Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: HEROES TO LOVE AND VILLAINS TO HATE: Your Antagonists Must Be As Powerful--and Charming--As Your HeroesMovie audiences have always loved a good fight. Even more importantly, they love the kind of fight where-if only for a dire instant-it looks as if the champion they've been rooting for all along might actually lose. For a story to work convincingly on screen (or anywhere else!) your antagonists must always be as powerful-and enticingly charming-as the characters you have cast as hero material. If it's an easy win, there's no challenge in watching it through to the finish.
I liken this to my stint in high school when I belonged to the junior varsity chess club. Yes, there really was such a group, comprised of kids who were brainy enough to make the honor roll on a regular basis but not socially savvy enough to ever get a date on Saturday night. Twice a week-and usually during the lunch hour-we'd get together in the designated nerds corner of the cafeteria to play chess.
I'll never forget the satisfaction I felt on those rare occasions I managed to trounce the likes of Terry, David, or Arthur. They were the best of the best, a trio of chess strategists who had probably devoured every book that had ever been written on the game and who would routinely make observations about one's opening moves such as, "Oh, I see you're going with the 1922 Gerschenval advance this time." Having nary a clue what this even meant, I'd blithely proceed to scoot my pieces around the board if for no other reason than to just maneuver them out of harm's way. My opponents perceived it to be part of an elaborate, calculated plan. I knew the truth. It was just luck.
I remember equally well the complete lack of joy I felt in beating the pants off of lesser challengers. Granted, I was winning. But winning what? These were, after all, the kids who (1) had just barely learned the rules (i.e., yesterday), (2) were easily distracted (i.e., "Isn't that Joel Carter talking to your girlfriend?") or (3) were playing the game for the wrong reasons (i.e., to look really intellectual).
Apply these same principles to how easily Villain Subordinates get dispatched by the hero throughout the majority of today's movies. Be they medieval henchmen, Nazis, or intergalactic ghouls, they haven't the vested interest in evil outcomes that the star antagonist ascribes to, thus, their lack of attention to critical detail and susceptibility to stooge-like diversions. This, of course, also accounts for the scatter-effect once the cruel leader has mortally fallen; with no one to oversee the payroll, anyone left standing may as well hightail it back to Thugs R Us for their next assignment. We have no respect for these flunkies, largely because their only perceptible quality at any given time is quantity-assemble enough of them together in one room and they look pretty darned intimidating. In contrast, the hero (or heroine) always wages a lone battle, or at least a hugely outnumbered and grossly under financed one. He or she is also encumbered with the onus of vulnerability, possessed of a single personal flaw, which concurrently proves to be as endearing to us as it is angst inducing. Will the protagonists we cheer for be able to summon enough inner courage in the final showdown to overcome the obstacles that have previously inhibited them? Will they emerge battered but better? Weary but wiser? Sadder but stronger for having stretched themselves to the absolute limits of cunning and endurance? As a screenwriter, you have a responsibility to make your heroes aggressively push the envelope, for only in doing so will audiences feel gratified that their faith was well placed.
The biggest difference to keep at the forefront of any confrontation between heroes and villains is that the designated good guys in the plot still have something significant they need to learn about themselves in order to emotionally, physically, or spiritually grow. Villains, on the other hand, sport a self-satisfied gloat from the very first frame which reveals they are completely content with their badness; the world is their personal oyster, ripe for the seizing. Charismatic rogues such as these are much too caught up with marinating in their own testosterone to ever entertain the notion of self-improvement courses or a trip to the confessional.
"What if I should fail in my mission?" the hero constantly agonizes to those who have elected/volunteered/ordered him to lead. "What if I'm not man enough to do what must be done in order to right the world's wrongs?"
The villain, of course, has no such worries. In fact, the villain probably spends a lot more restful nights than his counterpart, secure in the knowledge that all of his machinations up to this point will yield nothing less than success and world domination. Nor can this evildoer be criticized for surrounding himself with minions who have the collective IQ of paste. It's all part of the plan, you see. Minions are not only expendable to the ultimate cause but serve to tax the resources of the opposition. And certainly no self-respecting villain would ever recruit anyone smart enough to one day become a contender to the throne.
Just as you craft a credible and compelling background to account for your protagonist's actions, so, too, must you have a solid understanding of what drives your villain to be so villainous. He cannot simply be rotten for the sake of being rotten. Even the Sheriff of Nottingham in ROBIN HOOD, PRINCE OF THIEVES offered up the excuse that a sad childhood can forgive a multitude of dysfunctional sins as an adult.
If you have truly captured the villain's soul and made him a worthy adversary of your hero, audiences won't be able to wait for each new dastardly scene in which he appears. They also won't be able to wait for the definitive moment of victory, confident that you as the author have equitably equipped both sides with the wits, will and weaponry to make it a fight well worth watching.
Excerpted from "IT ALL BEGINS WITH THE SCRIPT: Writing & Selling Your Screenplay," available at Zeus Publications, Australia.