Which is More Important: The Hero or the Villain?
There’s a small minority of people that believe that the strength of a story’s hero is the best predictor of the story’s overall quality. By quality, I mean the level of audience engagement and entertainment. If the audience or reader finds the hero to be likable and authentic, they’re more likely to get fully immersed in the story. The first requirement for getting the audience to feel any emotion (fear, sadness, excitement, maybe nausea…) is to make them care about the characters.
Now, there’s another small piece of the story consumers’ pie that believes it is the villain that makes or breaks a story. The villain must be formidable and/or ruthless enough to mount a serious challenge to the hero. A weak villain hurts a story because the conflict is neutered by the antagonist’s lack of menace or power. Think of Jonathan Pryce’s ‘Elliot Carver’ in Tomorrow Never Dies or ‘The Creeper’ from Jeepers Creepers or Hayden Christensen’s cringe-worthy transformation into ‘Darth Vader’ in SW3: Revenge of the Sith. Even if the audience relates to the hero and roots for him or her, a lack of perceived danger, with respect to the protagonist, turns the whole ordeal into a wet fart.
The third and largest group of folks believe that the hero and villain are equally important in determining the effectiveness and overall caliber of a story. My opinion is somewhere in between the majority opinion and the villain camp. Right off the top of my head, I can think of lots of movies that had great villains and weak(er) heroes but were still great. Here are a few:
- The Dark Knight & Batman (Tim Burton film)
- Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- Inglorious Basterds
- No Country for Old Men
Now it’s important to distinguish the difference between a better written and/or performed character and a character that is simply not as interesting. For example, take The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster both won Academy Awards for their performances, which were well-deserved. The dynamic between the two actors was hauntingly effective. However, Hopkins’ performance as ‘Dr. Hannibal Lecter’ has resonated with popular culture much more than Foster’s ‘Clarice Starling.’ This was simply because Hannibal Lecter is a more novel character. It has nothing to do with Foster’s performance.
Popular culture’s preference of Hopkin’s character over Foster’s is not the same as the difference of character quality seen in Tim Burton’s Batman. Michael Keaton’s bland portrayal of ‘Batman’ was overshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s ‘Joker.’ That dynamic was mirrored in The Dark Knight, although it wasn’t nearly as apparent. Similarly, Kevin Costner’s ‘Robin Hood’ was unremarkable at best and boring at worst. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman’s (RIP) portrayal of the ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ was hilariously morbid. He made the film a success. Without his villain, the movie isn’t worth watching.
Disclaimer: I would argue that there’s a difference between a villain and a monster. Both are antagonists, but a villain has human emotions. A monster does not. Cujo was a rabid St. Bernard. That’s a monster, not a villain. From its art design to the psycho-sexual themes of its reproduction, the ‘Xenomorph’ from the Alien franchise is an iconic piece of film history. But it’s not a villain. It’s a monster. Monsters are not better or worse than villains, they’re just not the focus of this post.
It’s Better To Be King For a Day Than A Slave For Eternity
Whether you believe that the hero or the villain is more integral to the success of a story, we can all agree that a story is better served by having an effective villain. There’s an infinite number of ways to make a good villain. Unfortunately, there are also many story-telling pitfalls that can fatally weaken a villain’s effectiveness. Here is the number one mistake that story-tellers make when crafting villains.
The Villain is Totally 100% Pure Unadulterated Evil
The best villains are human, meaning that they have feelings and emotions like the rest of us. We can relate to them and understand their motivations. A villain without a plausible motive (every pre-Casino Royale ‘Bond’ movie) is a turn-off. The horror comes from seeing a piece of ourselves in the villain.
Villains are forged through traumatic and often unjust experiences prior to their introduction in a story. The transformation from innocence to evil is a psychological journey that moves the villain’s character along the good-evil spectrum. They’re likely almost all the way over to the evil side, but there is still a twinge of humanity in the character. ‘Annie Wilkes’ in Misery is insane, but she craves love and she fears that one day her prisoner and literary love interest, ‘Paul Sheldon,’ will heal and leave her forever. The fear of being alone is something we can all relate to. ‘Commodus’ in Gladiator is a blood-thirsty, narcissistic asshole that crucifies the protagonist’s family. His driving emotion is a feeling of perpetual inadequacy because his father never loved him. That’s a motive many people can relate to. I buy it.
Schindler’s List is a great film in more ways than one. I believe that it’s Spielberg’s greatest film. It’s almost flawless. Almost. Ralph Fiennes plays the villain, ‘Amon Göth,’ a real-life Nazi soldier that commanded the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Poland during WWII. Fiennes’ performance is evil, authentic and disturbing. I have nothing but the highest praise for the technical aspects of his performance.
My issue with the character is that he isn’t human. He’s pure, 100% evil. He sits on his balcony and shoots Jewish prisoners for fun. He beats his Jewish servant girl to death. He doesn’t display one human emotion throughout the entire film. Even his Nazi affiliation can’t explain the severity of his derangement. His motivation wasn’t clear to me. Unlike the other villains I mentioned, I can’t relate to Göth at all.
What made the Holocaust so appalling was that regular folks’ minds became so corrupted that they supported and participated in mass murder. Every Nazi wasn’t a ravenous monster. Many were swept up in the post-WWI populist anger (not so different from the USA now). Human beings chose to partake in genocide. They weren’t all psychopaths like how Göth is portrayed in the film. They were just like you and me. That’s why it’s so important to never forget the Holocaust. Human beings are capable of tremendous evil. If we forget the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.
The hallmarks of a great villain are humanity, relatability and evil. We need to understand the villain’s motive and we need to be able to identify with it. A good villain is a human mirror. If set up correctly, it shows us a reflection of ourselves. For most of us, part of that reflection is very dark.
What Do You Think?
What did you think of my #1 villain mistake? Do you disagree? Let me know your thoughts!