Pride and Prejudice - The STORY GRID edition - Annotated by SHAWN COYNE

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Elements of a Great Villain

By Steven Pressfield
Published: June 21, 2017

The shark in Jaws first surfaced in Peter Benchley’s novel in 1974. It’s still scaring the crap out of swimmers from Jones Beach to the Banzai Pipeline. The Alien first burst from John Hurt’s chest in 1979. The Terminator landed in 1984. And how about the Furies (Part Three of Aeschylus’s Oresteia) from 458 BCE?

John Hurt having a bad moment in the 1979 "Alien"

John Hurt having a bad moment in the 1979 “Alien”

What qualities do these Hall of Fame antagonists have in common?

  1. They cannot be reasoned with (Okay, the Furies did have a bit of a soft spot).
  2. They cannot be appealed to on the basis of justice, fair play, or the idea of right and wrong.
  3. They are internally, relentlessly driven to achieve their ends. Nothing can stop them except their own annihilation.
  4. Their intention is the destruction of the hero.

 

MATT HOOPER (RICHARD DREYFUSS)

What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine that is a miracle of evolution. It swims and eats and makes little baby sharks, that’s it.

 

Why is the Thing such a terrifying villain, or the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the nuclear-mutated ants in Them?

 

KYLE REESE (MICHAEL BIEHN)

Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop …ever, until you are dead!

Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn on the run in "The Terminator"

Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn on the run in “The Terminator”

 

So far these examples are all external villains. They exist in physical form. Their province lies outside the hero’s mind.

What about antagonists who reside inside the hero’s head?

Even they, even great societal and internal villains, share the qualities listed above.

Racism in Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, and The Help.

Greed in Wall Street, Margin Call and Bonfire of the Vanities.

 

JOHN TULD (JEREMY IRONS)

What have I told you since the first day you stepped into my office? There are three ways to make a living in this business. Be first, be smarter, or cheat. Now I don’t cheat. And although I like to think we have some pretty smart people in this building, it sure is a helluva lot easier to just be first.

JARED COHEN (SIMON BAKER)

Sell it all. Today.

Jeremy Irons tells it like it is in "Margin Call"

Jeremy Irons tells it like it is in “Margin Call”

 

Ahab’s rage for vengeance in Moby Dick is an internal villain. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel remorse, or pity, or fear. And it will not stop until it has killed its enemy or its host.

The insanity of war in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Jay Gatsby’s belief that he can recreate the past.

All these villains are relentless, indefatigable forces that heed no warnings, respond to no appeals, and will not stop until they themselves are destroyed.

A villain can be human. A villain should be human. He or she should have quirks and weaknesses and internal contradictions, like all of us.

But for you and me as writers, if we’re going to get down on paper a really memorable Bad Dude or Dudette, we’d better make sure that that villain passes muster on Points One to Four above.


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ADDITIONAL READING » CLASSICAL GREECE

Additional Reading: Classical Greece

Ambition to Rule, The

by Forde, Steven

Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.

Athenian Trireme, The

by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov

Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.

Education of Cyrus (aka the Cyropaedia), The

by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)

Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).

Histories, The

by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)

This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.

History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)

Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.

Indispensable Spartan Website, The

by Houston, Paul

My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”

Landmark Thucydides, The

by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)

A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.

Last Days of Socrates, The

by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)

Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.

On Sparta

by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)

The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.

Persian Expedition, The

by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)

Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.

Plutarch’s Lives

by Plutarch

Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.

Rise and Fall of Athens, The

by Plutarch

This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.

Spartan Army, The

by Lazenby, J.F.

Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.

Spartans, The

by Cartledge, Paul

Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.

Symposium, The

by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)

Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.

Trials from Classical Athens

by Carey, Christopher

Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.

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