Love Art Holcomb. His resume is… massively credible. Use the search function (to the right on this site) to find more Storyfix contributions from this guy. Worth every minute.
In fact — to show you who this guy is — about ten minutes before posting this I get a lengthy (and genius) email from Art about how to take Storyfix deeper into the screenwriting world. We should all take a page out of this guy’s book.
When you’re done here, click over to Inkybites for an interview with yours truly.
The Hopes and Dreams of Truly Awful People
by Art Holcomb
After more than twenty years writing comics and screenplays, I have come to know a lot about villains and what makes them tick. In that time, I’ve created crazed megalomaniacs, fierce aliens, marauding computer programs, scheming business tycoons and – in one particular case – a very angry dragon. And let me tell you, writing for the villain is often more difficult and more pleasurable that writing for the hero!
With that said; please consider the following Rogue’s Gallery – all members in “very bad” standing:
Moriarty, Voldemort, Dracula, The Werewolf, Iago, Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, Captain Hook, Skar, Satan, Nurse Ratchet, Richelieu, Hannibal Lector, Scarface, , Norman Bates, Anton Chigurh, Freddy Krueger, Gordon Gekko, Senator Palpatine, Harry Lime, Jack the Ripper, Hans Gruber, Auric Goldfinger, Stromboli, Sweeney Todd, Michael Corleone . . . The Joker.
So . . . what is it that all these characters have in common?
Answer: They each go to bed every night knowing – absolutely knowing – that they are the HEROES OF THEIR OWN STORY.
And they are right!
Because it was the only way for their creators to make sure these characters could do their job: that is, drive the conflict necessary to bring about REAL change in the hero. It’s what makes each of these stories a classic.
For example, Voldemort is positively relentless in his evilly-do. His ever- growing threat forces Harry Potter to change, to evolve from a petulant little boy to the Master of the Wizarding World. But, to make it work, Voldemort HAS TO BELIEVE that his vision of the world is the right one- that everything would be better under his benevolent but oppressive reign. We watch as he gleefully take in supplicants to his cause, metes out swift and awful justice and takes great pleasure in planning for a new world order where nothing was left to chance.
The same is true for Vader, Luthor, Richelieu, and Scarface.
Creepy? Sure! But all very human.
Others, like Moriarty, Iago, and Goldfinger, are not out for world conquest. They will tell you that they are just men pursuing a dream of personal wealth and power. It’s about destiny – they really just want what is theirs. If no one had tried to stand between them and their dreams, everything would have been fine.
It’s a literary version of “won’t be nothin’ if you don’t start nothin.”
Of course, that’s never what happens. Their clashes with the hero never work – not because good and evil always play in a zero-sum game . . .
But because they are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. Both have powerful characters. Both play for high stakes.
But most of all, the characters work because both hero and villain really want the SAME THING.
They both want TO WIN.
Just as each of us wants every day of our lives – we all want to win.
All antagonists MUST BE WRITTEN AS REAL PEOPLE if they are to drive the action and conflict in a story. This is especially important in genre pieces because villains almost always get the first real move, feel the first passion. They bring as much action as reaction into the conflict.
If such a character is only two-dimensional, it isn’t strong or complex enough to force the necessary changes in the hero. And when a writer creates a wishy-washy or reluctant antagonist, he loses his best opportunity to TIE THE READER TO THE STORY and create that all important audience-protagonist bond that will bring the reader back again and again to the writer and his other works.
In other words, disappoint the reader in this way and he’s gone.
So, some things to consider as you craft your antagonist and put him/her/it through their paces:
- Western storytelling allows you to learn about your hero as you write the story, but you had better completely know your antagonist from the very beginning. Your hero should be the only malleable character in the piece. In other words, your hero must be genuine, but your antagonist must be genuine and tangible.
- While your hero will debate and have doubts about the path he is taking, your antagonist cannot. He must be sure of himself, his cause, and his ultimate victory.
- The antagonist is not there to merely stop the hero from getting what he wants; he has an agenda, his own list of goals, desires, and tangible goodies that the Protagonist is preventing him from having. The sword must cut both ways: each player wants to get what they want while all the while denying the other what THEY want. It isn’t enough to do just one or the other. They must be completely incompatible with each other.
When such desires manifest themselves, conflict begins. And the antagonist is the implement of that conflict and the instrument of the hero’s necessary change. By standing squarely in the hero’s path and opposing him, he makes the hero strive ever harder. The bad guy is the crucible in which the impurity of the Hero is burned away, leaving a purer form.
It’s best to eliminate the idea of good and evil as motives, unless that is thematic to the piece. Best instead to sit in the villain’s lap and let him tell you about growing up, his successes as well as his failures. Watch him in those moments when nothing is at stake and you will see his humanity.
If appropriate, repay him and delight your reader by writing for the bad guy a humanizing “Darth Vader Rescues the Kittens” scene at least once in a story. It will reach the audience on a basic level and increase their investment in your tale by making him mortal and vulnerable. It never hurts to give character his or her own private moment with the reader.
EXERCISES: Think about these questions as you ponder your current bad guy . . .
#1: Who are your favorite villains? What makes them so?
#2: Who are the antagonists in your own life?
#3: Go home to the place where your antagonist lives. Look around. What do you see, hear, taste, and smell?
#4: Describe what it would be like for your best friend to turn against you. What would they have done? How is that different from right now?
#5: How DOES your antagonist sleep at night?
Until next time . . .
Art Holcomb is a produced screenwriter and a published comic book author of such comics as Marvel’s X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS. He consults and teaches screenwriting and comic book writing for the UC Riverside Extension Writer’s Program. His most recent story is ALWAYS WINTER BUT NEVER CHRISTMAS and is currently working on a book for writers entitled Perfecting Your Premise.
He lives in Southern California.
Footnote (from Art):
This year, I’m a guest speaker at the Screenwriter’s World Conference in Los Angeles in October, and I’m fortunate enough to be appearing with some of the best screenwriters, teachers and consultants working today. The link is: Screenwriters world . Drop in and say hello!
Also, I still have some spots available in my Scriptwriting class at UC Riverside in October. We’re covering screenwriting and comic books/graphic novels and while I am an industry consultant primarily, the class meant for developing a screenplay and/or a graphic novel script with constant access and input from me throughout. The class is open to everyone. The link is. UCRiverside Class.
By the way (and this footnote is from Larry)… here’s what Art said about my new $100 Story Coaching service (unsolicited): “I think your $100 service is absolutely the greatest value I have ever seen for ANY form of critique – Well done!”)