Last week we talked about a villain’s impact and the week before we talked about a villain’s motives, this week it’s time to start talking about how the two intersect. The hardest part about a villain is finding a defining moment and getting that to sync up with the villain’s modus operandi while bringing the full force of their villainous presence to the scene and doing it all while playing to the villain’s motives and purposes in the story.
This week we’re primarily going to be drawing from the top half of our villain’s list, which you can find here, because these villains are the best. The biggest reason they’re the best is because they hit these moments the best.
Stories typically have three acts (for a bunch of reasons I won’t go into here) and in those acts the main characters go through various kinds of development. In a hero vs. villain story the villain is a main character and they also go through a development of sorts, a development I think of as ascendancy, apotheosis and defeat. Not all three of these steps in development need to be a defining moment but, at the same time, if you don’t define your villain in one of them, but rather on some side tangent, your villain is probably not the right one for your story, as their methods or goals are actually drawing them away from your story, not towards it and that’s not good for your narrative.
This week we’re just going to look at ascendency and apotheosis, the parts of your villain’s arc where said villain is established as something the hero must deal with. This is what makes the villain a danger to the hero and those the hero cares for. It sets the stakes of the conflict and tells us how much the hero will need to overcome in order to secure victory. Without a solid implementation of these first two acts a villain will be very limited in what he can accomplish in the third.
Ascendancy begins the moment your villain’s threat to the heroes is established. As soon as someone feels threatened by the villain you’re building that villain in the audience’s mind and preparing them for the later stages of the narrative. Not many villains have a defining moment here, in fact the only one on the list is Maleficent, who’s cursing of Aurora is pretty definitive for her character. But all the top villains have clear moments of ascendancy.
Bridget’s casual manipulation of Sam’s partner, Miles, via guile and sex appeal establishes her as a smooth operator. Dio’s beating his rival bloody in a fist fight is both a clear declaration of war and a moment that establishes the streetwise brat as cunning and ruthless long before he acquires any kind of supernatural powers. That moment when Vader picks through dead rebel troopers and strangles their captain to death? That’s the beginning of an ascendancy so pronounced you can still buy Halloween costumes of the man even though he hasn’t been in a theatrical film in eleven years. (A cameo of his helmet in Episode Seven doesn’t count.) Legato’s first meeting with Vash is chilling less for what happens and more for how Vash reacts – we never see Vash show anything like dread up until that point. Klaus’ almost casual outmaneuvering of Dr. Beetle, in spite of the latter’s obvious genius and on hand firepower, are a testament to the Baron’s insight and guts.
While it’s rarely the defining moment of a villains career, ascendancy is the foundation of that career. Villains can get away without a clear moment of apotheosis or defeat but if they aren’t properly established they will fall flat the first time your story needs them to step up and do their job. Establish your villain as a threat, whether to the hero’s life, reputation or happiness, so that when it’s time for the hero to actually clash with them your audience will buy in to the stakes.
Apotheosis comes the moment your villain reaches maximum threat potential and starts going after the hero for reals. It’s also when most villains have their defining moment and, oddly enough, also the only one of the these three acts in the villain’s story that can be safely done away with. Typically apotheosis is somewhere between the middles of the second and third acts, coming just before the hero gets a huge setback and leading into the final confrontation. Before apotheosis the villain is typically following some goal that affects the hero somehow but doesn’t relate to the hero directly. After apotheosis the villain is directly concerned with the hero and the dangers their heroics pose to the villain’s ends.
A perfect example of apotheosis is Darth Vader’s defining moment – “I am your father.”
Up until that point Vader was working against the Rebel Alliance, sure, but it wasn’t like there was a personal vendetta with Luke. Testing the Death Star, running down rebellion bases and taking part in the occasional starfighter battle certainly cause Luke problems but that was basically collateral, not the real point of Vader’s actions. Not until Vader understood who Luke was did his real desire come into focus – joining together and ruling the galaxy as father and son. And, let’s be real, based on Vader’s behavior up until that point ruling things isn’t really something he was really interested in. He wanted his son to see him as a father.
What’s a little tyranny and genocide compared to that?
Dio’s defining moment is also his moment of apotheosis. In case you’ve forgotten it goes like this:
That never gets old.
While Dio had been fighting his surviving enemies for a little bit up until that point he clearly hadn’t been taking it seriously. It’s at this exact moment that Dio stops taking the measure of his enemies and starts to pick them off. So how is this the intersection between his motive and his impact? That’s a little more abstract.
What Dio ultimately wants is just to live forever and as an immortal vampire, untouched by time, his body is frozen at the age the stone mask turned him into a creature of the night. (Yes, a stone mask. No time to explain here, move along.) What’s interesting about The World is that it basically inverts things and freezes everything else in time and leaves Dio to move on alone. In a much more literal sense it puts him beyond time. The World makes Dio immortal twice.
Legato’s apotheosis can be easy to miss as it’s also the moment of his death. Unlike Dio and Vader, who have fairly lengthy periods of apotheosis, Legato is almost entirely ascendancy. He directs the Gung Ho Guns against Vash, killing the ones he spares as a way to mock him, all the while cutting an incredibly bloody swath through the rest of the planet, his contempt and sadism a weapon against the stain that is humanity, until just seeing him sends chills down your spine. When he confronts Vash directly it seems like they’re going to fight normally. Then Legato bows under the gun and Vash kills him.
That wouldn’t look at all like a crowning achievement if you didn’t understand that the only goal to penetrate Legato’s nihilism was to force Vash to betray his principles and take a human life. Fortunately that much was made abundantly clear beforehand and when Legato slumps over, dead, we know he’s marked Vash forever.
Bridget is a perfect example of a villain who doesn’t need a moment of apotheosis. She runs a lot of schemes and double crosses but none of them brings her into direct conflict with Sam. While it’s hard to say for sure, most villains without apotheosis seem to be in stories like The Maltese Falcon where heroes only achieve moral victories and no one walks away really happy. If anyone can think of a story where that’s not the case please let me know. This might be a function of the way apotheosis sets the stage for direct conflict between hero and villain – indirect conflicts where hero and villain are at odds over peripheral matters are much more likely to turn out a wash.
Klaus has at least three moments of apotheosis because he goes through multiple villainous arcs (as do Vader and Dio, really) but his most memorable one is when he kills Lars trying to capture Agatha. There’s a kind of kinship between Klaus and Lars, a fact the Baron himself alludes to, but not even that, combined with the fact that he doesn’t know of anything wrong the troubadours Agatha’s traveling with has done, stops him from cutting a swath through them to get at Agatha. A few of them may die and their livelihood get wrecked, but Agatha is a threat to the peace and safety of Europa and Klaus Wolfenbach is sworn to protect that. No matter what the cost.
While villains can hit apotheosis anywhere in your story it’s important not to let it happen too soon because a villain at the peak of their powers should be an unstoppable menace that pushes heroes to the very edge of defeat. The life of a hero can’t be easy or everyone would be one – and we know that’s not the case. A villain who hits apotheosis early either has to step back from the story, which can actually undercut their impact (see Kefka), or can get taken out too soon and leave your story aimless.
Come back next week and we’ll defeat ten villains at once, then see where that leaves us.