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Monday, September 29, 2008

The villain's journey

All too often we think of the hero. But what about the villain? Every actor says the villain is more fun to play. A lot of the most memorble characters in movies are the villains - Keyser Soze, The Terminator, Hannibal Lector.

Philip Zimbardo is a name you may not know. But he was the professor who ran the now famous experiment where he took a random group of 24 students and made half of them prisoners and half of them prison guards - and watched the abuses unfold within a matter of days.

In short his career is about studying the evil within us all.

This guy knows what makes a villain so if you're writing a story with a villain in it - and that is probably most of you - then you should watch his 20 minute talk. Be warned however it does contain some disturbing images.

For those that prefer the written word and those of you, like me, who struggled to keep up - here are some notes...

What is evil?
The exercise of power to intentionally:

  • Harm psychologically
  • Hurt physically
  • Destroy or kill
  • Or commit a crime against humanity

Get all 4 behaviours evident and we can clearly see this as a villain rather than a anti-hero or provocateur. The biggest news for me was that Philip's studies have shown that evil can only be linked to power.

What makes a villain?
There are 3 main reasons why someone has become a 'villain':

  • Dispositional villain - they are a bad apple. The simplest and weakest explanation and unfortunately the most typical with scripts. Only The Terminator can get away with this angle really.
  • Situational villain - its a bad barrel. A better and more complex villain. Someone forced into it. Someone that was perhaps once a 'hero' themselves.
  • Systemic villain - blame the barrel makers. The richest villain where we can see that we would perhaps do the same. I would say John Malkovich's character from In the Line of Fire was one of these.

So aim for a systemic villain to offer the richest, most realistic villain to your story and make it a villain that we learn something from rather than just writing someone who is a 'bad egg'. A dispositional villain offers us no way to understand them and their motives.

Lastly, here is Philip's 7 steps to evil. What I would call the villain's journey...
1 - Mindlessly take the first small step. Every evil act begins harmlessly enough but gets out of control.
2 - Dehumanise others
3 - Become anonymous. 90% of cultures who go to war wearing masks also commit villainous acts. A flamboyant villain (eg The Joker) would be unlikely to do so. Certainly a fame-seeking villain would be a villain that was unrecognisble to us as realistic.
4 - Diffusion of personal responsibility - it's not my fault
5 - Blind obedience to authority - they made me do it
6 - Uncritical Conformity to Group Norms - peer pressure
7 - Passive tolerance of evil through inaction

Check out the full talk. I think on reflection that we have neglected our story villains. We like heroes that come from everyday life, a hero we think we could be. Well that should go for villains too. Uncomfortable as that may be.

My favourite quote of the talk - But momma, humanity is my business.


Populuxe said...

I'm a beginner. Writing a novel about my haunted dream house in the Ozark mountains that was stuck by lightening. There was speculation that a creepy neighbor opened a can of gasoline in the garage so that when the lightening struck, the house would explode. Several other farm houses around him had also been struck and burned to the ground. Your blog has been helpful in creating this villain. The origin of the word, a feudal, half-free sef, suits him to a tee. Thank you for your writing. Karen

Tim Clague said...

Glad it was useful Karen. Good luck with creating your villain. And thanks to your comment I re-read this blog post just as I too am thinking about the villain in a new story.