I have been playing, of all things, Final Fantasy XII on an ancient PS2 that is slowly falling apart and one thing that struck me about the main plotline is how emotionally un-invested the main character is in the villain or the results of the villain’s actions. Vaan, the main character, has no real place in the storyline and even when he sort of shoe-horns a place, he has no investment in the outcome. The villain is too distant from him for there to be any connection. As a result, the story is entertaining but it feels stale. “Why is this guy even here?” I ask.
On the other hand, Final Fantasy VII still lingers because the Sephiroth-Cloud conflict is so personal that even after the game is done the feeling of “oooh, SEPHIROTH” clings. The plotline makes the villain personal. It’s relentlessly personal — Sephiroth does all but dance naked in front of you during the main plotline. If there is something of yours he can take away, he goes after it with a passion. Near the end, the player is going, “Damn you SEPHIROTH.” And if you are me, promptly sets your computer background to be Sephiroth wallpaper.
This brought about a sort of rambling discussion about the importance of villains and villainy in a story to make a story emotionally grabbing or “hooky.” Every story has some kind of challenge to be overcome — be it environmental or time constraints or other human beings. Otherwise, there’s no actual story. It’s just a set piece full of people talking Tarantino-like.
If the challenge is another character, the trick is to make the challenge have emotional currency and staying power that builds. It cannot be simply one knife in the back — it has to be a series of escalating knives in the backs until nothing is left except stabbing time in a big emotional payoff climax. The villain’s core job is to foster emotional investment in the narrative. Otherwise, we are stuck with a glorified travel memoir, ala Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which has plenty of great set pieces but never has much emotional staying power.
This lead to wondering “what makes a great villain?”
* Ambition and drive to achieve goals at any cost.
The story needs a good antagonist, the antagonist needs a motive and drive, and then the protagonist needs emotional connection to the antagonist on a deep, primal level. But the protagonist is not the only one on a journey through the story. The villain needs his own arc, his own story, that is just as compelling as the protagonist’s so that they work as a weight-counterweight. The villain cannot be a cackling insane bad guy sitting in a tower being evil just to be evil. He needs to be doing something, and the protagonist has to run to keep up.
This doesn’t just hold for classic good guy – bad guy interactions. Bad guys can be groups (Nazis), creatures (the whale in Moby Dick; Jaws), and environment (several Jack London novels). It’s easier to conceive in a common good guy – bad guy interaction.
FF12 is a fantastic example of a villain who simply falls down from the outset. 10 hours into the game and there’s not a shred of emotional connection between Vaan, who is theoretically the main character, and Vayne, the Big Evil Bad Dude. The story has no sense of cohesion outside of a travelogue. Things happen around Vaan. He experiences hardship and victories and boss fights. Very little happens to Vaan. Even at one point in dialogue Penolo, who has even less emotional stake in the story, tells one of the lesser bad guys: “I don’t even know why I am here.” Neither do we.
I am okay with travelogues. There is nothing wrong with a good road trip. One of my favorite books of all time is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But other than some excellent twists of words, it is a story in something happens, but not a story as in a great narrative. It has to rely on language to be hooky which is a difficult trick to pull off.
I’m thinking about video games because I’m playing video games and it is a ready example, but it holds true for, for example, the two Lock Lamora novels by Scott Lynch where one has a hooky villain (who violates literary convention but that IN ITSELF is another story) and the second does not. Hell, one can say it works for Shakespeare’s Richard III or Othello but falls down with the lesser and considerably more awful plays because the protagonist-antagonist structure falls apart.
All just fodder for vague thought as I get out of my Epic Dry Spell and back into writing.
Interesting academic exercise: Read some trashy fiction. Pick out the antagonist/protagonist. Write down the antagonist’s story. Does it intersect with the protagonist’s? How? Where? What is the antagonist’s journey? Does the antagonist’s story have any staying power for you?