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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Villain is Not Always a Person

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 13, 2017


Or even a creature.

Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven"

Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven”

Sometimes the villain is entirely inside the characters’ (almost always the protagonist’s) head.

The villain can be a fear, an obsession, a desire, a dream, a conception of reality, an idea of what “the truth” really is.

The villain in Blade Runner 1978 would seem at first glance to be the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his team of Leon (Brion James) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), who have escaped off-world and come to Earth sowing destruction. But the real villain is an idea—the conception of creating faux-human slave labor.

The replicants are actually the innocent victims of this idea, which in fact has been deemed by the world to be brilliant, epochal, even salvational, and whose progenitor, Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation, is universally lauded for his genius in conceiving such a notion.

But a slave by another name is still a slave, and the idea of creating soul-less, expendable creatures whose only purpose is to do the dirty work of the greater society (no matter how exceptional or beautiful these creatures may be) is still evil.

This is the same villain, by the way, as in Birth of a Nation (2016), Twelve Years A Slave, and The Help.

The villain in Blade Runner 2049 is another idea—the idea of the willing acceptance of one’s role as a soul-less cog in a greater machine.

Often these “idea villains” are embodied and personified by human or creature antagonists who have actual physical being in the story. In David O. Russell’s The Fighter, the idea-villain—the self-sabotage of the individual of talent and destiny (in this case Mark Wahlberg’s character of Micky Ward, “the fighter”—is personified by his family of mother, brother, and seven sisters. They’re undermining him and sabotaging his career at every turn.

But the deep villain resides in Mark’s own head, as it does in K’s (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049 and in Nat Turner’s (Nate Parker) in Birth of a Nation.

In other words the villain in these stories is not sabotage, but self-sabotage.

The hero is enslaving himself by his own belief.

The turning point in all such stories is the moment when the protagonist snaps out of it and says to him or herself, “I am in control of my own destiny. I will no longer believe the lies that others have told me about myself and that I have abetted by repeating them and believing them in my own heart.”

In Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, the villain is 1950s suburban-American conformity. The hero is Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) who believes at the story’s start that she is one of the lucky ones, blessed with a handsome, successful husband whom she loves and who loves her, a beautiful family, wonderful friends, and a perfect, secure life in a prosperous, upwardly mobile community.

Suburban conformity is a great villain, not only because it is internal—existing entirely, as it does, in our heroine’s psyche as well as within the community—but also because it’s invisible. Julianne has no idea that this idea is evil. She believes in it like Stalinists believed in the Workers’ Paradise. To her it is the universally-desired state of being, i.e., what every human on Earth would aspire to if they had the chance. In Julianne’s mind, at the story’s start, she is living the American dream, and her family embodies this fantasy perfectly.

By movie’s end of course Julianne will have lost husband, friends, community, as well as her self-conception and self-assurance as a secure, happy wife and mother. The movie’s final image is Julianne with young kids in tow, driving off in her station wagon into a totally unknown (and probably for quite a while desperate) future.

This is a happy ending. Why? Because Julianne has emancipated herself, however excruciatingly, from this villain that is only an idea.

She has seen it for what it is and seen through it.

This act puts Julianne light-years ahead of her self-enslaved neighbors/replicants/Stepford wives in Suburban Hell who are still “living the dream.”

We said in an earlier chapter that


Every villain is a metaphor for Resistance.


What this means is that the ultimate antagonist is not a man-eating shark or a monster from space. It is an idea carried in our own heads (we’re the heroes, remember, of our own lives) and as invisible to us as Julianne’s and K’s and Nat Turner’s self-enslavement was to them before they woke up.

The turning point for us too comes when we see through the Wizard’s curtain and reject this idea once and for all.



Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Villain Drives the Story

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 6, 2017


I sometimes get asked, “Why does Resistance exist?”

Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue in "Jeremiah Johnson"

Stefan Gierasch as Del Gue in “Jeremiah Johnson”

It’s a good question.

Why did Creation include this monster? For what purpose? Just to screw us all up and make life difficult?

(When I say “Resistance,” I mean in story terms “the Villain.”)

Isn’t Resistance entirely negative? What possible evolutionary purpose could it serve?

Here’s my answer. It might not be anybody else’s answer, but it’s mine.


Resistance gives meaning to life.


Or to put it in narrative terms:


The villain gives meaning to the story.


Think about it. If there were no villain, there’d be no story. If there were no Shark, no Terminator, no Alien … if there were no Coriolanus Snow, no Noah Cross, no Hannibal Lecter, we writers would be up a tree with no way down.

The villain drives the story.

The villain gives meaning to the story.

The snake (actually “the serpent”) in the Garden of Eden saved Adam and Eve from a life of picking fruit and hanging around naked and happy.

Is that Edenic life really human?

I mean seriously. Is that the noblest destiny our race can come up with?

It was supposed to be seen as a calamity when God kicked our original Mom and Pop out of the Garden. Maybe it was. But it was the greatest thing that ever happened to you and me as writers.


Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.


Call this myth if you like, but I daresay there’s no truer depiction of life-as-we-live-it anywhere in literature.

The human condition is the ultimate villain, as it is the consummate blessing. The Almighty cast us forth into the Land of Nod, east of Eden, because we dared (no doubt blindly and obliviously, but dared nonetheless) to steal a share of His nature, that is, free will, the knowledge of good and evil, the capacity to create.

In our path He set evil, villainy, Resistance, that indelible, indefatigable aspect of our nature that craved despite everything to destroy itself.

How do we measure a hero in a story, except by the obstacles she faces and overcomes.


“‘Mongst Injuns,” Del Gue declares in the movie Jeremiah Johnson, “a tribe’s greatness is measured by how mighty its enemies be.”


Actors love to portray villains because they sense, even if they might not always be able to articulate it, that the villain drives the story. The villain gives meaning to the story.

If there were no villain, there would be no story.


Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Keep Working”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 29, 2017


[I’m gonna interrupt this series on Villains for a quick “Bulletin from the Trenches.”]


When I first came out to Hollywood from New York and I was scuffling around desperately for employment, I wound up doing a couple of small writing jobs for the director Ernie Pintoff. Ernie was a seasoned pro (he had actually won an Oscar for a short subject, titled The Critic). My frantic state was very clear to Ernie and, one day after we had finished work, he drew up and gave me a look that told me he was about to impart some serious wisdom.

Ernie Pintoff

Ernie Pintoff

Ernie said he knew that at my stage of the game, most of the gigs I could attract would be pretty low-ball, non-remunerative, and even in some cases a little dubious ethically. But, he said,


          “Keep working.”


What Ernie meant was don’t turn your nose up at paying (and even non-paying) assignments. “Yeah, a lot of ’em are gonna be pretty lousy and you’re gonna be saying to yourself, ‘This is really for the birds.’ But keep working. You never know who you’ll meet on a job, what contacts you’ll make, what opportunities may present themselves. Stay in the action. Keep perfecting your craft. You’re acquiring experience. You’re learning all the time, even if you don’t think you are.”

I’m taking Ernie’s advice right now, and it’s saving my life.

My “Trenches” book is done. Shawn loves it. I love it. It’s out there now, looking for a publisher.

Now the waiting begins.

Now Resistance appears, big-time.

Now the temptation arises to hold your breath and attach yourself emotionally to an outcome.

That attitude is bad news.

Bad luck.

Bad karma.


            “Keep working.”


If you’re reading this, I know you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all been in this place, some of us multiple-multiple times. It never gets any easier. The mind never gets any stronger.

Dark thoughts obtrude.

Distraction looms.

I repeat to myself all the psych-up mantras I know so well. But they still ricochet around in my head, seeking purchase and often not finding any.


          “Keep working.”


I’ve started the next book. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m doing it every day. I have to.

The Muse tests you and me 24/7. She flies over and peers down on us. What she wants to see is that we are dedicated to the journey, to the process, that we are in it for the long haul and in it for keeps.

What she doesn’t want to see is that we are attached to the real-world outcome of one specific project.

The goddess hates that because it shows that we have misapprehended the nature of her alliance with us and of our apprenticeship in her service.


            “Keep working.”


The pro athlete who gets cut from his team, the ballerina who is let go by her dance company … both must go home and IMMEDIATELY begin training for their next job. The sent-down wide receiver must head over to the local college and recruit one of the young quarterbacks to work with him, alone and at night if necessary, throwing passes on the practice field, letting him run routes, helping him keep his technique sharp. The ballet dancer must sign up for class at once, continue her strength training, keep up her barre work.

For you and me, finishing Book #1 (or #21) means only plunging in immediately on #2 or #22.

We have to.

That’s the law.


            “Keep working.”


Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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