Editing Tip Tuesday yet again on Wednesday.

Your villain has to be three dimensional.

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Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

We spend a lot of time making our protagonist(s) multi-dimensional. We give them heroic characteristics, flaws, quirks, and even pets. We assign our heroes and heroines an emotional wound that they must overcome by story’s end. (If you haven’t done any of these things for your protagonist, email me. We need to talk.)

But you need to do the same thing for your villains. Nothing is more boring than a one-dimensional bad guy or gal. A bad guy who’s bad for the sake of it. You can only see so much of that before you shut the book or turn the channel.

I’m a fan of The Walking Dead for lots of reasons, none of which are all that important for this blog post. But they’re killing me with season seven and I’m about to stop watching. There’s a new bad guy in town. His name is Negan played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. At first I thought, “wow, he must be having a blast playing this guy.” After six episodes I said, “He must get tired of doing the same thing over and over.” You see, Negan is bad for bad’s sake. Boring. We get it. He’s made his point. The first time we see Negan his level of bad (and some really good stage makeup) makes us cringe and back up from the television. Now I just want to get to the point where our heroes kick his butt. I don’t care about the stuff in the middle of that. There’s nothing sympathetic about Negan. At least not so far. There will be sixteen episodes maybe the writers will give us a little backstory on this guy, but for now, I’m not interested. He’s just a one-dimensional character walking around with a baseball bat and threatening to kill everyone if they don’t give up their belongings. He’s a bully. Boring. Did I say, boring? (This is in no way a knock on Mr. Morgan’s acting abilities. He’s doing a great job with what he’s got to work with.) Here’s a clip of Negan for your viewing pleasure.

One of the best bad guys I’ve ever seen was Joe Carroll from The Following played by James Purefoy. First off we have to give a round of applause to Mr. Purefoy’s fantastic portrayal of the sympathetic psychopath. Few actors call pull off playing such an evil person we’re willing to route for. But he couldn’t have done such a great job without some very good writing. Joe Carroll was a cold-blooded killer and he had a slew of people willing to kill for him. But, gosh darn it, we liked this guy. We didn’t want him to win really, I mean, what would that say about us, but the writers gave us a multi-dimensional character. Yes, he was a total scary guy, but he also loved his wife and son very much. Nothing was to happen to them. He wanted a family and he wanted his family safe. He wanted to be a dad to his young boy. Who doesn’t love a man trying to be a good father? It worked. I couldn’t get enough of Joe Carroll and I routed for him till the end. (Of course, I wanted Kevin Bacon to catch him. I mean, come on, it’s Kevin Bacon!) Here’s a clip of Joe Carroll for your viewing pleasure. 

Do you have a villain who is nothing more than a cardboard cut-out with a greasy mustache who throws his head back and laughs a hearty laugh? Or do you have someone whose mother tried to choke him while he slept when he was only four, whose father shot himself in the only bathroom in their apartment when our bad-guy was coming home from the second-grade? Did your bad guy trust a teacher only to find out the teacher was a psychopath in-training? Was your bad guy bullied, beaten, burned? Does he love dogs, but not people? Ask yourself, what does my bad guy want? Maybe it’s just to be loved. Make us care about this person. You’ll have us hooked from the beginning willing and ready to go for a long ride with you.

Any questions?

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7 thoughts on “Editing Tip Tuesday yet again on Wednesday.

  1. Great post, Stacey!

    If you examine Hannibal Lecter, one of the all-time great villains of both literature and cinema, you realize that most of his characteristics are quite admirable — enviable, even: He’s articulate; he’s genteel; he’s psychologically insightful. It’s just that his one bad trait — he eats people — is super-negative! There’s no question that his psychological complexity is what makes him so endlessly fascinating — so much so that he sort of became the protagonist of later stories!

    A few years ago, I published a two-part study of the Joker — a comparative analysis of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger‘s interpretations — which showed both of them to be deceptively complex villains, and only 60% similar to one another with respect to their psychological constitutions.

    Sean

    1. Sean, I have to admit I was looking forward to your comment on this post because you are so insightful on all things film. So, first up, thank you for the kind words on the post. It means a lot to me.

      I do agree, Hannibal Lecter is one of the all-time great villains and Anthony Hopkins did a fantastic job with him. That man scared the pants off me!
      While writing my post, I was thinking that Jack Nicholson is one of the few actors who was able to play two antagonists and make them both likable. One, of course, was the Joker (and I can’t wait to read your thoughts on that character) and the other being Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. Who else can shove an adorable dog down a garbage-shoot and still be likable?

      1. Nicholson is such a charismatic actor, he’s made a career out of playing creeps you can’t help but be charmed (or at least fascinated) by. That said, As Good as It Gets is a remarkable piece of screenwriting, so a lot of credit for Melvin’s rich characterization goes to Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks. There are a tremendous amount of empathy techniques layered into that movie with such artful subtlety that you could spend an entire semester studying them.

    2. Sean, I have to admit I was looking forward to your comment on this post because you are so insightful on all things film. So, first up, thank you for the kind words on the post. It means a lot to me.

      I do agree, Hannibal Lecter is one of the all-time great villains and Anthony Hopkins did a fantastic job with him. That man scared the pants off me!
      While writing my post, I was thinking that Jack Nicholson is one of the few actors who was able to play two antagonists and make them both likable. One, of course, was the Joker (and I can’t wait to read your thoughts on that character) and the other being Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. Who else can shove an adorable dog down a garbage-shoot and still be likable?

      1. I always say it comes down to the writing. The actor can only do so much with what he’s got to work with. Some day we’re going to have that discussion on the “tremendous amount of empathy techniques layered into that movie [As Good As It Gets] with such artful subtlety”

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