The Art of Evil – Ten Villains to Know and Loath (Part One)

Modern fiction has a problem with villains.

Well, maybe not. It could just be that the majority of any kind of popular undertaking is lousy but over time the good stuff becomes timeless and the bad stuff is forgotten, giving the impression that things were better in the past when, in fact, they were no different. But right now modern pop culture seems to have a problem presenting compelling villains. And so, for the next month or two, we’re going to go down the rabbit hole and talk about the other half of a great good vs. evil story.

And this is about good versus evil, or at least normal versus evil. The Art of Evil is not about protagonist and antagonist, it’s explicitly about the second half of a hero and villain equation. Right off the bat this makes the lessons here not applicable everywhere, although some of them have relevance in any story.

Before we start let me stress that what we’re going to be talking are not necessarily things I’ve mastered, or even done well. Part of the reason for writing this is to give me a strong driving reason to dive into the nature of villains in an attempt to uplift my own craft. Hopefully we’ll be making the journey to a better understanding of villains together.

And a second preface is… well the rest of this post. When trying to do something it helps to examine great examples of that thing being done in the past. So The Art of Evil is going to draw heavily on a set of ten villains to serve as those examples. If you want to familiarize yourself with them, or you just want to know what I think some of the greatest villains in fiction are, here’s a list. Don’t feel like you have to go out and watch or read all the source material for these folks – there should be more than one example for everything I want to talk about here so hopefully if you’re not familiar with the villainous context of one character you’ll be able to fill in the blanks with another example. Without further ado, feel free to boo the villains!

Honorable Mentions

Elsa (Frozen

Let me say right of the bat that Elsa is not actually presented as a villain in Frozen. But I think she was meant to be one for a large portion of the film’s development. She fills many of the plot purposes of a traditional villain: A threat to the peace and safety of a large number of people, the primary obstacle for the heroine to overcome and an attitude of callous indifference to how her actions affect others.

Don’t believe that last part? Listen to the song “Let it Go” hard and ask yourself whether the lyrics really sound like something a person worried about hurting others would say. Yes, it’s a kind of teenage rebellion anthem but teenage rebels can be villains as easily as heroes and when they lean that way it’s usually because they’re willing to turn away and slam the door in the face of people who need their help (or sympathy, at the very least). Add to that the fact that the fairy tale character she’s based on, the Snow Queen, was a villain and the case for her being a villain at some point in the creative process looks pretty compelling to me.

Of course, she’s not presented as a full fledged villain in the final product, which is sad because the villain redeemed is a great story line in and of itself and might even have made the story of Frozen more poignant. It certainly would have been better than the somewhat slapdash conclusion we actually got.

Kefka (Final Fantasy Three/Six

Don’t ask about the numbering. Final Fantasy is a weird franchise.

Kefka is the only video game villain explicitly called out on this list (although see The Don’t Knows) and he’s a good example of why video game writing can be good but, due to the needs of the medium, frequently isn’t great.

Our crazy clown is introduced in the opening sequence of the game and he is a thorn in the side for the entirety of the first two acts. He manipulates one hero, runs another out of his ancestral home, schemes against another to ensure she’s proclaimed a traitor and the poisons the water supply of an entire city.

The most interesting thing about Kefka, however, is that he’s laughably weak compared to the heroes and is, in fact, fairly easily run off by them in their early encounters (unless you’re just bad at the game). He’s a fairly unimportant advisor to a powerful military empire – at first. But at the end of the first act, after wiping out the city of Doma, Kefka begins a horrifying ascent to power, political and otherwise, through a series of ruthless manipulations, betrayals, murders and one genocide. By the end of act two he has betrayed his emperor and destroyed the world.

Then, at the beginning of the third act players are left in the ruined world to fend for themselves and Kefka ignores them entirely so they can explore and see how things have changed, destroying all sense of pacing and tension. The heroes have no direct interactions with Kefka again until the very end of the game. It robs him of much of his power and threat. While Kefka is supposedly still a being of power great enough to wipe humanity out in a matter of days the players don’t get to experience that to nearly the extent they got to experience his twisted and heartless ambition in the first two acts.

Of course, this makes the game more fun to play which, let’s face it, is more important than raw story quality for a game. Thus, my assertion that the needs of the medium frequently hold good writing back from being truly great.

Grand Admiral Thrawn (Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn) 

With blue skin, a taste for art and a touch of compassion, Thrawn was everything the Emperor and Darth Vader were not. Thrawn was a more cultured and insightful villain, frequently interested in his heroes as people as well as pawns, and a deep and more dangerous force of evil for it.

The primary danger from Thrawn was how well he knew his enemies (and fittingly his downfall came from how little he understood his allies). As a tactician he was without peer in the Empire and he once nearly wiped out the Outbound Flight project, colony group with nearly twenty Jedi on board, in spite of having no Force users of his own to draw on. When the old Star Wars continuity was cleared away by Disney one of the first things fans hoped to see again was their favorite blue skinned Admiral. Fortunately the House of Mouse knew a good thing when they saw it and word on the street is he’ll be back with his own novel in 2017, written by the only man who can do Thrawn right.

That said, Thrawn wasn’t a perfect villain. Although he was a great schemer the way Zahn writes is not always fair. Thrawn, in particular, relies on an understanding born from art to predict his opponents moves in ways that no real person could do. While Zahn typically writes “fair” strategies relying on information available to readers and inferences they could draw themselves some of the leaps of logic Thrawn makes are either not quite fair or rely on an understanding of “alien psychology” that exists only in the author’s head. Hardly a deal breaker, but just enough of a drawback to keep him from edging out other master tacticians on the list like Slade or O’Shaughnessy.

The Don’t Knows – The Joker (Batman), Apocalypse and Dr. Doom (Marvel Comics), Sephiroth (Final Fantasy Seven) and many others not on this list 

The villains listed above (and many more) are villains generally acknowledged as “good” but who’s stories I personally haven’t read/watched/don’t understand well enough to use for the purposes of this project. Or to consider definitive villains for that matter.

Anyone from Actual History 

Real history is complex and makes it difficult to really cast people as villains and, even then, these people rarely fit the needs of a fictional villain well.

Yes, Mr. Small-Moustache-Goose-Stepper is an exception. He is still not on the list. Consider Godwin’s Law in effect for the purposes of this project.

And now…

Ten Villains to Know and Loath

10 – Yzma (The Emperor’s New Groove

This lady is a testament to the importance of good HR policy for villains. While she’s not incredibly tough and stern in her own right she does have the remarkably competent Krunk in her corner of the ring. Together the two of them pose a serious threat to Kuzko’s throne where as separate neither one would be truly credible, Krunk for obvious reasons and Yzma because, for all her ambition and very real magical powers, she’s never going to be likable enough to succeed in the ways she really wants.

Yzma and Krunk also embody perfect executions of comical villains. While many comical villains are written as bumblers or otherwise incompetent, thus undercutting their ability to creditably stand in the way of protagonists, Yzma and Krunk have plans that should work but don’t because of their stark contrast in personalities and priorities. By playing these differences for laughs, Yzma’s inability to usurp Kuzko never quite undercuts her threat while still being quite funny. There aren’t many great comedic villains out there and Yzma of one of the best.

9 – Slade Wilson/Deathstroke (Teen Titans

While I don’t know much about the Teen Titans as portrayed in DC Comics I have watched this TV series and Slade is pretty much the perfect villain given it’s tone and target audience. Slade can outthink and outfight the Titans while never giving the impression that he’s overly worried about the outcome. His visual design is sleek and mysterious, adding to his general air of inscrutability. But the capstone on his unpredictability is his single-minded focus on his own legacy. Such an atypical goal made him hard to predict and wrapped another layer of mystery around a man who was already a cipher.

Driven to the point of clashing head on with beings from beyond the walls of the universe, Slade would ultimately pass the doors of death in pursuit of his vision of the future. While it was never clear if he was driven by pride, ideals or something else Slade Wilson never backed down from a fight, regardless of whether it was with Batman’s own protégé, an alien of cosmic power or a cyborg genius. Most strikingly, he did it all without raising his voice, ranting or otherwise breaking with an image of consummate professionalism. Truly an impressive achievement.

8 – Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty

The heavyweights are starting to weigh in. There are few villains in the history of animation that do simple menace as well as Maleficent. From her sickly green color pallet to her eerie entrances and exits to the cold indifference with which she proclaims a death sentence on a newborn child, Maleficent is one of the most hostile figures ever to grace the silver screen. That in and of itself is an accomplishment warranting her place on this list. But when added together with her final apotheosis and battle against the hero and her rival fairies Maleficent becomes a beautiful example of the villain as a spectacle as well.

7 – Bill Cipher (Gravity Falls

There’s a moment, just after he’s introduced, when Bill Cipher snaps his fingers and all the teeth in the mouth of a nearby deer fly out of its mouth. Bill laughs.

A few moments later time reverses and it’s like nothing ever happened. Later, while possessing a human member of the cast, he slams “his” own hand in a drawer because he finds the sensation of pain hilarious. While Bill is obviously powerful, given the many supernatural feats he accomplishes in the first few minutes of our meeting him, it is his incredibly skewed perspective, free of empathy or any notion of human morality, that marks him as truly villainous. He manages to be threatening in spite of just being a triangle with an eye and a top hat and he does it all by setting priorities that will clearly hurt not just the Pines family but anyone who comes into contact with him.

Like Ysma, he’s funny and entertaining in his sociopathy but he’s also an order of magnitude beyond anything the fearless Pines twins will be able to outfight or outwit which makes him all the better as an opposing force.

Tune In Next Time…

Wow, we’ve only covered the first four and we’re already over two thousand words. Guess we’ll have to wrap this up next week! Come back next Friday for more examination of evil’s greatest masterpieces. Hope to see you then!

 

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Writing Men: Dipper Pines

Hey, haven’t done this in a while! If you’re not familiar with this series of posts a summary and links to the others can be found on this page.

Up to speed? Great! Let’s take a look at the principles of writing male characters in application.

Dipper Pines is the male half of the protagonist duloagy of Gravity Falls. (The other protagonist is, of course, Dipper’s twin sister Mabel.) He’s an interesting character for several reasons, not all of which are the scope of this post, but one that we should look at right off the bat is his age. Dipper is twelve, which technically makes him a boy and not a man. Is that relevant?

Not really. As I hope to prove through the course of this examination, Dipper shows all the relevant hallmarks of a well written male character but still behaves as we would expect a twelve year old boy to behave. This suggests that the patterns of thought I’ve put forward as distinctly male in character action are cemented at a very young age. So what are some of the male behaviors Dipper shows and how does he demonstrate them?

Well, let’s just go down the list. The first, most basic aspect of male thought is the easiest to see in Dipper. He’s very objective driven – he wants to know what’s up with Gravity Falls. Why all the weirdness? Who wrote the journal he found? Does it all have some meaning? He gets caught up in these questions very easily and chafes at anything that drags him away from solving them. But the mysteries of Gravity Falls aren’t his only objective – he also has a crush on the local girl Wendy and wants to see his sister be as happy as possible. We can see these objectives clashing from the very beginning but episodes that illustrate the conflicts (and synergies) of these goals particularly well include Irrational Treasure and The Time Traveler’s Pig.

Dipper also has a very simple set of rules he lives by. The two most important are established in Tourist Trapped. First, Dipper looks out for Mabel (when it’s not the reverse, Mabel is very in the moment while Dipper takes the long term view so Dipper needs just as much looking after as his sister). Second, Dipper takes the Journal’s warning to Trust No One very seriously, but amends it somewhat because he does trust Mabel. Every episode has some example of this but they are the most apparent in The Hand That Rocks the Mabel and Gideon Rises.

The compartmentalization in Dipper’s life is much less obvious. We mostly see it with the older characters he knows – Soos and Grunkle Stan, both of whom he leaves out of most of his paranormal activities. Grunkle Stan doesn’t seem to buy into Dipper’s theories about the town and is a bit of an overprotective authoritarian so he winds up outside the “Adventure” box most of the time. Soos is fit for both everyday work and adventures but Dipper can find his help questionable when dealing with personal situations like Wendy or Mabel. But for the most part, Dipper is a man who hasn’t yet worked out where everything goes yet and that may be one of his strengths – he can find out of the box solutions that most other people won’t think of.

Testing, on the other hand, is something Dipper actively avoids. He doesn’t like the hard work Stan throws at him, he doesn’t really want to confront most of his problems (and Robbie in particular) and he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time refining the useful skills he does show. One thing he does do is test out the things he reads in The Journal, but that could be more seen as a desire to confirm what others have told him rather than a particular desire to know his own limits.

Dippers lack of go-getting brinksmanship with his own abilities is probably one of the things that leads others to underestimate him. Dipper’s not a wimp but he doesn’t measure his abilities for the sake of knowing what he can do, either, so when a situation pops up that requires him to do something new he’s often nervous about it. We see this particularly in The Inconveniencing, Double Dipper and Fight Fighters. By the end of the first season, however, Gravity Falls itself has tested him to the point where he knows himself very well and he gains some confidence.

On a side note, Dipper has no solid mentoring figure. Stan’s hands off stance most likely reflects his own lack of confidence in his ability to mentor Dipper – the man’s been to jail after all, and his general lack of ethics and good sense probably makes him a poor role model, even if he’s fun to watch at times. Soos has a solid set of skills but is probably on Dipper’s maturity level himself and frequently looks to Dipper for leadership, so he’s not really a mentor either. The Author also teaches a lot of useful skills via his Journal but isn’t there to help Dipper understand the messages he left behind so he’s not really a mentor either.

Dipper could probably use one – Dipper Vs. Manliness certainly showed that and he would probably have liked someone besides Mabel he could talk to about things but currently Gravity Falls is short in the Good Role Model department. Instead of seeking a mentor Dipper usually goes off by himself, thinks things over and comes up with a plan of action. It may not be a good plan, but it’s a plan.

Finally, Dipper’s life is riddled with Sacrifice. Practically every episode he gives something up for the sake of Mabel, from a chance to impress his crush in the Time Traveler’s Pig to his part time job in The Deep End. While those are the biggest examples he gives up small parts of his dignity, time and desires on a regular basis to keep an eye on Mabel and make sure she’s not getting into trouble.

On the opposite side of things, he frequently gives up his time and skips out on work in The Mystery Shack to try and solve the mysteries of Gravity Falls. In fact, he willingly gives up just about anything to learn about Gravity Falls – except Mabel’s welfare.

So in conclusion we find all the typical male hallmarks in Dipper, making him a well written, well rounded male character in spite of his youth. In fact, it’s his youth that makes his male characteristics so pronounced – where maturity would mean reigning them in at times (because sooner or later Mabel is going to need to look to her own future) and shoring up some weak points (he’ll fail more if he fears testing his limits than he would otherwise) Dipper gives full vent to all his tendencies, good and bad. While Gravity Falls may not be a show for everyone and there’s no denying they do a good job writing they’re characters and Dipper is just one great example of that.

Cool Things: Gravity Falls

When I was younger I never had the experience of being picked up and shipped of to some distant relative to spend the summer out of my parent’s hair, working, building character and tangling with the paranormal. Fortunately, thanks to the Disney Channel and Gravity Falls, I can live the experience vicariously through the lives of twelve year old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines.
I feel for Dipper. Really, I do.
His parents have shipped him off with his twin sister all the way to Gravity Falls, Oregon, to work with their great uncle (or grunkle) Stan in his tourist trap, the Mystery Shack. The thing about Gravity Falls is it’s not exactly… normal. There are gnomes, dinosaurs, ghosts and arcade cabinets that can create real video game characters for a short time. It’s weird, spooky and he has this really annoying sister to deal with. And somehow it all works to make great stories.
Central to the show is the question of what is going on in Gravity Falls. Dipper stumbles across the weirdness early in the first episode and the show just keeps spinning things up from there. A strange journal found hidden in the forest clues Dipper in to the fact that others have investigated the town before and he begins researching the matter on his own. That is, when Mabel isn’t bothering him with the pet pig she won at the town fair or Grukle Stan isn’t making him chop firewood or Soos isn’t distracting him by goofing off or he isn’t crushing on Wendy, a local girl who works in the Mystery Shack.
Okay, not much researching gets done.
Which is not the same thing as saying no research gets done. Gravity Falls moves at it’s own pace, content to explore the three main characters, the twins and their grunkle, and the weirdness around them with plenty of self-aware laughs and the occasional fitting aesop.
Watching Gravity Falls is kind of like watching a mashup of Duck Tales and The X-Files. There’s lots of mystery but also an abrasive father figure and a couple of precocious kids with their own agendas. Stan is probably the most interesting character in the show, his superficial greed and general lack of social graces masking an ambitious but thoughtful and caring personality. Stan doesn’t dislike his niece and nephew, he just comes from a generation where men didn’t show affection much and, on top of that, he’s not used to kids. At first he comes off as an aloof and pretty calloused person. But, as the twins and the audience get to know him better, little touches start to come through.
The first time he tells Dipper he’s proud of him it feels like a really meaningful moment. At the end of the first season we learn how much it means. Late in the first season an old, disused room of the shack is uncovered and we see him pick up a pair of glasses almost identical to those he’s wearing from a side table before anyone notices them and slips them into a pocket. As the twins argue about who will get to use the new room we see him in his chair staring at the glasses thoughtfully. These and other moments, many of which would be spoilers to talk about, serve to let us know Stan has a past and it’s just as much a mystery as Gravity Falls is. Learning about him is just as much fun as learning about the town.
Mabel is all energy and enthusiasm. She sees something she wants – a pig, a sweater, some friends or a cute boy – and she goes after it %110. She drives the boys nuts and wears her heart on her sleeve and honestly, we don’t care. When she’s having fun, we’re thrilled. When she’s sad, we’re sad. And when Dipper decides, time and again, that he’ll walk through fire for her, we understand why. If she were to get hurt it feels like something precious would be lost.
Dipper is us. He wants to know what’s going on. He wants things to work out well. He’s not very confident but he means well. He makes heroic, self-sacrificing decisions with a wistful sigh and the hint of a smile. He over works, over plays and generally handles his life in a pretty average way. His relationship with Mabel defines the show, rarely will you see siblings share such an authentic feeling relationship, and even when things don’t work out their way the closer bond they share makes us feel like they still got something worthwhile.
Watch this show. Sure, it’s animated. But it has heart, passion, humor and mystery all in equal measures. It won’t fail to surprise you but you’ll never be upset with where it winds up, either.