Friday, May 30, 2014

What Makes a Villain?

Okay, last time I reference Dreams of Stars for a while, because this past couple of weeks I finally let The Ritch 'arrd speak for himself for the first time in the story and he is the villain of the story, right?  I'll get to that, but I think it's time to tap the idea of what makes a good villain, and I think I can do it with four words.

Competence - Smart villains are usually considered far more dangerous than any other kind and for good reason.  If they can outthink the hero, who often is presented as a relatively normal person, then they can outthink us.  It also makes the villain seem actually plausible.  A bumbling fool who is evil is a lot less real than a suave billionaire who sets up the pieces so he always wins, even if the heroes somehow win.  The best example is from outside of webcomics in the form of David Xanatos from Disney's Gargoyles series.  He even has tropes named after him.  He almost always wins, even when he loses.  Within webcomics, the best example is Baron Wulfenbach from Girl Genius who is almost always the smartest man in the room, even when everyone else is a mad scientist.  Just trying to figure out what his plans are, even when he's apparently under a form of mind control, keep fans guessing, but we all know we're probably wrong and he's got something even better planned than we can come up with.

Motivation - Like any character, knowing WHY a villain is doing something is just as vital as what they're doing.  Motivation makes a villain feel more like a complete character, rather than a caricature.  A really good motivation will even make the audience feel for the villain, perhaps even root for them in the long run.  The best webcomic example I can think of at the moment is Ian from Errant Story.  His initial motivation is very noble:  Find a cure for his sister's heart condition.  When she dies, he kind of goes into full out grief/revenge mode blaming the elves (who are collectively a bunch of assholes in the universe) for the death and not helping and using his new god-like powers, goes off to wipe them out.  Comes pretty close to succeeding too.

Threat - The hero always wins is the core idea of most stories.  That said, a villain isn't going to be taken seriously unless there's a very good chance the hero will lose, and lose badly.  Threat shows directly how dangerous a villain is and that if the hero is to win, it's going to be one hell of a struggle.  Typically this is shown as a series of actions, often complete beatdowns of the hero, each one making the villain look stronger and stronger until it takes everything and more for the hero to eventually win.  Best webcomic example is the Cyber Augmented Legionnaire v 1N, aka CAL-v.1N from Weapon Brown.  From the moment of his introduction he is a flat out threat, killing for the sake of killing, and loving it (perhaps a bit too much in some cases).  His first round with Chuck was basically over before it even began, he knocked him out so quickly.  By the time the 3rd round came around, Chuck figured he'd probably get beat down again, but this time Huey X should shoot the bastard while he was distracted.  Still didn't work.  There is no question on how much of a threat CAL is in universe.

Presence - Villains are more than just what they do, they also are what they are perceived of being able to do.  Presence is more undefinable than the others as it's more a feeling the audience, and often the characters in story get when the villain enters the room, as it were.  There is rarely, if anything, to back up how badass the villain, just a feeling.  One look and everyone goes "shit just got real."  The absolute best example I can think of is, of all things, Darth Vader from the original Star Wars (you can take your fancy numbering system and stuff it).  Seriously, he did very, VERY little in the film, yet everyone took him to be a very serious threat.  It took another movie for that threat to fully manifest and it was everything, if not more, than what most people thought.  Then the prequels came along, but enough about that.  Boba Fett also had that badass presence based on almost nothing, and despite that is still viewed as pretty badass.  Best example in webcomics is, and I am serious here, K'Z'K from Sluggy Freelance.  At least, at first.  Presence holds up well, until the character has to actually do something, and until we actually see K'Z'K in action, he is pretty evil looking.  Then he says something and it all goes out the window.  His simple appearance isn't enough any more to instill that seriousness, but back in the day it was.  Still, he makes a pretty good example.

Now no villain has ONLY one of these.  Vader wouldn't be Vader if he didn't prove his level of threat in later films, Baron Wulfenbach as a strong motivation to do what he does, Ian has the power, and even K'Z'K eventually demonstrates his competence in building up through the current Sluggy storyline.

Though it also brings up another issue:  Are these all villains?  Vader, Cal and K'Z'K certainly wouldn't deny their role as villain but Wulfenbach, Ian and Xanatos might not.  Oh, they have all the trappings and would take the role as needed, but they aren't strictly villains.  It's why the terms "protagonist" and "antagonist" are used in the literary world rather than hero and villain.  All of them fit the antagonist role, easily.

So is Ritch 'arrd the villain of Dreams of Stars?  What do you think?

Anyway, until next time kiddies.

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