After defeating over twenty enemies, including an orangutan, a man with two left hands and a hyper intelligent infant, making it to Egypt and finally locating their nemesis the Stardust Crusaders found themselves locked in a frantic battle with Dio Brando, running through the streets of Cairo at night and hoping to last until sunrise would come and end the wretched vampire for good. Hoping to buy time Noriaki Kakyoin deployed a trap intended to keep Dio from moving. A split second later, dazed and confused, Kakyoin lay in the wreckage of a window, his trap destroyed and his life bleeding out.
Initially the moment made as little sense to the audience as it did to Kakyoin himself. Bu then we saw things from Dio’s perspective and, for the first time, heard Dio invoke his own power by name – The World – and time stopped.
Welcome back to The Art of Evil. We’re talking about villains and we’re doing it using these guys and these guys. Today we’re talking about the most misunderstood part of villains – their impact. Let me explain.
The best characters have a defining moment and villains are no exception. For Dio Brando there’s no doubt it was when he first stopped time. “Za Warudo” is probably his definitive catchphrase (give or take “road roller da”). He was always a flamboyant villain given to dramatic posturing, as all JoJo villains are, but The World and it’s ability to stop time wiped all other characteristics from most people’s memories. He’s not so much a vampire, immortal or vindictive rival in most people’s minds. He’s just the villain who could stop time (and occasionally drop a road roller on people.)
By the same token, Yzma is a villain defined entirely by how she uses (and is foiled by) her minion, Krunk. Let’s face it – Krunk is never going to pull the right lever. But Yzma can’t actually succeed in her plans without him. Even if she came up with some plan she could do on her own Kuzko would never take her seriously and the audience probably wouldn’t either. She wouldn’t be such a fun, bumbling villain with a different MO.
Legato Bluesummers is terror in white. He shows no remorse when he’s cracking people’s minds open and forcing them to kill themselves. There’s a sequence where he forces a man to rip his own heart out – off screen, thankfully – which will never-the-less haunt you for months. But beyond all that there’s an apathy about the man, a failure to acknowledge his fellow man as in any way worthy of his attention, that instantly paints him as a bad guy before he ever does anything remotely evil. And his background music is perdition on a six string.
Darth Vader is possibly the best example of a villain who has all three factors combined. Like Dio, he has a defining moment of mastery, when his power over the hero is at it’s apogee – “No, Luke. I am your father.”
He has a clear modus operandi in the way he simply walks through battlefields and takes what he wants. Vader never flinches in combat until the moment of his ultimate defeat. He’s only denied victory once before that, and that pretty much by chance due to a good shot in the Death Star trench run. He doesn’t need help from minions and he never flinches even in the presence of Chewbacca, the greatest physical powerhouse in the Star Wars franchise.
And anyone who tells you Darth Vader doesn’t have presence is lying. He was voiced by James Earl Jones for crying out loud. That’s a presence and a half all on it’s own. With the costume design and excellent physical performance tied in he’s got enough stage presence for four normal villains put together.
These three things apply to villains who aren’t direct physical threats as well. Consider Louis Renault. His presence is slick, polished and charming. He manipulates the local bureaucracy and political powers to get sex, money and comfort. His definitive moment is when he turns his back on his old attitude and stands up to the people he used to look to as provider of his comfort and easy life and Rick proclaims, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Any villain with a strong modus operandi and a striking presence are well on their way to fulfilling the first two purposes of villains – inciting conflict and opposing heroes. But it’s very easy to lapse into the habit of thinking that’s all you need.
Don’t get me wrong, you can get good villains out of characters who are all MO and presence, like the Borg from Star Trek or Agent Smith from The Matrix. But great villains need a great defining moment, as well. And normally, defining moments don’t rest on how the character fights against the heroes or how cool the villain can look, they tend to rest on the villain’s motives or thoughts at the moment. (Dio is an exception because he’s that cool.)
Think about Vader or Louis – Vader claims Luke as a son because his goal is influence over his son. Louis rebels against the Nazis because the peace of mind he values so much is clearly not going to last under their rule. It’s this added layer of depth that lets these villains create such a lasting impact. They have motives that drive them, motives we understand, and it hits us hard when we catch a glimpse of them and realize we might be closer to these people than we’re comfortable with.
Many people think of villains strictly in terms of how they oppose heroes or how cool they look. But frankly, most all of the ways a villain can do that have been done before, and in recent memory. That’s why this post is kind of short compared to others – those aspects of impact are the parts that’re frequently gotten right in villainous portrayals. Probably because they’re easier to understand. But getting a great defining moment requires you to go a level deeper, dig into what makes your villain tick and how the audience will click with them.
That deeper level, the level of motivation that can be understood and related to, adds a lot to the character. But the most important part of these two factors, motivation and impact, is how they intersect. Tune in next week as we look at that point, and why it’s the most important moment in your villain’s career.