Monday, May 15, 2006


There's an occasional simmer on the IGDA forums about how to write a decent villain. People come up with a lot of interesting theories, but I don't much like them. That is because (as most of you have probably come to expect) I have my own opinion on the matter.

A good villain isn't good because he, she, or it is something we can empathize with. The villain isn't good because they pose a real threat. These two factors are often found in good villains, but correlation does not imply causality.

What makes a good villain is something strange where we expected something else. Also known as "a twist".

By strange I don't mean "unusual". I mean "mind-boggling".

Here's an aggregate list of some villains most people consider to be really "good":

Darth Vader. The Terminator. Alien. Norman Bates. Hannibal Lector. Jaws. Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Roy Batty. SHODAN. Scorpio (in Dirty Harry). Dracula. The Joker. Mr. Hyde. Agent Smith. Freddie Krueger. Wicked Witch of the West. HAL. Any nuclear winter.

(Okay, my media preferences are showing through...)

Both these villains and the villains from genres I'm not a big fan of arise from showing you something you didn't expect and don't really understand in a situation where this oddity is extremely clear.

For example, in the Wizard of Oz, everything in Oz is bright and shiny Technicolor. Prancing midgets are the most common life form.

The Witch, however, is the exact opposite. A blot on OZ.

Some villains are the reverse. They are evil incarnate, unstoppable killing machines... until you show the audience a blot. In this case, the blot is in reverse: you show them a spot of sympathy. Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector are perhaps the two most obvious versions of this: both are killing machines, but both are shown with a surprising, sympathetic element that makes us go, "kurwhat?"

You can also continue and put a blot on the blot - as Hannibal Lector did. He is a brutal killer who eats his victims. The unexpected twist: he's polite and friendly. The unexpected twist in the unexpected twist: this doesn't keep him from eating your liver.

In my opinion, that is what makes a villain. Something unexpected: a twist on whatever the playing field is. Whether it's a person (Darth Vader, Norman Bates) or a thing (The Future, Oz, "Tomorrow"), put the twist in and that twist becomes a villain. The twist can be sympathetic, if the playing field is evil (Darth Vader) or dark if the playing field is sympathetic (Norman Bates).

The Terminator is a dark twist to a normal, everyday situation. The second movie was brilliant because it was a bright twist on a dark twist on a normal, everyday situation.

Roy Batty was the same: he was a dark twist on a sympathetic situation (a human-like creature gone horribly wrong)... but he had bright twists in his dark twists.

People who have played my tabletops may remember that many of my villains use this exact philosophy.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is...

Baby, baby twist it!
Ooo-ooo-ooo, just -
Round and around and around and around
Just like this!


Patrick Dugan said...

I think you can simplify this idea by a comparison to Godel's (much abused by comparison) Incompletness Theorem. The villain is the anamalous undecidable proposition that inevitably is produced by the system, which in turn threatens to rage out and corrupt or consume the system as a whole.

BTW, I've noticed your writing style bears some similarities to Crawford's earlier essays, but with fewer dactlydeiktous words.

Craig Perko said...

Hm, I'm not what to think of that...

Duncan said...

I've read Wicked (by Gregory Maguire) and it has permanently warped my view of The Wizard of Oz. Some things just do that. But it makes it harder to see your Oz example. Ah well.

Anyway... if villians are one sided, then they become stereotype villians. Great villians are fully developed people with complex motivations (like the rest of us). We don't always have to see those motivations, but we have to intuit that they are there.

And complex villians are hard to write in a linear media. It is no surpirse that they are that much harder to write in a very young interactive media. Especially one that is still struggling to depict and describe esoteric things such as motivation and emotion.

Jason O said...

I think the other element is that villians like Lecter, Vader, or the Terminator is that they are unerringly ruthless. It makes them seem unstoppable.

The Terminator is almost a bad example, he is following his programming. What makes Lecter so frightening is that he is highly intelligent and ruthless, so thus you can't really appeal to his "human side", the same can be said of Darth Vader.

In most epic stories you have the villian or villians that are so much larger than the heroes that they can barely even face them at the beginning of the story, yet they either grow or are simply forced to confront these terrible villians. My favorite example being the Ring-Wraiths from Lord of the Rings, but Darth Vader works here as well.

You establish someone like Aragon who is no slouch when it comes to baddassery and yet he only fights them when he must, and still they cannot stop them. That adds peril to the story, making us think the characters are not granted safety just by the virtue of being protagonists.

Craig Perko said...

Duncan: I have to disagree. There are some great one-dimensional villains. Freddy Krueger, for example. Alien. Terminator. Sephiroth. Even simply a volcano. The villain's effect on the environment is more important than their personality. Villains with human sides like you talk about are an effect on their own environment: you set him up as evil, then show his human side. It's a twist on the environment of the baddie.

But the baddie can, himself, be a twist on the environment of the story. It's the same basic idea, just scoped up or down.

Jason: You're mentioning a restricted set of the full theory. You set up a hero who kicks all the ass. Then you put in a twist - a blot, a surprise: a character he is afraid to fight. That makes the villain cool.

It's the same principle, just limited to combat.

A great villain doesn't have to be ruthless or unstoppable. Many of the most memorable villains in crime dramas and mysteries aren't ruthless at all - and few of them are actually unstoppable or even particularly intelligent.

They're just the right twist at the right place in the right time.