When I broke down Age of Ultron two weeks ago my biggest problem with the film was how lackluster the villain was and my biggest problem with the villain was that he didn’t. Accomplish. Anything.
Way back when I was a little bitty boy (living in a box in the corner under the stairs in the basement of the house half a block down the street from Jerry’s Bait Shop) I took a course on screenwriting. One of the first things we discussed was setting up the conflict in your story and, given the love Hollywood has for David and Goliath stories, our professor chose the story of David and Goliath to illustrate the principle. In outlining a script the story one of the first beats we had was Goliath triumphing over his enemies – a concept we called Goliath moment or the Goliath principle.
Now one thing you don’t hear a whole lot about in writing these days is how to build good antagonists in general and good villains in particular (the two are not the same thing). So let’s do a little of that, shall we?
The purpose of Goliath moments are pretty simple: They build audience investment. While conflict is what drives a story and pacing is how fast you’re moving investment is a measure of how much your audience cares. Part of getting your audience invested depends on your protagonist – how sympathetic, relatable and believable they are. But part of audience investment is solidly in the antagonist’s camp. Once you have your audience connected to your protagonist you still need to make sure they feel your main character could legitimately have something bad happen to them. The more present and pressing the danger the more likely the audience is to become invested in it.
The easiest way to do that is to actually have the villain do something bad.
Now typically the bad thing is done to the protagonist but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s look at a few stories from pop culture, shall we? Star Wars: A New Hope sees the villains capturing one hero, Princess Leia, in the first five minutes of the film. Before we’re a half an hour into the film stormtroopers have murdered the protagonist’s entire known family. We know immediately that these are bad people.
Aladdin begins with Jafar discovering the Cave of Wonders and sending a hapless minion to his death inside. From Iago’s reaction it’s no surprise that the cave killed the man and Jafar doesn’t pause for a even a moment to contemplate the minion’s death. He just moves on to the next scheme. That’s cold.
Titan A.E. begins with the Drej blowing up Earth. And that’s terrible.
These are all examples of the villain in a position of power freely using it to commit acts of evil. In the case of the Empire and the Drej it’s the power to cause harm while in Jafar’s case it’s the power that comes from his knowledge and expertise with the occult combined with his willingness to use these dangerous forces.
Seeing the dangerous and frequently deadly results of a villain’s actions increases audience investment because audiences will begin to worry for the wellbeing of the protagonists you are encouraging them to sympathize and relate with. Note that you don’t necessarily have to have a protagonist established before throwing a villain out there, menacing innocents and burning countrysides. Star Wars let us see a Star Destroyer demolishing another ship before we met any of the movie’s protagonists. But the whole time Luke and company were running around on Tatooine we knew that there was a giant death triangle in space waiting to nab them if they ever got spaceborn – and then it turned out there were two of them!
You don’t have to put your Goliath out there from moment one, of course. The Lion King doesn’t show it’s villain’s teeth until the movie’s been running a while. Neither does your villain necessarily have to leave a path of destruction in Its wake to appear threatening. The agents chasing Trinity at the opening of the Matrix don’t kill or even catch her. Instead their ability to shrug off apparent death and hijack the bodies of innocent bystanders serves to impress the audience with how dangerous they are.
The main point of all of this is to make the audience fear what the villain(s) can do to the characters they sympathize with and care about. While it doesn’t have to happen in every film showing Goliath ascending at or near the beginning of your story is a great way to make sure your villain is a solid threat and make your story that much better. In fact, if you have a favorite villain the odds are the storytellers did just that.