sage: Still of Natasha Romanova from Iron Man 2 (zombie joe and paul gross)
[personal profile] sage posting in [community profile] ds_workshop
Several people seconded an off-handed mention of doing a post on writing villains -- and LOTS of us are doing either Due South Seekrit Santa and/or Yuletide this holiday season, so this is hopefully a very timely and relevant post. Feel free to pimp this far and wide because I'd love to get a good range of discussion going in the comments.

First I'm going to share my meandering thoughts, and then I've got a bunch of questions for us to consider.

Okay, first, I spent a lot of time in comics fandom, so when I think of villains, I first think of Joker, Penguin, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Lex Luthor, and so on. THEN I think of scary-as-fuck villains like Hannibal Lechter. And then I think of bumbling villains like Boris and Natasha on Rocky & Bullwinkle. And then I think of the Master on (the new) Doctor Who and how desperate, fearful, and intimate his relationship with the Doctor is.

And I also think of the first rule of superheroes -- which is that a hero is only as awesome as his primary villain is formidable. And so a regular hero is only as cool as the strongest force we see him defeat. Think about Die Hard. Bruce Willis' character has to beat all the people trying to stop him, AND beat the setting working against him, AND beat the clock. The bad guy alone isn't all that scary, but all the combined forces are.

In Due South, it seems like most of the villains are femme fatales, comedic blowhards (poking fun at the US), or anonymous guys we don't care about. The guy who killed Guy Rankin? I still don't know why he did it. The bad guys in MOTB? After dozens of viewings, I remember their motive but I can't even begin to see them pulling off a Federal Reserve heist. Frank Zuko? I remember Irene clearly, but I barely remember Frank at all and can't remember why he and Vecchio hated each other even before Ray became a cop.

Meanwhile, Victoria and Lady Shoes (Denny Scarpa) are impossible to forget. A lot of that (and this entire subject) has to do with gender. The gaze of the camera follows women, and focusing on a femme fatale or a female victim or a hot female witness lets a director establish the presence of the bad guy (in the background) while misdirecting viewers and controlling the way the mystery unfolds.

But fic doesn't work like that. In fic, bad guys are HARD. In comics fandom, at least one could use the extant villains and ride on their canon scariness. But how do we come up with awesome villains for DS fic? Okay, let's broaden the question: How do we come up with villains that don't suck?

I don't know. I do know that watching crime procedurals on TV has taught me:

1. Most crimes are committed by family members/loved ones of the victim (assuming the victim is an individual).
2. Most motives are love (hate) or money (greed).
3. A detective's job is to narrow down who had motive, opportunity, and ability.
4. Bad guys are obvious unless you have some good red herrings around to suspect as well.
5. If you get organized crime involved, then you still have the money angle, but it's hidden a lot more creatively and the stakes change dramatically.
6. If the bad guy is a member of law enforcement, then all traces of evidence are likely to be destroyed before our heroes can collect them. *cue race against time*

But I don't have much experience writing villains, and when I have, they haven't been scary or interesting unless I was free to play with the supernatural. I've written some physically menacing thugs, but they were just random assholes, not bad guys with strong enough personalities to earn a starring role.

So let's talk about how to present well-drawn bad guys. What awesome bad guys have you read or seen onscreen? Name some -- from fic, novels, movies, television, comics, pop culture, whatever. What makes them effective villains?

What characters still creep you out, months or years later? Why?

What different sorts of villains are there? How can a writer use different sorts of villains in the same story?

Do you like villains better when we understand their motivation all along (and can maybe empathize) or when they're faceless blanks to be revealed at the end? What kind of story is served by each format?

What experience have you had writing bad guys in your own fic, and what pitfalls did you have to deal with? What do you know now that you wish you'd known then?

Obviously, no one has to answer everything, but I'd love for this to be a round table discussion. Please jump in with whatever grabs you, whether your examples are Due South-related or not.

Thanks! :D

Date: 2007-11-06 09:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
>What characters still creep you out, months or years later? Why?

Well...Warfield. Sometimes I compare him with Frank Zuko. But Zuko is more like an evil spoilt child. Warfield reminds me of and old crocodile. I feel disqust when I see him. A real physical disgust. The way he treats everyone shows how cruel he is, but he accepts his cruelty as a perfectly normal thing. He enjoys seeing other people humiliated and distressed. And he is ready to kill or cripple anyone to satisfy his need for domination. Thtat's very scary, you know.

Part the first

Date: 2007-11-06 10:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've hardly ever written about 'bad guys' and had them play a major role in the story-- mainly because of the difficulties that you've highlighted in this post. I think gender does play a very important part, quite apart from the memorable-villian gender bias you've noted occurs in dS, I think that gender also has an affect on the crimes themselves.

Um, to try to explain; crimes themselves seem to have a gender bias. I'm sure everyone's heard the old saw about poisoning being a woman's crime, but it is documented that certain types of crime tends to be committed more by one gender than the other; the majority of serial killers are male, for example. There's also a certain cultural force at play along with the gender bias-- it's gangsters and molls, not gangsterettes and bois-- and I think that affects how and why a type of crime is committed (I also think that I've wandered completely off topic and gotten myself tied up in a knot. Um... oops).

I'm not really sure that there really is any one type villain that works fine in any setting, I think the type of story itself defines just what the villain is going to be like, but I can't think of any clear way to describe this... shall have to think.

Fictional villains that rock my socks and that I think stand up really well include:

- Pretty much the whole cast of The Usual Suspects. I seriously, seriously love this film. Verbal is such a fantastically realised character, and is I think a brilliant example of someone who's on the wrong side of the law simply because there isn't any other way to survive, and how he's had to learn to exist (and enjoy existing) on the darker side of things. Keaton is the arch-typical gone-bad character who seems to have almost stumbled into his badness: he's a fallen cop, sure, but as much as he moves in the underworld and does terrible things, he still has a certain sense of moral justice-- he fulfills an almost guardian-angel like role for both his ex-wife and Verbal during the course of the film, and he's largely responsible for the hit on the corrupt Police 'taxi service'. McManus, Fenster and Hockney are less fully realised characters, but they all provide different facets of what it means to be bad-- to be a villain-- albeit in a somewhat mundane fashion. And, of course, there's Keyser Sose, the shadowy myth-man, looming in the background of the whole film, seen through the unreliable lens of Verbal's narration (as the others are, although I've always thought that the portrayals of the other four 'suspects' are more true to what they actually are, given that Kujan-- the lesser narrator of the film-- also inputs into their portrayal). For me this uncertainty, this lack of solid definition (apart from what Verbal recounts as 'stories he's heard') is what makes Sose one of my favourite villains ever, that and the fact that despite the fact that's he's portrayed as someone who is ruthless, evil and thoroughly bad, there are still those hints and flashes about the family that he once had, about that fact that once-- hey-- he was something approaching a normal person.

Part the second

Date: 2007-11-06 10:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

As much as I love the almost graphic bold style of villains such as Jack Nicholson's Joker (*takes a moment to draw demented sparkly hearts around that film*), I think that villains like that are very, well graphic. They're portrayed in pictures that are all black lines and blocks of colour, and they may be complex and fascinating as characters, but they are still, essentially two dimensional in certain ways. People that are bad, that have done (or are doing, during the course of a story) awful, awful things, and yet are recognisable as messy, confusing, imperfect and ordinary people are the villains that I personally find the most engaging and the most disturbing.

I also have a huge affinity for the ambiguous characters-- the anti-heroes and the characters that do awful things for 'good' reasons. The easiest one that I can think of for this is the title figure of J. O'Barr's The Crow. Eric is just the most fascinating and engaging person. He's callous and violent and has absolutely no compunction about causing terrible harm to people, but he has his moral fetters: he only hunts down those who wronged him and Shelly. That being said, he's also extremely unstable and is very much a character who exists purely because of the strength of the screaming desolation within him, and the fact that he needs to pass that desolation along.

So, uh, in summary, I like the ambiguous, unbalanced and flawed human characters the best, 'good' or 'bad' affiliations regardless.

Date: 2007-11-06 10:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think the some of best villains are the ones that you actually quite like, no matter how dispicable what they are doing is. You know, those smooth ones that could charm their way out of anything. Iago from Othello (particularly Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of him), for example, Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, Spike in the earlier series of Buffy, or John Simm as the Master in new Dr Who, or the villains in American Gods (dont want to post spoilers). They are always fun to watch, and often there's an added degree of uncomfortableness for an audience or reader then as well, since you find yourself willing their evil plans to succeed. Also, I tend to like it when a former good guy becomes a villain for one reason or other - like Methos in Highlander the Series, or Angel and Willow in Buffy. It makes things much harder for the hero, and it can be both horrible and exciting to watch characters you love and care about being so mean. You can do things with that format in fanfic to great effect, I think.
I think the most interesting villains are those that are motivated by something, be it something as basic as greed or jelousy. It makes them more 3D, and I think if a villain is well written then you do start to care about them as a character. Venom is my favorite comic book villain of all time, and he just wants to kill Spider Man. Nothing else. He also has that twisted morality thing going on - like he'd happily tear through an occupied building in order to save a drowning puppy.

However, that doesn't mean that the faceless villain can't be used to great effect. Particularly if the evil thing they are doing hurts the hero in a personal way - like the death of a family member.

What villain do I remember years later? Well, the devil from that episode of Quantum leap freaked me out (silly as it was)...

This hasn't been very Due South related at all, has it? Veronica was my most memorable 'villain'. She almost falls into that 'good guy gone bad' category, but not really. You just hate her because you can see how much Fraser cares for her. I also agree that Frank Zuko was a good one. And Warfield in Good For the Soul. He was just a hateful man and the scene where Fraser gets beaten up on his order is heartbreaking.

Date: 2007-11-06 11:22 pm (UTC)
ext_12460: acquired from (Leoben2 by tx_tart)
From: [identity profile]
My best villain to date in writing Due South has been a guy nicknamed, The Loon from Saskatoon. He counterfeited Canadian Tire discount coupons, trying to bring down the company because he was fired. The fact that he was doing this from Chicago for no apparent reason was a bit of weak writing on my part, I'll admit.

Memorable villains, that's one reason I won't watch certain CKR movies, I'm too scared it will color the way I feel about him as an actor. I hated Bruce Dern for years because he played characters that killed the hero in two movies, The Cowboys and the 1970s version of The Great Gatsby, the one with Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby. I wouldn't watch a movie if Bruce Dern was in it. Matt Fewer still creeps me out when I'm watching Eureka because of a character he played in the Cinderella episodes of Di Vinci's Inquest. I still shiver when I think about it. CKR playing Leoben doesn't creep me out, though because I have sympathy for the Cylons. Some of Leoben's methods bother me, but it doesn't color the way I see Callum.

Date: 2007-11-07 01:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I know what you mean about actors and their roles. I still can't watch -- whatshername, the woman who played Victoria -- in anything else without my guts immediately going into OMG HATE!!! mode. I'm sure she's a lovely person, but... it'll take a lot to get me past that.

Date: 2007-11-07 01:48 am (UTC)
ext_15124: (PrettyCallum)
From: [identity profile]
Huh. I'm more affected by an actor's RL behavior than by the roles they play. I won't watch Mel Gibson in anything, ditto Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. And I'm having a hard time thinking of a villain who still creeps me out after the fact.

Whatshername? *g* Melina Kanakaredes - I met her a couple of times waaaay back in the day (I went to grad school with her sister), and she was remarkably lovely, both in appearance and in personality.

Date: 2007-11-07 09:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I can appreciate that. I used to love Mel Gibson's movies, but since his publicly poisonous debacle, the thought of him sort of turns my stomach and I haven't watched any of his stuff since.

But for the most part, characters are much more "real" to me than the actors are -- in that I've been given the opportunity through a movie or TV show to intimately know a character in a way that's rarely possible with the actor playing the part (nor, generally, do I want it to be). So unless an actor does something truly deplorable or mortifying in a very public way, I'm not likely to have nearly as strong feelings about him or her as I do about the characters s/he plays.

Date: 2007-11-07 01:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't think I've ever tried to write a villain. The closest I came was writing a really ugly crime scene in an NCIS fic where the details of the crime gradually revealed a few things about who might have committed the murders and why... but it was a character study rather than a plotty piece, so I never actually had to follow through on it. (To my considerable relief, because the thought intimidated the hell out of me.)

The villains I find most interesting are the ones who have a clear motive of their own that is not explicitly "evil" -- something they want to accomplish that will serve their purpose and help them reach some goal -- and who certainly don't perceive themselves as "evil". They have their own lives, they have dimension beyond just being "bad" and they don't revel in behaving badly or being cruel or vicious. They just want what they want, and are willing to do what it takes to get it... even when it's outside the law. To me, this sort of character is more believable and three-dimensional and therefore in some ways more unnerving than someone who simply delights in causing other people harm, which can get cartoonish.

My latest favorite is Ben Wade, Russell Crowe's character in 3:10 to Yuma. He is intelligent, completely amoral, and driven entirely by self-interest -- but in ways that can be unpredictable and therefore fascinating. He will commit a brutal murder one minute and perform an unexpected kindness the next, without being deeply emotionally engaged in either one. He does whatever will benefit him, or whatever his impulses direct, or whatever interests him most... in some cases even when it's apparently in direct opposition to his own well-being, just because it intrigues him sufficiently to turn his course. The result is a villain who is unpredictable, truly chilling, and absolutely fascinating.

Date: 2007-11-14 06:26 am (UTC)
ext_3554: dream wolf (Default)
From: [identity profile]
They just want what they want, and are willing to do what it takes to get it... even when it's outside the law.
Agreed! That is the very best sort of villain. One who, in another context, could be admirable.

Date: 2007-11-07 02:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Um hmm well usually for things to be truly tense, the villann has to be...if not a mirror image of the hero than at least a reflection of him. What he/she could be, could have been, secretly wants to do. Someone a while ago (on DS_Meta???) pointed out what a supervillain Fraser could have made, and perhaps he knows that, which is why he puts those controls on himself. So really he's lacking an archnemesis. Victoria only makes the list for tempting him away from those controls. Muldoon maybe is supposed to be represent this archnemesis, but then he also seemed sort of tossed in COTW the way Conan Doyle tossed in Moriarty. The sad part is both would have made excellent archvillains if they had been introduced earlier.

That being said, heroes with a dark side are more interesting anyway. At least to me. Good guys gone bad or just morally conflicted (i.e. Batman or Dexter). But then my original heroes tend to be borderline psychotic.... :P

Date: 2007-11-07 05:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I find I tend to be more convinced by villains that are cool, calm and subtle. Unless it's a horror movie, but even then, keeping it low-key creepy is often scarier than ramping up the blood and guts. Sometimes it's the monster you can't see that's the most terrifying. I believe Etcetera_cat mentioned Keyser Sose. Yep. Kinda like that.

James Bond-type villains have never done it for me. Of course, that could in part be my own perception of the James Bond character as an asshole, so sure, go ahead and kill him, but what turns me off of the villains themselves is that they're so cartoonish. I know that's done intentionally, but I don't get the attraction. Gadgets, henchmen, villainous physical disfigurement, Big Plan To Take Over The World, lecturing, gloating, and/or ranting, and… again? Yawn. A little of that goes a long way.

Richard III, now that was a villain. Cold, calculating, outwardly offering his grieving mother all manner of sympathy while inwardly plotting the demise of her grandchild. No fancy gadgets, just a devilish understanding of how his peers thought, where their weaknesses lay, how to manipulate them, and no regrets. Eesh.

I think a lot of my trouble in making up villains of my own is that generally what a villain would want isn't something I'd want. That whole taking over the planet thing? Wow. Lot of bother. When would I have time to read slash? Murder my nephew to achieve the throne? See reference to not having time to read slash once I'm king. Also, he's my nephew. Not down with the murdering thing. Not. So, getting into a villain's head and being able to become him or her well enough to write a convincing character is tough. *whines*

Date: 2007-11-08 06:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Okay, now I'm going to emulate [ profile] sageness's walk through my fandom history approach.

The first fandom I started writing in (without writing it would be Who, particularly the New Adventures tie-in novels, great things for scary villains and monsters of the id) was a comics fandom. It's great to see somebody else around who has taken that route. I was, and to a great extent still am, a Marvel Zombie. Specifically, the X-men. X-men has a cast of thousands approach to story telling and more villains than you can shake a stick at. I am also pretty fond of Wildstorm Comics' Apollo and the Midnighter (for the obvious reasons of canon gay and ultra violence)

So looking at what I wrote in the fandom(s), what do I get?

Smoke and Mirrors

Let me explain.

Smoke: the sort of shadowy things that are meant to give you nightmares. Example: the bad guys in the Vampire!Nightcrawler AU:
a) the vampire who bit Kurt is only seen in flashbacks and it's all rather hazy.
b) the actual only concrete villains Nightcrawler and Wolverine fight in the fourth story are firmly in Texas Chainsaw Massacre / 30 Days of Night mould. Shadowy scary vampires up to something nasty in the wheat fields of America.
Another example: A dead AU gave us some canon villains, the Church of Humanity who (before Chuck Austen bollocksed it up) were once again in the shadowy malevolent presence category. A sort of ill-defined malevolent mass.

Now for Mirrors:
a) Five Ways TJ Met Her Father borrowed from some of the nastier AU iterations of Nightcrawler (TJ was a member of the Exiles: Quantum Leap meets X-men) all twisted malevolence and i) the Nazi Nightcrawler, canon rapist and generally unpleasant sadistic and into torture and ii) the completely warped, corrupted, and psychotic Hammer Horror version from Limbo
b) the characters are their own worst enemies school of plotting.

Sure, I had dreams of long epics with the likes of Mr Sinister (scary once you forget the name) and Weapon X, but I didn't have the ability to write them. Likewise, the Sentinel stuff was once again Men In Black and unseen forgettable villains. Ignoring the huge amount of plotlessness, the Authority has one canon shadowy manipulator (the just plain nasty Bendix) (there was also an anonymous wife beating bastard) and in a cross-over with the one Who story with plot, we get the nefarious and largely unseen Time Agency. In both cases in flashbacks explaining the current situation.

So, serious smoke and mirrors girl here.

(I'm going to post this and then get on with dS for sake of sanity)

Now with added Mounties!

Date: 2007-11-08 07:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Looking through my dS fic, I'm a little surprised by the lack of villains. The bulk are of the "their own worst enemy" school of plotting and are typically more involved with slash psychology than anything else.

So, that's mirrors covered (the whole self villaincy things) so what about smoke?
1) one haunted book that does things to Vecchio's life
2) completely unseen bird smuggler
3) a crate of herrings (Ray/Ray comedy deathfic, yes, quite)

All of those are "Enabling villains". They aren't important as themselves, the can't carry a plot on their own. They are excuses to dig into the character's Inner Lives.

So do I have any real villains?
1) The psychotic alternate Billy Tallent in Wind Them Up and Let Them Go just about counts
2) The BFP, otherwise known as Episodic Romance, a crazy 70000 word casefic. We have an arch manipulator using crazies to do his dirty work, namely screwing over a dead gangster for his money. Did I mention that said bad guy could see the Dead Gangster's ghost? Much as I love my crazy psycho villains (which might explain my affection for Dexter) it's really another ruse. The whole thing started not with "hey, let's write a casefic" but "let Ray K.. (tbc)

Re: Now with added Mounties!

Date: 2007-11-08 08:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
find out things about himself" and was briefly "the boys discover subtext after realising they are in a television show" (an idea better left to frankly better writers) and so ended up somehow developing plot and somewhere along the line the arc changed to "RayK sees ghosts... and this lets him inside things and understand his feelings..." (Look Ma! No Spoilers!). My bad guy didn't come fully formed, it was very organic, but now I think he was not as scary as I wanted him to be...

Is it some function of the slash that villains become secondary characters enabling the slash plot? They become "obstacles to romance" rather than fully formed characters.

And yes, on Frankie, I'm going to be using him and the lack of solid characterisation is driving me buggy. I don't know how to handle him without going all pantomime.

Re: Now with added Mounties!

Date: 2007-11-08 08:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
On the reading side, like I said, I like the creepy type of villain to the realistic guy trying to feed his kids kind. I just don't know why. Hmm... *goes to think*

Date: 2007-11-14 06:24 am (UTC)
ext_3554: dream wolf (Default)
From: [identity profile]
I've never written a Due South villian. I don't think the fandom lends itself to them, although the show has a plethora of ridiculous villains. They usually bore me, so I don't write them. due South also has the "misguided" criminals, who Fraser can convert to the Light Side of the Force.

Most of my dS stories have, as someone else mentioned, the main characters as their own worst enemy. Case fics tend to the police procedural genre, and even though there is a criminal, they aren't really a villain. The cops on a case are struggling to find clues, rather than directly battling a villain.

Two fanfic villains that creeped me out were the antagonist in Resonant's "Teeth of the Hydra" and RayK's partner in a truly disturbing fic who became obsessed with Fraser, kidnapped him and addicted him to heroin in a twisted attempt to gain his love. Umm, icky.

Victoria is quite a memorable villain, of course, but it takes expanding the character beyond what we see in canon to make her truly sympathetic. It's the sympathetic villains just slightly twisted from what they should have been that really get me.

I wrote one in Highlander. Dr. Ung was a very intelligent and persuasive Watcher who survived Pol Pot in Cambodia and becomes convinced that the Immortals are a true threat to humanity and need to be eliminated. Moving forward from that (FLAWED) premise, everything he does is completely understandable and for the greater good. He views himself as a hero.
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