Tag Archives: Villains

Tropes I Can Do Without: Incompetent Antagonists

So, I’m breaking my rule here just a bit. My goal for this year was to write about those thing I love more than the things I dislike. But today is Halloween, and this one in particular has been weighing on my mind of late. I’m going to talk about a sci-fi/fantasy trope that I would REALLY like to see go away: incompetent antagonists.

FreddyWise

Trick! This post has nothing to do with either of them! Both of them are pretty cool as is. 

See if this sounds familiar…a plucky band of heroes is just so darn good. And clever! The bad guys, by contrast, might have cool tech and uniforms, but they are largely idiots, or exceedingly arrogant (or both). Because the heroes have the ‘heart’ of 100 Rocky Balboas, they are able to snatch victory out of the lazy, slackened jaws of defeat. Hooray! Everyone goes home.

Based on this, I’m proud to introduce Carson’s First Law of Villainy: The level of satisfaction the audience experiences from the heroes’ victory is directly proportional to the competence of their opposition.

Or, in other words, the greater the threat, the greater the payoff.  If it seems nigh-impossible for the heroes to succeed, the more of a “YAAAS” moment you get when the they finally—somehow— pull it off. Villains are key to this. You can have a weak villain and still have a fun, engaging story (Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m looking at you in most cases), but the writer does his heroes a disservice if the opposition they face is weak or ineffectual.

Let’s look at some examples. Think of a bad guy or set of bad guys. This can be from books, movies, comic books, really anywhere. Why were they memorable? Why were they a threat to the protagonist, and what lengths did the hero or heroes have to go to defeat them? For me, one figure immediately springs to mind.

This guy.

Darth-Vader_6bda9114

Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies!

Darth Vader.

Not, Anakin Skywalker. No, the Dark Lord of the Sith as he was portrayed in Episodes 4, 5, and 6. He’s powerful, in control, and a dire threat to anyone who get in his way. Every time the heroes cross paths with him, they pay for it. Obi-Wan goes down, he cuts off Luke’s Hand, and Han gets encased in carbonite.

He’s always one step ahead, and going up against him directly seems like a suicide mission. So, when Luke does finally defeat him, it shows how far the character has come. The Luke who whined about going into Tosche Station to pick up power converters couldn’t have faced Vader and lived. It had to be the Luke who wore all black, who single-handedly stormed Jabba’s barge like a boss to do that. In essence, Luke had to grow into Vader’s looming threat. As I’ve said before, it’s the presence of the wolf, not its absence, that makes the deer fast.

star-wars-return-of-the-jedi

And the winner for Most Improved goes to…

Of course, Grand Moff Tarkin does refuse to evacuate the station out of sheer arrogance, but that’s the difference between the two characters. Tarkin was certainly competent in other ways, but ultimately fell prey to this classic movie trope: His belief in his own superiority sews the seeds of his downfall.  In the end, however, I think the original Star Wars trilogy does a good job of establishing the Empire as a legitimate danger to make its defeat feel like an accomplishment.  (Stormtroopers who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, notwithstanding.)

Let’s look at a really bad example. I must preface this by saying that I’m big fan of this author’s work, and have been so for 20 years or more. But lately, the bad guys are bad at what they do. Really bad. Let’s talk about Shadow of Freedom, by David Webber, a novel in one of the spin-offs of his Honor Harrington universe.

Shadow_of_Freedom_(cover)

Despite being front and center on the cover, Honor Harrington never appears directly. 

I posted my review on Goodreads, but here’s the part that pertains to this topic. The bad guys are some of the worst I’ve ever read. There are multiple sets of them, and they are all idiotic, arrogant, AND their tech is way inferior to the good guys. In short, they are cockroaches being run over by a semi. They can’t even really fight back. They either flee or they die, without presenting even the slightest bit of threat or challenge.

If it only happened once in the book, that would be one thing, but it happens over and over again. And this isn’t the only Honor Harrington book where this is the case, I’m sorry to say. I want to see the protagonists struggle to achieve their goal, to really fight for it, sacrifice for it. There’s none of that here, because the bad guys are disposable, stupid, and pose no real danger.

Commando-1985

Yeah, pretty much like that. 

That brings me to Carson’s Second Law of Villainy: The audience should, in some way, empathize with the antagonist enough to—almost—wish them to succeed in place of the protagonist.

This is stepping outside the speculative realms, but think about Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard movie, played by the incomparable Alan Rickman. He is a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist, and a worthy adversary of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Even though we hope McClane is able to triumph over Gruber, the moment that Gruber’s team opens the vault is genuinely exciting. For an instant, you almost feel elated that they have accomplished their goal, even though they’ve done some horrible things to get there. You temporarily suspend your wish for McClane’s victory in favor of Gruber. It’s only for a moment, but it’s there.

slider-hans_gruber

The man himself. 

Even this can be traced to Gruber’s innate competence. He knows what he’s doing. He has it together. He has a thought-out master plan and the will and resolve to see it through. That he is very good at what he does contributes to the menace he represents to McClane. If Gruber and company were a bunch of bumbling idiots, McClane’s triumph wouldn’t have been nearly so resounding.

Another example of this is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, in my opinion one of the greatest TV villains of all time, and Giancarlo Esposito’s masterwork. (Spoiler Alert) Even though Gus represents deadly peril to our protagonists, Walter and Jesse, it’s pretty satisfying to see him take down the Juarez Cartel. Again, we’ve seen this guy literally slit a guy’s throat in cold blood just to make a point, but in this moment we are glad that Gus has won the day. And he did this through superior planning, a deep knowledge of his targets and their foibles, and a driving determination to avenge his dead friend, Max. Again, competence.

Breaking Bad (Season 4)

Is today the day, Hector? 

It’s these instances of success where we can’t help but cheer, even though we know we shouldn’t. And it’s these moments that lead me to Carson’s Third Law of Villainy: Antagonists should believe and behave as though they are the protagonists in their own story.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about some of the worst people who have ever lived in real life is that they thought they were the good guys. They all thought they were the hero in their own story. A well-rounded antagonist should likewise believe this. They aren’t just there to be a convenient obstacle, to wait around to be defeated or killed, they have goals and dreams like anyone, albeit twisted by our standards. In their view, the hero is the actual villain of the piece.

One of the most unsettling examples of this is the movie Falling Down. I’ve heard it said that you can tell the protagonist of a story by looking for the one in the most pain. Not so with this movie. Even though the story revolves around William Foster (Michael Douglas), he is really the antagonist. We see that he’s in pain, and that he’s fed up with the world, but when Robert Duvall’s Sgt. Prendergast confronts him at the end of the movie, Foster says “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?”

MSDFADO EC034

His glasses aren’t the only thing that’s cracked. 

And, just to throw a curve ball into the mix, let’s talk about the Operative (Chiwetal Ejiofor) in Serenity. He certainly passes the competency test. He’s articulate and extremely dangerous, and also strangely empathic towards his victims.

He passes the first two laws of villainy with flying colors, but not the third. That is perhaps the only failing in an otherwise command performance. The Operative knows that he’s a monster, that what he’s doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway. That’s the only part of this character that doesn’t ring true to me, especially when Shepherd Book says that men like the Operative  ‘believe hard’ and ‘never ask why.’ The Operative knows he’s a villain, which in my estimation, makes him less of one.

6a00d8345295c269e201bb0998189d970d-800wi

Perhaps there is nothing left to see. 

Well, there you have it, Carson’s Three Laws of Villainy, and how the use of them can prevent a milquetoast antagonist. Villains fuel the story’s conflict, and what is a good story without conflict?

So if you’re writer of any sort of fiction, do us a favor and make your villain as compelling as your hero. Make your protagonist rise to the challenge. And if you can, have your villain go out with a bit of style or panache.  (That’s more of a personal request, however.)

Truth is, we all deserve better bad guys in our stories. Villains aren’t good, but by the horned helmet of Loki, they should at least be good at it!

693e5f0bdd2942ed5c9b1d7923fb939f603663ad875b1940cb773d9560b00b9d

Burdened with glorious purpose, indeed. 

Advertisements

Backwards Compatible – Part 6: Enter The Fox

So, after recovering from the single greatest bout of writer’s block I’ve ever had, I had to dust myself off and get back on the horse. During that time in limbo, however, when the main plot of the novel was on hold, I decided to write some sequences out of order.

Normally I don’t do that since it makes continuity pretty tricky to maintain. Still, I wanted at least some words on paper while I tried to sort out the real quandary of the A-story. In one of these sequences, I introduced the primary antagonist of the book, Captain Gaylon Fox.

The Man Himself.

Not even gonna lie, this is my dream casting for the character: Jason Issacs.

Most of the time, villains are more interesting to me, literarily, than heroes. I knew he would be key the story, so this was my chance to show the reader what this particular villain was made of. To be an effective nemesis to the main character, Captain Coeur D’Esprit, he needed have certain things in common with her. I wanted him to be a shadowy double of her, like the dark side of the same coin.

The previous novel, To Dream of Chaos, which I did not write, gave me the perfect set up. In it, the crew of Hornet faced off against ship of the Solee Navy, Royal Vengeance, near a gas giant. During the battle, Vengeance was critically damaged and, in an act of desperation, uses its Jump drive to get away without first getting to a safe distance.

Now, for those unfamiliar with Traveller canon, Jumping while in a gravity well is only slightly less horrible than crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. The ship might be instantly destroyed, or never emerge from Jump space, or appear parsecs away from where they meant to go, and be stranded.

Crossing the streams.

I love this plan. I’m excited to be a part of it.

A situation like that was one of Coeur’s defining moments, which led to some serious survivor’s guilt when only 4 crewmembers (including her) survived that stunt out of a crew of 100. If that weren’t enough, Royal Vengeance returns at the end of To Dream of Chaos, and is once again repulsed, and nearly destroyed.

Now that it was my time at the helm of the story, I decided that Gaylon Fox had been the Executive Officer on Royal Vengeance during that deadly encounter. When his incompetent Captain is killed during Coeur’s initial attack, he was the one who made the call to Jump. Subsequently, he became captain of the ship, and had been jonesing for a rematch ever since.

It felt only natural that Royal Vengeance should play a part in the third act of the New Era trilogy. And now I had a villain who had been in a similar situation as the hero, and forced to make some of the same hard decisions. Where the hero used those horrific events of her past to make something positive of herself, Gaylon Fox has gone done a darker road, using his experiences instead to focus his ambition like a laser to further his own agenda.

Snidley Whiplash

Nope!

Having said that, I didn’t want this guy to be a complete mustache-twirler like Snidley Whiplash or Dirk Dastardly. So, I made him competent at what he does, fearless (though not reckless), polite, and coldly self-controlled. Besides that, he often rewards initiative, and inspires service and loyalty in his subordinates. While he’s no saint, I built him so that he might be viewed as a hero from his own side of the war.

To me, those are the best kind of villains, the ones who  ̶  even if it’s just for a second  ̶  you want to win. After the first scenes with Captain Fox, I knew that’s who I had on my hands. He would naturally be the unstoppable force to Coeur’s immovable object.

Force Paradox

Like that, only with more lasers.

What would happen when they inevitably collided? I would have to wait to find out.

Next time on Backwards Compatible…canon gets murky when another version of The Backwards Mask surfaces.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Why I Love Villains

Okay, I’ll go ahead and say it – I love villains. Most of the time, I find villains far more compelling than the heroes who face them.  To clarify − before anyone goes there − I’m talking strictly about fiction here, and not the real world.

My interest in the bad guys goes way back to my earliest childhood. The first truly awe-inspiring villain I discovered as a kid was (surprise of surprises) Darth Vader. He was a mystery behind that all-too familiar mask of his, with that raspy respirator, hissing and sighing to announce his presence. He instantly commanded respect from those who served him, and brooked no sharp tongue. (I find your lack of faith disturbing!)  Vader was just cool, from the way he walked to his deep basso James Earl Jones voice. Like some Black Knight out of legend, he was powerful, strong and – if you’ll forgive the pun – a force to be reckoned with.

You, um, might say that I was more than a little inspired by him.  Just a bit…

Sith_04LIT

That’s me as a Sith Lord.
No, really, that’s me in there.

Vader started a trend with me. I found as I grew up that I seemed to gravitate towards the villains in the various cartoons I watched as a kid. (A notable exception is Transformers, where I liked the good guys better overall.) Take for instance COBRA from G.I. Joe.  They get all the sharp-looking  vehicles, armor and suits. Most of them wear ninja-esque balaclavas or use masks to hide their faces. Compare that to the Joes, who look like a bunch of regular people. Boring.  The only one on the good side who had that level of panache was Snakes Eyes, and let’s face it – he should have been on COBRA’s side. Come on, his name is Snake Eyes for crying out loud!

Unfortunately for all their style, COBRA wasn’t very competent.  Your average Viper can’t hit the broad side of an aircraft carrier, but then again, neither can any member of the Joe team. In fact, all of them in that franchise seem pretty incapable of basic marksmanship.  Be that as it may, even though COBRA is constantly thwarted in their diabolical schemes, they look great while losing.

Especially the Baroness. Ahem…

CobraLogo-500x500

Cooooooo-braaaaaaa!

It took me a while to figure out what it was about the likes of Boba Fett, Skeletor, Storm Shadow and Magneto that really called to me. Yeah, they were enigmatic and looked imposing, but it was more than that. It was because villains don’t play by the rules, or more to the point, they play by their own rules. One of the reasons they are so powerful is because they are not constrained like the rest of us. They operate by their own code. They’re rebels, they’re renegades. They are the ones who break from the pack and do what they want, when they want.  And, you know, there’s something very attractive about that idea.

When I discovered James Bond films, I found another deep well of villainy. Bond villains are a special breed. While they are all too eager to tell Bond about their master plan, and tend to have a predilection for Nehru jackets, they are all very smart (though not all that wise). Many of them are doctors, scientists, secret agents and the like. Intelligence is something that I think all great villains share. Moriarty, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Doctor Doom, Voldemort, Dracula, Sauron, Ozymandias, Roy Batty, HAL-9000 − geniuses all. And let’s not forget one of the most brilliant villains of all time…

Wreath of KhanII

Come on, you know you wanna yell it out!

When it comes to a villain’s role in a literary sense, I think this old saying about sums it up: “It is the presence of the wolf, not his absence, which makes the deer strong and fast.” There is a symbiotic relationship that exists between heroes and villains. A hero is often defined by his nemesis, and vice versa.

Do me a favor − think about the last few movies, books, comics, stories, etc. that you found particularly powerful or moving. Now think of the villain of each one. Chances are they had a particularly memorable and/or potent opponent playing opposite the protagonist. Villains can make or break a story.  Even in those tales where the heroes are up against nature, society, or even their own natures, it is the obstacles they must overcome, the hardships they have to endure, that really make you empathize with them.

Villains are great at forging that pathos between the reader/viewer and the hero. Why? Villains are engines for conflict. Without some sort of conflict, you don’t have much of a story. That’s also why antagonists can be, and often are, much cooler/lethal/stronger/smarter/more awesome than the protagonist.  They have to be…or rather they need to be.

Sherlock-Holmes-and-Moriarty

Can you imagine one without the other?

If you didn’t have an incredibly competent, seemingly unbeatable opponent for the protagonist to face off against, victory would seem hollow and meaningless.  When our heroic lead manages to succeed, even when all hope seems lost, it feels so much more satisfying, right?

We as humans love underdogs, the ones who bravely soldier on against impossible odds. We love to see underdogs succeed even when all conventional wisdom says they should fail. So, the greater the villain, the greater the sense of achievement when our hero emerges triumphant in the end.

And that is why I love villains. At once they represent power, mystery, intelligence, style and the crucible in which heroes are made.

Oh, and the maniacal laugh. Definitely the laugh.