Villainous Traits (That Aren’t Used Enough)
I promised at the end of last article that this week would feature ‘the many faces of Godzilla’ in honor of the building hype for the new movie. When I went to write it though, it occurred to me that It’s been years since I’ve really binged on kaiju films and the only ones I actually own are Godzilla: Final Wars, Toyko SOS, and Giant Monsters: All-Out Attack. Then, in my mounting panic, I realized that my local Blockbuster quietly closed while I was going through that period where My DVD drive was dead, denying me my sweet, sweet kaiju rentals.
So I’ve put out a call for help from one of my friends to lend me his collection (as I’ve mentioned multiple times, I’m in the country, and so don’t have streaming video. If I can’t download it the long way from Youtube, I can’t use it) but he lives in Maryland and it might be a while.
Anyway, in place of giant monsters, I think this week we’ll talk again about another of my passions: villains. Specifically, this time we’re not talking about types of villains perse, but traits that basically any villain can have, but generally don’t.
To save us all some time, I’m going to point this out now so I don’t repeat it in every entry: most of these serve the function of humanizing the bad guys. This isn’t to say that I don’t like inhuman ‘force of nature’ types (remember, Venom is on my list of favorites), but I really like villains who are more than just crazy or evil for the hell of it.
And yeah, I know why we don’t see these all that often. In these days, especially in movies, the whole movie is basically just a count down to the villain dying, or in less action-oriented works, having their life ruined. It’s cathartic to the audience, who have grown increasingly bloodthirsty over the years and removes having to consider whether their incarceration is possible and/or legal in the end. You can’t just murder ‘humans’ (unless you’re a horror movie or pretending to be deep) without being a bummer, so it’s easier just to devolve the bad guys into caricatures who it’s okay to chuck off buildings or impale.
But screw that noise. Let other writers take the cheap way out. I’m willing to do the hard work of talking about the lose ends just as long as it gets us more…
Evil (But not Abusive) Parents
Two weeks ago, I was talking about stories from the various games I’ve played in. There are a lot of stories I could tell from the various iterations, but one is really pertinent here.
It was being run by former forum gamer, Fyrasha wherein our various characters were freedom fighters against an evil empire that had taken over most of our world. They managed this not only by force, but with politics; convincing the most ambitious to turn on their people in exchange for power in the new world order.
That brings us to Queen Molina. By all accounts our characters heard,s he was a snake. She may or may not have killed her husband to become sole monarch and she was definitely supplying the empire with onyx with which to raise their undead armies. Our plan was to infiltrate her court, find allies there, then stage a coup, denying the baddies any new undead minions.
My character, Trace, was a bard and therefore the one chosen to get close to Molina. As it turned out, there was the perfect job opening for him: tutor… to Molina’s two small children.
Yeah, I’m not sure how you play your games, but we found it kind of hard to enact our plan (which called for Molina to be violently deposed and publicly executed after I’d seen her read her kids a bedtime story, complete with doing the voices when they asked.
The beauty of the whole thing is that Molina was still evil. We ended up playing to that and getting her to turn on her old benefactors with promises of power in our new world order. She was just also a good mom.
In addition to the humanizing element, I like the complications giving the villain kids has. If you take them down, something has to be done with the kids and to those kids, the heroes are the real bad guys, no matter what they say.
Giving them kids also opens up the door to a nice excuse to show them doing something that isn’t expressly related to their plot or the protagonists.
Speaking of giving villains non-villainous things to do…
Bad At Being Good
“Everyone is the hero of their own story”.
We’ve all heard that, often as advice on approaching villainous characters. Only… that’s not true.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that kind of villain and one of my writing heroes, John Rogers of Leverage fame, uses this a lot to explain his villains. The problem is that while it’s a great explanation of why sane and normal people would do stunningly evil things, that doesn’t work when applied to characters who are actually mentally ill, or simply not in touch with social norms.
These characters simply aren’t wired the way the rest of us are. They know it’s wrong to, say… steal, but they think it’s too fun to pass up, or they might not understand why and decide that’s a good enough reason to consider that rule more of a guideline. On occasion, this kind of villain is called upon either to blend in in ‘good’ society or tries to actually be good—with entertaining results.
People tend to treat this as a comedic trope, but it really isn’t and to prove it, I will offer up one comedic version and one simply tragic—both from Batman: the Animated Series.
The first is the episode Harley’s Holiday. If you’ve been following the blog portions of this site, you can guess that this is about Harley Quinn. In the episode, Harley gets out of Arkham in a legit fashion, declared sane and rehabilitated. We get some adorable scenes with her out shopping with hyenas on a leash until a sales clerk accidentally leaves a tag on her newly purchased dress, setting off the store alarm and making her feel like the security guard has it in on her. Even though the episode is funny (because, Harley), it’s also incredibly sympathetic to her plight and how alien the world seems to Harley, who has spent years with the Joker or in an asylum.
The second is Birds of a Feather, wherein we find the Penguin being let out of prison with a mind for going straight and rejoining high society. We’re treated to several scenes thereafter of Penguin failing to fit in but being completely convinced that he was (the people he was socializing with saw him as a novelty). It all comes crashing down when he discovers that his new friends were using him as a ‘conversation piece’ and were mocking him viciously behind his back. He of course snaps, rampages and in the end it turns out that one of his ‘friends’ actually had started to like him—and he angrily rebuffs her in reply.
I like this kind of thing not just because it drives home the shades of gray involved in the world. The Bad guy can be nice, but they need a reason to and reasons to stay nice. Good in and of itself doesn’t inherently feel good and for some people, it takes more than basic morality to convince them. I find this concept to be pretty intriguing and wish to see it explored more deeply than a 22 minutes show could manage.
Incidentally, this is something I’ve wanted to do in The Descendants, but my stable of villains doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of thing as of yet. It really takes some time and development to get a character to the point where it’s interesting and the characters I feel are candidates aren’t there yet.
On the flipside, we have the ever classic…
Sometimes a bad guy isn’t a bad as the other bad guys and when the chips are down, they would rather thrown in with the folks who toss them in jail than the ones who would toss them into body bags.
This is a helpful antagonist. They’re distinct from similar concepts like the token evil teammate in that their allegiance to the hero is both temporary and short term, and they both know it. They simply aren’t above helping the good guys if they can come out ahead for it and in turn they aren’t quite bad enough that the hero will just whip their ass and toss them in the pokey.
Make no mistake, they are still a villain and you might even see a lantern hung on how it’s just ‘understood’ that they’ll stab the hero n the back if it comes down to it. This usually isn’t even an enemy mine situation where they’re forced to work together, it’s just that it’s better for the villain to operate this way.
Hate to keep going to the Batman well here, but the Penguin’s MO in the comics these days often comes to this. He runs the Iceberg Lounge, a club where all the best members of Gotham’s vast underworld (Is anyone in Gotham who isn’t working with Batman not part of a criminal organization? Sometimes it seems like their entire economy is ‘crime’). In exchange for not having a batterang thrown where the sun don’t shine, Pengy gives up information he picks up at the Lounge to Bats.
The thing this one highlights is how to do a pragmatic, ‘gray’ hero right. Pragmatism to some comics fans boils down to just how gruesomely they murder their enemies (and thus how quickly their series will end because the writer ran out of villain ideas). That’s… exceedingly stupid.
First of all, when you’re a costumed vigilante who lives in the razor edge of ‘legal’ in terms of whether or not the authorities work with or against you, the one thing you don’t want on your crime fighting resume is ‘leaves piles of corpses behind him like a macabre version of Billy’s dotted line from Family Circus. Stunningly enough, police forces don’t like working with psycho killers even if they only kill other psycho killers.
That’s not gray. Yeah, you can argue that Batman would be doing everyone a service by offing the Joker, but the second he does, he’s going to prison or at least have people trying to bring him in because—shock of all shocks—killing someone without due process is still a major crime even if they’re the Joker. Also, it’s the Joker. The guy died in his very first appearance—why in the name of all things evil do you think it would stick this time?
On the other hand, there is something to be said about the grayness of allowing or even protecting small crimes in order to get at bigger crimes… or simply because you think there’s more justice in not following the law.
That’s a thing that doesn’t come up often in Superhero fiction: the hero might be sworn to protect the city, to defend the populace and uplift the helpless—but rarely do they specifically swear to uphold the law and almost never do you see them taking down jaywalkers, people who double-park, or those who fail to scoop after their dog does their business.
So… why not pick and choose the crime you fight? You’re not being paid and it is your ass on the line. Plus, as I pointed out, you’re already doing it to some degree. There’s an article on Cracked that I don’t agree with on a lot of points (a lot of it is about making superhero movies more cynical—because that’s totally what we needed more of ), but which makes a very convincing case on why a hero shouldn’t stop active bank robberies if there are no hostages (Banks are insured and thus you’re more likely to do more damage to the bank patrons physically fighting the robbery than will ever effect them financially).
There’s a bit of this already in The Descendants, usually initiated by Laurel (For example, letting the Interfacers go at the end of War Machines), but sometimes it comes up with the others too. For example, Warrick goes hard after gangs and guns, being from an area where those were a major problem while Cyn dogs relatively petty criminal Sneak Thief purely out of spite.
Hmm… that went off ona big ‘ol tangent, didn’t it?
Shifting gears, here’s something I have never seen and would love to see.
The Non-Instant Chessmaster
You know this villain. He’s the dude who is always a step ahead of the heroes, always better than them. Even when his plans fail, he comes out a step ahead and with a big pile of money out of it. Up until the very end, the heroes are complete suckers.
Observe Davis Xanatos:
He’s also Riker
The thing is, the chessmaster, while cool, is also omniscient when you stop and think about it. He (or she, though you don’t see a lot of female chessmasters. I did write one in Teen Titans: What Grows in Deception, though.) always has a plan and that plan always has layers upon layers of contingencies up to and including the very concept of the hero having free will.
I love chessmasters and the awesome plots they pull off, but let’s stop just a moment and consider what we’re actually watching when we follow a plot with such a villain. From the villain’s side of the table, what’s really going on is a con job, not unlike such classics as Ocean’s 11 (the original one) or The Italian Job (the new one).
Here’s the big difference though: for the chessmaster, there is never a serious complication until the very end where it all falls apart where in a con movie, there are lots of little complications to be faced, followed by one big one that causes Our Heroes the scramble and change the whole plan on the fly.
In a way that’s fair. It creates drama to run the protagonists up against a near-perfect opponent. However, on the other hand, imagine if you will that we see the heroes actually competently figure out and bypass part of the chessmaster’s plan, forcing them to adapt on the fly.
In fictional shorthand, one of the ways we know someone is smart is by seeing them think fast. By showing the villain do this and manage to shore up their plan against the heroes, I feel that it only adds to their cred as a genius vs if they just sit back and let their god-plan take care of things until it kerplodes. It also makes it more tense to see the hero and villain actually competing in this way.
The catch here is that in order for it to work, both hero and villain need to have equal billing in the story, as this kind of scramble requires a good deal of screen time to pull off.
Tying this to Descendants, many of you have heard me talking about the Game of Kings meta-arc I’ve been trying to get started for a while (and kicked off in Emet). Part of my plan is to have a few of these in there as the various villainous plans start to come into collision.
And in case you’re wondering, all the Brother Wright/Thunderhead stuff running through Bit Part Bad Guys and into Silicon Soul, Adamantine Will are part of this; shuffling the pool of talent between Tome and Aces High as bit.
That’s all the time we have of this week. I have no idea what I’ll do next week, so there’s that. By the time you read this, Rune Breaker: the Complete Saga should be on Amazon. If you’ve bought all four books, this one has a pronunciation guide in the back. I was going to add a glossary and gazetteer plus the extras from the other books, but the file is HUGE. I’ll probably end up doing a 99 cent or free World of Ere Primer, especially since Rune Breaker isn’t going to be the end-all and be-all of the World of Ere stuff.
Anyway, see you guys next week!
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