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Monday, May 4, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, part 11: Villains

by Henry Vogel
I'm back with another column despite my claim that I was wrapping up after the tenth one. You can all blame Bruce for that. Last week, he suggested a column on villains and one on milieu. You get villains this week.

In earlier columns I discussed all sorts of issues for comic book writers to consider. As useful as I hope all that information is, it won't help much if you don't have villains to oppose your heroes. A story without conflict is boring; some might even say it's not a story. Villains create conflict by their very existence.

Creating villains is easy. Say you're writing a story for Superman and you need a villain. All you need is a guy with a machine gun who robs a bank during peak business hours. He threatens to shoot the innocent bank patrons and employees if they don't do what he tells them to do. Is this a good villain? He might be if you're writing a story about a beat cop or a hostage negotiator — but you're writing about Superman. Once Supes hears about the robbery, the entire conflict is going to be over in about three seconds. Superman enters the bank at super speed, grabs the machine gun from the villain then hands him over the police. Not what you'd call a very memorable villain.

Creating villains is easy. Creating memorable villains takes some work. While this column is specifically directed towards comic book villains, the general ideas apply to any kind of writing.

Here are the most important questions you must ask about your villain. What motivates your villain to act as he does? How does this motivation tie to your hero?

Let's take a look at a couple of famous villains and see if we can answer these two questions.

How about the Joker, Batman's greatest nemesis? What's his motivation? He's a psychopath, criminally insane. When he looks at the world around him, he does not identify with the people inhabiting that world. From the Joker's point of view, people are just pawns to be used to achieve his goal. The Joker's world view is entirely black and white. There's the Joker, and then there's everyone else. The Joker is a villain because the only way he can generate emotions is by causing mayhem and murder. How does this tie him to Batman? Batman is also a psychopath, what you might call "heroically" insane. Batman also has a black and white view of the world. In his view there are predators — criminals — and prey — innocent people. Batman is a dark hero because he is a predator who preys on other predators. He uses their means and their methods in an attempt to keep innocent people safe. The Joker is a great villain for Batman because he is essentially the same as Batman. The difference between the two is how they reacted to the traumatic event that sent them spiraling into psychopathy.

Next, let's look at Superman and Lex Luthor. Luthor's driving motivation is pretty simple. He wants to gather power and rule the world. He's a megalomaniac. There's some ancient drivel in the Superman continuity about Lex being Superboy's best buddy until an accident caused high-school-aged Lex to lose all his hair. Lex blamed Superboy for the accident and turned evil. We don't need that pathetic story to explain Lex's megalomania. The world is full of megalomaniacs, very few of whom ever amount to anything. But look at how Lex's megalomania meshes with Superman. Lex wants power. Superman is power personified. Lex wants to rule the world. Superman, who could do nothing to protect his birth world, uses his powers to protect his adopted world. Lex wants what Superman could easily take. Lex and Superman are the antithesis of each other.

Understanding your villain's motivation is necessary for your villain to act in a consistent manner. The Joker, for instance, will always involve himself personally and directly in his crimes. To do otherwise would deny him the emotions that are the actual reward he seeks. Lex Luthor, on the other hand, will distance himself from the actual commission of his crimes. To involve himself directly would be to risk prison and the loss of his power.

The possible motivations for your villain are numerous but they will always include risk and reward factors. The risks your villain takes must always provide enough of a reward to make the crime worthwhile to your villain.

Humanizing Your Villains
Have you ever wondered what villains do on their days off? Obviously, this question doesn't apply to certifiably insane villains such as the Joker, but it will apply to most villains. As one of the villains from my Southern Knights comic put it, even megalomaniacs have hobbies.

In one issue of the Knights, a pair of professional assassins followed two members of the Knights into a shopping mall. As part of a fairly convoluted plan, they were supposed to stage an assassination attempt on one of the Knights without actually killing him. Not a typical day at the mall for most people. To humanize them, I had one of them stop off at a toy store after the assassination attempt to buy a birthday present for a nephew. In a later story, we actually saw the assassins at the birthday party playing with the children and having a lot of fun. They left, performed a contract assassination and then went back to the party. Even though none of my readers could sympathize with the assassins' profession, they could sympathize with their life away from work.

The lesson here is that all but truly deranged villains have concerns and cares most people will understand. Villains still have to pay the bills, deal with their family and find ways to wind down after a tough day at work. Taking a few minutes to show your villain dealing with these issues will humanize the villain for your readers, making him far more memorable. As an example, the professional assassins I created for the Southern Knights were supposed to be toss-away characters. They were going to appear in a couple of issues as part of the convoluted plot and then never be seen again. Instead, they proved to be very popular with the readers, many of whom wrote us asking for more stories featuring them. In the end, we actually put out a "one shot" issue with four short stories featuring the assassins.

Wrap Up
Essentially, creating memorable villains comes down to two questions. How is your villain different from the average person? How is your villain the same as the average person? If you cannot make your villains have anything in common with the average person, I would recommend having something that makes your villain the same as your hero. If you can pull off all three of those, you'll have yourself a truly memorable villain who can make many an appearance in your stories.

As usual, please use the comments section for any questions or comments you may have.

Henry Vogel is a former million-selling comic book writer who currently makes his living as a storyteller. He posts his writing, entirely fictional, at Tales and Telling. He's also one of the prime movers behind The Curse of the Were-Weasel. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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