Fall of a Villain – Cipher Pol 9

This is a continuation of last week’s discussion of villainy as seen through the lens of One Piece’s Water Seven arc. For the first half, introducing the story and characters and examining the ascendancy of Cipher Pol 9, the saga’s villains, click here. Further links, if you wish to go back and reread the Art of Evil series where we discussed villains in depth, are available at the end of this post.

Knowing what to do with your villain after they reach apotheosis can be difficult. Many stories have the villains ascending for the vast majority of the story, reach apotheosis for the climax, and then rapidly fall into defeat. Some have the villain reach apotheosis then disappear to the top of a gigantic tower for half the story and never influence the plot again *coughKefkacough*. Not so CP 9.

The Cipher Pol agents hit apotheosis at the end of the Water Seven saga’s first act and remain at their most powerful and threatening throughout the second act. This helps ratchet up and the tension through parts of the story that would otherwise slow things down.

The second act kicks off with Dr. Chopper rescuing Iceberg and the other Galley-la people left to die in the fire CP 9 set to cover their tracks. Iceberg then tells the Straw Hat pirates that, while CP 9 was searching the other room for the blueprints they wanted he interrogated Robin about her motives for helping the world government. It turns out that CP 9 had access to a Buster Call code, a terrifying military clearance that would let the leader of CP 9 summon a fleet capable of wiping most national fleets off the map from a nearby World Government garrison. They threatened to deploy the Buster Call against the Straw Hat pirates unless Robin acquiesced to their demands and, out of loyalty and love for the people that gave her a home for the first time in twenty years, Robin agreed.

Resolve hardened, the Straw Hat pirates gather themselves together and try to catch the last sea train before it leaves the city and Aqua Laguna seals them in.

Usopp winds up with Franky in a hidden warehouse in the city. Franky’s brought Usopp and the Merry Go there as bait to lure Luffy out so he can continue a fight they started earlier but, being quite the emotional kind of guy, after hearing how Luffy and Usopp came to blows over the fate of the ship he’s been moved and has a friendlier disposition. Some interesting character building happens but the most important part is that we learn Usopp has seen a Klaubatermann, a kind of sprite that appears on well loved ships. Franky tells Usopp he’s heard of them but never met anyone who’s seen one before, and that they’re basically a sign that the ship has become a touch self aware and cares for its crew. This will be important down the line.

CP 9 has been searching the city for Franky, convinced he has the blueprints they want, and at this point they find him, defeat both Franky and Usopp, and take them prisoner. We learn that CP 9 also had an agent keeping tabs on Franky all this time, along with the three watching Iceberg. Out of respect for their old profession, before leaving the warehouse one of the Cipher Pol agents drains the drydock and lets Merry Go out for the tide to take her. Then there is a flashback.

Much of this flashback isn’t relevant to our discussion but it gives us a few useful facts: It confirms that Franky has the blueprints for the superweapon CP 9 is hunting. It introduces Spandam, the commander of CP 9, and establishes his history with Franky. And it sets up the sea train’s connection between Water Seven and Enis Lobby, an island where the World Government holds prisoners until they can be transferred through the Gates of Justice and put beyond the reach of the rest of the world.

Back in the present, the Cipher Pol agents take Franky and Usopp to the sea train and join Robin there to set out for Enis Lobby and put the whole lot of them beyond the reach of the Straw Hats. Luffy doesn’t catch the train before it sets out but it turns out there’s a prototype of the sea train stowed away in an old Galley-la warehouse they can use to chase CP 9. The prototype is just like the normal sea train with two exceptions. It has fewer cars and no brakes. The Straw Hats are on a one way trip.

Once they hit the rails Luffy and crew have several close calls, nearly getting swamped by Aqua Laguna as the tide comes in and having other close shaves with CP 9’s backup. Unfortunately Cipher Pol gets to Enis Lobby ahead of the Straw Hats and digs in to wait until the Gates of Justice open and they can transfer their prisoners. CP 9’s other field team is introduced and Spandam reappears, followed shortly by the Straw Hats making landfall. Luffy bounces his rubber self over the walls of the island fortress on Enis Lobby, rushing ahead to engage the troops there as the Straw Hats trail behind at a more normal pace.

Luffy gets far enough ahead to fight and defeat the first member of CP 9, a moment that might signal the beginning of the end for the agents if not for the fact that their goals don’t require they defeat the Straw Hats, just move Robin and Franky through the Gates of Justice before Luffy and Co. can rescue them. Instead the fall of CP 9 begins a few moments later.

It takes some time for the Straw Hats to navigate the layers of internal defenses that make up Enis Lobby. As they wait for their allies to lower a drawbridge across a moat the Straw Hats reassemble on top of the gatehouse where the bridge will lower from. The full roster of Cipher Pol 9 assembles on the far side, waiting for the pirates’ move, and Spandam takes the moment to mock them. He tells the Straw Hats how Robin’s home city was leveled by a Buster Call, killing her mother and all her friends, which explains how a normally coolheaded woman could be bullied with one so easily. Then he directs their attention to the World Government flag that flies overhead and warns Luffy that if they cross the bridge and try to take Robin back they’ll not be fighting CP 9 but rather the entire world.

Without hesitation Luffy orders Usopp to shoot the flag down. Without hesitation the crew’s biggest coward puts a hole through the center of the World Government’s symbol of authority and declares war on the world.

CP 9’s apotheosis is an interesting one and reflects their goals quite well. Their ability to hunt down Franky quickly once it’s clear he’s the missing piece is noteworthy and, on top of the way all four undercover agents were introduced long before their reveal, establishes that Cipher Pol is indeed the world’s foremost experts in intelligence and infiltration. Their willingness to turn on old friends and a well crafted plan to escape the city is testament to their cold and professional conduct. But all this will not be enough to save them.

Villains are destroyed by their contradictions. Cipher Pol 9 was an organization built on secrecy and information gathering. But they failed to gather who had the plans they needed and what he had done with them. They failed to understand Luffy’s temperament, that he would ignore what his crew said under duress and refuse to give up on them. And they missed numerous other small things, like Sanji stowing away on their train as they escaped, that would add up to just enough of a delay to keep them in the Straw Hats’ reach. Additionally, in chasing superweapons, making threats with massive fleets and finally invoking the public face of the World Government they ceased to be anything like a secret organization. Spandam’s ambition and tactics ignored the nature of his role in the government and doomed him to failure.

The long apotheosis of CP 9 gave us time to not only see them at their best, dancing away from the Straw Hats time and again, but it showed us all the cracks in the armor that would ensure the pirates would catch them in the end and win out.

Once the Straw Hats confront Cipher Pol at Enis Lobby the collapse of the World Government’s top spies is only a matter of time and the defeat of the individual members of the group aren’t really important from the perspective of building villains. But the finishing touches on their defeat that wrap up the story’s plot threads and seal CP 9’s fate are instructive.

First off, One Piece is a “shonen battle manga”, meaning the emphasis of the story is on action, typically in the form of one on one duels. Usopp doesn’t have a duel with a CP 9 member per se, somewhat fitting since he’s not officially a member of the crew at the time. But he knows that the fact he hadn’t parted ways with Luffy when Robin left means she’d taken a fall for him as much as the others and so, when Spandam is dragging her towards the Gates of Justice and none of the other Straw Hats are in any position to help her, Usopp takes to the top of the gatehouse once more and snipes Spandam and his men, guaranteeing that the World Government will always consider him part of the Straw Hats. CP 9 didn’t take a direct hand in dividing him from his friends but they were the driving force that would bring the Straw Hats back together. Usopp ultimately stays with the crew after they leave Water Seven.

Second, as his minions are defeated one by one Spandam begins the Buster Call protocol and brings the Navy down on the Straw Hats like a hammer. With the sea train far behind them on the other side of the island the Straw Hats have no way off the island and find themselves surrounded by more and more powerful Navy combatants. As the situation begins to look hopeless Usopp hears the voice of the Klaubatermann and the Merry Go arrives, now aware enough to sail itself to its crew, to take the Straw Hats to sea one last time.

From the moment Kaku of CP 9 declared the ship useless the ship has served as a symbol for the health of the crew. Every setback the crew suffers in the Water Seven saga sees the ship become more and more tattered. Multiple people declare Merry Go will never sail again, including Iceberg and Franky. The infiltrators from CP 9 tell the Straw Hats over and over again the ship is dead. They might as well be saying that they’ll never have Robin back, that they’ll never be a family again. But when Merry comes for its crew we realize that all that disdain was meaningless. The Straw Hats hung together in the end and so did Merry. The crew was broken and struggled through to a new unity and Merry answered that. Sadly, the stalwart ship was still well and truly done for with this final task complete. But that… is not a part of the story of CP 9. For now, just know that the ship’s final act, not Usopp sniping Spandam, Luffy punching out Rob Lucci or Franky freeing Robin from her chains, marks the final defeat of Cipher Pol 9. When Merry sails into view every last aspersion cast on the crew’s honor is blown away and the crew is whole again, if only for a brief time.

Your villain is not defeated when he lies on the ground. He is defeated when the shadows he cast are gone.

As the villains of the Water Seven arc, CP 9 stands out as one of the best parts of one of the best arcs in One Piece. Built less as an extension of the One Piece world and more to oppose the Straw Hats at this particular juncture Cipher Pol 9 is, in many ways, an inversion of the Straw Hat Pirates. Their personalities match in many ways but the group dynamics are completely opposite. CP 9 has none of the Straw Hats’ camaraderie or cohesion. Spandam is a small and petty man who engenders no loyalty, Luffy a generous man who’s comrades trust and love him. With over a year and a half to tell the story of Water Seven, Oda clearly layed out these contrasts and made it very easy to see why pirates like the Straw Hats are better than self proclaimed emissaries of justice like CP 9 and his excellent command of the first two thirds of villainous storytelling made the third act less a flurry of realizations and desperate gambits and more the visitation of a well deserved reckoning on misguided villains. It’s worth the reading if you have the time and opportunity.

Further reading on the art of the villain:


The Art of Evil Never Dies

It’s been a long journey to get here but we’ve finally finished a quick tour through the art of building an effective villain. I hope this exploration of villainy will be useful to you as you seek to build a compelling villain your audience will relate to. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about that in this series, rather than talking about how to design their looks and backstories. Classic sources of villainous gambits like Machiavelli’s The Prince or Robert Green’s The 48 Laws of Power have been pretty much absent (though do read them) in favor of getting at your villain’s motivation and persona.

The reason for this is simple. Villains are a part of us in a way we rarely like to acknowledge. People do love villains, they like the feeling of someone who will do whatever it takes to get what they want, but they don’t like the contradictions that destroy villains nor are they entirely comfortable with the depths of depravity that villains can sink to. Heroes are the uncomfortable, challenging but ultimately more edifying alternative to villainy. In many ways the hero vs. villain narrative we love so much is a study in two sides of ourselves, highlighting the conflict between things like selflessness and depravity that every person faces.

Unfortunately for fiction today villains are cranked out as totally bland, featureless, cackling mischief makers. They don’t represent parts of ourselves that must be challenged by our better selves, they’re just obstacles for protagonists to overcome. As villains have lost those shreds of humanity that made us fear them less as an existential threat and more as a glimpse of our inner demons heroes have lost something as well, becoming meaner, more vindictive and thuggish, until sometimes it feels like the hero’s victory boils down to a crowd cheering as one bully beats another bully into the pavement.

For a long time I didn’t understand the people who liked villains more than heroes. It wasn’t until I’d done a lot of introspection that I realized how much of what I hated about myself I saw in villains and  how profoundly the ways heroes responded to them had influenced me. It didn’t just change the way I thought about villains, it gave me much greater compassion for those people from my life that I could have easily considered villains.

The failure of villains in modern fiction goes far beyond it’s literary implications. Fiction is an opportunity to face our darkest depths and see the ways they can be overcome in ways that are healthy and safe. Without fictional villains to let us face our worst parts of ourselves we start to see our worst traits everywhere, even places where they might not really exist. Without relateable villains to let us build empathy we start to think anyone who shows us even the slightest specter of evil deserves to be shunned, loathed and possibly even hunted and destroyed. When our cultural landscape is empty of truly great villains we must face our worst natures in the here and now with no preparation in the safety of our imagination, with none of the edge blunted by the lessons great art can teach.

A villainous generation of flat caricatures, one dimensional monsters that bear no resemblance to anyone who has ever lived, has deprived us of the nobility and compassion that should define our greatest heroes. We’re the poorer for it.

Mankind is dark. Our capacity for evil is staggering in scale and history has confirmed it time and again. No matter what hero rises up to face it, the problem will never be defeated. Each person must come to grips with the problem, as each person embodies it. So today, I make the case for the villain. Each person deserves to face their worst and try to overcome it and the fictional villain is a time tested way to start. Weigh the villains you encounter, take their measure and seriously consider what makes them human and how they come undone and you’ll eventually find the way to write your own. Yes, it will probably mean facing your own dark side. Consider it a side benefit.

We’ve spent a lot of time on villains. Two months, to be exact. Next week let’s flip the paradigm, look at the other side of the equation for a bit. Until then, go forth and think evil. For greater good.

The Art of Evil – Double X

Your villain is probably male.

That top ten list? (Parts one and two.) Seventy percent male. Most villains in modern fiction are male. I’m not saying yours shouldn’t be female, but girl villains come with hurdles to overcome that boy villains don’t, and that makes writing them well and getting your point across more difficult, so many authors just don’t bother. The obstacles aren’t insurmountable but some stories just don’t have the space to devote to it or the villain may not be important enough to the overall story to justify the extra work – and writers do have to ration out their work or they will burn out, which helps no one.

So what are the pitfalls of a female villain? In short they fall into three broad categories, two of which are rooted in human nature and one of which is more of a modern societal construct.

The first quirk of human nature to address is the simple fact that no person, man or woman, likes to see a woman in danger. Consider this social experiment, conducted by two actors in a public park in London:

Notice how people broke up the argument where the man was threatening, sometimes before he did more than raise his voice, while the man being threatened was basically ignored the whole time and sometimes people even celebrated. People don’t like seeing women in danger, and danger is where most villains have to go in order to get what they want. You might think that people are willing to look past this in the interest of good storytelling but the fact is they aren’t.

Two recent examples of this protective instinct manifesting on behalf of fictional female characters include the protests over the treatment of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight and the complaints surrounding the billboards and posters showing a confrontation between Apocalypse and Mystique in X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. Both times there was protest for women being placed in scenarios that wouldn’t draw a second glance if faced by man.

Some people would assert that this is a result of culture and conditioning but the fact is, keeping women away from violence is a common thread in world cultures so it makes more sense to me to consider it universal. We can’t really expect it to go away any time soon, especially since the people who claim to most oppose these kinds of “gender roles” – namely, feminists – are exactly the people who protested in these two examples.

Point is, there’s little to nothing an author can do about this directly. You could strive to keep your villain out of physical struggles entirely, or keep such things brief or even have them happen off screen, but that limits what you can do with your villain. The alternative is to put your female villain through the wringer and take the inevitable scolding, a la Tarantino. Or, you could just avoid the quandary and make your villain a dude. On the whole, as statistics suggest, authors chose the latter.

The second reason villains tend not to be female in modern fiction is because women, on aggregate, are risk averse. Again, with villainy being a role that brings a certain degree of risk with it, it becomes a thing that we expect more of men than women. Risk taking is something most ladies choose only when circumstances drive them to it. There’s certainly a place for villains who find their calling when pushed to the wall but, again, it’s a limiting factor in how you can use your villain in your story.

Yes, your villain could be a very atypical woman, but that undercuts her utility as a good connection point for your audience. That doesn’t mean you can’t break this stereotype, or even write a story where the restrictions of demographic averages are in full effect, but in either case you’re left with another set of restrictions on what you can do, restrictions that may not serve your story. In many cases it will be simpler to make your villain a man.

These first two hurdles to a female villain are simple facts of life, easily observable in day to day life. They are neither good or bad, they simply are, and anyone trying to tell a story needs to begin with a solid grasp on the way things are before they set pen to page or they risk running afoul of verisimilitude. Sure, fiction lets you depart from reality to an extent but if you’re not brutally honest about how far from convention you’ve gone you risk overstepping what your audience will expect.

It’s also never wise to try and force characters to be something other than what their nature calls for. Breaking convention for the sake of breaking convention may seem innovative but it frequently comes off as a lazy attempt to seem creative. but it If your character isn’t fitting well as a woman then write them as a man. This goes double for villains, who demand to be taken on their own terms.

But what about the societal reason?

This is a much touchier subject. (And it’s not like the previous two were contentious.) The third reason I think female villains are uncommon in modern fiction is because society puts women in a position of moral authority.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, most people are taught that we live in a society where men run everything but even a cursory examination suggests something much different. Most teachers for children under ten are women, most major colleges have women’s studies departments and just a quick Google search shows a number of articles explaining why the treatment of women is the gold standard for morality (examples one and two). This attitude is seen in action when a mere accusation of violence got Auburn University student Jovon Robinson expelled simply by accusing him of a single act of violence, with no evidence or police inquiry.

There is an extent to which women get to measure who is good and bad in modern society. If a villain has the power to define whether what they do is good or bad then, by definition, they cannot be a villain.

Writing a female villain within the confines of the moral authority society gives them, usually the authority to brand the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, bosses and boyfriends for the most part) as violent or degenerate, pretty much impossible. You can write a gripping thriller about a villainous man who murders, or tries to murder, his spouse but make him a woman and anything but a sympathetic portrayal becomes almost impossible today.

Once again, this imposes a limit on what can be done with the female villain, and, notably, not one that existed in the past. In days of yore it was considered equally feasible for a woman to be an aggressor and a bully towards the men in her life as the reverse. Lady Macbeth, anyone? Today those kinds of villains are much less common.

One thing you shouldn’t do is hear me saying don’t write female villains. You should, when the time is right. But there are factors that make female villains more difficult to take on and you need to know them, weigh them and decide whether you’re up for them and whether your story wants to deal with them. Writing a story, getting all the pieces in position and understanding all the characters is a major undertaking. Sometimes you just don’t want to toss all those extra variables into the mix. If you don’t you’re in good hands. Many great villains came about without needing to tangle with them. Plenty exist in spite of them, too. Honestly, this shouldn’t be the biggest factor in your thinking by a long shot. But it’s not something you see discussed much, so hopefully this has been a help to you. See you next week when we wrap up this series with a few final thoughts about villains, why modern villains fail so badly and what comes next.

The Art of Evil – Bad to the Bone

It’s great to have the examples of how to do a thing and know the general theory of how a thing works but how do you go about making the rubber meet the road? How do you go about building the really great villain your story needs? Or do you just want to build a baddie and then tell a story about the problems he causes? Am I going to say anything in this post that’s not a question? Do you really care one way or another?

This week we’re going to look at two approaches to the question of villainy, building a villain to meet the needs of a scenario you already have in mind and figuring out what kind of story best suits a villain you already have in mind.

Making a villain to fit a preexisting scenario is, in my opinion, the more difficult of the two tasks. Assuming you have a hero and scenario in mind you already know what the villain needs to accomplish, and perhaps even how he plans to accomplish it. What you really need to do is ask yourself is, first, what would motivate the villain to do these things that would bring conflict with the hero.

Remember that this conflict shouldn’t be directly with the hero at first, you’re trying to build the villain up in the minds of the audience and that means he needs to be effective and powerful for the first act of the story, if he’s directly confronting the hero and the hero survives then you’re probably undercutting his image – unless, of course, conflict comes in a fairly nonviolent form, such as in a regulated sport or the like. Then let the villain squash the hero as much as you like, it’s an effective way of building him up. But remember that whatever the villain is doing, the difficulties he causes for the hero aren’t intentional at first. The villain probably doesn’t see the hero as a true threat until apotheosis.

So what you really need to do is find something important to the hero and then have the villain bulldoze it. Darth Vader contributed to the murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, for example. It had nothing to do with Luke, Vader just needed the Death Star plans, but it was the spark the set Luke on a collision course with him.

Second, the villain should probably be a destructive force. You have a world that exists without a villain and that means the only thing left for that villain to do is disrupt the status quo in some way. While you could conceivably create villains who are entirely constructive in nature doing that when you have a story that needs a villain is likely to leave you with an overstuffed story, full of things about your world or your villain that go unexplored as the old ideas of the story and the new ideas of your villain fight for space. Better not to force it.

Once you have a villain with a motivation and a good idea of how they’re going to wreck the status quo make a list of the things in your story that would get in the villain’s way and have him smash through them in order of least important to most. You now have the outline of your first two acts and the third will naturally be how your hero stepped up and finally stopped him.

If you have a villain but no idea what to do with him, focus on how he got his motivation. Dio Brando was a terrible man but he also came from a dirt poor family with an abusive father. The constant striving for the next meal, to evade the next beating, warped him incredibly. He couldn’t understand Jonathan Joestar’s healthy family or the way JoJo relates to wealth. Dio’s greed and laser focus on having enough to survive is exactly what sparks his conflict with Jonathan.

Try and figure out the kinds of people your villain would naturally come in conflict with as a result of their desires, pick whatever is most interesting to you, then start sketching a history and a conflict between that person and your villain. Again, try not to make it too personal at first, so your villain can naturally grow to apotheosis, then, in the end, let your hero expose the contradictions inherent in your villain.

The villain without a story is the best suited to be a villain who builds, the kind of villain who will entirely change the world in unhealthy ways simply by hardwiring his warped perspective into everything he touches. Louis Renault and Klaus Wolfenbach are perfect examples – each runs his personal fiefdom in accordance with his own principles. Sometimes they even contributed positive things to their personal spheres. But ultimately they leave little room for other people in those spheres, forcing them to sneak through back alleys and fight tooth and nail against authority to accomplish what they hope to do. A perfect source of conflict.

In all of this I stress once again – know why your villain is doing what he’s doing. Most people can think of something evil a villain could do or an intimidating look for them to sport. But humanize the villain and you’ll make people take a serious look at themselves. That’s how memorable villains are made.

Come back on Friday and we’ll look at one last aspect of villain building before we wrap up this little jaunt through the art of villainous writing and move on to something a little more… heroic.

The Art of Evil and the Moment of Defeat

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!

The Art of Evil – Ascendancy and Apotheosis

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.

The Art of Evil – The Silence and the Horror

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.

The Art of Evil – Anything You Want

So why take the road of villainy?

Well at first glance that’s a stupid question, because it really can be for anything a character wants. But, while specifics will vary from case to case, there are three broad categories of villainous motivation and each brings with it natural hang-ups that can drive conflict with heroes. It’s important to nail down these motives ahead of time, both because it will help you work out the plot of your story and because knowing a villain’s motivation helps you line up their resistance to the high road with your audience’s, which is an important part of villain building.

As usual we’ll be using our ten case studies (here and here) as examples so if you haven’t looked at those yet or you just need a refresher there you go.

The most common villainous motivation is Power. For the purposes of the discussion we’re having from here on out that term refers to the ability to cause physical or, if you prefer, material changes in the world. Blowing something up, killing a person or even more neutral things like spaceflight or cheap, clean energy are examples of power. Another way to think of power as a motivation is the ability to control circumstances.

Yzma, Bill Cypher, Louis Renault and Brigid O’Shaughnessy all seek to control the world around them to some extent, whether by obtaining and keeping high office as with Yzma and Louis, plain getting rich and buying off those around her as with Brigid, or just making it into the world as we know it to wreak havoc as Bill tried to do.

Of course the biggest power villain on the list is Klaus, who hammers every problem in his empire with his iron fist. It’s not that Klaus doesn’t recognize subtlety, he just only uses it when he has to. Most of the time Klaus just tells people what he wants to happen and they make it happen. If they can’t, Klaus builds something that will make it happen. Maintaining this status quo is very important to Klaus, in fact it seems to be the most important thing in his life, and while that’s not always admirable it is understandable.

Power villains cause conflict when the circumstances they want don’t match those of the hero, when the cost of pursuing those circumstances hurts the hero or the costs just become outright reprehensible. While there may be other ways to solve a villain’s problems, power often seems like the safest or most certain route, which is why they tend to ignore more heroic options.

In contrast to power, Influence is a motivation that has nothing to do with circumstance and everything to do with perception. A villain seeking influence cares most about how people will see the world and, usually, the villain in relation to it. Consider Maleficent, for example. She didn’t want anything more than to be recognized as being of equal importance to her peers in the fairy realm. The circumstances of Aurora’s parents aren’t important to her, neither is ensuring her own position, which she no doubt views as perfectly secure. She just wants her due respect.

Darth Vader is also a villain seeking influence. He has as much physical and political power as a person could ever want. But in A New Hope he can’t get his teacher to acknowledge him. In the following two films, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Vader is trying to get his son to change sides and work with him. Vader is not spending his power on mastery over his circumstances, he’s using it to try and change the way others look at him.

The last example is an outlier in that Legato Bluesummers wasn’t particularly trying to change the way Vash looked at him. Rather, Legato’s main concern was with Vash’s philosophy. Legato hated the human race and reveled in causing it misery and he apparently couldn’t coexist in a world with a man who treasured humanity. His entire purpose in life and death is to force Vash to abandoned his world view. Legato wanted influence over Vash’s mind but in regards to general outlook, rather than specifics.

Influence villains basically only clash with heroes when they have to apply some kind of coercion to make people share their views or their views are somehow directly harmful to others. They typically try and change other people’s minds because the alternative would be to make deep, difficult changes to themselves and they’d rather not indulge in the introspection or emotional pain that entails.

Finally, the lure of Immortality is the main driving force for many villains, although it’s probably the rarest. While rarely the first priority for most villains the idea of legacy, a kind of immortality, is certainly in the minds of many. But there are those villains that are driven purely by the desire to live forever.

Whether it’s immortality through longevity or legacy, most villains who seek immortality run in to trouble when their means to immortality is inherently unethical or has unexpected consequences.

Dio likes the power being a vampire gets him, bit mostly because it gives him the chance to live forever. Likewise, he comes into conflict with most of his opposition because he must kill to stay alive. It’s unlikely that Joseph and Jotaro would ever have fought Dio if he hadn’t stolen the body of their ancestor but Dio could never have survived to the modern era if he hadn’t. Thus, as Joseph said, their conflict was essentially inevitable.

Slade Wilson is an example of a villain motivated by legacy as a form of immortality. He wants Robin to take over his position as an underworld kingpin, even if he has to twist Robin’s mind to do it. Later, when Robin turns him down, Slade finds another potential successor and finally goes whole hog and makes a deal with a pseudo devil to, you guessed it, live forever.

And Klaus, while not driven primarily by immortality, still wants a stable succession to what he’s built and for people to maintain positive images of his friends, the Heterodynes.

For the villain who wants immortality, the fear of death or concern for the things they’ve built override all other concerns, and so they simply have no regard for the harm their actions cause. This is probably the hardest argument for straying from the path of righteousness to swallow for most people. So, like Slade or Dio, we tend to find immortality villains warped when we first find them but only driven to the point of villainy when they get some fleeting glimpse of potential immortality. Klaus is the other possible approach – portraying a character who doesn’t fully see the consequences of his pursuit of immortality and thus doesn’t realize they are more harmful than the perceived evils he is putting off.

What you may have already gathered is that there is nothing inherently evil about what motivates great villains. That’s to be expected, since villains are supposed to be represent the audience in some way so they have to be motivated by things the audience can understand. Consider a man who robs banks. If he does it just for the sake of having money few people will relate. But if it’s for the purposes of buying off loan sharks, a kind of power, that’s something most people will understand. Same for someone needing money to make a good impression, which is influence, or someone trying to finance a computer that will store their mind after their body dies.

Sadly, many villains today are shown as driven entirely by immediate goals – money for the sake of money, hatred for the sake of hatred. Rather than having clear, understandable goals they’re driven by monomania or barely comprehensible philosophies. This is not the way to great villains.

What I think happens frequently is that a villain’s methods are confused with their goals. We need to talk more about villainous goals but first we need to dive into a villain’s impact, a catch-all term for their presence, their memorable actions and their important lines. That seems to be where many villains focus – which makes sense since that is what’s memorable about them. Then we’ll step back and look at the synthesis of desire and impact and how it makes villains great. See you next week.

The Art of Evil – For What Purpose?

We’ve looked at ten definitive villains (see here and here) so now it’s time to start looking at the principles underlying good villains. But before we plunge into the characters themselves we need to ask what the point of a villain is in terms of narrative, that is to say, when a writer sets out to write a villain what roles in the story is a villain supposed to play?

Every story needs different things, of course, but it’s also important to know what circumstances bring out the most in your tools. Likewise, villains are a very flexible archetype but there are some things they have to do in order to count as villains – if they don’t you may need to start thinking of your character as more of an antihero or perhaps just a morally gray actor. While none of these criteria are terribly groundbreaking without them the effectiveness of most villains will be seriously undercut and even the best written story will suffer some.

Villains are the inciting force. 

Heroes almost never start out as heroes. While stories may open with their heroic course already set, and we learn about their motives over the course of the story, remember that at some point that hero probably wasn’t dedicated to setting wrongs right. And when you dig back to the reason those heroes took up the mantel you will always find the villain(s) in one way or another.

The good fairies wouldn’t have taken up their heroic roles if Maleficent hadn’t cursed Princes Aurora. The Pines family wouldn’t have come face to face with the supernatural if Bill Cypher hadn’t reached out to them first. Kuzko definitely wouldn’t have turned into a llama if not for Yzma.

Villains set the hero on their course for the story, if not in life, and as such do a lot to set the tone of the story and, in some ways, the tone of the hero involved (except when the villain is a deliberate reversal of the hero, as with Legato). Make sure your villain can set the tone of the conflict quickly.

Villains are the source of greatest opposition. 

While Bill Cypher shares screen time with several other villains in Gravity Falls he’s clearly the most dangerous of them. The JoJo mythos has many villains aside from Dio but none of them ever fight four seasoned Stand users, and to members of the Joestar lineage, all at once. With the exception of the Pillar Men, all the other major villains tie back to Dio in some way or another. And Darth Vader, although beholden to the Emperor, is still the most forceful presence on the screen throughout the classic Star Wars films.

We’re going to look at menace and power in villains more in the future but for now, the point is your story’s villain is the one who causes the heroes the most trouble. Say you have a story about a cop fighting a mobster, in which said cop spends more time infighting with other cops than actual mobsters. That’s a muddled story because the villain isn’t clear. Is it the mobster or the other cops? Get it clear in your head. Make it clear to your audience (although not necessarily your characters). And, as much as possible, downplay the other side of the conflict so that your villain can shine.

Or whatever it is villains do when the audience is enjoying them.

Villains speak on behalf of the audience. 

Yes, really. The thing about most heroes is that, in addition to being more capable than most people, they have to face more struggles, work harder and hold themselves to higher standards than the average Joe. Most people look at characters with principles like Vash’s and as themselves why bother?

Heroes are generally something to aspire to. But if aspiring to them was all it took then the world would be a much better place. The truth is, most people don’t live like heroes because it’s hard. To be a hero is to serve others and maintain principles, to give up what we want for a greater good that we may never see. And generally it’s a thankless task. Narratively, villains tend to embody many of the reasons a person would choose not to be a hero.

Look at Louis or Klaus. One just wants to get some enjoyment out of life, maybe a benefit or two from his career as a police officer. The other is driven by half-forgotten friendships, family ties and a sense of responsibility. These are understandable motives when they drive people to live out great principles but they’re also very understandable motives when they drive people to abandon principles.

Of all the villains we’re studying none embodies this more than Legato Bluesummers. It’s true that there are thankfully very few people in the world who will embrace Legato’s nihilism, sadism and murderous tendencies but those characteristics are not what makes him relatable. It’s his role in questioning Vash’s idealism. Vash will not kill. Legato pushes him to do so but he does it by offering situations where we can feel that yes, killing a person here would probably be justified. When he asks Vash whether letting a man live is a greater evil than killing him, because a dead villain can’t cause any further evil while a living one almost certainly will, we understand because that’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves from the very beginning.

Villains have a tendency to become more popular than their heroes and, if I had to point to a single reason for that, it would be the fact that villains are closer to everyday audiences than heroes. When a villain fails sometimes it’s because of poor presentation, sometimes it’s because of poor storytelling, but most often what really pushes it over the edge is a villain who fights for the most unrelatable of reasons. Part of what brings the audience to the hero’s point of view is watching him overcome your villain’s objections to his or her philosophy. But if your audience wouldn’t fight a hero for the reasons your villain would then the effect is lost and your villain is much more likely to fail.

You do still get to have your villain fight in whatever insane way you want, that’s part of the fun. It’s the motives and the arguments that have to be understandable. So how do we make the jump from the narrative’s needs to the character’s portrayal? Well, tune in next week when we talk about what drives villains.

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!