(Disclaimer: Matt Blackwell, who plays our leading antagonist Jacob Colt, is actually one of the nicest actors I've ever met. Working with him has been a lot of fun, and he's probably more talented than he even understands. The fact that he hasn't been featured in more movies is absolutely criminal, in my opinion. People are going to want to kill his character, when they see the movie.)
The first question I asked myself when I sat down to write Jacob Colt as a character was, who where my favorite bad guys in the movies, and what was the one thing they all had in common? What made them so infuriating to watch? It wasn't some evil plan hatched for personal gain, or a plot to take over the world, but rather something that almost anyone can relate to having to deal with. They were all bullies.
I feel that when writing a villain, it makes their character instantly more interesting to view them in this way, because now you're not just writing about a person who is mean in a one dimensional way. Now, they have modus operandi, which your protagonists will be vulnerable to in different ways. In order to defend against this bully, they first must fall victim to him, and then learn something about themselves that makes them grow into a person who may have a fighting chance to win. Not everyone in a story will, which is what makes a good antagonist so frightening, frustrating, and able to make our blood boil.
In order to achieve this effect to its fullest potential, we first must gain a better understanding of a bully's methods and motivations. I will use several of my favorite movie villains to illustrate them.
A bully needs a victim. Someone whom they mark, either through jealousy or opportunity for exploitation. Their first order of business will be to find out what aspect of their query can be used to manipulate them into a place of isolation, away from anyone who might notice the first red flags of abuse. Many times, the victim may not at first realize that the intentions of a new acquaintance are not at all good. Usually, an abusive person starts off offering some form of aid, but quickly that aid becomes a leash that can be tugged at at anytime, used to take away something of need, or turned against another. A good example of this may be Bobby Peru, in the David Lynch film Wild At Heart.
Bobby first appears as a friend to Sailor, who can help he and Lula out of their financial situation, by including Sailor in on a plan to rob a bank. However, when Sailor is out of the room, Lula instantly becomes alone and defenseless against Bobby extorting sexual promises from her, which if she denies, may result in something "going wrong" during the robbery. It may mean Sailor's death. She can't tell Sailor because he sees Bobby as a trusted friend, and they both know that they will have no place else to go, if they don't get some money. Bobby knows all of these factors, and has used them to encircle her, leaving no options left, other than to quiver, cry, and agree to his terms.
Isolating a person also makes it easier to...
There's a reason whey the kidnapper always tells the person carrying the ransom to "come alone." Any support you might have in taking back what is rightfully yours is an extreme disadvantage for a bully. Hostages they might hold are...
The Promise of Love and Approval: such as The Joker uses (in Batman: The Animated Series) to hold Harley Quinn in place as a loyal servant, even though in truth, he only cares about himself.
Since her introduction into the show, we've seen that she would do anything to make him happy. The sad thing is, anything she might do to please him is viewed as success where he has failed, which infuriates him. Her failures are what makes her scramble to want to please him more and do his bidding. Too many successes and she might begin to notice his failures, and see that she doesn't need his approval. That's why when she captures Batman without any help, The Joker responds by beating her and throwing her out a window.
A Supposed Sacrifice They Make On Your Behalf: In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, we see this in Norman Bates' mother, even though she is relegated in death to a voice that speaks to him within his mind, she still holds the power of guilt over his head. Norman even sees it, but he feels that he's been a burden to her. The least he can do is bear her insane reprimands. When talking about it, he even defends her, saying that she's not a bad person. It's the illness.
This power is then fortified by telling the victim that they are unappreciative, ungrateful for the things that have been given to them or done for them. Many people concede to these arguments, because bullies are also...
Telling You That You Can't Do What You Need, Without Them: Bullies are very good at subtly, yet very effectively making situations more difficult than they need to be, so that they can emphasize their own sense of self sacrifice, making them the appear to be a martyr for you. A good example of this might be Annie Wilkes, in the movie Misery.
When we meet her, she has already rescued writer Paul Sheldon from freezing to death after his snowy car wreck, and has begun to nurse him back to some form of health. However, in order to keep him where she wants, she orchestrates a series of difficulties she tells him she has to suffer, so that he can get better. At first they seem legitimate. They're snowed in, the lines are down, he's in no condition to be moved, but as these conditions begin to improve and Annie shows no sign of letting him leave, she turns to accusations. She lists off all the things she does for him, how she has sacrificed to do them, and how he wouldn't be able to do them for himself. Of course, she's become very good in these moments at forgetting that she is the one who sabotaged the phone lines and hobbled him when he was getting better.
That's a go to tactic for bullies, as well. They're very good at forgetting valid points that are in your favor, soon after you make them. They'll talk as if they were never mentioned, don't exist or say things like "Oh, that tired old argument again!" They get away with ignoring the facts of their bad behavior in favor of...
Pointing Out or Picking On Insecurities: No one is better at this than Hannibal Lecter, from Silence Of The Lambs.
The most prominent example of this is when Dr. Lecter is brought to meet with Senator Martin, upon the promise that he can tell her how to find her missing daughter. The Senator is a competent and strong individual, yet Lecter instantly cuts into her emotions with surgical precision. The conversation goes something like this:
"Tell me, Senator: did you nurse Catherine yourself?"
"Did you breast-feed her?"
"Yes, I did."
"Toughened your nipples, didn't it? Amputate a man's leg and he can still feel it tickling. Tell me, mum, when your little girl is on the slab, where will it tickle you?"
In the novel, Lecter is described as "drinking in her pain." We all have some weakness within us. If a villain cannot use it to exploit a person completely, they will still take cheap shots, to sting us, or assert some sort of superiority, whether it be intellectual like Hannibal's, or in...
Pretending They Have A Moral High Ground Over You: This is probably the most underused and subtle form of emotional manipulation, in movies, yet commonplace in real life. The best example I can think of in recent memory, that doesn't resort to using some stereotype of a group the writer would like to demonize, is in Deloris Umbridge of Harry Potter, and the Order of the Phoenix.
Here is an individual who given a blank check for authority and inserts herself among a group of people, to disrupt them on the premise that they're an out of control group that's making things unnecessarily difficult for everyone else. What she really means to say is that their actions are spotlighting that her and the group she represents (the wizarding government known as the Ministry of Magic) are corrupt, inept, and enabling dark forces to erode what makes their society strong.
Her course of action is to spin doctor their motivations, question their loyalty, and try to show them as deviant troublemakers who lack morality, even when they are the only ones truly trying to uphold it. If someone cannot control how you see yourself, then they will next seek to control how others see you. Note how a key plot point in the film is when she goes about Hogwarts "interviewing" the school staff, seeing what bad things she get get them to say about themselves and others, with the intent of finding their weaknesses. From there, like small loose threads, she picks at them until they unravel, making them look like major problems that further build her case, in the eyes of the uninformed. With that reasoning, she is able to take power from others, and grant more to herself. This is also known as "campaigning" or "circling the wagons."
If an audience sees them switching to this very dirty and underhanded tactic successfully, then they are sure to grip their armrests a little harder in anger and frustration. You'll have them on your hero's side, all the more for these injustices.
Many of the above things can be used to bind a villain to a hero in such a way that they feel they can't just walk away from a toxic situation, and into the sanctuary of people who might otherwise form a protective circle around them. The hostage ensures the isolation, but if there is no hostage, the bully loses their power.
The other major component a villain has to ensure their success is their gang. Like with Harley Quinn, sometimes the gangs themselves are abused in a bullying packing order, but for the most part, they are there to help insure that the victim is as isolated as possible, with no one or where to turn to, for support.
This can be used as a pivotal moment within a story, because nothing is more powerful than either flipping the tables on this gang, by bringing them and their bad behavior out into the light for all to see, or by flipping them on the villain in some way, isolating them from their gang. A powerful example of this is in the movie Stand By Me, when Ace and his gang are about to inflict some serious harm. Suddenly, Gordy pulls a gun on them, leveling the playing field. The gang no longer has the upper hand. Ace at first does not lose his composure and tries to disarm Gordy through manipulation of his morality by saying, "You must have some of your brother's good sense." Gordy doesn't take the bait.
Ace then switches to intimidation by saying, "What are you going to do, shoot us all?
This is where Gordy is smart, and wins the gambit. He says, "No Ace. Just you." Ace is pissed, but he has no choice but to back down. He's been both outmatched and outwitted and his gang sees that he's not brave or tough enough risk his life in a fight that he might not be able to win. He backs off, because bullies are never looking for a real fight. They are only interested in victims.
This is the real motivation for pretty much any villain in any story, or in real life. Whether it be out of some form of resentment, a feeling of superiority guided by the notion of a birth right or imagined moral high ground, or insecurities that they feel can only be compensated for by keeping others oppressed, a bully's answer to all of these things is the tearing down and holding of power over others by whatever means necessary. Almost always, that will include the mental (often followed by the physical) subjugation of your protagonist, their efforts, and/or the things they care about.
Everyone has had a bully in their lives, or watched someone they love at the mercy of a bully. The most clever of them are subtle. They push, prod, needle, intimidate, and exploit until you realize that things are not going to get better until you take a stand.
When that happens, the initial reaction will be to tell them to get back into their place...
...and when that doesn't work, they'll play the victim to as big an audience that they can find, in order to make you look bad, so that you'll back down.
Stepping Into The Light
Like in Stand By Me, this is where your hero will win. Regardless of if it is in a final conflict or a Cumbia moment, a hero takes their power back, when all the abuses, lies, and other injustices of the antagonist are laid bare, were all can see them for what they are, and know the truth. Even then, the worst of them will try to make everyone doubt that truth.
However, your audience will always be able to see when the hero has gained what they need to win, because our heroes will be the ones to ride off into the sunset or towards something better.
Of course, no victory is ever a permanent win. Bullies will say they'll change their ways, but soon after, most go back to their old habits. In real life and in the movies, that can feel like a burden, but remember, a good villain can also be the promise of a new adventure for a good hero.
If you've enjoyed this article, you may be interested in my other musings on writing. You can read them by clicking HERE.
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