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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The Warrior Ethos

The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy,
but where are they.
—Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.

We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

From the Introduction by Steven Pressfield.

[The following is from chapter 12 of The Warrior Ethos:]

12. HOW THE SPARTANS BECAME THE SPARTANS

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture.

So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called "citizens," but "peers" or "equals."

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man's head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. "That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece," he declared, "and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect." The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. "Yes," he said, "and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup."

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted "common messes" of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. "Even horses and dogs who are fed together," observed Xenophon, "form bonds and become attached to one another."

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here's how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

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