Monday, May 23, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" (Or Story Gimmicks We Can Do Without) Part 2

Part 2: How bad is bad?

As an author, one of the things you have to do is convince your readers that the bad guy is a bad guy. The reader has to know that the hero is in real and imminent danger. There's a short cut for this that, really, I just hate. Every time I see it. Unfortunately, I have to blame it on George Lucas and Darth Vader.

Vader is easily one of the most menacing villains ever created. Ever. Total aside:
I'm sure this is one of the things that lies at the heart of many people's dislike of the prequels. No one really wanted to know that Vader had once been a lovable kid and whiny teenager. They wanted to believe he'd been the kind of kid that set banthas on fire and pulled the legs off of womp rats. But the point was that he had been just a normal kid. The lesson being, as Yoda showed Luke in Empire, that anyone (everyone) has the capacity to turn evil. To go to the dark side.

The thing is is that no one ever doubts that Vader is a bad guy. From the moment he steps through the smoke filled airlock littered with bodies, everyone knows this dude is bad. If you didn't know it, the casual way he tosses aside the dead Captain Antilles, whom he has just choked to death while holding him suspended several feet off the ground with one arm! proves it. I could go on.

Still, no one really knew just how Bad Vader is until The Empire Strikes Back. I mean, we all know he'll kill his enemies without a second thought. Even casually. Without regard. But when he force chokes Admiral Ozzel via hologram for messing up the Hoth invasion (which he wasn't really to blame for, because it was the probe droid that had alerted the rebels), that's when we know. Really know. Vader is BAD. He's so bad he'll kill, well, anyone. The lesson here is that, man, you really don't want to piss off Vader.

But Lucas didn't do any of those things to prove to us how bad Vader is. We know. We've always known. Since that first moment at the airlock. Everything else flows out of just how BAD Vader is. Somewhere in there, though, the lesson that was communicated was that if you want to prove just how bad your villain is, have him kill some of his underlings. Usually without any legitimate provocation.

Here's the one I hate the most:
Main bad dude is trying to kill some good dude(s). He decides the way to do this is by using some weapon that has a mass effect. Like a bomb. Or a missile. Something  that will make a huge explosion and kill everyone in the area. The problem is that the good dude is fighting the underlings of the main bad dude. He shows his disregard for his men by ordering that the device that will cause a huge explosion be used to kill the good dude(s) and, thus, his own men.

Okay, so he's a bad guy. We get it. However, he really needs to kill the good dude(s), and his men are expendable. And in the way. But, wait! We're not finished, yet. Because that's not bad enough. Nooo! Because you can (almost) make a case for what he's doing. He needs to get rid of the good dude(s), and the men that are fighting the good dude(s) are probably going to die anyway while failing at their job of killing the good dude(s). So we have a bad guy, but, really, is that bad enough? Evidently not.

Invariably, what follows here is that some well meaning underling stands up to the main bad dude and says, "But, wait, sir; that will kill all of our men, too!" A legitimate concern. I mean, when you see your boss killing your fellow employees, it doesn't say much for your job security, now does it? How can you rule the universe alongside the big bad dude if you're dead? Underling wants to know that the main bad dude really does care and that he just didn't realize he'd be killing his own men. He wants the guy to say, "Oh! Well, we can't do that. Cancel that order."

But that's not what happens. Ever. If some guy stands up and tells the big bad that he's about to kill his own men, the thing that always happens is that the big bad pulls out a gun (or appropriate equivalent) and turns and shoots his underling in the head. This is usually followed by some sort of question along these lines, "Does anyone else have anything to say?" Of course, all the other underlings busily return to their tasks. You know, of making sure their co-workers end up dead.

There are two main reasons I hate this:
1. It's lazy writing. This almost always happens sometime in  the first third of the story. It's just a short cut so that we can see that the bad guy really is a BAD guy. But it just doesn't work for me. It's too done, now. It doesn't make the bad guy any badder. Really, it's enough for me to know he's the bad guy. It's enough for me to know that he wants to kill the good guy. I don't care if he's so bad that he's willing, or even eager, to kill his own men. It's a short cut that doesn't go anywhere. It's not like the audience cares if he's going to off his own men. If you want us to believe that your villain is really vile, build it up. Don't use it as a short cut.

2. It's completely unrealistic. Seriously, if you knew your boss was willing to kill you to achieve his own agenda, would you keep working for him? Well, maybe, if it was just you that thought that, but if everyone believed that? People would be bailing at the first chance they got. Historically, we know this is true. There have been times when the means of various armies of motivating their men was "go fight our enemy or we'll kill you." The role officers played was to stand at the back and shoot people trying to run away. The men would fight because they might survive against the enemy, which was better odds than they had if they tried to run. However, they deserted in droves every chance they got. The bad guys that resorted to these methods never succeeded because they couldn't keep any men working for them. In fact, bad guys that did things like disregard the safety of their men often got killed in their sleep (or on the toilet) by those same men. So it doesn't work for me when an author expects me to believe that underlings will go blithely about their business while their boss randomly culls them.

Of course, there are other ways to short cut the villain. Undermine his villain-ness by having him do senseless things. Often, it's to have him go out of his way to kill civilians or other people not involved in the story. And that can be okay. The trick is to not resort to, well, for lack of a better way of putting it, senseless violence to sell your villain as a bad guy. I mean that in the sense that the violence needs to have a reason for the villain. Let me say that another way: The villain must have a reason for his behavior. It doesn't matter if it's a reason that the audience doesn't understand, but it must be the villain's reason, and it must be consistent. Vader is a great villain not because he kills his underlings but because he kills those that fail him. Failure is not tolerated. Vader has a reason for the things he does as opposed to doing things to fulfill the reasons of the author.

If a hero can only be as "good" as his villain, then give me good, well thought out villains. Don't give me cardboard villains doing cliche things like shooting their underlings for airing a legitimate concern.


  1. It's difficult because henchmen who work for evil geniuses aren't really very common in real life. And they don't usually have the one nemesis who is alway screwing up their plans. It's hard to create realism within a completely unreal scenario.


  2. Wow, you're not a Star Wars fan or anything, huh? Thanks for stopping by my blog today. I think your words were actually the perfect ones for ME!

  3. This reminded me of my favorite deleted scene from Austin Powers--where they follow the sad story of a henchman of Dr. Evil who got crushed by a steamroller, and his grieving wife.
    Thanks for visiting my blog. I shall abstain from sugar!

  4. mood: Well, true, but you can make behavior realistic. I think what we're expected to believe is that everyone is too scared to do anything other than just follow orders, and, although that can happen within an organization, it's generally kept going because the people being killed actually have screwed up in some way and the people left behind are hoping to get ahead by the thinning of the competition. However, it's really the short cuttedness of using this that bothers me. It never makes me feel like the bad guy is menacing, just stupid.

    Gina: Star Wars what? Who me?
    I'm glad I could help. And I hope you make it back by to catch this comment. I tried over at your blog, but blogger has been messed up the past several days, and yours is one of the blogs that I can't leave comments on.

    Jenny: I vaguely remember that! I haven't seen that in a looong time. I may need to rectify that!