The Villain’s Journey

on January 27, 2014

One of my favorite workshops to present is on the Villain’s Journey.

I took the title from a paragraph in Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY that said, in short, that the villain is the hero of his own journey. When I read that years ago, everything clicked for me. If I always kept that concept in front of me when I wrote, character motivation was clearer. It wasn’t just the villain and the hero who were on a journey, but every other character who crossed their paths.

I’ll be presenting this workshop at the RWA conference in San Antonio as well as at Thrillerfest in New York. There’s only a slight difference in the presentations.

At RWA, I focus on “antagonists” more than villains, though I certainly talk about traditional romantic suspense villains. An antagonist is anyone who doesn’t want the protagonist to reach his or her goals. For example, in romance that might be the ex-girlfriend of the hero or the mother of the heroine or a best friend of a character. Not a “bad guy” per se, but someone who might not want the hero and heroine to get together. Or, someone who might want to stop the hero from opening a karate studio or prevent the heroine from harvesting her crops. WHY these people do what they do is important, therefore, understanding their path — their journey — is instrumental in writing a three-dimensional antagonist.

At Thrillerfest, I focus on traditional villains–the so-called “bad guys.” Most villains don’t see themselves as bad. They may even have a noble goal. But whether you have a psychopathic serial killer or a suicide bomber or an embezzler or a pimp, understanding not only how they ended up in such a position but WHY makes those character more real and, ultimately, more terrifying. They have to have a valid and believable reason TO THEM to do what they do.

Disney villains are among the best villains out there … but they are clear and focused. Which is great–especially when you’re dealing with classic good vs. evil. We know that Snow White’s step-mother, the Queen, is fixated on being the most beautiful in the land, and her jealousy of Snow White’s beauty sends her down the villainous road. We know that Malificent was a powerful witch and her feelings were hurt when she wasn’t invited to the Christening of the princess Aurora — so she cursed her to die when she turned 16. Scar was jealous of his brother, and killed him (Cain and Abel anyone?) and the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella hated Cinderella because of her natural charm and beauty, but she also just wanted the best for her own two daughters — she just took that to the extreme.

But my favorite villains are characters who aren’t all evil and, in fact, might play both sides of the coin. Take Captain Sean Renard in GRIMM. Initially, he’s seen as the villain–he sent Adalind to kill Nick’s aunt who was in the hospital after being attacked by a Reaper; he ordered Adalind to put Nick’s partner Hank under a spell in order to manipulate Nick for a key; he’s killed in cold blood. But he also protected Nick and saved him on more than one occasion; he’s partnered with the Resistance against his family, the Royals; he protected Nick from being arrested for attacking someone when he was under the influence of a Wesen. By far, he’s one of the more complex characters on GRIMM and definitely a worthy villain … or friend.

On the flip-side, Sean’s brother Eric was certainly a villain — but we understand why he did what he did. He wants to protect the status of the royals — his family — from the pressure of the Resistance. He wants the power, money and influence that goes with being in charge and in control.

There are many other complex “villains” who aren’t really villains, but not necessarily good-guys either. Anti-heroes? Perhaps. Angel in Buffy; Branch in Longmire; even Crowley in Supernatural. While he’s a true villain (as the king of Hell) he also has a complex psychology, brought out more when his position was threatened. He’s willing to even unite with Angels to protect his one power center. Or Castiel when he loses himself to Pride and releases the Leviathan — was he a villain? Or a good guy who made a tragic mistake? These characters show us what can happen when we take good intentions to the extreme.

Then you get a movie like FROZEN where you have layers of “villains.” You have the bad guy who attempts to seduce Anna and you’re not quite sure if he’s good or bad … and then you have Elsa, Anna’s sister, who isn’t a villain, but she loses control of her power and does some pretty bad things, both on accident and then on purpose. Because we understand WHY she does these things we can sympathize with her. If the writers didn’t show her from the beginning — when she first lost control and nearly killed herself and how she forced herself into isolation in order to protect her sister, and what happened as a result, we wouldn’t have any sympathy for her.

Which reminds us that prologues are very useful tools, prologue critics notwithstanding.

Anyway, I’m getting very excited to present this workshop again, and I’m coming up with some new material so those who’ve heard me in the past will get something completely new. One of the things I’m going to introduce are complex heroes and villains who are misunderstood, and because of that their choices lead them down a dangerous path. I’d love to hear from you! Who do you think is a complex character, neither truly a hero or truly a villain, or with attributes of each? Like Sean Renard in GRIMM or Elsa in FROZEN or Angel in BUFFY?