Friday, August 13, 2010

How To Un-Cliché Your Villain

A cliché is an artistic idea that has been so overused that it offends the patience of the audience. It’s the kind of thing that gets an audience rolling their eyes and saying, “oh no, not again! Can’t they think of anything new?!” And nothing ruins a movie quicker than a clichéd villain.

Examples of cliché villains include anything resembling a James Bond villain and the evil corporation as the bad guy motif. Other examples include the liberal boogeymen trinity: greedy corporate bosses, bloodthirsty military men and perverted religious leaders.

What is it that each of these have in common? Two things: simplistic, unrealistic motivations and melodramatic characteristics.

Humans come with a whole range of good and bad motivations. But this is too complex for Hollywood. Instead, Hollywood follows a formula where each villain they use has only one motivation, and that motivation is an amplified form of the most prominent characteristic of that character’s profession or role. Thus, for example, because business strives for profit, the corporate villain is always motivated by greed, and only greed. Because the job of soldiers is to kill the enemy, the soldier villain is always motivated purely by bloodlust (ditto on “the hunter"). The politician is always motivated purely by power. And so on.

But humans aren’t like that. Humans are complex creatures with many motivations. And this is where you need to begin your search for the non-clichéd villain. Indeed, the surest method for avoiding a clichéd bad guy is to employ a motivation other than the one Hollywood always uses. Thus, avoid the greedy businessman. Instead, consider a businessman who might act out of fear of being replaced. Avoid the power hungry politician and go for a politician with a pathological need for approval. Avoid the bloodthirsty solider. Instead, consider a soldier like Captain Stransky in Cross of Iron, who tries to send the heroes to die to keep them from reporting his cowardice.

Still, these are dangerously close to the clichés, so let’s dig a little deeper.

As I’ve pointed out before, it is a fact that real life villains never think of themselves as villains. They may recognize that they’ve done evil things, but every single one of them thought they were justified in doing so -- either to rectify some injustice done to them or to further some “noble goal” they wanted to achieve. For example, serial killers often report that their victims wanted to die or that they were doing the work of God. Hitler viewed himself as the savior of the German people, and he justified his evil as necessary to achieving that purpose. Ultimately, his justifications were insane, but they made sense to him, and that’s the key here: people just don’t see themselves as evil.

This translates into the story arena as well. Think of the best film villains and you will find a group that rarely sees themselves as evil. Darth Vader thought he was bringing peace to his Empire. The Borg in Star Trek were simply doing what came naturally, as did the Alien and Jaws. The Terminator was just following its programming. Captain Bligh was a sadist, but thought he was in the right. Bartholomew in Rollerball thought he was doing what had to be done to protect society. Dean Corso in Ninth Gate was just doing his job and following his curiosity. Even the guys in Rope thought they had the right (if not the duty) to murder their friend. These are all characters who would be shocked to hear that they were cast as the villains in their stories.

Here’s another great example of this. In the Star Trek episode “Conscience of the King,” the character Kodos was the governor of Tarsus IV. When a famine wiped out their food supply, he ordered the execution of half the colony to save the rest. He thought he was doing the right thing. Or look at the bureaucrat in Torchwood: Children of Earth (left), who makes the cold-blooded calculation that turning several thousand children over to a horrible fate is worth it to save millions more, and then goes about callously selecting them. Both of these characters did what they thought they had to do, even though it pained them personally.

What this tells us is that the easiest way to avoid a cliché is to remember this key fact: if your villain can’t legitimately explain how they’re justified in doing what they’re doing, then you’re probably on the precipice of a cliché.

Moreover, there isn’t always a direct link between the motivation and the end result. In other words, the villain need not always be motivated to cause something evil, sometimes it’s just a byproduct of their misbehavior. A perfect example of this would be a scientist who thinks he’s doing something great, but actually invents something horrible, or a bureaucrat who turns a blind eye to right and wrong because he’s unwilling to act outside of his assigned box, or even a prosecutor who pushes a little too hard even where they suspect the defendant might be innocent (see Breaker Morant).

If you want a great example of this evil by-no-design, look at the movie Cube, which had an incredible premise (ignore the sequels). The premise was that people awoke trapped inside a huge cube that is full of traps. Why? Who built it? Apparently, no one did. . . at least not intentionally. It was built by thousands of people, each doing their parts, without ever knowing exactly what they were creating. And the reason it was built? Again, no one knows. They speculate it was just some bureaucratic idea that took on a life of its own -- which happens more than you would think in the modern world.

Also, keep in mind, that sometimes the villain is simply someone who was put in a situation way beyond their competence, and they didn’t have the strength of character to admit that. So as things spin beyond their control, they get busy trying to cover their rear ends to hide what they’ve done or they try to fix things and only make them worse (see Brazil).

Finally, there is one more thing that needs to be done to avoid the cliché: drop the melodramatic traits. The truly evil among us don’t go prancing around reveling in their evil and shooting henchmen for sport. And if you think about it, you’ll understand why: it doesn’t make sense in the real world. Could someone as unstable as the Hollywood “greedy businessman” ever make it to the top of a corporate empire? Would anyone promote the soldier who laughs maniacally as he gives insane orders to shoot his own troops? Would anyone work for the villain who shoots his henchmen when they get his coffee order wrong? No. It is the rarest of rare stories where something like this could make sense.

That’s my thinking.

Ultimately, the key to avoiding clichés is to avoid over-used motivations and the melodrama that always attaches to those clichéd motivations. Understand your characters. Make sure they would feel justified in every action they take, and avoid ever thinking that they would see themselves as evil. If you do this, you’ll also find that your story necessarily adjusts away from cliché storylines because those types of storylines can’t reflect the character’s more natural motivations and responses.

Or maybe it’s best summed up like this: realism kills clichés.


26 comments:

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

For some reason, this article reminds me of Robespierre and his reign of terror. He was killed by his own people after he brought to the Committee for Public Safety a sheaf of paper calling for a new purge but neglected to tell them the names on it. Fearing for their safety, the committee members called for Robespierre's head. He was arrested and executed.

ScottDS said...

That's no Torchwood bureaucrat, that's Malcolm Tucker! (When you see In the Loop, you'll understand.) :-D

And by coincidence, this article from Empire Magazine showed up in my Facebook feed and it's all about Hollywood bad guys.

A perfect example of a scientist who thinks he's doing something great but it backfires... would be John Noble in Fringe. To say anything more would be a spoiler. And before you mentioned it, I kept thinking of Brazil, specifically Michael Palin's character. He's just a bureaucrat with a family to feed.

Unfortunately (as you'll read in the above article though I'm sure you'll disagree with its conclusions), there are certain bad guys that simply make better cinematic villains. Nazis have everything... the architecture, the music, the cool uniforms, the artwork, the marches, etc. CEOs have the coolest technology and weapons, not to mention an endless supply of henchmen.

What does a terrorist have? A suitcase, a Kalashnikov, and a bomb in his pants. :-) I'm grossly simplifying this but, as I've said before, a good writer can craft a great story with any villain but some take more effort than others. And some motivations lend themselves better to films than others. Greed, yes. Sloth, not so much.

ScottDS said...

Aww, man, my comment seems to have disappeared (or I absent-mindedly closed the tab in my browser). Let's try it again...

That's no Torchwood bureaucrat, that's Malcolm Tucker! (When you see In the Loop, you'll understand.) :-)

A great example of a scientist who thinks he's doing something good but it turns out badly would be John Noble's character on Fringe... to say anything more would be a spoiler. And the whole article, I kept thinking of Brazil... Michael Palin's character is just a man doing his job. He has a family to feed just like everybody else.

By coincidence, this article appeared in my Facebook feed. It's very interesting though I think you'll disagree with some its conclusions.

I think part of the problem is that certain villains and motivations simply make for better cinematic experiences. The Nazis, businessmen... they have cool toys, endless henchmen, etc. But I've said this before, a great writer can craft a story with any villain. Some just take more effort than others.

ScottDS said...

I've been having a hard time posting this morning. I logged out of Blogger and back in so away we go (for the third time).

That's no Torchwood bureaucrat, that's Malcolm Tucker! (When you see In the Loop, you'll understand.) :-)

By coincidence, this article showed up in my Facebook feed though I doubt you'll agree with all its conclusions.

I think part of the problem is that certain villains and motivations simply make for better cinematic experiences. Greed, yes. Sloth, not so much. I've said it before but a great writer can craft a story with any villain. It's just that certain villains require a little more work than others.

(I had more but I don't want to type it all a third time!)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Joel, I'll watch my back! LOL!

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

ScottDS has been trying to post here this morning. So far, it hasn't made it.

I'll post his comment next.

Joel Farnham said...

That's no Torchwood bureaucrat, that's Malcolm Tucker! (When you see In the Loop, you'll understand.) :-D

And by coincidence, this article from Empire Magazine showed up in my Facebook feed and it's all about Hollywood bad guys.

A perfect example of a scientist who thinks he's doing something great but it backfires... would be John Noble in Fringe. To say anything more would be a spoiler. And before you mentioned it, I kept thinking of Brazil, specifically Michael Palin's character. He's just a bureaucrat with a family to feed.

Unfortunately (as you'll read in the above article though I'm sure you'll disagree with its conclusions), there are certain bad guys that simply make better cinematic villains. Nazis have everything... the architecture, the music, the cool uniforms, the artwork, the marches, etc. CEOs have the coolest technology and weapons, not to mention an endless supply of henchmen.

What does a terrorist have? A suitcase, a Kalashnikov, and a bomb in his pants. :-) I'm grossly simplifying this but, as I've said before, a good writer can craft a great story with any villain but some take more effort than others. And some motivations lend themselves better to films than others. Greed, yes. Sloth, not so much.

Sent by ScottDS

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Joel! I'm still trying to figure it out. I assume the problem is on my end. Stay tuned...

ScottDS said...

Oh, and here's the link to the article I was mentioning...

Click here.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm not sure what the problem is. Let me know if it doesn't fix itself. It could be Google -- which is much more finicky than it should be.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Regarding Brazil, I think the whole thing is crawling with examples from my article above. Palin is the most extreme version of the bureaucrat who knows that what he's doing is wrong, but keeps on doing it -- most of the "bad bureaucrats" usually aren't doing something as direct as torturing people. In any event, think about Jonathan Price's character too, who basically turns this woman into public enemy number one because he decides that he's going to save her from imagined danger.

As for the point about terrorists v. Nazis, yes, it's a lot easier to make a story about Nazis or CEOs because all those cool toys and well-worn conventions are a crutch -- these movies basically write themselves. But because of this, the fascist-cliché stories are very limiting because they always need to be grandiose and are always about how to bring down the Hitler-character at the top.

To explain the difference, let’s look at something in a slightly different context. Compare Ronin, which puts the spy story back into a much more intimate context, against any of the modern James Bond films, which are all flash, explosions and one-liners. Ronin is where the real story telling is because it has to rely on interesting stories, compelling characters and intense action. The Bond movies can’t get to that level because they need to deliver too much flash. Movies that rely on the "fascism cliché" usually fall right into the all-flash category.

Also, we're looking for non-cliché villains here, not cliché villains. If we wanted a list of cliché villains, the Nazis and their offshoots would be at the top of the list.

I will see In The Loop, I literally just haven't had the chance to watch anything new lately. If he's half as good in that as he was in Torchwood, then I'll be impressed.

(I'll check out the article and get back to you.)

darski said...

for the current situation.. I look to another famous Trek villain. Khan was doing what he did because his natural superiority made it necessary for him to determine the lives of others. He has always been my most chilling villain and was fully believable.

AndrewPrice said...

darksi, I like Khan a lot, but I would draw a distinction between Khan in the series and Khan in the film. Khan in the series was exactly like you say. A very believable character who had literally been genetically engineered to see himself as a superior human who needs to lead all the rest -- basically, he was the genetic version of Hitler's "Aryan superman" (even though he was Indian).

In the film, he was a little more Hollywood cliche -- angry to the point of being irrational, prone to outbursts and (nearly) senselessly violent. . . which he wasn't in the series. In the series, he saw violence as just another tool to use to achieve his goals, i.e. he was cold-blooded (and that was very chilling).

I think that made the movie character much closer to a cliche, though I did enjoy the film and his portrayal a lot.

LawHawkRFD said...

John Travolta revived his career playing cliched villains. Without the surrounding cast and the difference in plot, it's almost impossible to distinguish one Travolta villain from another. I will give him credit for being at least a little different in Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. But the smirking, cold-blooded villain who is so smart that he outsmarts himself has become his forte.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Isn't that the truth. I would say that his character in Pulp Fiction was different, but everything else he's done has been completely interchangeable with each of his other roles.

Patti said...

yes, but what of *my* melodramatic traits?! i just can't see writing wonk 5 days a week without them.

~ maniacal laugh here ~

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, All personal melodrama is of course allowed! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I read the article. I'm feeling pretty indifferent about it.

It's a very cynical article that is also much shallower than the author thinks it is. Indeed, all it really does is present the liberal Hollywood view of why Hollywood chooses the villains it chooses for blockbuster films -- lazy writers, a stupid public, and trying to avoid inciting racism in the stupid public.

But the author tries to sound above all of that by tossing in a lot of sarcasm. But since there's no real depth behind the sarcasm, you're just left with a cynical article that says almost nothing.

I also think she's wrong about there being a trend toward sympathetic Nazis, she's wrong in her timeline about the IRA movies and about the IRA ever replacing anyone as America's "go-to" villain, and she's almost entirely wrong about why Hollywood ignores Muslims. She also doesn't seem to get that villains are dictated largely by current events.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm going to wipe out your test comments now that it looks like the problem is solved.

StanH said...

One of the most painful things to watch, is when a character becomes a cliché of themselves, like Lawhawk mentioned with Travolta. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, Rambo, etc. Hell! …Hollywood itself is a cliché’ of it’s once rich grandeur. Original thought are sorely lacking in an industry whose very survival depends on it. However, to be fair originality is a rare commodity indeed in all of mankind’s history, to dig down to the nexus of any art, is next to impossible. Even Shakespeare had predecessors and critics, he simply took an existing art form and made it his own, you could say the same of Mozart or Leonardo Da Vinci, and on and on. The trick is, to make what has come before you, your own, without being cliché’.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I couldn't have said it better -- the trick is to "make it your own."

At some level, everything is a repeat of something that came before it. But the difference between good and bad work is that the good stuff manages to find fresh angles that people aren't already familiar with, i.e. to at least make it seem new and original, even if it isn't.

And I agree with you about characters/actors becoming cliches of themselves. That's a danger with a lot of the guys who just play the one personality on screen -- like Stalone or Arnold. And the danger is that they end up doing that one movie too many that suddenly makes everything they've done before seems "less" than it used to.

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Andrew. I'm out now but I'm sure I'll have more to say on the subject later. :-)

Individualist said...

Andrew

The incompetent bureaucrats who made the best villians would have to be the Vogons in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy... Kidding but they did blow up the earth for a hyperspatial bypass that did not need to be made.

Hey how about this for a villian...
A community organizer who uses government give away programs to place people in homes with mortgages at 125% the home's value who works with a lawyer and a rich real estate investor who buys up these houses cheap when the individuals default on their loans and then uses the political proceeds to run for Office.......

Wait I think that was has been done before too... Hmmmm......

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, Yeah, that's been done to death. . . death of our economy!

I hadn't thought about the Vogon, but that is kind of funny. "The plans have been on file for months, we can't help it if you don't pay attention to local issues." LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Dear Professor, aka Troll,

I'm not even going to bother posting your comment because it adds nothing of value to the discussion except to inform us of your ignornace, which frankly doesn't interest anyone.

I find it laughable that you claim to be a college professor for the past 25 years, yet you lack rudimentary reading comprehension. Were the words too big for you? Or were the concepts just beyond you?

Secondly, I find it sad that they would let anyone with your hostility teach children. You should seek counseling and probably lay off the booze.

Third, do you realize how laughable it is that you site yourself as a "reference"? I honestly cannot imagine anything less credible than that. I only wish I knew at which college you teach in Seattle, so that I could contact your department and tell them what kind of dipshit they've got working for them. We could then share stories about some of your most idiotic moments.

J. Rose said...

Interesting discussion. Bureaucrats are my favorite villains. So many motivations stemming from the desire to hide and justify mistakes.

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