(Pensacola, Florida; Oct. 18, 2022,) – Killing it with the perfect villain is just as critical to good writing as killing it with a great hero is.
A story might thrive if the villain is an undeveloped cipher. The hero’s journey, the interaction of the characters, and the exciting events can still create a rip-roaring adventure your audience will remember long after the book is closed or the movie has left cinemas. However, creating a truly memorable villain elevates your story, increases your skills as a storyteller, and will perhaps lift your name into the firmament with such greats as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Lucas.
We’ve discussed characterization, motivations, thematic opposition, and credibility (the villain has to win significant victories at least occasionally). Now I want to look at another item that makes for a truly memorable villain: the ‘cool’ factor. This is, perhaps, the most ephemeral and ‘insubstantial’ factor to talk about, but, in my opinion, it’s the point where all the other factors we’ve talked about come together in a successful collision of character building.
Let’s first get our terms straight. ‘Cool’ does not necessarily mean likable, or even mildly sympathetic. A ‘cool’ villain can be someone who invokes nothing but revulsion from your audience (think John Doe from Seven). What makes a villain ‘cool’ is not their likability, but their entertainment value. We love to see cool villains in action. Print, stage, or screen, well-crafted, memorable villains are magnets of theatricality, drawing us in with every diabolical deed done in their dastardly way.
Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs is one such villain. Interestingly, Lecter isn’t the antagonist of the film; that’s the Buffalo Bill killer, played brilliantly by Ted Levine. However, Hannibal Lecter is indeed a villain, and his presence was so powerful that most discussions about the movie center on him. Buffalo Bill is usually reduced to an afterthought.
Hopkins’ interpretation of Lecter was that of a brilliant, supremely self-confident, immaculately cultured man who enjoys the finer things in life such as stirring music, great literature, and sumptuous meals of fava beans, chianti, and human liver. He’s a walking charismatic contradiction; at once a learned scholar and rapacious predator.
Hopkins’ turn as Lecter is fueled by the deep chemistry between him and Jodie Foster, who portrays FBI Agent Clarice Starling. He uses psychological games to break down Starling’s resistance to his conversational advances (he wants to know her backstory). He talks about cannibalizing human victims with the same clinical precision a surgeon uses when describing life-saving procedures. His stoic reserve and nuanced method of speaking are riveting and fascinating, leaving the audience hungry for more meat (pardon the pun).
This combination of good writing, excellent casting, and powerful acting created a character who is the biggest hit of this hit movie. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter is a villain whose ‘cool’ factor (entertainment value) transcends the movie franchise he made famous.
Another great villain who checks the ‘cool’ category is, believe it or not, the shark from 1975’s Jaws. The mechanical shark’s malfunctions during filming are the stuff of cinema legend, but these setbacks didn’t deter Steven Spielberg. Rather the reverse; Spielberg turned the failures of the prop sharks into such a great advantage the shark itself eclipses the human stars of the film, even though those human stars were portrayed exquisitely by remarkable actors.
There’s no way around it; the shark is cool. We watch swimmers pulled under and we see large, heavy wooden boats smashed into splinters. This ‘mere’ animal becomes a force of nature it casting a pall over our heroes even when they’re safely on dry ground. The shark ends up being the character we’re watching for. This is an excellent example of how good writing, combined with great use of visual media, can turn an animal simply hunting for dinner into a diabolical force riveting us to the screen.
The audience yearns to see the shark, therefore the audience hangs on any moment the shark might appear in person (if you’ll pardon the expression). The shark becomes such an overwhelming adversary that it dominates the audience’s perceptions even when not present. The shark must be about to strike, after all! It’s there; it has to be! Keep watching…!
The shark is just an animal hunting to survive, but its portrayal morphs it into the embodiment of human terror when faced with the fact that the natural world is, indeed, something over which we have no control. The fact the shark is just a shark, a large, predatory fish looking for food, helps build the creature’s ‘cool’ factor because nothing bothers the shark. There’s no anger, hatred, hostile intent, or even awareness of the pain it causes. It’s simply obeying the laws that govern its physics, and yet it transcends simply biology to become an evil force hiding in the depths, waiting patiently to strike.
Great villains have to be cool. This does not mean they need to be likable, but it does mean they must be entertaining. Even a shark, an animal hunting for food, can become a memorable villain through good writing (and creative filming if you’re working in a visual medium).
Taking the time to build a truly well-developed, well-rounded, multifaceted villain who is cool and entertaining will significantly advance the story’s chances of success. Memorable villains are cool; memorable villains rivet us with their entertainingly evil actions. Characterization, motivations, thematic opposition, credibility (the villain has to win once in a while) and the ‘cool’ factor are the tools with which good writers can craft epic, memorable villains, thereby slaying their audiences with compelling, heart-stopping adventures!
Check out my video on this topic where I discuss Darth Vader, the Joker, and Hector Barbossa: https://youtu.be/hwKhjhrUqFg
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