The best villains defeat themselves.
Perhaps this is because they can’t stand to leave something as important as their downfall to someone they despise so much. More likely it has something to do with hubris or the nature of justice. But if a great villain is our goal, and it is, then we better figure out why this is and how to make it happen.
Villains hit their moment of defeat when some aspect of their impact, generally their modus operandi but not always, comes into direct conflict with their goals. This conflict results in their being unable to bring their best game against the hero and paves the way to their defeat. This resolution to the villain’s arc makes the most sense if you consider that the best villains typically serve as a voice for the audience’s doubts about the hero’s approach to heroism – the best way to win over opponents is to show them how their ideas will not produce the result you want. It also serves to make villains more relatable, as people who have run in to similar contradictions will understand where they are coming from.
This probably makes it sound like the hero’s part in the story is inconsequential. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most unhealthy ways of life don’t just break down on their own, they break down when put under stress. The more powerful the perverse way of living the greater the stress needed to break it down and when a hero confronts a villain he provides the stress that reveals the shortcomings in the villain’s way of life. This is why the ascendency and apotheosis of your villain is so important for this section of the story, the more powerful the villain has become the harder the hero’s task becomes and the more we admire their perseverance and ideals and the greater the crash when the villain comes falling down.
We have ten (well, really nine) examples to look at. Review them here and here if you need to then let’s get started!
Yzma’s downfall comes when Krunk can’t bring himself to commit murder. While the two have a great working relationship ultimately Krunk isn’t the right tool for what Yzma wants to accomplish. Maybe she could have found a new minion with enough time but she wasn’t patient enough for that – methods kept her from meeting her goals.
The problem with Slade Wilson is that he can only secure his legacy through other people but he sees his legacy entirely in selfish terms. He wants a successor but not just any successor, he wants to mold someone into his own image and his downfall comes because no one he tries to induce into taking up the mantle wants to squeeze into the mold. The more he pushes the more pushback comes until his protégé abandons him entirely and everything comes undone.
For Maleficent, who wants to be seen as a peer of the realm and acknowledged as a being of dignity and refinement, turning into a dragon was probably the worst decision she could have made. In order to carry out the full measure of the petty revenge that was supposed to assure Maleficent her due respect she transforms into the very monster others have always seen her as and winds up dead.
To a creature like Bill Cipher, who seeks a new place to wreak havoc, the people of Gravity Falls are irrelevant. But he needs the Pines family to crack the door open and let him claim that power. But his apathy to humans leaves him ignorant of his opposition and makes it ludicrously simple for the Pines to trick him to his downfall. His hunger for power makes him ignorant of the very things he would need to secure it.
To Louis Renault life is an oyster and he’d like nothing more than to keep the status quo and enjoy the benefits that come with his position and the company he keeps. Problem is, the status quo rests in the hands of the Nazis and their puppet government in Vichy. When Rick runs afoul of the Nazis the little pleasures Renault enjoys are threatened one by one. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when Rick, the closest thing Louis has to a friend, kills Major Strausser, someone Louis doesn’t like. In this moment any semblance of the old status quo is lost and Louis has to find a new way. Louis is a rare example of the villain who’s defining moment comes in defeat. Although he could have taken all he’d lost out on Rick he chooses to try and change himself instead. Rick becomes a patriot and Louis follows suit, marking the beginning of a beautiful friendship and one of the most quoted lines in cinema history. As Louis proves, defeat isn’t the end of the story for some villains.
Bridget O’Shaughnessy just wanted the power and security a little (okay, a lot) of money could bring her. The problem with getting what you want through emotional manipulation is that sooner or later some of the emotions you’re using to manipulate are going to be real. Bridget traps herself in her own schemes and has the misfortune of doing so with a man of integrity – probably the only kind of person who could have carried her scheme to completion and the only kind of person who would prioritize resolving the outstanding damage she’d done over taking the offered relationship. Bridget could have gotten her money any number of ways, it was her choice to involve Sam Spade in the process that ultimately dooms her.
Involving the wrong people is a classic villain error and no one overcommits to it to the degree Dio does. Early on he acknowledges Johnathan Joestar as the greatest obstacle to his eternal life there is. Dio ultimately chooses to steal Johnathan’s body as part of his gambit to outlive the sinking ship Johnathan traps him on. But even though he lives another hundred years in the end his connection to the Joestar line causes a fraction of his Stand powers to proliferate through Johnathan’s bloodline and ultimately brings Joseph Joestar and Jotaro Kujo down on his head. Dio could never have lived forever without Johnathan Joestar’s body but ultimately it was because of Johnathan’s body that he would face defeat.
For Vader, defeat isn’t when Luke cuts his hand off it’s when he realizes that the Emperor and all the physical and political power he’s been using to try and prove himself – to his mentor and to his son – aren’t enough to get him to change his mind or his mindset. When it becomes clear that the Emperor is going to kill his son Vader is undone. The choice to kill the Emperor follows fairly naturally for a man who’s lived by the sword for as long as Vader and, in rejecting his corrupt methods, Vader is redeemed, if only for a moment.
Legato Bluesummers. The contradiction of this character is probably the most readily apparent. His desire to get Vash to repudiate the value of human life is fulfilled when he forces Vash to kill him. Unfortunately, while Legato’s victory is powerful, horrific and hauntingly memorable it’s a single success against a lifetime of principle. Yes, Vash is deeply hurt by the contradiction Legato forced him to but he has friends who understand his principles and who are willing to help him pull himself together and reaffirm him. Without Legato there to keep Vash dwelling on his failure it’s only a matter of time before the hard won influence Legato has over Vash is entirely lost. At the same time, if Legato was around to keep a knee in Vash’s back then he wouldn’t have that influence in the first place.
Now Klaus Wolfenbach hasn’t been defeated once and for all. It’s instructive, then, to note that his setbacks so far all stem from incomplete information and actions that make sense for a man of his means and desires. He’s trying to safeguard Europa – and possibly the legacy of the last two Heterodynes – through his raw brilliance and political power but he’s not omniscient so naturally he’s going to have shortcomings. But ultimately his massive power hasn’t really posed a direct threat to the continent or the legend of the Heterodyne boys. Outside of possible hounding their only living Heterodyne to her death, verdict’s still out on that one.
Villains represent a lot in a story but I feel their most important role is as a voice for the audience’s dark side. As such, they both need to be portrayed as human beings with real, understandable if not relatable motivations and we have to see how their methods don’t serve those goals as part of our understanding why the hero is a person worth understanding and emulating. Otherwise a hero is just a moralistic tool, not a tool for character growth. And we should want character growth from our stories – particularly those about good and evil – for everyone, the characters and ourselves.
Next week we’ll look at two ways to build villains, sure to help you whether you just want to iron out an idea in your head or fill in an evil shaped hole in a story mostly written. See you then!