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Stories Without Preloaded Villains - A New Normal?

Discussion in 'Film' started by Jayson, May 28, 2020.

  1. Jayson

    Jayson Resident Lucasian

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    Preface:
    Why am I writing this here?
    Because there are actually quite a few writers among us here in the community, and while we don't have a central location for "writing", a lot of the writers around here do actually talk to each other off and on and inspire each other on their works.

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    CARDBOARD VILLAINS
    In the world of Star Wars, it almost seems impossible to imagine such a concept as a story without a villain.
    It's the franchise responsible for probably the most visually recognizable villain ever in film history.

    You say "Star Wars" and the image that almost everyone on the street will have leap to their mind is Darth Vader's mask.
    Vader's almost the Mickey Mouse of Star Wars in terms of brand icon awareness globally.

    However, there's a new thing going on in culture (whether we'll be afforded the luxury of seeing it unfold or not is yet to be seen, given the world's current state of affairs), and that is the slow and steady removal of more and more demographic representatives which can be easily slapped up on the screen as representatives of villainy.

    That is, we're removing preloaded villains. Villains which a creator can draw upon as just "bad" by default, easy to throw up with no real effort to explain why they are bad. They just are by default of what they are, rather than who they are, or how they relate to the protagonist or story.

    You can easily always go with the good old Nazis because...they're Nazis.
    Heck, half of why the Empire works as the go-to villain of Star Wars is they remind us of Nazis. It would be a far different thing entirely if they reminded us of Native Americans. That wouldn't have aged very gracefully.

    And that's kind of the topic here.
    As we democratize more and more of our communication and society, more nuanced corners of our cultures will come out and convey that they really don't appreciate being an archetype of villainy.

    Now, you might be wondering who's left because we don't do that anymore. No one is using African or Native Americans as the go-to villains of film these days, and sexual preference variations are falling off as inherently bad in the eye of the lens as well, so...who's left?

    There's surprisingly quite a few. For one, there really is a constant go-to in film.
    [​IMG]

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    ...and so on and so on.

    That's right - when we need a villain who's just easy to outright black and white strap in as a villain because of what they are and not who they are, we still grab for mental disorders.

    NO MORE CARDBOARD VILLAINS
    But that is slowly changing.
    More and more, you're seeing films with mental disorders tread carefully around the subject, and it's getting more and more attention - slowly, but those suffering mental disorders are speaking up.
    They are trying to reach out and quiet the erroneous ideas about these types of conditions.

    Antisocial personality disorders aren't murderously insane people waiting to kill people without feeling a thing or getting all aroused by it, and dissociative identity disorders aren't delusionally heading for a violent breakdown as a result of their deranged and conflicted personalities.

    Instead, we're starting to populate stories with characters who have mental disorders and are celebrated, or sympathized with more and more. Some are even the protagonist of an entire exploration into the experience of living with such disorders (though, often, it's still quite hyperbolic, but even so...it's a switch in tone).

    Following the train of thought, eventually there won't be a pre-built cut-out villain class to grab and throw into your story as the go-to "boogymen" of film.

    ...and I think that's good.

    CARDBOARD VILLAINS ARE BORING
    See, culturally preloaded villains are bad for story because they don't add anything to the story.
    They take a potentially complex situation and walk completely around it with cardboard context.

    For something like Indiana Jones or Star Wars, that is a desired effect because you're overtly attempting to capture a sense of pulp novel and serial TV era adventures, though...let's be fair here. That era of fiction was heavily steeped in extremely sexist and racist landscapes for telling stories.
    Quite often all you had to do was show a hillside with "Injuns", or a "deviant" man merely implying his "deviance" in tone or dress, and you're in! Say no more, you have your villain, clearly!

    This is, partly, why these kinds of pulp serial stories don't really fly today. They typically rely on dehumanization of some class or group of people.
    To accomplish the same effect today, you have to create your own wooden cardboard villains for your pulp hero to go up against. One of the more successful was The Mummy.

    So basically, rather than use people as evil monsters, they used...actual monsters. That works well enough if you're writing a monster show or adventure, but it doesn't work so well if you're not.

    And that's pretty much everything that's not a pulp-serial story (or sci-fi/horror film).

    For anything that's not, preloaded villains are actually...boring, and they undercut the story.
    Sure, they might bring out great performances because who doesn't love playing a psychotic villain, right?
    It's really common to hear that discussed in the industry - the love of playing a villain; how freeing it can be, especially the mentally deranged.

    And there's truth to that to a degree; playing pretend with letting your ego and id drop to such levels outside of your normal social restrictions is likely going to be to some degree therapeutic and liberating in much the same way as a nude beach is going to be once you break past your self-conscious concerns.

    But that doesn't mean that it's better for the story itself.

    Think about it for a moment.
    Fight Club is an amazing film about a man realizing that he has dissociative identity disorder, while at the same time is a story about the topic of the benign condition of the late 90's white American life that permeated through society - a bored listlessness that resulted in tangents such as Office Space and The Matrix, where people felt disconnected from reality and artificially engaged.
    Fight Club is, then, a story of dichotomy. What we are and what we want to be. Impulse vs Actual.

    But the problem here is that Fight Club actually undermines its own point by making the protagonist "insane".

    It's not very compelling to know that this character couldn't face his primal urges of dissatisfaction with his societal existence and status so, without any traumatic experience other than existential impotence, developed a split personality disorder which he overcomes by shooting himself in the head after helping to architect the destruction of the social order he feels is ineffectual towards his existence.

    It only really works because it's provocative, and at the time, that zeitgeist of existential impotence was going around the white collar society.

    It's actually far more compelling if the character realizes his issues internally through a realization of his placement in contrast to others and has to face them each through a series of character challenges that can't be solved by surviving a gunshot blast to the head.
    For example, if the character was swept along into a business deal (which he was) that was adventurous an daring because his new business partner was actually someone who profited off of the impoverishing of others less fortunate, and our protagonist slowly realized this over the course of the film - that what he thought his business was, was something entirely different than what it really is, and that his sense of liberation was in fact based on an assumption of an idealized version of "primal" life that is far from the brutal reality of people living more "primal" than he is, then the story becomes a lot more rich and complex.
    This juxtaposes the ideals in the film against each other, and forces the protagonist to face them head on as direct choices: stand against his partner, who is a formidable threat and help those whom he has actually been aiding to subjugate, or try to escape and return to a benign existence and try to ignore what he has learned?

    Furthermore, even if he chooses to stand up and fight, he has to face against the realization that he isn't capable of setting right all of the wrongs - the issue is far beyond his own hands.
    That even IF he engages in his more primal senses of human connection, and stands up for those who are being subjugated, he is STILL inept to consequence, and incapable of real lasting change that makes a difference.

    Examining how the character comes to terms with these impossible existential traumas of realizing the reality of their place in the world in full as it truly is, is far more damaging and challenging, as well as complex, of a story than a man who has gone crazy from boredom and solves his problems by blowing a bunch of buildings up and blowing a hole in his head.

    And this marks the point where we look at how do we go forward without such preloaded villainy.

    ENTRANCE: NARRATIVE VILLAINS ONLY!
    The way forward is actually to double-down on character driven stories.
    It's actually a bit ironic, really, because in the world of cardboard characters known as Hero Films, strides are being taken to make villains more dimensional and nuanced, and to make the idea of villain and hero more muddy.

    We even see this in Star Wars, which isn't a hero film, but it's not far off and it's always made its buck off of iconic cardboard villainy. The Prequels began blurring the line far more than the Originals did by making our protagonist the antagonist of the Originals, and now with the Sequels it's even more pronounced as our antagonist is perpetually pleaded with and examined for their wounds that lead them astray and we resolve with them coming back to the good side by the end.

    Outside of the drama (which typically don't have preloaded villains), and hero films, however, the world of suspense and thrillers regularly still relies on some level of preloaded villainy.
    I picked on mental disorders here, but that was just one example. There are more to pick on.
    The next time you watch a suspense or thriller film, just ask why the bad guy is bad.
    It's usually...because they're bad.

    A really common one right now is just "terrorist", rather blandly and vaguely stated.
    This is a neat trick because it allows the writers to throw in pretty much anyone, just like "criminal".
    Oh...OK. Right, check.
    Anyone who we toss into these buckets is just inherently capable of pretty much anything and we can mow them down ad nauseam without consideration.
    And if we don't mow them down, we can just go with "they do bad things" without a second thought as to why they're doing anything that they're doing and how that serves our protagonist's story poetically.

    So...back to the issue at hand - how to go forward.
    Well, a good example of how even an action thriller can go forward in a world without preloaded villains is, for example, The Foreigner (2017).

    This is a complex villain, but it's not an outstanding story - let's be clear about that.
    The reason that it's not an outstanding story is that the protagonist doesn't choose to initiate their own problems and obstacles, really. Like most such "bad arse" action thrillers, they are a reluctant hero who would rather not have to be doing anything they are doing, but crap happens and they are flung by the natural force of "justice" (*eyeroll*) into taking action.

    So it's not without its faults, but what it does well is that it sidesteps a tricky situation.
    They pull up an old go-to cardboard preloaded villainy group: The IRA, slap that into the bucket of "Terrorism", and that's how we start.
    But...they quickly muddy the waters because the investigating politician turns out to be the bad guy who is ultimately responsible for everything, and is causing his own downfall in his attempt for gaining higher political office. In so doing, he unwittingly unleashes his own dark past he now disagrees with and has tried to distance himself from, and becomes the victim of his own monster (the terrorism).
    This is something that our protagonist is only too willing to ensure occurs as a form of poetic justice for the villain taking away the protagonist's family so casually and effortlessly as if to remove blades of grass for a better looking lawn.

    The twist around is that our protagonist still has people who consider him family, and have been wanting to engage him in that role, but he has been too blind by his own self pity to open up and give himself to them until he goes through basically punishing himself in this insane adventure to make the villain pay in-kind for what he has done.

    By the end, the villain has lost family and position, and realized what it was that he had before he tried to gain more, and our hero realizes what he still has to gain where once he thought he had lost everything worth losing.

    There's a very nice poetic relationship between the narrative, the hero, and the villain, and they all serve the central message of what is otherwise a straight action thriller excuse for blowing things up and hitting people - don't take your family for granted, and never overlook those who are offering to be family.

    And no cardboard preloaded villainy.
    If there had been preloaded villainy, all you would have had is Jackie Chan kicking and punching resurgent IRA boogymen, and you would have also pissed off some people in Ireland for making them out to be the evil people of the UK once again.

    So the way forward is to dig in deep and connect the villain to their humanity and make them every bit as much a full character with an arc of their own to take as the hero has for theirs.

    In a nutshell, basically the way forward is what we have seen in the Sequel Trilogy.
    An intertwined character growth between the Protagonist and Antagonist around a central theme which challenges them both, but from different angles.

    Alright, I've ranted enough...


    Cheers,
    Jayson

    social tagging
    @Angelman @NinjaRen @RockyRoadHux
     
    #1 Jayson, May 28, 2020
    Last edited: May 28, 2020
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  2. Angelman

    Angelman Servant to the Whills & Slave to the Muses
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    Interesting analysis, but I sit here wondering whether you're right? I mean, I agree 100% that villains are very, very important to a story -- actually, I ascribe to the notion that the villain is probably the most important character in your story as they bring the conflict and plot -- but haven't the vast majority of villains always been cardboard people and culturally coded? We just don't remember yesteryear's bad movies and TV shows, but I'm pretty sure they were there.

    Just how characters are culturally coded may change a little, especially in light of increased racial awareness and progressiveness, but I do not think it is more prevalent now than before. If you were Puerto Rican in 80s TV, you were probably a coke gangster; were you a Native American in the 50s cinema, you were a murderous savage, while in the 90s you were an anti-hero and possible a noble savage; if you were an Asian character at basically any point during the 20th century, you were untrustworthy and would probably betray those close to you; and if you happened to be a white bad-guy, you were complex character with relatable motivations, a sad backstory, and a chance of redemption… etc., etc.

    This doesn’t weaken your point about the weakness of “preloaded” villains, though. Coding is a short-hand, very practical for TV writing in particular (where you must convey an entire story’s worth of motivation and conflict in a single 22-45 minute episode), but also very problematic, of course. And for writing quality alone, the drawback of short-hand is a loss of richness and relevance, and you end up just recycling the same tired old stories week after week, show after show… which is why we forget about them quickly and perceive that the current age of storytelling (where we haven’t ignored and forgotten the bad stuff yet) to be much poorer than what came before.


    Does that make sense?
     
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  3. Jayson

    Jayson Resident Lucasian

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    Oh quite so.

    If it seemed as though I was suggesting that we use more preloaded villains now, I'm sorry for the confusion.

    I was asserting just the opposite.
    Before, there were a flood of choices, however now preloaded villains are cornered to a few, but still present selection.

    Nazis are, for example, still free game because...Nazis.

    The point was to highlight where we're at, where it's going, and how to work through stories without this dying age-old trope.

    Cheers,
    Jayson
     
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  4. Angelman

    Angelman Servant to the Whills & Slave to the Muses
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    Ah, my bad. I completely misread your post.

    Oh, and Nazis are allways free game! ;)
     
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  5. NinjaRen

    NinjaRen Supreme Leader

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    The concept of villains is changing. Just like the hero or heroine having their journey ("The Hero's / Heroine's Journey"), so does the villain have his/her own journey. You may simply call it "The Villain's journey". This journey goes like this:

    1) The ordinary world

    The villain gets pulled out of his everyday world. He gets abandoned, or he loses some he loves, etc.

    2) Call to adventure
    It's time for revenge.

    3) Refusal of the call
    Before the villain turns evil he hesitates. Maybe he tries to justifiy the injustice.

    4) Meeting with the Mentor
    The villain meet another, much more knowledgable villain, who assists the villain. This person is usually called the oppressor. The opressor is pure evil.

    5) Crossing the threshold

    The villain commits his/her crimes. Their is no point of turning back now. He's/she's a villain now.

    6) Tests, allies, enemies
    The villain tries to track down the hero of the story.

    7) Approach

    This is the biggest challenge for the villain - facing off with the hero.

    8) The ordeal, death, rebirth
    This is the last step of "the villain's journey". The villain loses against the hero. This has consequences like death or jail.


    This journey is pretty similar to "The Hero's Journey":
    1 N7MXIfhIQVVkL5_7UZXoOA.gif

    One of the main differences here- the villain's journey ends with step 8.

    So, the term "villain" isn't really right anymore. A better description would be "Fallen Hero". => "The Fallen Hero's Journey". This journey is the reason why villain's like Darth Vader wouldn't work anymore these days.
     
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  6. Jayson

    Jayson Resident Lucasian

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    This is a fantastic breakdown Ninja!

    I have seen 4 flipped quite often, as well, so our villain is the mentor and finds his pupil/subordinate has thrown a wrench right into things by (it turns out) dialing the evil up, to the shock of the villain.

    This, for example, is what you see in The Foreigner.
    It's a good reversal to create a more humanized villain.

    Nice presentation! :)

    Cheers,
    Jayson
     
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