After the Christmas break, it’s been difficult for me to get back into a writing routine again. Not that I ever switch off completely from the writing process — I’m always thinking about my current novel and where the story is heading. And that’s just as important as time spent at the keyboard. But one the things I did over the Christmas break was to spend a lot of time with my family binge watching the NetFlix series “Once Upon a Time”. Apart from being highly addictive and entertaining series, it is also a great way to study character development of heroes and villains.
For those of you that haven’t watched the series, I will try to avoid spoilers. All the characters are taken from fairy stories such as Snow White, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella Rumpelstiltskin, Frozen, Wicked and some stories not-so fairytale such as Doctor Jekyl and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein.
The story starts in the real world of Storybrooke, which is inhabited by fantasy characters who have been transported from their fantasy realms (the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Oz, etc.) and have lost their memory due to a curse. Only Henry, a young boy knows their true origin.
What makes “One Upon a Time” different is the characters are nothing like their traditional storybook characters. Peter Pan is quite evil; the Evil Queen, and Captain Hook are bad guys struggling to reform; and some of the good guys end up doing some evil things. It’s as though everything you expect from a fairy tale is turned on its head. It’s a fast action series with rapid plot development, and as the series unfolds we begin to learn about the backstories of the characters, why they developed their evil traits, and perhaps why they deserve a second chance. As we discover, one of the themes is that not no one is all-bad or for that matter all-good. Everyone deserves a chance at a happy ending. One of the fantasy tropes is that magic always has consequences — they must pay a price for its use. So, sometimes a character’s actions backfire on them.
Watching the series reminded me of Sacha Black’s book on “How to craft Superbad Villains – 13 Steps to Evil.” I read her book some time ago and it impressed me at the time. As writers, we love our heroes, and part of delivering an emotional rewarding story is working on the hero’s character arc — what they learn from their experiences and how they change as a consequence. But do we give enough attention to the villain of the story?
Of course, not all stories will have a villain. Most stories will have an antagonists that stands in the way of the hero reaching his goal. Otherwise there is no tension and conflict. But an antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or acting with evil intent. He/she maybe acting with the best of motives providing their goals conflict with those of the hero.
However, a villainous antagonist is a great plot device for showcasing the hero’s courage and abilities. What would Batman be with Joker or Penquin? How can a hero be a superhero without a supervillain who’s at least as powerful as the hero? If the hero does not struggle for success, why should we care what happens to them? Villains should therefore be be strong and resourceful.
We all do things for a reason and a villain is no different. A villain will have a goal — what he wants to achieve or destroy — and he/she will have a reason or motive for wanting it. Just like the hero, the stronger that desire the more difficult it will be to defeat them and the more tension there will be in the story.
And if you know the source of that character’s desire then it will help to understand their behaviour. The things that most shape us most in life are the experiences that have the biggest impact on us. Sacha Black describes these as ‘soul scars’. Although these experiences help to form our personality, it is how we react to them that defines who and what we become.
Sacha Black explains that a ‘complex’ is a pattern of experiences that from in a person’s unconscious mind and influences future behaviour, attitudes and thoughts. To understand a villain’s complex you need to understand their soul scars, negative traits, and values. Yes — even villains have values although their response to breaches of these values (eg loyalty) may be violently disproportionate. From the villain’s perspective their behaviour is quite normal and logical. For example, the Evil Queen’s mother describes love as a weakness and if you are a power-seaking evil guy maybe there is some truth in that. The Villain is the hero of their very own story. It’s just their behaviour seen through the hero’s eyes is seen quite differently.
What ultimately separates the villain from the hero are the decisions and choices they make. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the villain Belloq tells Indiana Jones that they are much alike. They are both archaeologists with a passion for antiquities. But of course they are the not the same because Belloq resorts to working with the Nazis to find the Ark of the covenant — something Indiana Jones would never do. Actions and behaviour are therefore what ultimately defines our characters and whether they are a hero or villain.