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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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Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Villain Doesn’t Think He’s the Villain

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 14, 2017

 

You and I as writers, when we want to create a really dastardly Bad Guy, may find ourselves conjuring a mustache-twirling, Simon Legree-esque, Filthy McNasty ogre, tying an innocent damsel to a railroad track.

"The truth? You can't handle the truth!"

“Me, the Bad Guy? You gotta be kidding!”

But remember, the villain doesn’t see himself as the villain.

From his point of view, he’s the good guy.

To him, the real villain in the story is the hero.

Consider this all-time-great Villain Speech, written by Aaron Sorkin and delivered to such memorable effect by Jack Nicholson as Marine colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men. When you read these lines (which are clearly intended to make the audience think, “Boy, is this dude evil!”), see them, if you can, as honorable and noble, not to mention absolutely true to hardball-world reality:

COL. JESSUP

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

From Jessup’s point of view, Tom Cruise is the villain. Just look at him. An impeccably-groomed, headquarters-based lawyer who sleeps on clean sheets every night, who is not only living in a dream world with his high-minded ideas about how wars are fought and freedom is defended but who actually dares to accuse me, who stands in harm’s way, of a crime—and then paints me as the bad guy!

Or how about this villain:

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.

We’re going to talk in detail about Villain Speeches in another post. Suffice it to say, for now, that a great villain has his or her own point of view, and that point of view should be just as valid, if not more valid, than the point of view of the hero.

What makes a great villain is that, though what he does is truly grisly and horrifying, possibly even planet-threatening, he’s doing it, from his point of view, for the most normal, and even honorable, reasons in the world.

The shark in Jaws is just trying to find his next meal. What’s wrong with that?

The Alien is only trying to procreate and self-actualize, to grow from a baby Alien into a grownup Alien.What’s so horrible about that?

And the Terminator? If you stopped him and accused him of wrongdoing as he’s blowing away one Sara Conner after another, he’d turn to you with an expression of shock and bewilderment.

 

TERMINATOR

I’m just doing my job!

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Give a Star a Star Speech

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 7, 2017

 

Actors will admit it, if you ask: the first time they read a script, some part of them is scanning it for a great speech they can deliver.

"Do ya feel lucky, punk?"

“Do ya feel lucky, punk?”

A star speech.

A speech that says, “This is my movie (or my book).”

It’s our job as writers, yours and mine, to give that star a star speech.

A star speech can be long.

I believe in the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curveball, high fiber, good Scotch … I believe that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there should be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”

It can be a soliloquy.

To be or not to be, etc. etc.

A star speech can also be short.

“Go ahead, make my day.”

“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

A star speech doesn’t even have to be spoken by the star.

“You run away once, you got yourself one set of chains. You run away twice, you got yourself two sets. You ain’t gonna need no third set, ’cause you gonna get your mind right.”

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

Estelle Reiner referring to Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally"

Estelle Reiner referring to Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally”

But a star speech has to be memorable. It has to articulate the star’s point of view/philosophy/dilemma. It has to be a line or lines that only the central character of the book or movie (or a supporting character referring to that central character) can legitimately deliver.

“What a dump.”

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

I know, I know. It ain’t easy to deliver lines like these on demand. I’ll bet the writers on Sudden Impact filled page after yellow page with candidates, answering Clint Eastwood’s directive, “Gimme a line people are gonna remember.” (Or, who knows, maybe Make my day appeared in the script organically.)

In any event, we want that line.

Our star wants it.

The audience/readers want it.

“She’s my sister. She’s my daughter … ”

"Third prize is you're fired." Alec Baldwin in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross

“Third prize is you’re fired.” Alec Baldwin in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross

“Greed is good.”

“Always Be Closing.”

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Oh, did I mention? Every one of these lines and speeches is on-theme.

 

 

(more…)

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