Give yourself a cookie if you know where I got that title. If you guessed country music, get yourself another cookie. If I haven’t completely turned you off yet, keep reading. There’s some good stuff ahead, I promise.
The title, aside from being a good song by the Highway Men, begs an interesting question. Why do we have a fascination with bad men? From vampires to mafia dons, we love those who walk on life’s shadier side, and nowhere is that more greatly realized than on celluloid and between the pages of the biggest bestsellers.
My first encounters with treacherous villainy came from monster movies. I had the best babysitters. Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney. I’d sit up late at night with Mom watching the Hammer classics and any monster movie we could find back when it was still known as the Superstation TBS. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was carrying on a family tradition. My mother sat up late at night with her dad, also watching those same film stars sink their teeth into virginal throats or tramp through foggy graveyards at night. I rooted for them against the stalwart hero. I always found the good guys bland, as wholesome as American cheese and just as boring. No thanks. Give me something rich and preferably European, something with a little bite to it.
My first true love affair with a villain came from a not so humble movie titled Die Hard. Maybe you’ve heard of it? I grew up on two types of movies. My mother imparted her love of all things dark and scary – so monster movies were a staple of my youth. My dad loved action movies. The first movie I remember seeing in a theater is Invasion USA, starring Chuck Norris, although I’m told I was quite riveted during The Karate Kid. I’m really dating myself here, aren’t I?
Anyway, I saw Die Hard when I was thirteen, on a bootleg VHS. I couldn’t believe it. As a child of the 80’s, most action movie villains were of the egomaniacal, insane terrorist variety. They were always out to either take over the world or destroy it, and mowed down their own henchmen just as much as they seemed to take out random victims designed to pluck the audience’s heartstrings. But here, in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, we had a villain who was not only sane, but also realistic. No James Bondian plans to destroy the world here. (Spoilers ahead!) Just an elaborate plan to pull off a bank heist. That’s it. Throughout the movie, he was calm, collected, and thinking not only one step ahead of the hero but apparently everyone in the city of Los Angeles. And that accent. Who couldn’t love an accent like that? Even at his most evil, Hans Gruber could make sweet, sweet love to you with that voice.
Ahem. Anyway, getting back to the point. It was nice to see a smart villain for a change. They have the best clothes, the best sidekicks, and all the best toys. So why were they all affected with the dreaded Stupids? Die Hard was the first movie I saw where a bad guy didn’t accidentally help the hero kill him off.
I suppose that was my first blueprint for a bad guy. If he’s a pansy, then the hero really isn’t so heroic, is he? And face it; you’re only as interesting as the people you surround yourself with.
I think that’s a big problem with today’s movies. I really haven’t seen a movie where I could honestly say the bad guys seemed awesome. I’m instantly suspicious of computer-generated baddies. At best, they’re off-putting. Part of the attraction of the best baddie is the intimacy they bring. Dracula is a great example of this. He literally implores you to ‘look into his eyes’. You have to get pretty up close and personal for that.
The best baddies draw you into their world. They take you in and, in their own special way, make you a part of their diabolical deeds. Hannibal Lecter, anyone? Under that charm and wit lies a psychosis that’s mind-boggling, but he lures poor Clarice Starling and the audience to his side. While we’re horrified when he eventually escapes, a small, secret part of us is thrilled, even if we’re terrified to know he’s out there, somewhere, eating people.
A writer or an actor has a lot more room to play with a villain than they do with a hero. Think about it. The things we love about our bad guys would send us screaming out of the house to get away from the hero. I just can’t imagine too many people getting behind a hero that likes to snack on the brains of innocent bystanders while he plots to bring the Villain to justice. (However, if you can make that scenario work, do so with my blessing. There’s nothing better than a well-written anti-hero. That, however, is a blog for another day.)
A good villain has more room to walk around than the hero does. Heroes tend to be good to their mothers, good to the women in their life, drive the speed limit, pay their bills on time . . . you know, all that boring stuff we do without having the baggage that we mere mortals often carry around with us. Bad guys say, “Screw that,” to all of those things, and while we’re horrified, we secretly admire them having the guts to throw off society’s conventions and go at it their own way. A villain is an individualist at heart. Think about Dracula. He refused to die.
A villain should be more complex than the hero. One note bad guys (“I’m going to nuke New York City because I am eeeevil!”) need to have their villainy card revoked. They also need to have their feet sunk into cement bricks and be tossed off a bridge, preferably by their own henchmen. Just like the Hero, Villains should have a personal stake in the way things turn out. Even Sauron, the omnipotent, ultimate evil of Tolkien, has a personal stake in getting the One True Ring.
Tortured villains are also tricky. “Woe is me, for I am so evil” really grates my last nerve. Vampires are especially bad for this. They have immortality, the strength of ten men or more, they’re practically invulnerable to harm, and they have the ability to make people do their bidding with just a whisper. Yet they moan about the fact they never get to see daylight. (Sorry, but its way overrated.) Sorry, emo kids, but get over it. If you have the balls to be bad, have the balls to enjoy it, too.
I think this brings up another interesting point, for anyone who’s stuck around long enough to see where I’m going with this. Most bad guys don’t realize they’re bad. Maybe they do, deep in the darker pits of their crusty black hearts, but they probably think of themselves as misanthropic at their worst. Remember, most terrorists refer to themselves as Freedom Fighters, and who the terrorists are largely depends on where you are in relation to the bombed out hovel.
So what does all this mean? It means that a writer has an obligation to spend as much time on the bad guy as the hero or the love interest. It means no matter how charming, brave, strong, good-looking, or great-in-bed your hero is, unless he has a super-awesome villain to clash against, we’re honestly not going to care. If nothing else, the villain has to seem insurmountable. There has to be no earthly or otherworldly way the hero can overcome.
Then he does.
That’s the kicker. After dealing with the Ultimate Evil, despite traitorous sidekicks, duplicitous love interests, a crippling injury, no support from the Good Guy Network, and an apparently sadistic author who has no sense of decency or compassion, the hero has still conquered all. Through courage, cunning, and human spirit, your hero has won the hearts of the readers by doing the impossible. Now that’s a hero I can get behind.
That’s why angels love bad men.