Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Your Villain's Day Job

Hey y'all, it's Faith -- and today I'm ranting about villains.

I’m always frustrated by the villains who wait until the last minute to rise up against the heroes. I mean, by this point, the heroes know your ambition. They’ve learned your strategies and built up a lot of strength. By this point, the actually stand a chance against you. Why wait?? Why not squash them when they’re young and helpless?

Case in point: The White Orc from The Hobbit movie trilogy. (Not the book. The book knew better than to do this.) If you haven’t seen the movie, fair warning: I’m gonna drop a few spoilers. But honestly, they aren’t that hard to see coming.

In the movies, the creatively named White Orc bears a grudge against Thorin Oakenshield for slicing off his arm and defeating his army when he was on the verge of conquering the Mines of Moria. Similarly, Thorin wants revenge on the White Orc for killing his grandfather in front of him during the same battle. Throughout the first and second movies, the White Orc sends incompetent orc bands and inefficient wargs against Thorin and his company, which -- surprise -- fail to kill any of them. Before the first attack, the camera pans to a hill not far from Thorin’s camp -- and the White Orc is right there. Seriously. He can literally see their camp from where he is, and he does nothing. Really? I mean, I’d understand if he was off directing orc armies somewhere, but why is he right there and why is he not attacking them in their sleep? It’s nighttime! At least some of them are sleeping! GAH, White Orc!

Sorry. Had to get that out of my system.

Traditionally, authors and screenwriters excuse this sloppy villain behavior by saying the villain is too proud to underhandedly attack the hero. They want a big showdown with lots of witnesses. (See Voldemort in all of the Harry Potter books.) While this may be true for some villains, it’s not realistic to expect they all behave this way. I think it goes without saying that their real motivation for withholding their wrath is purely plot related. “I can’t kill him! We’re not even thirty chapters in!”

Actually, I would enjoy a villain who constantly broke the fourth wall like that, but that’s beside the point.

So how do we avoid this trope? Obviously, we can’t have our heroes dying before the story even starts. While watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (and ranting about the White Orc), my younger brother cut in with an interesting proposition. “He’s scared,” he said of the White Orc. “He thinks Thorin will beat him.”

The movie never says that, but I think it’s a plausible theory. And it’s an interesting aspect for a villain. What if instead of thinking the hero is too weak to be worth his time, the villain knows his opponent is an actual threat? What if he sends his henchmen not out of pride, but out of fear for his life? But Faith, you might protest, cowardly villains aren’t any fun. The only place for cowardly villains is in cartoons. Well, I would protest that. A cowardly villain will turn the audience against him or her, that’s for sure. Maybe you want that. Or, maybe your villain is just very sensible. Why would you put yourself in personal danger when you have so much resting on you? The whole war effort might hang on your shoulders! You can’t risk your life fighting a bunch of hard-to-kill upstarts!

You know what would also be fun? A protagonist who thinks this way, and keeps stalling going up against the villain because “so much depends on me and frankly I’d rather not die.”

This brings me to another point: Why is it so important that your villain stays alive? Of course, from a personal standpoint, most everyone wants to stay alive. But think about it: your villain is the “boss level” of your story. In all likelihood, he has thousands of minions at his fingertips. How did he get that far? Did he rise to power through charisma and persuasion? Did he kill his way to the top? Was he thrust into power against his will, hero-style?

And now that he’s at the top, how does he stay there? Is there any in-fighting? What sort of conflict is he facing from inside his regime? Does he have to do paperwork? Does he have friends? Enemies (aside from the heroes, of course)?

What I’m trying to get at is this: your villain should not be sitting in his castle (or volcano or lab or something) all day waiting for the heroes to show up. Unless he’s Smaug and didn’t actually know the heroes were coming. Or unless he’s Sauron and is a disembodied eye that literally can’t move. I guess those two have excuses. But the rest of you villains -- no. Be proactive. Watch out for vicious upstarts. And when you have the chance -- KILL THEM. DON’T WAIT. THAT WILL BE YOUR DOOM.

Unless you’re not really a killing sort of dude. In which case, you’re probably more of an anti-villain. And speaking of that, why don’t we see more of those? We have all sorts of anti-heroes; I don’t see why the anti-villains should be cheated.

So what do your villains do all day? If you don’t know, take some time and figure it out. You’ll probably be surprised at how productive this sucker is. Be sure to comment and let me know what you discover!

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