The Writer’s Craft – Killing it with the Perfect Villain, Part 3—Motivation

(Pensacola, Florida; Sept. 9, 2022,) – Slaying your audience with the perfect villain is an aspiration all writers aspire to, be they working in print, on stage, or screen.

The villain must have the same care given to his/her/its development as your protagonist.  As we move into part 3 of this discussion, let’s look at one of the most iconic villains of all time, the Joker, contrasted against the literarily weak Brig. Gen. Francis Hummel from 1996’s The Rock.

No person alive does anything without a motivation driving that action or choice.  In fiction, as in life, these motivations must be clear and appropriate to the situation for the character to be believable, deep, and, perhaps most importantly, memorable.

The Joker is certainly memorable.  The very fact the character is an unapologetic psychopath who thoroughly enjoys inflicting pain on others is enough motivation to make him memorable.  However, the writers at DC Comics were not content to merely let him be an evil maniac.  Perhaps by accident, or perhaps by design, the Joker’s character deepened over the decades, resulting in a villain who is not only memorable, but iconic.

The Joker is a psycho who enjoys inflicting pain, yes.  However, the Joker is also a comedian and clown who loves to laugh.  He loves a good joke, especially a good practical joke.  Now, our idea (as healthy individuals) of what ‘good’ practical jokes entail is certainly lightyears removed from what the Joker considers a ‘good’ practical joke.  For example, our use of ‘joy buzzers’ to shock the hand of a friend does not include electrocuting them.  However, the Joker finds this sort of lethal joke genuinely funny,and he’s insulted the world doesn’t recognize his genius and laugh with him.  He’s also a self-professed ‘agent of chaos,’ as Heath Ledger’s version so perfectly said in 2008’s The Dark Knight.  He truly believes in upending society because he believes the only rule to live by is to have no rules.

Jack Nicholson (left) played a brutally hilarious version of the Joker in 1989’s Batman, while Heath Ledger turned in a nuanced psychopath that one could believably (and tragically) run into in the real world during 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Combine the insulted ego of a trickster/practical joker with a worldview founded upon anarchy, and you’ve already got the right mixture for a memorable character.  Now, add two cups of insanity, and your etheric potion explodes with life, birthing a flamboyant, unpredictable, dangerous, and wildly entertaining villain.

These motivations are shown through various statements and actions the character exhibits during his appearances in various stories.  For example, in 1989’s Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker sets his rampage in motion initially through revenge.  He goes after the mob boss who betrayed him, killing the dude in a (literally) hilariously brutal barrage of bullets.  His revenge concluded, he begins to fixate on Batman as the only person in the city threatening to steal his press.  Jealously is a powerful motivator, and it’s not hard to believe an egomaniacal maniac would resort to city-shattering plans to reclaim the glory he feels was stolen from him.

This is why the Joker is so memorable.  His chaotic physical appearance and love for deadly practical gags would be enough to make him memorable.  However, what elevates him to the status of an icon is the depth of motivations driving his actions.  He targets Batman because Batman is the only person who can truly challenge him (a riff on the same theme that drives Moriarty to challenge Sherlock Holmes).  The Joker is fixated on Batman out of an odd type of respect and, again, jealousy because he can’t seem to ever corrupt Batman, no matter how hard he tries (a theme explored in detail in 2008’a The Dark Knight).  The drive to prove someone else is as bad as we are is a common human sentiment, and, again, provides a memorable and believable motivation for a crazy man embracing anarchy and chaos.  He desires to prove himself great because he believes himself great.

The Joker’s motivations are clear, understandable, believable, and (perhaps most critical of all) appropriate to the scale of his actions.  If the Joker were merely an unhappily failed clown with no deep feeling of inherent (and unrecognized) greatness and did not suffer from insanity, then trying to poison an entire city (as in 1989’s Batman) might be a memorable conflict for the movie, but we’d all be talking solely about Batman because the Joker’s motivations in that scenario wouldn’t be appropriate to the scale of the attack.  However, add insanity and the belief in his own greatness—with a correspondingly narcissistic need to have that greatness recognized—and suddenly we almost talk more about the Joker than we do Batman because the Joker just became memorable.

The Rock was a 1996 blockbuster that thrilled theatergoers with spills, chills, thrills, and more gunfire than any movie since Robocop.  Sean Connery dominated the screen as a former British agent assisting Nicholas Cage to stop Ed Harris’ renegade Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Hummel from using stolen chemical weapons to obliterate San Francisco.  Hummel is driven to this violent, terroristic path because some of his men were denied…pensions.

Yep.  A high-ranking Marine Corps officer kills American citizens to steal American chemical weapons in order to threaten American citizens with a horrific death because the American government denied pensions to the spouses of a few American Marines.  The storyline goes that the spouses of several members of Marine Force Recon were denied pensions after those Marines were lost during a black-ops mission the U.S. disavowed.

Ed Harris wonderful performance as renegade Brig. Gen. Francis Hummel in 1996’s The Rock was undercut by the fact that Hummel was written with motivations that could not believably drive a high-ranking, experienced military officer to become a terrorist.

The problem with this motivation is two-fold.  First off, in no rational universe does this motivation come anywhere near remotely being appropriate to the scale of Hummel’s actions.  Second, anyone who knows anything about how the Department of Defense works knows that, while the Marines involved might not get official recognition, their spouses will get death benefits as appropriate by the deceased Marines’ paygrades.  However, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend the reality I just described doesn’t exist and the government really would deny survivor’s benefits.  Ok, that would piss off a lot of us who wore the uniform and still do wear the uniform.  But…is that an appropriately believable motivation to threaten an entire city with death by chemical weapons?

Speaking as a writer, I would never have an officer engage in any kind of terrorism over such a, well, lame issue when compared to the scale of his actions.  My version of Hummel might publicly resign his commission, start a political action group, and go on every TV show he could to sway public opinion, but he wouldn’t murder because that’s not in the character based on his motivations.

This frankly ridiculous motivation for Hummel is The Rock’s only major weakness.  The movie itself ranks as one of my favorite action movies because the story is strong and most of the characters are built upon logical motivations that fit the scope of their actions, and the performances are mesmerizing.  However, Hummel’s hackneyed motivation for threatening San Francisco with a violent death over pensions renders him the most forgettable member of the band of mercenaries he leads.

In fact, in the end, Hummel reveals he’d been bluffing all along.  He doesn’t have a change of heart at the last minute, redemptively sacrificing himself through an act of poetic justice.  Nope.  He reveals he’d just been a fraud all along, a poser whose greatest crime was not making horrific threats, but choosing his mercenaries unwisely.  He can’t control his men once his ‘great bluff is called.  This eliminates any credibility the character had.  The two mercenaries who kill him are far more memorable because they’re characters with a simple but incredibly powerful pair of motivations: greed and resentment.  They’re greedy bastards so resentfully enraged they won’t get paid they kill Hummel and attempt to destroy San Francisco.  This sets up the movie’s thrilling final act in which Connery and Cage narrowly avert the catastrophe.

The lack of a believably appropriate motivation for Hummel, plus the milquetoast turn the writers foisted upon his character, renders Ed Harris (who’s supposed to be The Big Bad) into a side character supporting the real villains.  The movie still works because the story is good and featurestrue villains with appropriately believable motivations, but those villains were supposed to be supporting The Big Bad, not the other way around.  If Hummel’s cause been something with a lot more gravitas (for example, say the U.S. government abandoned living Marines overseas with but days until they’re executed by being publicly burned alive), then Hummel’s actions, even if only a great bluff, would be believable because he’s racing to save lives, not get a few pensions for people who are going to get survivor benefits anyway.  In my suggested scenario, the motivation would have matched the scale of the actions Hummel takes.

A movie, TV show, play, or novel can succeed even if the villain isn’t memorable.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) proved this in spades.  We all remember Loki and Thanos.  A great many people remember Hela.  Hardly anyone remembers the 100+ other MCU villains even though nearly everyone can remember the MCU movies themselves.  A single weak link in a story does not necessarily mean the story fails.  However, being a professional is not only a matter of whether one gets paid, it’s also a matter of the heart and soul (the professionalism) one dedicates to their work.  Good writers, those adhering to professional standards, strive to make all characters memorable, especially their villains.

Creating a memorable villain is as important as creating memorable heroes.  However, much more care must be taken to ensure a villain’s motivations truly work, or else the villain might become as forgettable as a tissue after you sneeze in it.  Motivations must be clear and appropriate to the scale of the villain’s actions.  Craft a strong villain, and your story will have a wonderful chance of soaring high.  Craft a weak villain, and the story might work, but it’ll always be a bit like a 12-cylinder engine firing on eleven cylinders.  It’ll still give you a hell of a ride, but you’ll always be aware there’s a little something off.

Check out my video on this topic in which I discuss Star Trek’s Khan, as played by the great Ricardo Montalban, contrasted against Sarris, played by the incredible Robin Sachs in Galaxy Quest: 

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