“The Hopes and Dreams of Truly Awful People” — a guest post by Art Holcomb

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 . . .

Keep writing!

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!”)


Filed under Guest Bloggers

17 Responses to “The Hopes and Dreams of Truly Awful People” — a guest post by Art Holcomb

  1. Alpana

    My goal is to take Mr. Holcomb’s class one day- soon!
    Great article! It really made a difference to me! Thanks again Larry for knowing what your readers need to hear.

  2. Fantastic post, and just what I needed to propel my fiction further. I enjoy writing my villain, but forgot about her being the central character in her own story. I have fresh new ideas popping up now! Thanks!

  3. I love this. In my WIP, the villains are just forming. The change that turns the heroes world upside down turns theirs upside down too. They choose a different path from the hero. I haven’t solidified their complete opposition to the heroes yet (still in the first draft stage). Actually, I hadn’t thought it about it that way but I’ll have to go back through and work that out. One of the villains developed out of the storyline and will not really take the bad guy stage until the next book. I’m giving them backstory that makes them sympathetic. They could have been heroes but they see the world in a way that makes them villains. Hopefully that makes sense. LOL

    I love villains that I can empathize with, to a certain degree. I want a villain that has suffered in the past but they’ve taken that suffering and used it to fuel evil. I can’t stand a villain that’s a victim of circumstance. I prefer free will because that allows the possibility for redemption too. If a villain can choose evil, they can choose good too (even if they never do).

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  5. @Art, this one is worth it’s weight it gold.

    So, Agent Smith is why The Matrix Revolutions work?

    Anyone who would like to listen to a bad guy ( Agent Smith) speak the hateful dialogue in its absolute form that Art just described, fast forward TMR to the last Cosmic fight. Agent Smith announces his win and taunts Neo by asking “why do you keep getting up?” He answers his own question by negating every known human value.

    Clearly, the bad guy has an arc. He/She starts out bad, gets worse and winds up at his/her supreme “best”… horrible.

    The bad guy gets really good at being bad while the good guy strives along through the ups and downs of hopefully getting better.

  6. Genius. Pure genius. Every word, gold. Thank you!

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  9. Jacques

    i would really like some advice here so if anyone would be kind enough to respond:
    my story outline is at present void of a (main) villian, sure the elements, robbers and disasters are there but i just can’t seem to make it feel rigth to write in a villian in the story.
    My guts tells me i should not try to cram in a arch villian just because the rules say so (because it feels like a story that should not have it in this case). Larry has also said it’s sometimes nessacerry to break/bend the rules.
    my question is how do i know which route to take? My guts or the rules…hmmm. thanks for reading.

  10. Working on my villain in my trilogy as we speak. I need to make sure the arc is good for all three books, not just one. I love the idea of “Darth Vader rescuing the kittens”. Wonderful image and I think I have just the scene to play with that. Great post!

  11. spinx

    Art kills them all – it´s that simple.

    One question though—-how much should I know about my villain (or any character!) before starting with the writing prozess?

    Art, more than anything right now, I would like to know your process, and by that I mean, everything from zero on, when (and how) an idea starts, how you make it work – how you know that it IS any GOOD – and everything else that follows afterwards.
    And I mean everything. Literally. I would read that post all night long.

    Right now, I am in that very strange void where I feel as thought something big and cool is just about to break from me, but I just don´t know how to approach this the right way.

    My suggestion for a new post (hohohoho!):

    – beatsheet….how long, how much detail, how much do you need to know.

    – Conflict…start with it, or the characters?

    – Characters…is it too late already when you start getting invested with them, before you have a plot ready?

    – Action…how to best conjure it? Where to look?

    Now, this list is pretty much endless. I could come up with another 50 of them, and honestly, maybe I will even write them down this week, send it and hope for the best?

    No idea, I´m a beast right now – and damn – I wanna BRING IT!!!

  12. Art Holcomb

    @spinx: Thanks for the kind comments. I suspect my process isn’t that different than yours but if there’s interest, I try to work up a post about it.

    Briefly, about your other questions (and just my opinion here):

    Beatsheets: 80% of writing is done before the first draft begins – even pantsers create “zero drafts” to get their thinking in order. I’m an outline guy. That’s where most of my excitement comes out. I typically use a program call Pomodoro, which breaks down my work into 25 minute segments with 5 minutes in between. Each segment has a purpose (I’m using it now for this response) and I go all out, focusing on nothing else for that time. After, I’ll spend another segment (or as needed) refining the work. I get a great deal done this way. Also, in this way, I know about my story intimately before I begin to tell it.

    Conflict: I think 90% of all book and movies fail because the writer does not develop and stay true to the central conflict. This has to be worked out at the premise stage and re-inforced throughout. Otherwise, you commit the capital crime for writers: you bore your reader.

    Characters: a personal choice here. Start with the character, the plot or the inciting incident – your choice. No matter where you start, make sure everything is there in the end.

    Action: comes from the opposition. Larry’s stuff on conflict is very thorough. Take look there . . . I have before when I was stuck and it worked.

    Keep writing!

  13. @… Everyone… Art’s latest comment gives me what Jennifer Lopez (yeah, I watched) calls “goosies.” Guy’s a genius. When you look at what he said about being able to focus and “all out” on a given scene or segment — because he’s planned it, he gets it, and now he can apply the context of, a) the big picture of his story to it, and b) his accumulate (vast) knowledge and experience as a storytelling…

    … what that means is… he’s MISSION-DRIVEN. Which is what I keep saying is my favorite writing tip, the most important thing we can learn about process. Thanks again to Art for being here.

  14. Thank God I came across this article, a smack the forehead moment.

    It’s just helped me crack a character problem I’ve been wrestling with for WEEKS. Here we go: I crashed badly while trying to bring the hero to life in my childen’s series. I LOVE my villain, and the hero’s gang of loving but argumentative companions shimmer, glitter and sparkle, I can FEEL them. But the hero? Meh.

    Here’s what I had wrong: I was exclusively focusing on the hero. I didn’t even notice that my villain was not utterly committed to his path. So the impact on my hero was weak. It’s taken me less than a day after reading this to break down the barrier. My villain is now a true bad ass, religiously committed to has bad ass way that will slaughter the hero if he gets in the way, unless….

    I KNOW my hero now. He suffers. Empathy blooms at last. Will there be more from Art?


  15. Here’s the gold for me in this post:

    “The villain is the hero of his own story.”

    I first came across this concept when reading one of the editions of Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey ( I have all three). If you take it to the nth degree….it will make a massive difference to your writing!

    It’s one of those things that should be a tweetable!

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  17. spinx


    Thanks a lot.

    I will read, re-read, and then study this last comment for all it´s worth! And DAMN, there´s a lot of worth in this!

    Wish you the best ;T

    (Oh – and – a post on this would be greatly appreciated!)