The Mysterious Development of Your Villain
(an excerpt from Max Timm's online class, The Craft Course)
In this week's lesson, we will be focusing on how the other characters in your story - namely the Secondary Character and The Villain/Rival - will play their essential roles in your project. I'm consistently reminding you, and will continue to drill this into your hungry brain, that your project needs to remain focused on your Hero/Main Character. But just because we will be talking a lot about the Secondary Character and The Villain in this week's lesson doesn't mean we are taking the focus away from your Hero. Quite the contrary.
We all have a purpose. Whether your purpose is to be a father, a best friend, a teacher or a writer, we're here for a reason. Whatever the reason, it's completely relative to your own life's story, but that reason is essential in helping us move toward a goal...again, whatever that goal may be. Your Secondary Character and your Villain each have their own purpose. It is your responsibility as the writer to know, exactly, what that purpose is so that your Hero's story and adventure is properly served.
So where do we begin? I always begin with "formula" - that nasty little word that so many teachers and consultants are afraid to reference. I'm not afraid to reference it at all. As a matter of fact, I revel in formula. I revel in it because everything we encounter in life and in story is based on some kind of formula. When "this" happens, we get "this" reaction, and "that" reaction then results in "this." I don't care what you would like to apply that formula to, but it's apparent in all things; in nature, in cooking, in relationships and in writing. When we know the formula, how it works, and WHY, then we can then manipulate the formula to work for us. So...
...the next lesson will focus almost entirely on structural writing. Some people call it "beat writing." Some people call it "sequence writing." It doesn't matter, all of these names we consultants give to the process. As long as you understand what should be happening in your script, when and why, you will be on your way to understanding how this formula can create an entertaining story.
Another note on formula before we begin: there is a term called "Audience Expectation." It's rather straight forward to explain, but all audiences go in to watching content (of any kind - TV, film, YouTube clips) with an innate knowing of how story flows. They already know how a story should flow, even without really being able to explain how it works. That audience expectation needs to be met, otherwise we will lose that audience almost immediately. Of course your "audience" will include producers, managers, agents, etc. so take that to heart! We have a ton of responsibility as writers, so immersing yourself in this process of storytelling. Really understanding how it works and why is essential to creating a long term writing career. So...let's get moving.
"When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it." -Henry Ford
Is there a difference between a Villain and an Opponent?
There is a fine line, yes, and it’s usually dependent upon genre. Disney has basically cornered the market on the “Villain” and yet, at the same time, any Villain is also an Opponent. But when looking at a Drama or even a Romantic Comedy, one wouldn’t necessarily call the Opponent a Villain. Why? It’s primarily due to how the Opponent is set up from the start. Is the Opponent’s motive purely evil? Is it for world domination? Population enslavement? To gain ultimate power and control? If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then you most likely have a Villain on your hands.
The purpose of a Villain compared to an Opponent, however, is basically the same thing: to help the Main Character achieve their physical goal, and to assist the Main Character in overcoming an emotional problem.
Yes, you read that correctly – “to assist” and “help.” Please remember that each and every character in your story is developed in order to serve the purposes of your Main Character’s story.
(“I have an apple and I’m not afraid to use it!”)
This is the part of story building where you get to act as a philosopher or deep spiritualist thinker. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic in explanation, but we are discussing Villains after all. Consider any person in your life who has happened to be some kind of an enemy. Whether this person was a schoolyard bully, a power-mongering boss, a demented teacher, there has most likely been someone in your life who has represented all that you find wrong in the world. In your response to these people, you had two options: you cowered in the corner and accepted the jerk’s command over you and your fears, or you overcame this enemy and therefore became a better person because of them.
This is likely the most important aspect of any Opponent in any story. Getting in the Hero’s way with a specific goal and yet the Hero somehow overcomes them to become a stronger individual in the end. Basic. Obvious. Straight forward. Now let the nuances begin.
A Representation of a Physical Goal and Emotional Problem
(“I can fly on a broom and shoot fire from my hands, but please don’t make me do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”)
Setting aside the differences between a Villain and an Opponent, we will look at what an Opponent/Rival/Threat generally represents in most stories. I say “most” because it is a challenge to generalize every single Opponent ever written, and it would be foolish to say it in such a blanket statement. Nonetheless, when developing a Main Character, the writer has to come up with the basics of some kind of emotional issue or problem that the Main Character must overcome – even if just a little – by the end of the story. The resolution and/or correction of this problem is what states theme – either literally or figuratively. Most Disney movies quite literally state theme verbally, but most do not and thus you, the writer, must state it through the correction of whatever emotional issue the Main Character is facing. This is where the Opponent and/or The Villain can really shine.
(“Have you gotten rid of that idiot Uncle Billy yet?”)
The Opponent (and his motive) is virtually always connected to the eventual correction of the Main Character’s emotional problem. What does this mean, exactly? As a very basic example: if a Main Character is dealing with issues of being romantically hopeless, from which stems issues of self-doubt and lack of confidence, then an Opponent would enter the scene in order to draw out those emotional issues. They would present the Hero with situations, moments, and scenes that force the Main Character to face their fears. Even more importantly, the Opponent could have a motive that has something to do with achieving the same intended goal as the Hero (like dating the most popular girl in school – the very girl the Hero is in love with, etc.). These goals will clash in some way and therefore create obstacles for the Main Character. Obstacles that eventually make the Hero stronger.
In a lot of ways the Opponent is very similar to the Secondary Character.
Both are placing obstacles in front of the Hero, but for different reasons. The Dynamic Character is pushing the Hero to do things, say things, “be” things in order to achieve a goal because they want his Hero to achieve the goal. The Opponent is doing the same thing, but unaware that the obstacles will help the Hero in the end. The Opponent or Villain doesn’t understand that what he or she is doing is actually helping the Hero...because the evil little jerk is acting out of their own selfish devices and motives. In the end, it's the basic cliche of, "what doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger."
The obstacles presented by each (the Secondary Character and the Villain) can also be different in that the challenges the Hero will face due to the Secondary Character’s intervention will be disguised as positive and necessary steps, whereas the Opponent’s obstacles will come in as surprises, twists or a possible estrangement from a loved one (a death, relationship break-up, etc).
(“Clarice, just give me a sandwich and you’ll be fine.”)
The nuances I am explaining here can of course be considered formulaic, but when you understand the basics of a formula, you can tinker with it, alter it and beautify the formula in whatever way your mastery allows.
The Romantic Comedy Opponent
(Whoever smelled it, dealt it.)
This is the biggest nuance for any writer when considering the development of an Opponent, and it’s primarily due to how difficult everyday romantic relationships can be! I say this with only half a giggle. Joking aside, the very make-up of a romantic relationship is rooted in the differences of two people and the eventual acceptance of such differences. It is ironic that one of the largest challenges the human race faces is the acceptance of each other’s differences. Love and romance tend to draw out such differences immediately. The inherent conflict within romance stems from the inability to accept change and the change that someone else – someone you apparently care about – is bringing into your life. This basically sums up any story ever written. Change means conflict. Conflict means drama. Drama means Story. And yet within the natural structure of a Romantic Comedy reside the goals and motives of not one Hero, but two, and therefore not one Opponent, but two Opponents.
When Harry Met Sally… is the perfect example for the structure of a Romantic Comedy. It can be argued that Harry is the Main Character and Sally is Harry’s Opponent. Sally represents everything Harry doesn’t want in his life; extreme optimism, excessive naiveté, obsessive compulsion…the list can go on. Deep down, though, Harry needs to learn at least some of these things in order to live a happy life. At a lower level, Harry knows that he is a rather unhappy person. Sally is an extremely happy person. It takes Harry a long time to realize that it’s not just Sally that he needs in his life, but the subconscious lessons she taught him throughout their relationship. Looking at it from Sally’s perspective, however, shows that Harry is therefore Sally’s Opponent as well since Sally learns to not hold on so tightly to things. Harry is a natural at letting things go and moving on - so much so, it's a little demented and rather negative in nature. Sally, however, has tremendous difficulty in letting things go. She holds grudges. She can't let go of her past relationship with Joe. She needs Harry just as much as Harry needs Sally.
(“And I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.”)
They are each other’s Opponents, placing frustrating obstacles in front of each other unknowingly and yet, at times, on purpose (both Opponent actions and Secondary Character actions). Sally is selfless, overly loving, wants to be married and to lead a simple little life. She wants to have a steady job, live in a nice comfortable house and live out the plan she made for herself after she graduated college. Harry is haphazard, unorganized, dangerously carefree, and doesn’t have a plan. Can you see that based on the differences of motive (Opponent), the relationship between Harry and Sally (the dynamic) will result in both an extremely challenging adventure and an explosion of emotional issue-correction by the end?
Romantic Comedies usually have a Main Character that faces off with one other character (a Romantic Interest) that is both an Opponent and a Secondary Character, but this is primarily because of the role in which that Secondary Character is playing. They tend to switch roles as the story progresses. In other words, you can break down most Romantic Comedies and see that a Romantic Interest begins the story in the form of an Opponent and ends the story in the form of a Secondary Character or "Helper." How they get to that point is completely up to the writer (again, learn the formula and then change it).
The Sympathetic Opponent
The best way to create a strong Opponent or Villain is to offer the audience a strong reason as to why the Opponent is the way he (or she) is. Give the audience a very clear understanding as to what the Opponent’s motive is and why they want it/need it. On one hand, the clarity simply helps move the story forward and doesn’t confuse the audience, but on the other hand it solidifies the emotional connection between the audience and Opponent and, therefore, offers more drama.
Creating sympathy for an Opponent or Villain doesn’t mean that a full back story is needed (a la the recent Maleficent), but a clue into the fears or deeper intentions of your Opponent can help the audience get a handle on why he or she is being so evil, nasty, illegal, or whatever it is the Opponent is doing. In defense of Disney’s Maleficent, though, the audience clearly understood why she was so evil and it allowed us, the viewers, to always have that memory of “why” in the back of our movie-going minds while watching her act out. Sure, it could be argued that Maleficent was the Main Character and therefore allowed the writer(s) to delve deeper into her character development, but even the slightest show of why will give the audience a deeper rooting interest in the full story, and allow for the Hero to better understand the mind of his enemy (which, ultimately, will enable a stronger statement of theme).
(A blog post about Villains and Opponents is not complete without a little Newman.)
Everything is connected. The Opponent is just as important as the Main Character since he or she presents your Hero with conflict, change, drama, and his eventual victory. Challenge your Hero as much as possible by making his or her journey as difficult as possible – your Opponent or Villain will be happy to help.
You can learn more about Max Timm and his Story Farm Coaching & Development service by clicking this link. The Story Farm focuses on weekly development, brainstorming, extensive rewrite support, and education on all levels of screenwriting and for all genres. You can email Max with questions about The Story Farm here: firstname.lastname@example.org