A Good Villain?

Pablo Escobar as the chief villain
Pablo Escobar as the chief Villain

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IN his book, Screenwriting, UCLA professor Richard Walter, reminds us that just as there are few purely good or purely bad people in life, a well observed character, particularly a villain or an anti-hero in a story, should contain at least some small trace of good in him.

“What Makes A Good Villain?”

In Narcos, for example, the drug lord, Escobar is responsible for establishing the cocaine trade in Miami, and murdering many innocent people in his own country, Colombia, as a show of force against the government.

Yet, his love for his family and his generosity to the poor people of his own town point to some good traits in him. When the tables are turned on him by rival cartels, as well as an equally brutal police force, he is separated from his family as he attempts to get them out of the country to safety. To make matters worse, they end up in the hands of the Colombian police. That is the beginning of the end for Escobar.

As his men are killed off one by one he becomes increasingly isolated. His father rejects him. His wife asks him to turn himself in. Despite his record, we cannot help but feel a wisp of sympathy for him.

    “A villain who is completely villainous, without a single trace of humanity in him, is essentially uninteresting and unconvincing in a story.”

In the 1970’s television series, Archie Bunker, the lead character is portrayed as stubborn, not very bright, and bigoted, hardly traits that we admire.

But who amongst us has never felt some prejudice or acted in a willful way towards others? Despite his negative traits, and because of the skillful writing of his character, we, unexpectedly, come to love the bigoted, stubborn Archie. Richard Walter suggests that part of the reason for this lies in that in comparing ourselves to Archie, we can at least feel relief that we are not as bigoted as he is.

Additionally, we are forced to recognise that prejudice can reside in anyone – a beloved grandfather, a friend, even a spouse, and we strive to guard against it in our own lives. The reason that we give such characters the time of day at all, then, is because, at the very least, we feel some sympathy for them. Without sympathy, without liking some aspect of their character, we would not waste our time on them.

Summary

Add some sympathetic traits to your most unlikable characters, especially to your villain, to avoid making them flat and stereotypical.


Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

4 thoughts on “A Good Villain?”

  1. Thanks for this, Stavros. The first novel in which I (as most of the readers) backed the villain was Dosteoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” where I really didn’t want the murderer to be captured. There’s something similar in the TV series “The Americans”; we’re on the side of the protagonists most of the time and it doesn’t matter who they’re working for.

    1. Yes, isn’t it parculiar that we sometimes root for villains. Perhaps we recognise the villainous element in ourselves, however diminished, and it softens our perception of them.

      1. Great villains have big dreams . Villains tend to look at the bigger picture and determine how they fit in the mold. It is this desire of the villain to be a giant among ordinary men that makes them interesting and gives motive for there action. Real life villains such as Hitler, Capone , Stalin , Escobar and Malema are driven by greed and power.

        When it comes to modern day television two villains stand alone – Oswald Cobblepot from Gotham and Negan from The walking dead. It is there quest for power and influence over people that drive there actions be it through fear or violence.

        When it comes to anti heroes it comes down to characters doing bad things for good reasons , even if it be through actions that come through as cruel and inhumane as seen in the Emmy award winning drama “The Americans” . Elizabeth and Phillip are the textbook anti heroes because they commit unspeakable deeds for the safety of their father land.

        In short : To right good villains you first need to define the world in which they are forced to survive.

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