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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Villian

   
Author Topic: Villian
arcanist
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Alright, I can tell already this will end up being a thread with four pages of five-paragraph replies. That being said, I'll go ahead and ask.
In your opinion as a writer, what defines a good villian? Motivation, philosophy, background, tactics, intelligence, whatever, I want to hear what you think.

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wbriggs
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For me, the best villain isn't a villain. He has sound motives, which make sense to him. Although we may cringe.
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pantros
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The best villians are defined by being the best possible opponent for the hero. The villian must be more powerful than the hero and willing to go to more extreme lengths to keep it that way.

That's not to say you need an embodied villian. But if you have one, they must be a full character, not just a one dimensional evil. You have to have them be actually motivated to continue to be evil, not just evil for the sake of it. Greed works well as motivation. An overactive sense of Revenge too. (Some girl said no to me so now all girls must die...)

Ideally we must almost but not quite sympathize with the evil at some point, but be careful not to make us like the bad guy better than the protagonist.

And, of course, there is no rule that says the villian has to be the antagonist in your story. Though it would be a tough sell, you might even go with a villian as a protagonist.


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pixydust
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Two things I try to do with my villains: The reader can sense either, 1) how horribly evil he/she is (Your skin crawls, and you feel a bit queasy while your reading), or 2) how desperate--you could go the direction of trying to make the reader feel tormented by the fact that they almost like the bad guy. I like it when the villain is almost pitiable and terribly human. Just try and stay away from the cliche, cardboard villains (I'm tired. I can't think of an example...hmmm...anyone....?)
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arcanist
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I agree with that. I think it makes it a good read when you can look at the villian and say 'Aww, I really feel bad for that guy.' But then of course you can't, because he's the villian. Also, that makes it that much more...I don't, what's the word...emotioanlly epic(?) when the main character still has to kill and/or defeat the villian, despite his sympathy; it means the character has to have some higher motive or something.
I think I'm rambling...

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Spaceman
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Villians are cardboard. I don't use them.
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wbriggs
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One other thing: villains spell "all right" "alright." (Pet peeve.)
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Beth
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Villains deliberately spell it "alright" to cause their readers to claw their eyes out. Evil.
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keldon02
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I agree with Briggs but I'd go one step further. The best ones are the ones that are likable and would be heroes in their own right were it not for one heroic flaw which ruins them.

Think of Helen's lover Paris, the noble Trojan and you'll find a deeply likable man who was drawn to his doom by his love for another man's wife.

Other grand villains were King Saul, who succumbed to jealousy and lost both his kingdom and his life and Brutus who loved Caeser but could not save him.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited December 16, 2005).]


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Crotalus@work
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A good 'antagonist' is what I'm looking for. Can be villanous, but not necessary. Just needs to be at odds with the protagonist and said protagonist's goals. Like any major character the antagonist must have a motivation that makes just as much sense (in antag's mind at least) as the motivations of the protag. All that other stuff is good too (background, philosophy, and I like intelligent characters pretty much all around--btw there are all kinds of ways to measure intelligence).

Since we are at Hatrack I submit Ender's Game as a good study in constructing good antagonists:

Peter: here is an antagonist that helps define the protagonist. the protag even wants this antag to love him. since we only see him through Ender's eyes we see him as a villain at first--but to him his reasons for being spiteful toward Ender and Valentine make sense. And in later books I even started to like Peter.

The Formics: This is the protag that the antag is trying to understand. in coming to understand them, ender is able to defeat them, but also comes to love them. And we find out they weren't even planning a third invasion, they only engaged humans in further battle in an attempt to keep us from their homeworld.

Stilson and Bonzo: Really they are just bullies, scared little boys. Ender doesn't want a fight with either of them, but when he is forced into a corner defeats them completely. They are antags that can't be reasoned with.

The military leaders and battleschool teachers: Graff,Anderson, Dap: To me they are the closest thing to a true villain in this book. They are using the antag in order to carry out their plans. But even then, their motivations excuse their actions. They are saving the world after all.

All that said, there is probably a book somewhere that talks about the different kind of antagonists.

Here are some other interesting antagonists to think about, fictional and historical, and some truly villainous, but even then their goals made sense to them:

Darth Vader, Judas, Hitler, Voldemort, and Oberon (Magic Street). I'm sure you can think of some more.

Also, antag doesn't even have to be human or even sentient. 'Old Man and the Sea' and 'Moby Dick' come to mind.

[This message has been edited by Crotalus@work (edited December 16, 2005).]


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Spaceman
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But Lucas at least tried to add some dimension to Darth Vader. He wasn't all evil, he just took the easy path to power. That he made the difficult decision to turn back to good in the final film takes Vader out of the category of villian, even if his character wasn't as 3D as it should have been. There is a lot implied.

Just my humble opinion.


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Lullaby Lady
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The most effective villian, in my opinion, is likeable-- almost against the reader's will. He does terrible, despicable things, makes selfish choices, etc., but the reader can't help but be drawn to him. In the end, the audience wants him to get his come-uppance, but they enjoy his charisma and wit in the meantime.

~LL


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Jaina
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In addition to what Lullaby Lady said, a good villian has some traits that are going to be shared with a lot of readers, because if you take a look at someone you despise in a book and can say "Oooh, he is awful... but then, I do that too, just not to that extent" or something, it does 2 things. It makes him slightly more sympathetic and it makes us hate him all the more for making us look bad. If it's well done. And it's hard to do.

Not all villians are necessarily like this, but when they are, it always stands out to me as an exceptional example of evil.

I hope that made sense... I think it was much more clear in my head.


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'Graff
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Scroll down a bit on this page.

I found all of these hysterical.

-----------
Wellington


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Robert Nowall
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I always figured that no one is a villain in his own mind, in real life as much as in fiction. (I suppose Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein and Joe Stalin had their own reasons for doing the things they did...whatever those might have been.) This person-in-question might be motivated by something that means nothing to anyone else...but it might mean all the world to this PIQ...
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keldon02
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quote:
a good villian has some traits that are going to be shared with a lot of readers,

So true! It also helps if the hero has some annoying traits which make you mildly and subconsciously dislike them.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited December 17, 2005).]


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sojoyful
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In my novel, the villains are the ones who have some obsession they can't let go of. The "good guys" have something like that too, but what makes them better than the villains is that in the end, they can let go. The villains can't, and as a result, they are destroyed.

Think of Elsa at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. She wasn't pure evil, but she couldn't let it go.

I know there are other kinds of villains, and that there are plenty of situations where the good guy is unwilling to let something go, but this is the kind of story that I am interested in writing.


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franc li
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I think the villans of the Narnia books are interesting. You've got your white witch, your green witch, and your Jadis. I personally found it very disturbing that they were all supposed to be the same person. They seemed very different people to me when I read the books as a child. Then you've got the evil regent in Prince Caspian, I think Eustace was the bad guy in VotDT and he evolved into a good guy.

The Horse and his Boy is a toughie in my mind. I can't single out a villain, and yet it is my favorite book of the series. There was a series of antagonists, but mainly it was a love story/adventure. Perhaps it was a hero against himself theme, as the main characters go through processes of self-discovery. In The Last Battle the enemy was the ape but also anyone who chose self-deception.


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MidnightWolf_ofClan_Zero
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I really like the psyco types for villians. They are so...unpredictable. This is a trait that I personally love to use when I write. The unpredictable, insane but sane to an extent, fast, smart, educated types. Funny... reminds me of myself....

Creepy.


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Miriel
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I recently read a very good book called Elantris with an antagonist or "villian" I loved. He had good motivations -- not just well described, but honest good-guy-like intentions and made me love him, even though he was against the protagonist. He turned out to be my favorite character in the whole book. He had depth and internal conflict and faults. It's an excellent book, especially if you're thinking about how to make a better antagonist.
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MidnightWolf_ofClan_Zero
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Why is evil so much fun? Its so much easier to work with. Even if it is so much more complicated. I love it. Dont kno why my thing posted twice either. Hm.
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arcanist
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Evil is so much fun because it's so much easier to be evil than good. People sometimes have trouble believing you if you're say you're good; if you tell someone you're evil, chances are they'll probably agree. Plus, if you want to prove yourself as a hero, you have to slay a dragon or some other pain the ass quest. If you want to prove yourself as a villian, you burn a village to the ground.
By the way, that list is hilarious. If all the villians followed that list to the letter, the heroes would kind of give up and go home.

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hoptoad
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Hey guys,
Villain is a word I would not choose but that's no problem.

To me a villain is one who is reasonable and logical in their actions but their actions are terrible and terrifying. We can see why they act the way they do, we can see the logic, we can understand if we try, but we are afraid to try. It causes the visceral response: I don't want to understand him; he's a monster and if I understand him maybe I'm a monster too!

Seduction/Repulsion.


BTW I have real trouble being afraid of a character who, in the final analysis is mentally ill. To me there is no real terror in it. There has to be intent.


PS: All so, I don't all ways spell all right correctly either. Sometimes I all together forget, I think I have all ready made that mistake too many times. But then, so did James Joyce and Flannery O'Connor, so I'm not too worried about the 'alright police' and their reactionary truncheons.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited December 18, 2005).]


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Survivor
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I tell people I'm evil all the time, a lot of them don't agree too readily. I find it much easier to get people to say that I'm good.

Don't know what that means.

I think that I look for the same characteristic in a "villian" that we all look for in villians, and all our other important characters. It's about believability.

So, that usually implies things like semi-rational motives, and a certain amount of charm/intelligence/virtuce necessary to get into the position the villian occupies to carry out the plot villany. If you look at real-life "villians", sometimes they seem totally lacking in believability.

For myself, my protagonists are usually what would ordinarily be considered villians (if there were any opposing "hero" in the story), so I don't worry about it too much.


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hoptoad
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Oh Survivor,
I think you may be making a few assumptions.
See cross-thread.

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keldon02
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quote:
I tell people I'm evil all the time, a lot of them don't agree too readily. I find it much easier to get people to say that I'm good.

Survivor, this strikes a chord. Have you read Castaneda's description of Don Juan's character self analysis as Don Juan compared himself to Don Genero? He said that he hated humanity so much that he could afford to be kind to people but Don Genero loved humanity so much that to protect himself he had to be cruel, cold and aloof. (Or do I have that backwards? If so my excuse is that it was about 20 years since I read it.)

Don Genero was a really great villain, more so even than La Catalina, because he really wanted to be kind but was paralyzed by his love.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited December 19, 2005).]


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Survivor
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Of course I made a few assumptions, like assuming that we were talking about villians and were all writing in English. You have to be more specific.

As for the evil thing, I think that sometimes people think that I'm asking for license to be openly evil when I say I'm evil, so they naturally say "no, you're good" meaning, "I believe that you're evil but please be discrete about it and let the rest of us live." Or perhaps not. It could also just be the polite thing to say to someone who is admitting evilness. I'm not always sure, because I thought that response was predicated on some show of remorse rather than pride


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franc li
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On villains having mental illness or not, I say its no more important than whether they are fat or bald or like to wear really clean white suits. Though if your parents named you Scorpio, you pretty much have to be evil. Is that thread about villain names still around?

My mom used to have a thing that all the Disney Villains were fat. Except for the ones that weren't.


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hoptoad
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What I meant was, having a villain whose villainy stems from mental illness is not very interesting. I can't think of a single one that was remotely engaging. But we have people above saying, 'just make him a total psycho, unpredictable and chaotic.'

In my opinion that's lazy and boring and not worth reading. Maybe if there was genuine effort in designing a syndrome or condition, it may be interesting, playing around with the notion of accountability and intent.

I do think that whether the villain is fat or skinny or tall or short or greek or inuit or whether they lit fires, tortured small animals and wet the bed as a child can have a significant bearing on their nature but none of those sort of factors of itself is enough. I reckon that the evil-doer must choose evil. They may have perfectly logical reasons in their own mind but must know what they are doing.The villain chooses evil because it suits their desires. They don't try to choose the 'right' thing. Right and wrong doesn't come into the equation. If the 'right' thing suits their purpose then they will do it. If it doesn't, they wont. Someone who perpetrates evil as a result of being deluded or misguided is weak and boring.

Think of the movie Frailty

  • The initial villain (Dad, Bill Paxton) was mentally ill = boring.
  • The real villain turned out to be the son (Matthew McConaughey) who was a sheriff in full control of his faculties=interesting.
  • Turns out the villain has deep seated psychological trauma from witnessing murder and the religious delusions of his dad=boring again.

The movie was a bit of a dog, but it makes my point.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited December 20, 2005).]


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Jeraliey
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Example of well-done psychotic villian: Fight Club. Although the writing style got to me after a while....
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Gnomeinclaychair
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Sorry you folks, but you've stepped squarely on one of my pet peeves (and I'm fully aware that another person pointed out a spelling error earlier), but the word is "villain" not "villian".

I... I just had to.


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keldon02
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Survivor, I don't think that fear may be their motivation. Rather some of them might hold the worldview (as do I) that the baseline human condition is, in the words of the writers of the Westminster Catechism, 'total depravity'. In their case you recieve a polite answer in large part because they are saying to themselves, "this person may be developing some insight".

Which brings me back to the theory that a really good villain might be one who is motivated by kindness and goodness and love of humanity. These traits would make them exquisitely vulnerable to a catastrophic failure or worse a catastrophic success.

Consider two men in history. Both loved humanity and loved their countries. They were dedicated soldiers in the highest tradition of chivalry, and both were ethical, moral and devoutly religious.

Choose one as the villain and the other as the hero depending on your own whim. It doesn't matter which because they slaughtered their own troops like sheep with stupid blunders and slaughtered the other's troops with brilliant successes. Of course I'm talking here about Grant and Lee, the two Janus faces of war.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited December 21, 2005).]


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hoptoad
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Or they could both be heroes if your perspective is that 'all Americans are a waste of space.' ( Not that there would be anybody on earth who would think that. )

Anyway, that is what I mean. For a villain to be a real villain they must choose evil. How they justify the choice may be interesting. Did either Grant or Lee or both choose to do evil? If so, how did they justify it?

I remember a story about a POW camp in nazi germany and some of the horrific crimes the guards perpetrated -- especially the brutal murders of children. I could not understand how someone could bring themselves to do those things. What factors combine in order for them to be able to justify their acts? Is it the possession of absolute power without accountability?

Like choosing to 'torture under appropriate circumstances'. Appropriate torture! How can someone conceive and believe such a notion?
Ouch! that one was a bit hot.

Make your villains strong enough to know that they are choosing evil and choose it anyway then justify, justify justify.

The choice is evil, the justification is interesting.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited December 21, 2005).]


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'Graff
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Good point, hoptoad. That's the difference between a villain and an antagonist. If I were writing a piece of historical fiction and Grant were my Viewpoint character, then Lee would become the antagonist (or, depending on how I choose to change history, perhaps Lincoln is the antagonist, and Grant is striving to gain promotion against a tide of Lincoln's political disfavor. Whatever).

However, Lee would only be a villain if, while leading the battle at Antietam (my history is awful, hope I'm getting at least some of the details right) he reveled in the deaths of every soldier there, because each death was one step closer to a free south, or somesuch. Even villains, depraved as they are, need a motive for their actions. They become villains because they do not care what atrocities they have to perform to achieve their goals.

In this way, an antagonist (or, even, the protagonist) can become a villain, if the slip into poor judgement occurs in a realistic way (as HSO's commentary on another thread, the people against consumption of milk (or whatever)).

My $0.02.

-----------
Wellington


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Miriel
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The "mentally-ill" approach to villians is one of my biggest pet-peeves in fiction writing. It seems anytime someone traumatized or mentally-ill shows up in fiction, they're evil. Where are the people with those problems who are trying to do good things? It's always seemed an unblanced look at the world to me, and a cheap way out from real characterization. To say someone was tramatized isn't enough: there are tramatized people who go on to do great things. It's an overgeneralization -- like saying all beautiful people are kind and all portly people are mean and jealous. Just, for some unfathomable reason, writers can get away with generalizing the mentally ill, when they can't get away with generalizing most other groups. As a reader, I hate it when villians are characterized like that.
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Jeraliey
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Sorry, Gnome. I suck at spelling.
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keldon02
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Miriel what I like about so much of American "Southern" fiction is the greater dimensionality of its mentally ill characters.

This genre has so very many flawed characters who are not evil, who have a true depth to their personalities. Who is actually evil in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie or Brick? Is Cool Hand Luke really evil or just insanely stubborn? Mark Childress' character Aunt Lucille in Crazy in Alabama was both traumatized and insane, but she wasn't evil.

There are some real exceptions to this assertion, including some of my least favorite books, but I'll just skip them.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited December 23, 2005).]

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited December 23, 2005).]


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Casefile
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If you want to know how to write a good villian, watch Serenity several times.
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Matt Lust
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^^^^^ very true. Joss Wheadon (sp?) did a good job doing the Operative as willfully evil.
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HuntGod
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The operative was not willfully evil, he was simply willing to perform any action to bring about the greater good.

Villain and antagonist are not the same thing.

In my opinion and experience, a villain is someone who works within a framework of good and evil, whereas an antagonist is simply a character at odds with the protagonist.

What makes a good villain for me is, a sense of humor, a complete lack of recognition that his actions are on the whole completely reprehensible and he must be completely unapologetic.

Nothing ruins a villain more for than one that is constantly making excuses for why he is a bad guy.


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franc li
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Maybe the reason Serenity didn't do well at the box office is because it didn't give people the satisfaction of hating who they thought was the villain. Then again, I knew fans of the show and fairly intelligent people who failed to be outraged by the big reveal of the true villain.

I thought it was a great movie, and continue to be puzzled about why it didn't do well. There is, of course, the aspect that the title guaranteed that word of mouth would be the only marketing it would receive. I've been writing an essay about this.


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Corky
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POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING, though I think I am being vague enough.


Hmm. Maybe I'm dense, but I didn't notice any "big reveal" of any true villain. The bad guys behind the bad guy were the same bad guys all along, weren't they? Or did I miss something? (And if you were referring to the reveal about the totally nasty guys, that wasn't all that surprising. Made sense.)

Maybe you could email me and explain, franc li?


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luapc
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I don't think a villain has to be evil. Some movies and books don't have truely evil people doing dispicable acts, just people following convictions that lead to evil acts. One movie that comes to mind in Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood. There really are no evil or good people in that movie in my opinion, just people doing what they thought they had to, for whatever reason.

As far as Serenity, I think the main reason the movie didn't do well was that it was burried in the September and early October release period. This period is one of the lowest attendance times for movie goers who are burned out after summer and too involved with school and other things that are just starting, like football season.

Serenity was a difficult sell from the beginning, and it never had a lot of support, so it got made, but also not given much chance due to its release timing. That added to its limited marketing doomed it to low numbers at the box office. I don't think it had anything to do with the movie, because I talked to people who knew nothing about Serenity the series and liked it just fine. It's really a shame because it was probably the best movie I'd seen since May.


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Nevyan
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A good villian is the antithesis to your MC.

Best,

Nevyan


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Casefile
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On Serenity, I think it will make a huge DVD profit.

On villians, a good villian always has motivation. One of the worst things I see authors do is have the evil guy who's just evil.

Then again, if you did it well, a well written sociopath could be good readin'.


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HuntGod
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Clint Eastwood is the atypical anti-hero, which just reinforces the assertion that antagonist/villain are not the same thing.

In many Eastwood films he performs "villainous" acts even though he is the hero, hence there needs to be a very distinct line drawn between Villain/Antagonist.


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Survivor
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The true villians are revealed to be totally unapologetic about their own evil actions. I'm sure they were troubled by what they'ed done, but mostly they just wanted to avoid any unpleasent personal consequences.

Eminently believable, and utterly evil.


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