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How to Spice Up Your Villain or Obstacle

By Marilyn Horowitz

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A few weeks ago, I was asked to help bring some spice to a script that was not quite ready, but no one was exactly sure what the problem was that was keeping it from feeling fully “cooked.” Both the writers and the producers were stumped. This is one of the really fun parts of my job—trying to find the last couple of missing story elements in a screenplay or novel.
Upon reading the script, it was immediately obvious to me what the problem was: every character was “playing nice,” including the villain! As a result, there was no conflict, no stakes, and no tension. A good story needs a good villain or obstacle, even if it's just a succession of banal but annoying people, as in the case of the film Tootsie. In this case, the old saying about needing to break a few eggs when making an omelet was never more applicable. This omelet was flat!!! It needed a good jolt of hot sauce, jalapeno, and some cayenne pepper.
The reason this happened was also obvious: all the people involved are just about the nicest, most considerate people you could imagine. The kind of folks who are so nice you wonder how they ever managed to be so successful in the first place!

But it was exactly their niceness that had caused the problem, because it had prevented them from coming up with an effective villain. Luckily, I have a cache of everything ugly, mean, and evil I have ever heard, read, or seen, so once I identified the problem, the solution easily presented itself, and my inner voice shouted: ”Everyone has a dark side. Go find it!”
But how to do that in a short amount of time and with the large number of people involved?
My writing method, The Horowitz System®, is based on asking and answering a series of well-designed questions. I always try to make creativity a repeatable and manageable process, and have learned that asking the right set of questions in the correct order is the best way to ensure that. Besides, who doesn’t love a good questionnaire?
Since time was of the essence, I requested a creative meeting with the writers and producers. I also suggested a social setting with alcohol. (I’m no dummy!)
We met at a mediocre but fun Chinese place in Chinatown that featured both alcohol and large, round tables. After some dim sum and a glass or two of the uninspired but free white wine that came with our food, I passed out the questionnaires and asked everyone to fill one out. But here was the key: they had to answer the questions as if they were each the villain in the script.

There was a strained, awkward silence as these sweet, lovely people, including the writers, tried to imagine how their villain would answer.
I laughed. “It’s very hard to imagine things,” I said, “but it’s easy to remember things from your life. Try connecting with your own memories and feelings, and then use them to create the ideas that you need.” Few people have done really bad things, but we all have been angry and upset at one time or another. Once you connect to not just a memory but to the feeling behind it, creating stories becomes easy and fun.
The group scratched and scribbled, and soon began cackling with delight. The trick was that the permission to be “bad” had been granted. This is a very important concept to keep in mind when working with villains and obstacles: Give yourself the OK to think of bad, evil, and horrifically mean things. Lord knows, if you’ve ever watched a few episodes of a TV series such as Law and Order or Breaking Bad, or any film by Quentin Tarantino, your imagination has an arsenal of stuff just waiting to be unleashed. There’s always time to feel guilty about it later. But while you’re writing a villain, cut loose and unleash your dark side.
The evening turned out to be a great success and produced loads of valuable ideas. The bland omelet of a script is now well on its way to being a tasty—and commercially viable—soufflé!
To recap: Make creativity a repeatable experiment by developing a clear set of questions and revisiting them regularly. And remember, give yourself permission to think of all the meanest, most horrible stuff you normally avoid and then get it down on paper. And if that still doesn’t work, reminding yourself of the plots of TV shows and movies is a foolproof method.
Here is my questionnaire to designing a villain, with sample answers (not my own).
1. What is your definition of evil?
An act of gratuitous cruelty.
2. Who is the most evil fictional character in a book or film?
Hannibal Lecter.
3. What is the worst thing you have ever done?
Stolen money from the collection box.
4. Under what circumstances would you kill?
Bad hair day.
5. What do you consider the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you?
“You’re too short!!!”
6. Can violence ever be justified? If so, under what circumstances?
Yes, anytime someone opposes me.
7. What do you consider the most heinous crime?
Overcooking beef.
8. What was your first experience of witnessing evil?
Watching TV.
9. What was your first experience of violence or evil directed at you?
Seeing a car accident down the street from where I lived.
10. Do you believe that evil is always punished and good always triumphs?
You’re kidding me, right? Dexter gets away with murder every time!!!
A tip: First answer the questions as yourself, and answer them a second time while imagining yourself as the villain or obstacle. A comparison between your two groups of answers may prove illuminating and reveal personal insights that can improve not just your writing but your life.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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