Shannon Stacey

The villain in a gray hat

I’m trying to exorcize that word from my vocabulary. Villain. It smacks of Snidely Whiplash, snickering and twisting his fiendish mustache. Evil and mean. And very one-dimensional.

I prefer antagonist. The character who comes into conflict with the protagonist(s). Papa Montague and Papa Capulet weren’t villains. They were antagonists. The mother who pays the bad boy to leave her daughter forever isn’t a villain. She’s an antagonist. Well, sure, but what if you’re writing romantic suspense or thrillers? You need a villain then, right?

Wrong. That’s when you need a morally ambiguous antagonist the most.


Action movies are a dime a dozen. Shoot’em up, bang-bang, save the world. And I love them. The Die Hards. The Lethal Weapons. Anything with Steven Seagal. I’m there. But there are two that I could watch in a marathon rotation for days. Why? Because of the morally ambiguous antagonists.

In 1996, some casting god put Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock. As if that wasn’t reason enough, this movie also has, IMHO, the single best example of characterization shown through dialogue. When they’re explaining the mission, and Nic’s character says “I drive a Volvo. A beige one,” you know everything you need to know about the man.

But I digress. (Surprise!) The reason this movie is a keeper is Ed Harris’s role of Brig. Gen. Francis X. Hummel. The man who took Alcatraz and its tourists hostage and threatens to destroy San Francisco. A villain, right? Not by a long shot. Every single time I watch this movie I weep for the man. The writers took a character and made him do a misguided thing for the right reason. And not just his right reason. The plight of our veterans is an issue that touches (or should touch) every American. And when his plan gets blown to hell and you see the torment of a man who just needed to make things right, it’s heartbreaking. You can’t root for him to succeed–nobody wants San Francisco blown away. (Well, nobody I know, anyway.) But you can’t root against him, either, because we believe in what he believes in. (And, of course, we could root for him and one of the secondaries gets to be The Villain–who’s stereotypically after the money, but that’s just actiony crap at the end.)

The other movie with a great antagonist is Air Force One. Harrison Ford turns in a good performance as the Commander-in-Chief, but Gary Oldman’s role as Ivan Korshunov is very good. Okay, the movie wasn’t great. Pretty plastic action-figurey, and a little hokey with the Air Force One thing. But what keeps me watching the movie over and over again (I will admit to owning this one) is the desperate fight of the Russians and small post-Soviet countries to save themselves. A lot of people don’t realize it, but the end of the Cold War was a bad thing for some people. The threat of nuclear annihilation kept the world aligned under the superpowers, and kept the economies of the US and Russia strong. We fared much better. We at least still have cohesion. Defenses. A strong governmental identity. Korshunov is a man driven by the need to save his country. To regain what they once had before they all starve or are killed by the infighting.

What would you do to save your country? Would you hijack a plane and kidnap a country’s leader if you thought you could negotiate something your floundering country desperately needed? Would you threaten, even harm, one family, if it could save thousands…maybe millions? He did a bad thing, for his good reason.

If I was from his country and the not the United States, would Ivan Korshunov have been the hero in my movie?

There are plenty of Snidely Whiplashes out there. “I’m going to destroy the world! Why? For money, of course!” Snore.

There are endless character worksheets out there. If you do one for your hero, and you do one for your heroine, don’t forget to do one for your bad guy. And don’t write “Villain” across the top. Write “Morally Ambiguous Antagonist.”

Tweak his (or her) motivations and goals until you think you’ve got a person that the reader just might be tempted to root for. Then pit him against your protagonists.

8 comments to “The villain in a gray hat”

  1. Anna Lucia
      · March 18th, 2005 at 5:28 am · Link

    I am tempted to swear.

    Let me just say f***ing excellent post, Shan! Three Loud Cheers!

  2. Anna Lucia
      · March 18th, 2005 at 5:30 am · Link

    Ooooh, conversely, though, I love those antagonists who are pretending to have a cause, but are really in it for the personal gain… think Die Hard and Under Seige…

  3. Shannon
      · March 18th, 2005 at 11:58 am · Link

    Hmmm…something to consider–that’s a good twist, but Die Hard and Under Siege have two incredible actors playing the “villain”. Without Alan Rickman and Tommy Lee Jones, do they sink to just another action movie?

    I think they both had well-written plots and twists, and that’s a great question, but I think any emotional empathy I felt for those bad guys came from the actors, not the role. Do you know what I mean?

    Compare the brilliance of the actors in Die Hard and Under Siege to the actors in Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and Under Siege: Dark Territory. With the exception of Jeremy Irons, they were pretty mediocre bad guys. And I think it’s lack of an Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons that made Die Hard 2 so disposable.

    Hey, I digressed so much I don’t even remember the original thing I was saying. Other than to agree that Die Hard and Under Siege had pretty excellent bad guys.

  4. Maili
      · March 18th, 2005 at 12:40 pm · Link

    Ooh, an excellent entry! Acmittedly, it’s one of my favourite topics [another is anti-heroes], so I’m pleased that you’ve written a piece about this. I’m sorry that I read this this late [it’s nearly time to do dinner], but I’m definitely returning with some comments.

    I’m leaving these here as a reminder for myself: Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now / Javert of Les Misérables / Aguirre of Aguirre, the Wrath of God / Roy of Blade Runner … ok, I’ll shut up.

    There is another type that doesn’t fit in neither category: Nurse Ratched of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and the Rev of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

  5. Walt Stone
      · March 18th, 2005 at 2:06 pm · Link

    This month’s new Maxim magazine came and inbetween the pictures of last year’s America’s Next Top Model is a quick two page feature on The Greatest Movie Douchebags Ever. No. 10 on the list is Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) from Titanic. At No. 6 was Biff Tannen from Back To The Future, but you might argue he was the villian as well.

    So, not only do you need a good villian, but also a decent douchebag…

  6. Shannon
      · March 18th, 2005 at 9:55 pm · Link

    Douchebags. Hmmm…

    I’d go for John Spencer as Womack in The Rock. For Die Hard it’s a toss-up between William Atherton as Richard Thornberg (the reporter) and Hart Bochner as Ellis (the office cokehead.) Still thinking for Air Force One.

    Les Miserable and The Fugitive both have that dual good/bad guy thing. The chaser and the chasee are both good guys in a way, and bad guys in a way. Interesting. If only I could figure out a way to phrase what I’m talking about.

  7. Cece
      · March 19th, 2005 at 4:46 pm · Link

    Shannnnnn BRILLIANT POST!!!!!! But you knew that! :wink:

  8. Jaq
      · March 19th, 2005 at 10:03 pm · Link

    Really, really, well done entry, Shannon. I love a complex ‘bad guy/girl’. Cardboard any character–main, secondary, tertiary, protag/antag–is boring.

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