The Villain’s Journey

Back when I was horrendously addicted to cigarettes, I used to tell myself that I would quit by cutting down.  Obviously, someone soaked through and through with nicotine as I was couldn’t possibly quit cold turkey.  You could die from stuff like that!  I’d allot myself a certain number of cigarettes per day for the first week of my regimen with the idea that I would cut that number by 25% every week thereafter until I glided to a soft nicotine-free landing.

Three words: Doomed to fail.  Cutting down is a lie you tell yourself so you don’t have to quit right now.  The tobacco industry counts on this.  So does the nicotine patch industry.  Adding nicotine to your system just makes you all the more addicted to it. 

What I love about patches is that nicotine is the major carcinogen in cigarettes. It’s also the primary addictive substance.  With the patch, you get all the carcinogen and all the addiction without the joy of smoking.  It’s one of those instances where human beings do something so counterintuitive that you start to believe we can be talked into anything.

Send rich people to Washington and hope they take care of the middle class.  Take five dollars off your purchase by putting it on a brand new credit card with a 26% interest rate.  Avoid making $1,200 worth of repairs to your car by trading it in on a new one – and the commensurate sixty months of indentured servitude.

People don’t behave logically, at least not all the time.  They often don’t even behave in their own best interests.  And that best the question: Do your characters have to apply rigorous reason and sound judgment to their every decision?  No, but fiction is largely about making choices so if someone is going to do something the reader will find counterintuitive you’d better pave the road that leads to that decision with some damn good justification. 

What could possibly justify acting counter to your own interests?  It’s kind of funny, but the Church has a list of seven pretty good ones: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

Think about that last one but substitute Arrogance for Pride and then remember every villain in every spy movie who said, “Shooting is too good for him.  Tie him to an elaborate Rube Goldberg device that will slice off his testicles in approximately thirty minutes!”  This, of course, gives the hero time to escape and later hoist the villain with his own prideful petard. 

And let me tell you, seriously, if I ever become a villain I will live by the mantra that shooting is perfectly suitable for my enemies.

But as long as we’re butchering Shakespeare, let’s just remove his gall bladder by talking for a moment about Macbeth.  Mac, as he’s known to his friends, has a really good job and his boss really likes him.  He also has a solid friend in MacDuff – confusing because everyone also calls him Mac.  Makes you wonder how anybody knows who’s being talked about in Scotland – and an aggressively upwardly mobile wife.  So what does he do?  He puts extra money in his 401K and takes trips in the RV to the Highlands where he can relax and blow off steam.

Just kidding! He kills his boss, takes over his job, kills his best friend’s wife and kids… Let’s just say his decision making skills aren’t the best to begin with and then they go rapidly downhill.

Why?  This guy is introduced as a great and heroic leader of men in battle.  The three homeless women he runs into in the beginning of the story seem to think that the has a kernel of evil glowing inside him.  His wife is no help.  She’s all over him about not moving up the corporate ladder fast enough and she says everything except, “I will do that thing I never do if you get this promotion.” to send him off the deep end.  But is that really enough to lead a smart man to make such a stupid decision?

Actually, yes.  We all have a tiny kernel of evil glowing inside of us and, whether it comes out as avarice or sloth or arrogance, we can be pretty easily manipulated by it.  How else to explain otherwise perfectly intelligent people falling for the Nigerian 419 scam?  Or buying lottery tickets?  Or paying for the undercoating on a new car? 

In the end, your characters’ decisions have to make sense inside their operating environment.  If they’ve been acting like a dunce for the rest of the story, they can’t believably solve a complicated cipher in the last chapter even though this very thing happens every day.  If they’ve been motivated purely by avarice, they can’t suddenly give the money away to an orphanage.

Not that characters can’t have complicated inner lives.  Blade Runner has one of the most fascinatingly complex characters ever created for the screen.  Roy Batty starts out the film very much like a classic Hollywood villain but ends up a sad mess of conflicted emotions who has come to value his own fleeting life so much that he can’t stand to take it from his worst tormentor.  That’s his journey and it’s all there in the movie if you pay attention.  I think with a little editing you could change Blade Runner to The Roy Batty story, no reshoots necessary.

That’s something to think about: The Villain’s Journey.  We’re always talking about the hero’s journey but what about the villain?  If it’s true that the villain is the hero of his own story, then he should have a journey as well?  Right?  Isn’t that lack of journey what makes so many villains two dimensional?  And, conversely, the presence of that journey is what makes Blade Runner such a timeless classic? 




One thought on “The Villain’s Journey

  1. Jake, that is an interesting comment. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe the villain really should have a journey too. Hmmm . . . something to mull over the next few days. Thanks!

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