If you’re like me, you love villains. They are the most fun characters in a book or film. The Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld are among my all-time favorite literary creations.
But what makes these characters so compelling? Why are they so fun to read and view onscreen? It comes down to a single word: style. These villains have a sense of style all their own, and they influenced how I crafted the antagonist in my latest novella, Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale.
Villainy for the sake of evil is cartoonish and flat. It isn’t interesting at all. A villain, just like a hero, needs a motivation. People don’t just become evil because they wake up one morning and think it’s more attractive.
Darth Vader is the classic example of a villain who didn’t start out that way. We learn he was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He gives into anger. Unable to control his passions, he is perverted into something monstrous. His fall is a sophisticated one. He tried to become a noble Jedi, but he fails to control his emotions. That failure leads to him mastering the power of the Force but using it for evil instead of good.
We’d don’t know what made the Wicked Witch of the West wicked in the first place, but the motivation for her pursuit of Dorothy is pretty clear. She wants revenge. Dorothy accidentally kills her sister, and the Witch of the West plans to make her pay for it. When Glinda gives Dorothy the ruby slippers (or silver in the novel), she ups the ante. Now there is stolen property involved too.
My villain, Mr. Nickleby, is motivated as well. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, he seeks revenge – in his case against God. His vengeance is so much pettier than the Witch’s, because he can’t get back at his perceived oppressor directly. He makes other suffer instead.
Like Darth Vader, he’s unable to control his emotions. His sense of pride in himself and his desire for glory led to his downfall. He’s reduced to petty evil, because he can’t let go of his own obsessions.
The best villains are over the top in a way that pleases us. We enjoy watching them strut around as if they were actors in a melodrama. They have their own inimitable style.
Blofeld is no common criminal. Before executing a traitor in his organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E in Thunderball, he sucks on one of his violet-scented mints, because he likes to freshen his breath before giving bad news. And Blofeld doesn’t murder those who fail him casually. They always meet a spectacular end – electrocuted in the chair they’re sitting in, shoved down a luge slide in the Alps, or dropped into a tank of hungry piranha.
Likewise, the Wicked Witch of the West doesn’t engage in subtlety. She flies over the Emerald City, skywriting “Surrender Dorothy” in smoke from her broom, and sends winged monkeys to capture Dorothy, snatching her from her friends.
When I was crafting Mr. Nickleby, I wanted him to have that same sense of over-the-top grandiosity. In this scene, he sympathizes with the novella’s main character, Rory, over the football team captain getting elected homecoming king:
He bent over, and his longish, black hair fell into his face. He scooped up the paper, stood up, and uncrumpled it. He stared at it for a few seconds and then nodded sadly.
“I know,” he said. “Makes you sick, doesn’t it?”
Before she could register her astonishment, he crumpled it back up and tossed it casually into the garbage. Then he shook his hair out of his face, put his hands in his pockets, and smiled at her.
“I’m sorry?” she said, finding her voice at last.
“I said, ‘Makes you sick, doesn’t it?’ I mean, I suppose one should expect that the quarterback of the football team and his girlfriend are going to get elected homecoming king and queen, but it’s really pretty clichéd. And what in the name of Hell did she do to deserve it, anyway? It’s not like she’s captain of the spirit squad.”
Rory continued to gape at him. Had he really just said everything she’d been thinking?
“What’s the matter?” he said. “Didn’t expect a teacher to be disgusted by the usual high school politics?”
“Uh . . .” she said.
“The same damned thing happens every year,” he went on. “The two most popular kids are elected king and queen. And it’s never the president of the student council or the valedictorian. Nobody values the people who do the real work. No, it’s always some jock and the sweet, little piece of ass he’s nailing after practice.”
Rory’s mouth fell open. Did a teacher really just say that? To her?
“Oh, sorry,” Mr. Nickleby said when he saw the expression on her face. “I suppose that really wasn’t appropriate for me to say to a student. It’s just that sometimes I’m a little too cynical.”
Mr. Nickleby knows how to push Rory’s buttons. He knows exactly what is making her angry. So he says what she wants to hear, but he does so in outrageously over-the-top fashion, so she’ll be shocked. By doing that, he disarms her. He charms her with his style, making her think he’s different from everyone else.
The best villains often have something distinctive about their appearance as well, something that marks them as unique. Who can forget the Wicked Witch’s green complexion, Darth Vader’s noisy breathing, or Blofeld’s white, long-haired cat?
I wanted Mr. Nickleby to have similar, distinctive traits. In this scene, my other protagonist, Caleb, is being tempted for the first time by his teacher. Caleb really looks at him for the first time, seeing him as something more than just a teacher:
Caleb looked at him for the first time. He wore his usual outfit – a black dress shirt and slacks with a red tie. Caleb thought it was cool he wore school colors, but it was strange he wore the same thing every day, and the tie looked weird against the shirt. Longish, black hair fell on either side of his head, framing his face in a strange sort of darkness. His brown eyes were penetrating. They seemed to be looking into the depths of Caleb’s soul. It made him nervous.
Mr. Nickleby always wears the same thing. His brown eyes are almost always penetrating. Throughout the novella I describe him as having a predatory or a wolfish look on his face that unnerves the person looking at him. By doing so, I communicate to the reader there is something wrong about Mr. Nickleby long before I reveal what it is.
The best villains are stylish. They have traits that are unique to them, they are well motivated, and they are a little over the top. They are fun to read and watch. A great villain really punches up a story. In a way, the villain is what makes the tale good.
Be careful what you wish for. . . .
Rory Bellin dreams of a better life. As a senior at Lawrence High, she yearns to be taken seriously for her accomplishments – she’s editor-in-chief of the school paper, president of three clubs, and on track to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and admission to Yale. But all anyone, even her mother, cares about is LHS regaining its former football glory and winning a state championship.
Caleb Johnson dreams of a better life. He aches to be able to lead Lawrence High to its first football championship in eighteen years and to date the most beautiful girl in school – Rory Bellin. But, as the third-string running back, he never plays, he has a face no one could love, and, whenever he tries to talk to Rory, his usually glib tongue turns to clay.
But maybe Mr. Nickleby, the mysterious new English teacher and newspaper advisor, can help. He has the key to both of their desires. He’s willing to make their dreams come true.
Of course, getting what you wish for has a price. But that doesn’t matter, right? If you want something badly enough, you’ll do anything to get it, no matter what it costs. Even if it’s your soul.
Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale is a contemporary take on the classic story by the author of the Wolf Dasher series. John R. Phythyon, Jr. weaves a dark fairy tale both familiar and fresh about understanding what’s important, finding one’s place in the world, and the consequences of obsession.
Be careful what you wish for . . . you might just get it!
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Genre - Fairy Tales, Contemproary Fantasy
Rating – PG-13
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