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.