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Creating Believable Villains For Your Story & Screenplay

By Skip Press

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Failed Expectations and Villain Motivations

There is a lesson to be learned from Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda in World War II. In addition to churning out media lies to the German people, Goebbels ordered the public mass-burning of books that Germans were forbidden to buy or read. What makes this more interesting is that Goebbels was himself a failed writer. Adolf Hitler, Goebbel's Fuehrer (the German world for "leader"), was a failed painter. Turned down for admittance to the Academy of Arts in Vienna, Austria, he ended up living in homeless shelters and eating at charity soup kitchens. When he wasn't painting, he spent time reading anti-Semitic writings. Do a Web search and look at some of his artwork some time. You'll find that his work isn't bad, but it's mostly of buildings and curiously devoid of people. How appropriate for a man who later attempted to eradicate an entire race of people.

I realized how powerful failed expectations were when I took my daughter to see the musical "Wicked" at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. If you're not familiar with the plot, it's based on the best-selling novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. It tells the story of the schoolgirl relationship between Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West and her relationship with Glinda, the future Good Witch of the North. In short, it's a sympathetic look at how a well-known movie villain got to be that way, only in the musical, it has a happy ending.

And that's the secret of most memorable villains - the lack of a happy ending that soured them on some aspect of life, or even life itself. One wonders what might have happened if Hitler had been accepted in the Academy of Arts, or if Goebbels had become a major German author. With the last three Star Wars movies he made, George Lucas chronicled how his great villain, Darth Vader, turned from "chosen one" Anakin Skywalker to Death Star killer. The failed expectations of this character come down to one thing - struggles over father figures. After all, according to Lucas the name Darth Vader means "dark father." It might make you wonder about Lucas's relationship with his own father.

How many sons grow up bitter over a disappointing or non-existent relationship with their fathers?

Most people start out in life thinking anything is possible. They see movies and TV shows that show them the great life some people lead. They aspire to these things. And then as they go on in life they experience disappointments. They're not considered pretty enough. They don't have enough money to be in the cool crowd. They might not be able to go to college. They don't sell the script they wrote. Sound familiar?

Isn't this type of disappointment what the Muslim militants are all about? Just as cancer is cells replicating out of control in a reaction to some stress or whatever triggers the cancer, these people grow up in poverty, attend madrasa schools that blame everything on the Jews and the West (they have books that depict Jews and Christians as monkeys and pigs, literally). They realize they'll never have an income that will support a wife and family, but they're promised 19 women in Heaven. All they have to do is blow themselves up for "Allah."

Within the generation of Baby Boomers, most of them in the U.S. grew up watching a lot of Disney movies and TV shows. The generation before had lived through the Depression and World War II and the Korean War and they didn't want their kids to have to suffer like that. So they encouraged the fantasy life generated by Walt Disney and his peers, and Baby Boomer kids expected that type of perfect world to continue. When it became obvious it would not, with a recession and the possibility (for males) of being drafted to serve and possibly die in Vietnam, it was too much stress. Expectations dashed, many turned to drugs to get back that fantasy feeling. Of course, that didn't work, but it might have helped give rise to the Internet, which seemingly puts anyone in touch with any fantasy imaginable, on personal computers invented by Baby Boomers.

In the big movies, doesn't the villain usually suffer from failed expectations? It was certainly true in the first Spider Man. When millionaire weapons manufacturer Norman Osborn sees the possibility of his company going down the drain as a demonstration for the military fails, he administers a dangerous drug to himself and turns into the maniacal Green Goblin. Ultimately this leads to his demise. If Osborn's expectations of making a deal with the government had succeeded, he would likely never have become Spider Man's arch-enemy.

How many times have you seen that in a story where the villain is someone who turns bitter and vindictive and begins attacking the society that "made it happen"?

Media images are very powerful and can greatly contribute to failed expectations. Hugh Hefner may be celebrated by some as the hero of male heterosexuals, but he might be one of the major villains of American society because of the false image of women that has been created by Playboy magazine. The airbrushed photos obscure the imperfections, and men begin expecting women to look like that in real life. As a result, women alter their bodies to try to fit the "Playboy image." After all, the men they date have probably been masturbating to Playboy images. When women don't look like Playboy bunnies naturally, men get failed expectations. While it sounds ridiculous, it's actually an influence on modern life.

How many divorces have been caused because of the various failed expectations of the partners? How many people gave up on life due to them?

In real life, it helps when people take stock of whether or not their expectations were realistic or not. It's often true that you get in life, even what you end up doing in life, is what you were supposed to do whether you planned it or not. In a George Bailey It's a Wonderful Life way, I've come to believe that my "accidentally" becoming a teacher of writing wasn't an accident at all. Mostly teaching during a time in my life when I was being a "Mr. Mom" to my children allowed me to help people achieve their dreams, even if I merely showed them what is possible. I learned not to be bitter about failed expectations in my life, and that there is a hidden treasure in each stage of life, something to be learned, some new door opening when we keep moving forward with eyes wide open. And now that my children are older and I've had time to return to bigger projects, I do very little teaching and have trouble keeping up with all the writing deals that come my way.

I've learned that it's only when I find myself getting bitter and feeling like a victim that I stand a chance of losing big. Failed expectations only have power over me when I give them power by concentrating on them.

I've also repeatedly learned that having the sense of wonder of a child, the faith in the future and hopefulness that we all start out with, will get me through times when it looks bleak. (It's not always easy making a living writing, or even teaching writing, and it's looked bleak many, many times in my life.)

In my life, things have always somehow worked out, even when I was on the street as na adult with nothing but the clothes on my back. I attribute this to always feeeling a connection with God, a power greater than myself, a plan to the universe, an intelligent design and a continuous presence. With this reserve, I've managed to rise above times when I felt bitter, and because I know of the power of failed expectations, I have a better understanding of villains, and what it takes to keep heroes going in stories, and in life.

It's a long-established truism of Hollywood stories to ask what the hero or heroine wants, their motivation, as it is equally true to ask about the villain.

In creating an antagonist, however (which doesn't always mean a villain), it pays to look into what that person wanted and failed to get. If you know that, you can more easily understand their rage, their relentlessness, and what it is exactly that your protagonist must deal with.

Remember, an actor will likely choose playing a great villain over a great hero, because it's usually more fun. Many writers strive to create great heroes, but it's often those who create the greatest villains that make the biggest impact, and the largest fortunes.

About Skip Press

A teacher and writer for radio, television and film, Skip Press won a Silver Medal at the New York International Film Festival and is the author of the Writer's Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriting Agents and the Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting.
Screenwriting Article by Skip Press

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