(Pensacola, Florida; Oct. 28, 2022,) – BONUS! Score! You’ve just stumbled on the bonus seventh part of my six-part series about slaying your audience with the perfect villain!
We’ve discussed five factors you need to keep in mind when creating a villain:
- Thematic Opposition
- Credibility (the villain has to win once in a while)
- The ‘Cool’ Factor
These five considerations will help you conceive and develop the villain as a character. However, once you’ve developed a villain that’ll slay your readers with their wit, charm, violence, and glorious perfidy, you still need to introduce them to your audience. This is a singularly critical moment, one that can make or break your audience’s perception of that villain’s status as ‘memorable’ or ‘forgettable.’
I currently write murder mystery novels. Therefore, I normally don’t introduce my villain until the Big Reveal at the end. However, I’m working on several future projects in which the villain will be introduced as the villain from the off, so I too must ensure I compellingly introduce that character.
Herman Melville created a generation-spanning winner of a villain with Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab. Ahab is the symbol in Western literature for the human incarnation of revenge. He is the quintessential character so blinded by hatred and bloodlust that he doesn’t realize he’s engineering the destruction of not only himself, but his entire ship and crew (save for one lone survivor).
Melville introduces Ahad through mystery, slowly building the character up until this bizarre man finally steps forth as the driving force behind Moby Dick’s narrative. Melville cleverly introduces Ahab by not immediately showing him to the audience. When Ishmael, our protagonist, signs on aboard the Pequod, the ship’s owners are doing the hiring, not the captain. This detail might get by us in the 21st century, but, to a 19th century reader, this detail was a huge red flag because it directly contradicted every established norm of that era’s maritime industry.
The Pequod’s owners describe Ahab as a “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Although we’re not nearly as spiritual or religious a culture today as we were in the 1800s, we still recognize the significance of this statement. A man or woman who is ‘ungodly’ fears no higher power, even if they deign to believe in one. A man or woman described as ‘god-like’ brings to mind charismatic crackpots who sway entire cults to kill themselves in the jungles of South America. Even though our cultural references have changed, this language still conveys the image of a captain whose dock doesn’t quite reach the ship. This character might or might not be unhinged (we have no idea yet), but we’re confident they’re not going to follow any expected scripts.
Ahab’s physical appearance is weathered and beaten far beyond the image of the grizzled mariner calmly facing the dangers of the sea. Wearing a prosthetic leg made from whalebone, Ahab’s increasingly bizarre, violent, and obsessive behavior steadily drives the Pequod and her crew into a tragic, unwinnable confrontation with the white whale. Most significantly (in my opinion) is Ahab’s whalebone leg. Ahab is fatally obsessed with killing the white whale that bit off his leg. He now wears a whalebone leg…meaning he is now (at least symbolically) part whale. The very fact he wears a whalebone leg alerts the reader to the tragic reality that this man’s fate is irredeemably tangled up with the white whale. For one to live, the other must die.
Gregory Peck as Ahab in the 1956 version of Moby Dick.
Melville’s triumph was cemented when Ahab’s symbol as the living quest for suicidal vengeance played an integral part in two of the most successful Star Trek films ever made: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: First Contact. Khan’s quest for revenge against Kirk in Star Trek II led him to not only pursue Kirk so hard he killed his entire crew and himself, but to also have Khan spout the same lines Ahab uttered as he unleashed his final, suicidal attack on the whale: “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”
Jean-Luc Picard, the hero of Star Trek: The Next Generation, became the Ahab figure himself in Star Trek: First Contact. Picard’s obsession with fighting and defeating the Borg nearly leads him to sacrifice the Enterprise crew to the Borg. Picard completely loses sight of the fact he’s fighting a battle he can’t win. He’s trapped in this fatal fugue until another character snaps him out of by directly calling him Ahab.
Ahab is the literary figure embodying the idea of ‘becoming what one hates.’ The character’s fame began when he was introduced by not being directly introduced. Melville builds Ahab up as a mysterious, dangerous, dark figure before foisting him on the reader. Thus, without the advantages of lighting effects, props, music, or profoundly talented actors, Melville birthed a character who permanently entered our cultural zeitgeist. None of us can say just how much Ahab’s introduction spring-boarded him into fame in the 19th century, but that introduction was obviously powerful enough that readers took note.
The challenge of cleverly, and compellingly introducing villains must be faced by all writers. Print, stage, or screen, we all must hook our audience’s interest and attention in a scant few seconds of page or screen time. Crafting a great villain is one thing; hooking your readers’ attention with a great introduction is the next step, so get creative! Try different introductory scenes until you find the one you believe provides the greatest impact. You never know; you just might create the metaphor for part of the dark side of our humanity!
Check out my video where I discuss Darth Vader and Hector Barbossa’s introductions:
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