A Great Villain Can Save Your Story

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We say we love a good hero, but do we really prefer the bad guys? When we read a book or see a movie, the story comes to life if there is a memorable villain.

Even the music industry understands our infatuation with bad boys and bad girls. Every sweet teen pop star that turns eighteen is walked to the back room of the studio and shoved into the image conversion machine. So long nice and innocent. Hello defiant and naughty. The studio execs know the public. They know that a teen star has little chance of success unless they turn bad.

batman-the-joker-jack-nicholson-1605727922Portions of Hollywood understand the same thing. When you think of the Batman franchise, which characters stand out the most? Jack Nicholson started it with his portrayal of the Joker. Heath Ledger came along and put the Batman franchise back on the map with his version of the Joker. Which Batman movies are the best? The ones with the Joker in them, of course.

When you go to a convention, the fans dressed as Han and Luke and Leia are not the ones catching your eye. The costumes that grab your attention are Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers. We can’t get enough of them.

Would Star Wars have been the culture changing phenomenon it is without Darth Vader to anchor it? If you removed Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy, you could have figured a way to make the series work. If you removed Darth Vader and replaced him with the Grand Moff Tarkin, or even the Emperor, would the franchise still be dominating store shelves?

During my early years, I spent summer afternoons reading countless Conan comic books. They helped shape my passion for fantasy and science fiction, and they primed me for the science fiction revolution that has swept Hollywood and the world.

You see I was at ground zero when Star Wars hit theaters. I was the prime target audience. I was the kid buying up all the action figures and merchandise. It shaped my perception of science fiction and opened my mind to new possibilities.

p4_141I have always enjoyed Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, Firefly, and all of the other science fiction franchise serials. As much as I’ve enjoyed each of these wonderful series, nothing has reached me on the same level as Star Wars. Perhaps it was the timing.

The more I think about what makes Star Wars so great to me, the more my attention is drawn back to the bad guys. Every Trek fan knows that Wrath of Khan was the best Star Trek film. Why? It was the best because of Khan.

The recent remake of the film was very entertaining, but it seemed to lack the magic of the original version. The bad guy in the second film was good, but he lacked the sheer charisma of the original villain.

Batman is one of the greatest superheroes of all time, but would he be as great without such amazing villains as the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman?

Every great sports figure needs a rival. Ali needed Frazier. Peyton Manning needs Tom Brady. Your hometown team needs a bitter rival. It makes sports interesting. Greatness requires a measuring stick. It requires an opponent as charismatic and successful as the hero.

khanSo it is that Captain Kirk had Khan, but who did Captain Picard have? He had the Romulans and the Borg, but no archenemy. Even Kirk in all his greatness didn’t face Khan enough. He only faced his nemesis once. The rest of the time he ran around fighting Klingons.

What if Kirk had faced down a single great Klingon? A captain of an enemy ship who was every bit his equal. Someone that pushed him to the limits. How much greater would Kirk have been?

So it is with Star Wars, the villains make the series great. What greater villain in any science fiction film exists than Darth Vader? He is the quintessential bad guy.

In Star Wars they went beyond providing Luke Skywalker an equal; they made him face someone so far beyond his own abilities that he could never hope to defeat him by himself. Even when Luke finally overcame his father, it was only through reaching the man beneath the villain.

The Star Wars reboot that began with the Phantom Menace headed immediately down the right path. Fans loved the new villain. Darth Maul captured the imagination and wowed on the screen with his spectacular abilities.

The franchise swerved off the tracks a bit when it killed Darth Maul, just as the fans had grown to love him. That’s right. The fans loved Darth Maul. He stole every scene he was in and remains the brightest part of the movie. The ten year olds that were in the theater when I watched the movie gasped in horror when Darth Maul was killed by the vile Obi Wan Kenobi—wait, flip that. I meant to say the vile Darth Maul.

The second and third films in the series had Count Dooku and General Grievous, but they were never able to reach the audience the way Darth Maul did. Perhaps in time we might have even grown to love Darth Maul as much as we love Darth Vader. But Darth Maul only had one film, Vader had three.

Last fall, the House of Mouse began its exploration of the Star Wars universe with the creation of the Star Wars Rebels animated series. The series is smartly created with persistent characters and a progressive storyline, overcoming some of the disconnect that existed in the Star Wars: Clone Wars series.

The new series has created more memorable villains. Headlining the bad guys of the series is the evil Inquisitor. He shares characteristics with both Darth Vader and Darth Maul. Each of them has a very distinct appearance, making them unique.

What would Vader be like without his mask and heavy breathing? What if he only looked like the grown Anakin Skywalker? The mystique would be lost. The terror absent.

Likewise, Darth Maul possesses an intimidating if not creepy appearance. His devilish appearance makes him a sight to behold.

The Inquisitor also has a scary appearance—one fit for Halloween costumes and nightmares. He shares Darth Maul’s affection for the double-bladed light saber. He even goes a step further, by having his light saber fully automated to spin.

SPOILERS: Regrettably the storytellers made the same mistake they did with Darth Maul. They killed off the Inquisitor. In a single season the Inquisitor goes from one of the top-selling Halloween costumes, balloons, toys, and party plates to dead and gone.

Once again the young Star Wars fans are left gnashing their teeth and mourning one of their favorite villains. When will the story tellers learn their lesson?

How great would Batman be if he had killed the Joker in their first meeting or even the second? What about his other villains? They each make him greater.

How much greater would Captain Kirk be today if Khan had kept coming back for more?

fiction_voldemortWhat about Harry Potter? He had Lord Voldemort to prove himself against. What if J. K. Rowling had killed him off in the first book?

There are many great novels and many great films that survive without a memorable bad guy—stories where evil is muted or blended in with good. This makes for a fine believable story, but will we remember it as well?

Who is the bad guy in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series? There are many shades of evil and good. Some might argue that nearly all of his heroes are villains. Isn’t antihero just another word for villain?

In the Lord of the Rings, we have Saraoun. He has many of the ingredients of an epic bad guy, but we just don’t get to interact with him. He is more of a force of nature.

Dorothy had the Wicked Witch of the West as her foil. Without WWW, Dorothy’s tale begins to pale.

This year thousands of books and dozens of films will be released. The ones with the strongest bad guys will be the ones we remember.

Over the years, I have learned to keep myself well away from trailers, rumors, and speculation of upcoming films. So it is that I’ve remained on the outside of the hype building for Star Wars Episode 7 that will release in December. I can only hope that the filmmakers bring out a worthy foe for the heroes they have created.

The film will be won or lost on the strength of the villain. The heroes need a rival equal to or better than themselves. They need a villain that is bigger than one movie. They need a bad guy that can survive to Episode 8 and even Episode 9.

Yes, they might bring back Darth Vader, but that would be cheating. The Clone Wars brought back Darth Maul, but he was only a fraction of his original self. He walked with robot legs and lacked the vitality of his original self.

Maybe we should be telling those budding screenwriters and authors to start with the villain instead of the hero. A great villain can save your story.

Cheers to all the villains we know and love. I for one hope they survive to fight another day.

Who are your favorite villains?

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