Writing Great Villians

October 30, 2007

The dark and twisted workings of great villains were exposed in the October Writer’s Room. Villain-creators James Griffin (Outrageous Fortune, Sione’s Wedding), Rachel Lang (Maddigan’s Quest, Outrageous Fortune) and Jason Daniel (Shortland Street producer, ex-Head of Development Freemantle Media) joined MC Nick Ward (Stickmen, The Ferryman) for a discussion on devising devious and dastardly characters.

What is a Villain?

Jason Daniel said the term ‘villain’ covers a range of characters, ‘from the black hat bad-asbad James Bond basic characters, the femme fatale, to the more sophisticated psychologically layered characters we see on The Sopranos,’ he explained. He added that villains are not always black and white. ‘In a serial drama there is not always one obvious villain, but a range of characters possessing villainous aspects.’

Nick Ward pointed out that the bad guys are not always human and Jason agreed, citing the monster in Alien, the shark in Jaws, and drugs in Requiem for a Dream as examples. James Griffin added that abstract concepts, such as paranoia, can also be villainous. He noted the ‘villain role’ can sometimes be very simple. In Sione’s Wedding, Princess splits the boys apart. ‘She’s the villain because she takes the good and turns them bad.’

Jason said perspective can affect a viewer’s perception of a character; if a character’s action cannot be justified, then an audience may find them more – or less – villainous. He advised writers to be mindful that different characters are villainous to different people.

What Makes a Good Villain?

James reads a lot of scripts and deduces that writers often craft great protagonists but do not put the same effort into their villains. ‘To write a villain you need balls. You need to get inside the character and that’s a hard thing to do for a normal nice person!’ He said writers need to visit ‘dark places’ to really anchor their villains in truth.

Rachel Lang felt a writer must believe in the villain and gain inspiration by maximising life experiences. ‘If you have a bad experience in life, you should use it; dysfunctional people, nasty people, the sorts of people who have the capacity to turn others against each other…the unusual experiences you have with those people are good for writing. Draw on those bad experiences.’

Villains confront our worst fears and Rachel said her son is terrified of the white witch in the Narnia series. ‘She’s such a powerful character because she is so nice, offering Turkish delight one moment and then so cruel the next. For a child that is the worst nightmare – a seemingly trustworthy adult turning out not to be so at all.’

Rachel felt an effective villain is one who sums up a contemporary fear. She used The Hand that Rocks the Cradle as an example because it sums up the fear many women have of being bad mothers. Rachel believes Ricky Gervais’ character in The Office, David Brent, is a villain, an example of ‘everyday evil’ because he ‘represents the hell of the office – a real situation for many people.’ Jason agreed that the best villain is one that hasn’t been seen before, ‘a character that is contemporary and taps into what is happening in society.’

Nick raised Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down as a great example of a villain because in this case the protagonist, the expected hero, actually becomes the villain. Jason agreed, saying that every man can be villainous, and Falling Down is clever because it poses the question to the audience, ‘Am I a villain?’

What’s so Watchable about Villains?

Villains pose fundamental questions about humanity and, ‘they make audiences consider the moral dilemmas of their society,’ said Jason. James added that there is a degree of intelligence to villains that people relate to. ‘When people who are bad approach the world with intelligence, seemingly unstoppable, they are a great force and that is very intriguing.’ He cited Tony Soprano and Hannibal Lector as characters people like to watch. Jason suggested these two are ‘active’ characters. ‘They want something – revenge – they have drive, therefore they are attractive’ and their activity provides the spine for the story.

TV Villains Vs Movie Villains

Rachel suggested the availability of time creates the difference between television and film villains. ‘In a movie you don’t have a lot of time,’ she said, ‘ so in horror films you can get away with a villain not needing much motivation, but you can’t do that in TV.’ Television is much subtler and allows for longevity of characters. Rachel mentioned Daryl on Shortland Street who lasted for 6 years, saying, ‘In television you have time to play with and twist characters.’ James felt that time can allow a writer to change a villain into a hero, or a hero into a villain, and back again.

‘A recent serial killer story line on Shortland Street had a build up for over 6 months’, said Jason. ‘This was a challenge because the villain was unknown – it was a ‘whodunnit’ situation, so we needed various suspects. We wanted our characters to have traits which could potentially make them killers. We had to tap into their villainous natures and this can be hard because you generally want the audience to like most of your characters.’

New Zealand Villains

Although New Zealand has many dark films, ‘we don’t have many great villains,’ said James, ‘and often the villain in our films is ‘aggression’. Rachel felt New Zealanders tend to write ‘cardboard cut-out villains’ and encouraged writers to see it as their job to try to understand why people have done particular things, to identify their motivation, embrace their behaviour and explore them in writing. ‘We like our villains to have ‘sugar-coating”, she said and used characters in Outrageous Fortune as an example. ‘They are what you would like to believe. They give you a good feeling when they do naughty things. They allow moral dilemmas to be talked about, expose how much you can get away with, what’s legal, and these characters coperate on quite a basic level.’

Jason felt our emphasis on political correctness in NZ may prevent us from embracing villains on our screens but the panel encouraged writers to do just that – embrace their villainous characters, accord the villain the important role he or she deserves, and ensure that every protagonist has an equally strong antagonist.

The Writer’s Room is made possible with the support of the New Zealand Film Commission, Stellar Artois and Creative Communities NZ Auckland City.


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