with this character are; hope for karma to catch up with them, ignore/endure them, or break their own rules.
All of those options offer something interesting, but the third often has the most meat on it, especially if not everyone in the cast agrees that the protagonist was justified in breaking their rules to take down The Unpunishable.
Unpunishables tend to be what the film Jennifer’s Body called ‘high school evil’ and fittingly, school settings tend to have these in spades in the form of tropes like the Jerk Jock, Absurdly Powerful Student Council, and what used to be called The Libby over on TVTropes, named after a wonderful specimen of such from Sabrina the Teenaged Witch. That one is now called the ‘Alpha Bitch’, which while achingly bland has the fun side effect of making the hyper-politically correct folk gush blood from their eyes (I could write a whole article about this one issue. Personally, I don’t use ‘bitch’ as a general derogatory for females, but as something clearly meaning ‘a female who acts with malicious intent’ and don’t really care if its gendered or not because I’ve never called a woman a bastard or a dick either. Also, for comedic emphasis, bitch.)
Both Lilly Goldenmeyer and Warrick’s obnoxious suitemate introduced in Lost Tales #2 are examples from The Descendants.
Outside of school settings, the Unpunishable can come in the form of particularly malicious or obstructionist bosses and co-workers (The boss from Office Space) or people the protagonist just has plain bad blood with (Newman from Seinfeld)
And a step up from here is…
The Untouchable – Just as the name says, this character is like Hammer: U Can’t Touch This. Unlike The Unpunishable, The Untouchable does engage in clear villainy that for most people in the setting is illegal. But this character represents an exploitation of a flaw in the way the world is governed that lets them get away with it. This could be anything from ‘owning’ the local police, to having an army of money and lawyers such as to blot out the sight of justice, or simply being set up in an area where there is no law.
While this type of villain skews toward being a thinking villain, they don’t have to be. Even a vicious brute who beats people to death for fun can be untouchable in a society where might makes right and no one can stand against them.
Often, simply putting The Untouchable into play is the driving force of the plot. The protagonists need to figure out how to deal with this character before they can do anything else. And unlike The Unpunishable, this character’s evil cannot simply be ignored or endured and karma is too unpredictable to leave this up to.
Audiences usually don’t mind breaking the rules to defeat this character given enough build up about how impossible it would be without doing so. To them, the line was already crossed when the system (whatever it is in the setting) failed by letting this character get away with their evil schemes in the first place.
There are three basic fates for there guys: One, they escape to connive another day, possibly by never meeting the heroes in person in the first place. Two, They end up out played by the heroes, who also exploit some loopholes and minutia to hoist them by their own petard.
And three, they die, often by having Danny Glover shoot them through their ID card, right between their piggy little eyes.
Thank you for demonstrating, Mr. Glover.
Well known Untouchables include the racist ham of a man pictured above from Lethal Weapon 2, Al Capone both in real life and in The Untouchables (gee, wonder where I got the name?), most villains from Leverage (and the real life people they are often based on), and, depending on your political leanings Julian Assange, Roman Polanski, and George Zimmerman. (I put down right, neutral and left leaning examples, so you can’t complain.)
Of course, sometimes the villain gets more personal, like…
The Breaker – This is a blog attached to a superhero webserial, so I’m going to go ahead and go with the law of averages and guess that most of you right now are imagining Bane with Batman bent painfully backward across the knee of said hardest working luchadore in comics.
The Knightfallstory arc defined Bane as a villain and he hasn’t topped that showing since. It also solidified him as the strongest and most bone-crackingly literal example of The Breaker, though The Joker ended up getting a much better story out of filling the role.
The Breaker, whether intentionally or not, instills intense emotional and mental stress on the protagonist to the point that they cause that character to break down in some way. This can come in the form of ruining their reputation, damaging their relationships, exposing vulnerabilities and insecurities, or showing them that they aren’t that far removed from playing the bad guy themselves.
The key here is forcing the hero to go ‘too far’ in some way; be it by resorting to means that go against their moral code, or making them give up when they normally wouldn’t.
A villain doesn’t have to function as The Breaker in every appearance, but many always carry around at least a hint of emotional turmoil for the hero, especially when they are evil counterparts, or villains created by the hero by accident.
Typically, The Breaker will survive encounters with the heroes virtually unscathed, time and time again. This is because actually defeating The Breaker serves as a very strong emotional turning point for a character and is usually reserved for a special occasion.
Examples of The Breaker are plentiful and varied in fiction, from Paul Molander from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, who repeatedly outsmarts Grissom and torments him on his failure, to Sterling from (again) Leverage, who represents the good guy who was still a bad person Nate Ford used to be, to Spider-man’s evil counterpart, Venom, who repeatedly and consistently tries to ruin Peter’s life in one way or another.
Special mention goes to variants of The Breaker who function by exploiting positive characteristics of their opponent. Femme fatales that make the hero fall in love with them, betray them, then recur later with all that emotional baggage remaining intact, such as Demona from Gargoyles, or Sharae/Amonet from Stargate SG-1 are the best example here.
In the Descendants Universe, Shine and Sean McAllister both play The Breaker for Cyn, eliciting in her reactions that she’s not proud of.
And on the other side of the coin, we have:
He Who Confirms – or ‘she’, as the case may be. This character has an equal and opposite effect on a character as The Breaker. Instead of tearing down the hero, they manage to build them up by drawing a very clear contrast between what is good and what is evil with the protagonist finding themselves firmly on the good end of that equation, confirming that yes, they are doing the right thing.
He Who Confirms is often so overtly evil, slimy or just so well and clearly wrong that confronting them serves double duty as exposition for why the hero does what they do and where the line they would never cross lies.
They will usually have similar back-stories to the hero, often sharing a childhood or similar experience with them. If the story is spec-fic in some form, they also usually have similar or more advanced powers then the hero. Bonus point if they have also accumulated a dark mirror version of the supporting cast, who they are not truly as close to as the hero and his.
And if powers are involved, expect any morally dangerous side effects to be fully in play here with the villain taking them as a strength instead of a dramatic weakness. A werewolf HWC will embrace the savage wolf, a vampire will feed with vigor and be rewarded with increased vampiric abilities, and any emotional imbalances involved will be viewed as superior and fully bought into.
These characters don’t have to be immediate counterparts, but they do have to represent a path that our hero did not take and will not take and reaffirm that what they’re doing is the correct path.
Both the hero and the audience will be more than a little aware that this is what he hero could have become but didn’t… which often leads to one small problem; He Who Confirms has a nasty habit of dying in accidents.
See, the reasoning here is this: HWC is, in a manner of speaking, an alternate version of the protagonist. Now, we like our protagonist and don’t want them to die. And we especially don’t want to see them effectively kill themselves. Therefore fate conspires to do their dirty work, icing the bastard so the protagonist doesn’t have to.
You’ll also see these characters sometimes presented as anti-heroes to bounce off the protagonist, but since the 1990’s, especially in comic books, 80% of ‘anti-heroes’ are villains who just happen to hurt villains. See also: The Punisher, The Authority, and literally any human being written by Mark Millar. When these characters stray into other people’s books, they fall directly into place as He Who Confirms, because the protagonist of the book will immediately notice that they’re monsters that walk like men and react accordingly.
Examples of HWC include Evil Dick from Third Rock From the Sun; tasked with the same mission as Dick, but lacking in an understanding of or empathic for humans, HG Wells from Warehouse13; possibly the most competent character in the series not played by CCH Pounder, but cursed with tunnel vision and her revenge fantasy, and Bennett from Commando, having all the training and experience Matrix has, but none of the self control or moral fiber.
Or a sternum, apparently.
In the Descendants series, James Richter serves as HWC to Ian in terms of their religious beliefs and attitudes with regard to how to follow God. Morganna plays this to Lisa, being a model of how not to abuse your magic (and others).
But sometimes, you don’t want to just mess with one character, especially when you have a large cast. That’s when you break out some baddies with some range. Villains like…
The Globetrotter – Like most people, most protagonists are a lazy, lazy lot, who generally don’t move around much unless surfacing for food, sex, beer, work or vacation (combining any three would increase motivation 900%). Sure, some of them travel the world on their own for various reasons, like James Bond, for whom this is a job.
But think about this: despite the fact that we know he can, how often does Batman ever get off his bat-ass and help towns overrun with crime that don’t have a rodent-based night terror to help them out all on his own? (I said on his own. Put your hands down, Batman, Inc readers). Not very often. But tell him Ras al Ghul is starting some shit in some tiny village in Uzbekistan that happened to be built over a Lazarus Pit and he can’t pull his black bikini briefs on over his pants fast enough.
This is because Ras is fulfilling his role as a villainous Globetrotter.
The Globetrotter is a villain unbound by geography. While most villains force the protagonist to react, this one makes them travel. In a meta sense, the purpose is obvious: the create a reason for scenery changes. This is a very useful villain to have around for world-building purposes; justifying having your heroes move to new locales and avoiding just having them walking the Earth.
As types of villains go, Globetrotters don’t have many pitfalls, but they do a caveat: if one intends to use a Globetrotter, they had better have a globe. If the setting is the contemporary world, then this means research; lots and lots of research to make the locations interesting and authentic. If the setting is fictional, the job is even more difficult, as cultures, architecture and everything else about a given location need to be made up whole-cloth.
Unsurprisingly, large military organizations and conspiracies, like Cobra from GI Joe (Link goes to the kickass cartoon, not the lame movie), and SPECTRE from James Bond are ideal for this, as are wealthy, power and thrill seeking villains like Carmen Sandiego, MacPherson From Warehouse 13, or Xykon from Order of the Stick.
In the Descendants, Tome, while mostly confined to the US, is the highest profile Globetrotting villain so far.
Of course, you might want to go for something more dramatic. In which case, you might like to sample…
The Gamechanger – Powerful juju is in this one, kiddies and quite a bit of exposition besides. Bear with me.
In most serial fiction, it is often true that the status quo generally must be maintained in its general form for the majority of the tale. And as much as many critics and critics who call themselves fans may bemoan this fact, it doesn’t make this rule any less important and necessary to most stories, provided they wish to maintain an audience who retains any amount of investment in it.
Yes, there can ad should be character development, plot advancement and many other changes over time, but the important thing is that these are changes over time. That’s the bit a lot of very smart people miss and when they do, we get shows, books and comics that drunkenly jackknife from one status quo to the next without ever giving any given one enough time to develop enough so that it mattered when a big change came down.
Take Marvel Comics, which over the course of a few years did it to their entire universe. It started with Avengers: Disassembled and its bookend event, House of M/Decimation, before diving screaming into the caldron of the Civil War event and its lasting consequence, The Initiative. The Initiative barely got it’s feet wiped off before World War Hulk happened (incidentally and, I suspect, accidentally containing the extremely good Christos Gage miniseries, World war Hulk: X-men). And that was barely settled before Secret Invasion arrived with a lot of promise and near-zero delivery, though it did lead us into the rather good Dark Reign company-wide arc, which had kickass stories for the X-men (despite prematurely ending the then current ‘X-men in San Francisco plot in that corner of the universe), Deadpool and the Thunderbolts. This in turn was ended almost immediately by The Siege, which issued in the Heroic Age, which was ended with the advent of Fear Itself, at which point, my eyes rolled up in the back of my head and I woke up in the back of an ambulance.
That right there is a half century of plot lines, produced in less than ten years. In that same time, DC crisised itself two or three times too. This is what happens when you don’t treat you status quo with proper love and care. You create chaos, foreshorten interesting situations, and creating stupid ones just because you ‘must’ (and here come the buzzwords) ‘shake up the status quo’. Because some people don’t realize that originality and freshness are only positive when they are coupled with ‘quality’ and are not butting up against ‘enjoyable’.
So what’s this got to do with The Gamechanger? It’s a warning. Just like the romance plots in the last blog, this is dangerous stuff; textual nuclear weapons anyone can use, but not everyone should. Use with caution and think before you use.
This is your story on poorly used tropes.
The Gamechanger is a villain who causes drastic and permanent changes to the status quo when they arrive. They don’t play by the rules of previous villains, maybe, or they jut manage to succeed where others fail.
Exactly what they do varies. Maybe they introduce a major escalation, or force the heroes to change their long-time base of operations. Maybe they bring a new and important concept (new technologies, magic, techniques, moralities) into play. The important thing here is that through the villain’s actions, the audience is now watching a different show. Maybe not massively different, but enough to make them know that future episodes have different rules than previous ones.
Just killing a cast member won’t do it. They need to be the first to kill a cast member in a story where cast members were considered safe up until that point. Breaking up an official couple won’t do it either unless the damage is so drastic that their character dynamic changes for a sizable amount of time.
All too often, The Gamechanger is presented as a new, mysterious enemy in the middle of an arc and proceed to steal the thunder of an existing plot. It is important to avoid this, as most audiences latch on to things and will forever be wondering about that thing you oh so cleverly used as the bait in a bait and switch.
Particularly good Gamechangers will have this effect in almost every appearance, which, if used sparingly, can propel them into the favor of the fans. David Xanatos from Gargoyles managed to pull this off, from driving the heroes form their home, to introducing threats and allies like Coldsteel, Macbeth, and The Pack, to ultimately turning coat and coming to their side.
Some notable Gamechangers include The Borg of Star Trek fame, Bhaal and the Ori from Stargate SG-1, Mr. Lyle from The Pretender, and (once again) Sterling from Leverage.
In the Descendants, of course, Morganna rocks this role in almost every appearance.
There are many other roles villains can take, but I think this is a good sampling. The important bit is demonstrating how in a story, it’s just as important to think about what the villain does to the characters and the world as it is to decide on what kind of villain they are.
Here’s hoping it gave a bit of insight into where I’m coming from with this and that it might help some fellow writers.
Next week, I return to my kick about romance, taking on that old chestnut of the genre: the guy or gall that the love interest is currently with, also formerly known I TVTropes parlance as: The Paolo.
Until next time, folks!
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