The Descent into Madness

They were at it again. Those same egotistical testosterone junkie jocks that just last week had shoved him into a trash can were now harassing a girl that clearly didn’t want their advances. Just looking at them brought the acidic taste of bile to the back of his throat, caused adrenaline to flood his veins and his muscles to tense. Those posturing meatheads had her surrounded, weren’t letting her get the books, utensils, and other necessities for school life that had been safely kept locked away behind one of the hundreds of steel cabinet lockers in the school. They were laughing about it too. Laughing. He gripped the cold steel he’d brought to school specifically for this most holy and righteous of causes. They wouldn’t be laughing for much longer.

Photo by Comstock Images/Stockbyte / Getty Images

Don't worry, pensive stock image lady, it'll be ok.

Forgive the angst-ridden teenage journal entry at the top of this, but I wanted to include it to facilitate a point I’d be making later on. I wanted to talk to you today about Villains, specifically about what makes a good one, and it all hinges on a concept I’ve talked about at length before but never really put to paper; Specifically, the Descent into Madness.  Before we get to that, however, let’s talk about what a villain actually is.

There are three broad spectrum types of antagonists in storytelling. The variations of these three are many, but if you take any major enemy of a story and boil it down you’ll find it fits into one of the following three categories: Bad Guy, Antagonist, and Villain. Now, you’re probably thinking “These all mean the same thing”, but they actually don’t and I’ll explain why if you’ll stick around.

Photo by Nastco/iStock / Getty Images

Pictured: You sticking around.

Let’s start with a Bad Guy; Snidely Whiplash. Snidely Whiplash is the archenemy of Dudley Do-Right, part of the 1960s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and is what people typically think of when they reference an archetypical, tying people to railroad tracks style, villain. Bad Guys do evil things simply for the sake of them being evil, there is rarely an underlying goal, and if there is it’s simply a method by which they can continue to do evil things. Bad Guys are fairly flat enemies, the kind that are easy to hate and make for a good punching bag for the “Forces of Good”.

Next, Antagonists. Now, while by the strictest definition any and all of these are antagonists, lower case A, I’m talking about the Antagonist, capital A. Think about Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Which of these are ‘good’ and which of these are ‘evil’? The answer is neither, but the perspective of their stories typically paints one as the Protagonist and one as the Antagonist – Usually we’re rooting for Bugs, unless they’re teaming up against someone else, which would make Daffy the typical Antagonist. Now, we don’t hate Daffy – He’s not evil, he doesn’t want to do evil, he’s just a bit surly and, quite frankly, rightly so what with Bugs always, well, bugging him. Antagonists are roadblocks; emotionally, mentally, or physically roadblocks for the protagonist. They’re there to get in the way, but not to engage the audience on an emotional level, except to laugh at their expense.

Finally, Villains. Now, Villains can have qualities of both Antagonists and Bad Guys, but there is one thing that sets them apart from both – Relatability. In order to create a compelling villain, we have to be able to buy into what they’re doing. Now, let’s look back at that angsty beginning. Most people can relate to someone feeling bullied, and can also relate to wanting to stop the bully from inflicting that pain on anyone else. However, not everyone could go from that to the ‘Any means necessary’ attitude that drives people to attack and kill others, so quite often while the motives of a Villain might be relatable, like the above story, the actions they take are sometimes so out of left field that the relatability is forgotten and the Villain slips into being simply cartoonish or a trope.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Sometimes the worst Villains are both cartoonish and a trope.

There’s a reason this happens though, and it’s not always “We don’t know how to write compelling characters.” Specifically, it’s the fact that the writers already know why their character eventually does the thing that makes them the Villain, but fail to show it – assuming instead that their storytelling was clear enough, and that you’d get it without them having to spell it out. This is how we get Anakin going from losing his mom to killing children with little to no reason between.

This is where the title of this blog comes in – The Descent into Madness. The concept is that every Villain was once a normal person, and through a series of events their moral character begins to disintegrate, falling apart and leaving nothing but the boiling core of hatred that they become, or jealousy, or whichever emotional imperative your Villain identifies with. This event, or series of events, gives us a reasonable explanation as to why a person has become a Villain, and it scares us more than the Bad Guy ever could, because it shows us that, given the right circumstances, we too could become the Villain.

One of the best examples of this concept I’ve ever seen produced in television was Lex Luthor in the CW’s Smallville. In the beginning of the TV series Lex was just a normal, if obscenely rich, young adult. He was nice to some people, mean to others, secretive, but still relatable. However, as he continues to try and do what he believes is the right thing, he continually gets shit on. Often, this takes the form of the vengeful middle class sticking it to the “rich guy”, and culminates in a beautiful scene in which Lex takes out a meter maid’s car with a golf club, because the meter maid was complaining that it’s “Always the rich guys that complain.”

Do they also fuck your shit up?

This scene, in addition to being hilarious, is also relatable. Many of Lex’s decisions on his descent are reasonable decisions or, if not reasonable, relatable. We have all wanted to take out a smug prick’s car with a golf club, just not all of us have the anger management issues to go ahead and do it. But we can relate to that, and as he plummets from there, grasping wildly at anyone or anything he can to try and maintain his sense of humanity, and failing horribly, we grow scared – because it shows us that we’re all just one bad day away from being that person.

Now, if you want proof of concept, we only have to return to the quick Star Wars reference I made earlier. Let’s talk about Anakin Skywalker – no no no, wait, don’t close the browser, let me finish.

Famous Last Words

So, the biggest problem with Anakin as a Villain is the fact that the actions he takes are so unreasonable for his character up to that point, there is little to no reason for him to just go on a killing spree and betray the Jedi Order, or really to do anything that Palpatine asks him to do, even if you take into consideration the fact that Palpatine was trying to manipulate him –  I can’t just turn to my best friend and say “Hey, you’re my real good friend right? Right. Go kill those kids for me, ok?” But, you can if you have the Force.

So, George Lucas gave himself the ultimate plot hole filler and failed to use it. For Anakin, the Descent into Madness is as simple as showing him succumbing to the seduction of the Dark Side of the Force. All we needed was to see Anakin struggling with the realization that he was being tempted, and then the realization that he liked it. If we’d had some small glimpse into the moments where Anakin fought against the Dark Side and failed, we’d have had a better understanding of why he was doing the things he did, and would have appreciated his character a bit more. It may or may not have made the Prequels better, but at this point we can only dream.

Photo by lekcej/iStock / Getty Images

Pictured: Life without the Star Wars Prequels

So how can writers prevent themselves from falling into the Anakin-mood-swing trap? Well, by documenting the steps that we take for granted. Remember, the audience is not in your head, nor are they in the head of the character you want to be a fantastic Villain. We need to see who they are, why they are sympathetic and relatable, and then we need to see the totally reasonable decisions they make that ultimately lead them down a path of darkness. You can’t just jump cut to the bullied teen shooting his bullys, you have to see him trying to ignore them, pleading for help, being rejected, being ignored, being bullied some more for his efforts, being told to ‘Man up’ and deal with the situation on his own. Then, and only then, you see him deal with it. That is how you make a compelling Villain, not a Bad Guy or an Antagonist.

A truly compelling Villain makes us question ourselves, makes us consider the potential for violence that lies within us all – Do we really mean it when we curse and yell at the people who cut us off in traffic? Would we actually kill someone for such a slight inconvenience? Movies, Video Games, Books, Television, and all other forms of entertainment have the power to make us ask those questions. That is the real power of a Villain.

If you liked this (article?) feel free to comment on twitter or email. Let me know your favorite Villians, Bad Guys, and Antagonists, and see if you can apply the Descent into Madness on other characters that have potential – does it improve them? I’m interested to find out. Also let me know if you’d like to see dissertations like this on other subjects. I’m willing to write it if you want to read it.