The villains we remember most aren't just bad, they have layers of goodness woven in. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman explains how every character can have their own antagonist within your story.
A good hero plus a bad villain does not a fabulous story make. Spit-shined heroes, bad-to-the-bone villains and one-note mentor characters may serve a first draft, but not a compelling story and certainly not a powerful movie.
Stories need a great hook and complex characters who weave in and out of each other’s storylines, creating a web of conflicts and opportunities for emotional growth. Every character can have their own antagonist within your story.
Let’s talk Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a story which portrays one of the most complex protagonist/antagonist relationships in film history.
The path of least resistance would be to assume Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) saved the lives of over 1,000 Jewish people out of pure compassion in his heart. Nope. Not so much. His initial goal was pure greed.
When we first meet Schindler, he proudly clips the Nazi pin to his lapel and seamlessly manipulates a dining room full of German soldiers into being his allies. After previously failing at multiple businesses, he’s found the secret to lining his pockets with unimaginable wealth: war.
He uses the imprisoned Jews as cheap labor, even bankrolling his factory off of investments by wealthy Jewish men in exchange for repaying them in pots and pans, not cash. He displays the skills of manipulation, power and charisma. His setup could easily have been that of an antagonist.
Enter the concentration camp Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). As he’s driven through the camp, we see him sniffling from illness. He orders the women to line up so he may choose a suitable house maid. Upon sighting Helen, clearly attracted to her, he takes a step back, not wanting to give her his cold. Chivalrous. A trait of a hero, yes? Not so fast. Within minutes we witness him ordering a guard to shoot a Jewish engineer in the back of the head simply because she spoke up about a structure being unsound. His heart is as cold as the war.
What could these two men possibly have in common? At the beginning of the film, a lot—egos that go on for miles and lust for power, wealth and sex. The emotional connection of love means nothing to either of them. Money and power mean everything. Above all, they want to be considered extraordinary.
Schindler is a reluctant hero. Before he evolves to be a savior of Jews, he actively builds a friendship with Goeth, partying in his villa and bringing him gifts, women and money. They act as brothers in their Nazi fraternity.
Schindler even defends Goeth, claiming he’s under a lot of pressure and if not for the war, would be a decent guy. He’s blinded to Goeth’s cruelty because he doesn’t want to see it. Seeing it would interfere with his goal of financial success.
Goeth, too, defends Schindler after his arrest for kissing a Jewish worker to thank her for his birthday cake. Goeth pleads to the arresting commander, “He likes women … he likes beautiful women … he sees a good-looking woman and he can’t think.” Goeth goes on to explain, which also explains his love for his maid, Helen, “They cast a spell on you, those Jews.” He bears no responsibility for loving his maid. In his mind, she manipulated his heart. She is his antagonist.
On many occasions, Spielberg highlights the similarities between these men. Are we all simply one choice away from being a good or evil person?
One would even argue that the Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) deserves the hero title instead of mentor. Stern feeds names to Schindler of people Goeth targets, adding them to the list of factory workers. Stern pushes Schindler to see the despicable actions of Goeth. Without him, Schindler’s list of over a thousand names would most likely not exist. All those lives would not have been saved.
Even Goeth challenges the pure villain title—a murderous, ruthless scoundrel who accidentally falls in love with his Jewish maid, driving him mad. Quite literally. While Spielberg shows his fate of being executed at the end of the film, in real life Goeth was in a mental institution prior to his arrest by U.S. soldiers and eventual hanging. I would have loved that detail be included, but it was already a three-hour movie. Like our characters, directors also have to make choices.
This all demonstrates that a hero should not be perfect, a villain should not be entirely evil and supporting characters can take on heroic and antagonistic roles, too. Your stories swell with richness when the boundaries of your characters blur.
In Jonathan Demme’s film The Silence of the Lambs, the lines bleed among heroes, villains and supporting characters.
Many people have spoken of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) as the antagonist. He isn’t. He is one of two mentor characters for FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jody Foster). Yes, Lecter is a pathological serial killer whom we fear, but he teaches Clarice more about being an investigator than her FBI Chief mentor does. Not only does Lecter directly lead her to solving the case, but unlike the FBI Chief, he always treats her with respect and as an equal. Sure, he’s creepy as hell, but in his mind, Clarice’s intellectual prowess demands validation.
The first time Clarice meets Lecter, she states, “Yes, I’m a student. I’m here to learn from you.” And learn she does.
Clarice and Lecter are partners in solving this crime. Each has their own antagonist. For Clarice, it’s Buffalo Bill. Lecter shares insights into the mind of the transgender serial killer who murders and skins women. But catching Buffalo Bill matters not to Lecter. He dreams of being transferred to a room with a view, to feel fresh air. He wants out.
Meet Lecter’s antagonist, prison psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), who not only keeps Lecter locked in the darkest of dungeons, but also bores him to tears.
His biggest offense occurs when the doctor thwarts Clarice from visiting Lecter out of a bruised ego. The self-inflated psychiatrist can’t stand that she reaches Lecter in a way he cannot. He’ll do anything to crack the code that is Lecter’s brain. The psychiatrist’s jealousy of Clarice leads him to poor choices, resulting in deaths of police officers and Lecter’s escape.
Lecter hates the prison psychiatrist for many reasons, one being how he treated Clarice. In the closing scenes where Clarice graduates from the FBI after capturing Buffalo Bill singlehandedly, she answers the phone. When she reaches for the receiver, we hear Lecter’s voice, “I have no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world is more interesting with you in it.”
But that shrink? He’s not going to be so lucky …
Clarice achieved her goal of becoming a superior FBI Agent. Lecter achieved his goal, too. He has a view … and a friend for dinner.
When you create stories, think about the many roles characters can play beyond boxing them into the titles hero, mentor or villain. Riveting characters attract actors. After all, writers are the heroes in an actor’s career. We create the characters they aspire to bring to life. Creating complex layers and a tangled web keeps your audience on the edges of their seats.
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