Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Start With the Villain

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 27, 2013

I’m a huge fan of Villain Speeches. There’s nothing better in a movie or a book than the moment when the stage is cleared and Satan gets to say his piece.

Irons

Jeremy Irons in "Margin Call." My favorite villain of 2012.

The villain in Gunga Din, played by the great Italian actor Eduardo Ciannelli, is called simply “the Guru.” He’s like Gandhi, if Gandhi had traded non-violence for mega-violence. This speech is kicked off by Cary Grant, as British sergeant Archibald Cutter, confronting the Guru in outrage over his extremely clever plan to lure Cutter’s regiment into a trap and massacre it to the last man.

CARY GRANT

You’re mad!

THE GURU

Mad? Mad. Hannibal was mad, Caesar was mad, and Napoleon surely was the maddest of the lot. Ever since time began they have called mad all the great soldiers of this world. Great generals are not made of jeweled swords and mustache wax. They are made of what is here [points to his heart] and here [his head.] Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness.

A great villain speech possesses three attributes.

First, it displays no repentance. The devil makes his case with full slash and swagger. His cause is just and he knows it.

Second, eloquence. A great villain speech possesses wit and style. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards knew this when they wrote, “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”

Third, impeccable logic. A villain speech must be convincing and compelling. Its foundation in rationality must be unimpeachable. When we hear a great villain speech, we should think, despite ourselves, “I gotta say: the dude makes sense.”

Here’s the speech that won Michael Douglas an Oscar:

GORDON GEKKO

I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.

My favorite villain speech from a recent film is this one from Margin Call. Jeremy Irons plays John Tuld, the CEO of a giant Wall Street firm that has spent the previous eight hours ensuring its own survival by deliberately unloading massive quantities of worthless mortgage-backed securities on every customer it can find, thus producing a worldwide stock market crash. Now, at day’s end, Jeremy Irons sits at a linen tablecloth in the executive dining room, savoring a tasty filet. Eighty floors below, the devastated metropolis recedes into twilight.

Kevin Spacey plays sales chief Sam Rogers, the only character in the movie who possesses a glimmer of conscience. He enters and tells Jeremy he’s had enough, he wants out. Jeremy won’t let him go. “When did you start feeling so sorry for yourself, Sam? It’s unbearable.”

JEREMY IRONS

So you think we might have put a few people out of business today? That it’s all for naught? You’ve been doing that everyday for almost forty years, Sam. And if this is all for naught, then so is everything out there. It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on them, so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than it’s ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, ’37, ’57, ’84, 1901, ’07, ’29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus, didn’t that one fuck me up good—’92, ’97, 2000, and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers, happy foxes and sad sacks, fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages, they stay exactly the same.

[Hats off to the writers of these gems: J.C. Chandor for Margin Call, Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol for Gunga Din, Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone for Wall Street.]

On any project, I ask myself, “Who’s the villain?” “What does he want?” “Have I given him at least one juicy scene where he really gets to say his piece?”

As writers, if we know who our Bad Guy is and what he wants, we’ve got the whole piece licked. The villain represents and articulates the counter-theme. If we know what he wants, we know what our hero wants: the opposite. If we know the issue or value that our Good Guy and Bad Guy are clashing over, we know our theme. And when we know our theme, we know everything.

I wrote in Do The Work that an excellent way for a writer to proceed is to start at the finish and work backward. That’s really just another way of saying start with the villain and work backward from there.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

8 Responses to “Start With the Villain”

  1. March 27, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Hell yes. When a story (reading or writing) starts out with the villain, I know exactly what I’m rooting against. It gives the hero a head start, so when he/she comes along I already want them to succeed.

    Side note: The Walking Dead and Justified are both doing great work with villains right now.

  2. Basilis
    March 27, 2013 at 9:25 am

    I love the juicy scene that Mr/Mrs Evil says his/hers piece.

    Even more if the piece appears to be convincing!

  3. March 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Third, impeccable logic. A villain speech must be convincing and compelling. Its foundation in rationality must be unimpeachable. When we hear a great villain speech, we should think, despite ourselves, “I gotta say: the dude makes sense.”

    Yes, it’s easy to make the mistake of letting your villain rant and rave, trying to justify the horrendous things he’s done. The author figures, “Well, the guy’s crazy, so what else should the reader expect? This guy wouldn’t be logical.” But even if the villain is nuts, he surely has some logic to his thinking. It may be twisted logic, but it makes sense to him, and if you see things through his eyes (which the author should be allowing you to do) then it makes sense to you too.

    Great stuff, Steven, as always.

    Thanks so much!

  4. March 27, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    . . . and the spotlight of experience shines on yet another chasm in my current novel . . .

  5. March 27, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    What about stories in which conflict stems from the main character fighting his own weaknesses? Do you also start with the ‘villain’ then?

  6. Anne
    April 1, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Rather fond of Al Pacino’s “God is an absentee landlord” in Devil’s Advocate as well…will keep an eye out for that movie..

  7. April 3, 2013 at 9:15 am

    I hear my inner villain speaking to me right now — and the one in my novel. Thank you again for an inspiring blog. The villain I have discovered (through my real encounters) is the hero of his own story.

  8. Dan in Philly
    April 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    I agree that’s where we are, and why villains are generally more compelling than heros: they provide the forward momentum for the plot and their logic is challenging, self-assured, and on the surface, sound.

    How I wish for a writer who would make a hero’s speech something other than “the opposite.” The hero is usually left with an inability to properly articulate his motives and ideals, and if we’re lucky he’ll just end up grunting something like “that’s wrong” or “I wasn’t brought up that way!” How trite.

    Each and every one of the villain’s points can be refuted, and indeed have been refuted. But writers today seem to be uninterested in addressing the meat of the villain’s logic, illustrating the fallacies and the implications of their conclusions. This can and does lead many astray to consider the villain the actual hero of the movie/book. Pity.