The Writer’s Craft – Killing it with the Perfect Villain, Part 4—Thematic Opposition

(Pensacola, Florida; Sept. 16, 2022,) – Killing it with the perfect villain is not an overly difficult challenge, but it does require one to ensure several factors are taken into account when building the character.

This series has so far looked at two of the five things I believe make a great villain: characterization and motivation.  Today, I’d like to talk about the third category I believe makes a memorable villain: thematic opposition.

Memorable villains are the thematic opposite of the hero, but successful villains go far beyond simply being ‘bad’ to the hero’s ‘good.’  At base level, the villain is the hero’s opposite number simply because the basic theme is the villain is out to do ‘bad,’ and the hero is out to stop them and do ‘good.’  However, a memorable villain is one constructed to mirror the hero in multiple ways.  Audiences love to see opposite numbers go head-to-head, even among the heroes.  This is why the idea of Superman and Batman coming to blows is attractive.  Superman embodies the theme of justice through light, hope, and optimism.  Batman embodies the theme of justice through fear, darkness, and punishment.  These two heroes stand for the same thing (justice), but seek it through radically different means.  This contradiction makes them highly effective allies because they complement one another, but it also sets them on differing paths that can generate conflict.

One of the most classic literary pairings of opposite numbers is that of Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty.  Although Moriarty was intended to be a one-off character in what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle planned to be his final Holmes story, he knew he had to set Moriarty up as a villain truly worthy of being the one to kill Holmes…even if Holmes cheerfully accepted his own death in order to stop a horribly dangerous man.  Therefore, Doyle crafted Moriarty to be as intelligent, quick-witted, observant, and stunningly brilliant as Holmes.  Whereas Holmes is a renowned detective, Moriarty is a renowned academic.  Holmes and Moriarty both were written to exhibit impatient disdain for mortals with lesser intellectual abilities.  In a slightly altered reality, the two men might have become great friends.

However, this is where Doyle changes the map.  Holmes, for all his narcissism, champions law and a civil, orderly society.  Moriarty champions his own personal gain and power.  Holmes recognizes his own need for ‘lesser’ intellectual companions, such as Watson, while Moriarty eschews such relationships as beneath him.  This dichotomy alone enables Holmes to remain firmly grounded in his place as a member of society bearing a shared responsibility for that society.  Moriarty lives intellectually and emotionally apart from society, seeing it as merely a means to his own elevation.  For all his conceit and arrogance, Holmes recognizes other people as human and dignified.  Moriarty sees other people as mere disposable tools.

Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes faces off against Jared Harris’ James Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. (Warner Bros.)

Robert Downey, Jr., and Jared Harris brought these two characters to life brilliantly in 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  The movie opens with Homles getting ‘down and dirty’ investigating Moriarty’s vast criminal plans.  Holmes puts on disguises, gets into brutal fights, and risks his own life trying o save the life of a doctor employed by Moriarty from a bomb Moriarty intended to kill the physician.  Sadly, the doctor runs and is killed by another of Moriarty’s henchmen.  Holmes himself is portrayed as brilliant but unstable, irascible yet compassionate, manic yet focused, unkempt yet well-mannered.

This is in contrast to Moriarty.  Jared Harris’ portrayal shows us a James Moriarty who keeps his hands ‘clean’ by using others to do his dirty work.  Holmes jumps into the fray personally; Moriarty does his level best to stay above it.  Moriarty is brilliant and calm, cultured yet cruel, calm yet violent, polished yet amoral.

The characters are, quite literally, mirror opposites of each other.  For every beat of Holmes’ manic energy, Moriarty demonstrates an equal measure of self-control.  For every note of Holmes’ attempts to save lives, Moriarty demonstrates an equal measure of casual homicide.  Holmes is even shown to be physically dirty and disheveled while Moriarty is the picture of an accomplished, upper-crust gentleman.  Holmes is always getting banged up investigating his cases, whereas Moriarty only ‘gets his hands dirty’ one time—when Holmes forces him to that end.

These contrasts bring the similarities in sharp relief even as the similarities highlight the contrasts.  Sherlock Holmes might behave like a jerk to your face, but you know he’s a good man who will throw himself under a carriage if it means saving your life.  James Moriarty might behave like a cultured philanthropist and teacher, but you quickly learn he’s cold, cruel, and dismissive.

The final piece of this thematic opposition is the fact these two antagonists recognize each other’s virtues and genius.  They genuinely respect much about the other, even as they seek to best each other.  This sets up scenes of great tension whenever they confront each other.  This dichotomy creates a villain who is as memorable as the hero, a villain the reader loves to see because it means a tight, dramatic story full of boiling tension, promising an incredible payoff.

The next villain I’d believe is worthy of study is one most people would, I think, find a surprising choice: Senior Firefighter John ‘Axe’ Adcox from 1991’s Backdraft.  Backdraft, starring Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, and Scott Glenn tells the story of Chicago firefighters trying to catch a serial arsonist while the fire department is being subjected to harsh budget cuts.  These cuts are themselves threatening the lives of firefighters by reducing their numbers and equipment.

Kurt Russell and William Baldwin’s characters, Stephen and Brian McCaffrey, are firefighting brothers struggling with a contentious relationship.  Scott Glenn’s ‘Axe’ Adcox functions as a mentor to the troubled men until they discover he’s the arsonist.  Adcox became so enraged by the budget cuts killing firefighters that he became an arsonist to punish the politicians responsible.  Kurt Russell’s Stephen and William Baldwin’s Brian confront Adcox during a horrible warehouse fire.  The resulting scene sees the men trapped by an explosion, with Stephen sacrificing himself to try and save Adcox despite Adcox’s crimes.  Sadly, both men die, leaving Brain McCaffrey to carry on alone, finding new hope as he moves forward in his life.

Scott Glenn’s John ‘Axe’ Adcox is the unlikely and exceptionally tragic villain in Backdraft. (Universal Pictures)

Adcox is not the definition of a ‘typical’ villain.  He’s not out for himself like Moriarty is.  He’s not trying to subjugate others to his political or economic power.  He’s not a psychotic terror like the Joker who enjoys killing for its own sake.

Adcox is determined to save lives, both the lives of firefighters and the lives of the people threatened by fire in a city with an economically decimated fire department.  However, Adcox crosses the line into becoming a villain when his hatred of politicians grows so far out of control that he becomes a murderer.  In a devastating irony, one of Adcox’s own fires ends up critically injuring a fellow fireman.  This is a classic case of a character becoming what they hate because they surrender to their own hatred.  Contrast this with Batman; he hates crime and seeks to protect the innocent, but he never succumbs to hatred, he never becomes a villain because he reveres the law and stays within it (sometimes barely within it, but he does).  Adcox loses all perspective, crossing the line into becoming a murderer and setting into motion events which injure one firefighter and result in his and his friend Stephen McCraffrey’s deaths.

This is an example of a tragic villain, one we can feel sympathy for even as his actions horrify us.  We all know the pain of losing people, and it’s not hard to empathize with those who’ve suffered loss due to negligence and political expediency.  We all can understand Adcox’s motivations.  However, we can find no ground upon which to define his actions as anything other than evil.  He’s become a murderer, and murder begets murder and violence.  He might be a sympathetic character, but, once his guilt is unmasked, we can only hope for him to be stopped, whatever the cost.

Adcox first appears to be the thematic partner of the McCaffrey brothers.  They all appear to revere life and public service.  They all appear to be dedicated to the law and an orderly society.  They all appear to hate what the politicians are doing, but are dedicated to seeking redress through the system.  They all appear to respect fire and fear what it can do to their city when uncontrolled.

However, we find Adcox fell off that train years ago as the movie unfolds.  His hatred of the politicians became so great he feels justified in breaking the law to protect his fellow firefighters and his city.  He believes murder and turning fire loose is the only moral way he has left to change the status quo.  Although ridden with guilt, he assuages himself by telling himself he’s serving a ‘greater good.’  This sets him as the perfect thematic opposite of the McCaffrey brothers, rendering him as memorable as the heroic McCaffreys.

A memorable villain must be the hero’s opposite number.  Writers can achieve this by rendering the villain an open opposite number in every way (Moriarty is a completely amoral narcissist; Holmes is an exceedingly moral narcissist), or it can be developed subtly with the villain standing for the same things as the hero…except for one critical difference (such as the tragic firefighter Adcox using fire to kill people he believes are a threat to firefighters).  Both approaches are powerful tools for creating a truly memorable villain.

Killing it with the perfect villain is not a difficult task.  It merely takes a bit of thought and careful crafting of the characters in order to find the right ‘mirror image’ to use between the hero and villain.  Ensuring your villain is your hero’s opposite number will go a long way to ensuring they’re seared forever into your readers’ memories, a dark force evoking evil that contrasts the brilliant light of your hero’s noble qualities.

Check out my video on this topic in which I use the Joker from the Batman comics and movies, and René Belloq from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as examples of villains who are the thematic opposites of the hero:

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