Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing Complex Antagonists - Part 2

A month or so ago I did a post entitled Writing Complex Antagonists. In the comments section, one astute reader (Star Swirl the Bearded) (nice name) provided some interesting counterpoints to my argument. I gave them a great deal of thought, and decided to discuss them here in a second post.

In my original entry, I argued that complex, shades-of-gray villains are more interesting than "I'm evil because I'm evil" villains. Star Swirl pointed out several exceptions to this rule - the Joker, Sauron, and the Emperor from Star Wars. I decided to address each of these one by one to take a closer look at how they fit into my initial theory.

Firstly, the Joker (to be clear, we're talking Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight). Brilliant villain. A complete psychopath, whose sole goal is to cause chaos for the sake of chaos. Now, I'd argue that the Joker, being a character in a movie, is completely different from a book's antagonist. For me as a viewer, Heath Ledger made that movie the masterpiece it was. It was his physicality, his way of moving and speaking, that really brought the Joker to life. I don't think it could've been done in a book. Also, I think The Dark Knight isn't really about the Joker as a villain. The real villain is the corrupting force of evil....the way the Joker is able to corrupt what's-his-name (hey, I'd look it up, but Wikipedia is down) and turn him to the "dark side."

Star Wars. Honestly, I don't consider the Emperor to be the villain of Star Wars. When I first saw the movies I never gave a rat's ass about the Emperor. In fact, I found him quite boring. I'd argue that Darth Vader is the real villain of Star Wars. He's the one we care about, especially during the latter films, and he's quite a complex character. Vader supports my original theory - complex antagonists are more interesting than simple ones.

And then we have Lord of the Rings. This is the one that really stumped me. Is Sauron purely evil? Sure. Is he scary? Hell yes. I thought about it for a long time, and the conclusion I came to is that Sauron functions more as a symbol than a villain. He represents everything evil in Middle Earth. In cases like these, I think a fully evil antagonist can work, so long as there are other evil characters who are more complex. When it comes to Lord of the Rings, we have Gollum and Saruman. Both evil, both swayed by the influences of Sauron. Sauron is basically Satan (makes sense, given Tolkien's Christian background). He doesn't really appear in the books at all. However, his influence can be felt through both Gollum and Saruman, who are tremendously intricate characters driven to darkness by some outside malevolent force. So in a sense, I think Star Swirl is right. Purely evil antagonists can be highly effective if utilized correctly. Sauron may be a one-dimensional villain, but considering Saruman and Gollum are basically extensions of Sauron's power, Tolkien manages to add depth and shades of gray to an otherwise black and white scenario. These two characters don't define Sauron, but they make the book a lot more interesting and thought-provoking by implanting the idea that anyone can be corrupted by evil.

So what do you guys think? Am I totally off base? Love hearing your opinions!!! And thanks to Star Swirl for encouraging me to look deeper into the issue :).


  1. I'd have to agree with you regarding Star Wars. Dark Vader rich, deep, evil and in painful place.

    When it comes to the Joker and Sauron, I did see them both as evil for the sake of evil. Nothing redeemable about them because that's where they wanted to be, causing havoc for pure evil's sake. I saw them as puppet masters, villains whole and true to heighten the presence of the opposite, the good in the world(s).
    I could see your point regarding Sauron being more of a symbol except he was once embodied in a physical form that was then dispersed, so to say, into the eye, much like "he who shall not be named" existed on slivers of life until he could regain his physical form.

    Of the three mentioned for this post, I'd still find Dark Vader as the most interesting antagonist because of his complexities. Just my humble opinion though.

  2. I love Star Swirl's name. Go obscure Pony references! Especially ones directly related to Twilight Sparkle, the pony whom I can most relate to.

    We're doing a "heroes" unit in English, and today we talked about Anakin Skywalker (as you can imagine, I was overjoyed. I'm more than an expert in the subject). We were talking about fatal flaws, and how Anakin's is fear--he's afraid of losing those he loves (mainly Padme, but as we see in "The Clone Wars," and several Star Wars books, this protectiveness extends to Obi-Wan and Ahsoka, as well). In fact, it's Anakin's fear of losing Padme that drives him to the dark side. He joins Sideous because Sideous promises he can show Anakin how to keep Padme alive forever.

    And we've seen this before "Revenge of the Sith" as well. The massacre of the Sand People after Shmi's death is the main example. Multiple times in Star Wars books, Anakin makes reckless and risky decisions because he believe Obi-Wan is in danger. In "Downfall of a Droid", we see Anakin risk his mission, all of his troops, and even his Padawan in order to save Artoo. In the Clone Wars movie, Anakin nearly kills Jabba the Hutt (which seems like a good thing, but it would totally destroy relations between the Hutts and the Republics, causing the Hutts to join the Separatists and close off trade routes in the Outer Rim to the Republic) because he thinks Jabba's killed Ahsoka. The next four episodes of the Clone Wars make up an arch totally revolving around Anakin's attachment to Obi-Wan (from what I've seen on the trailer, Anakin, Ahsoka, and Rex get news that Obi-Wan has been killed, and while Rex and Ahsoka are sad but move on, Anakin goes crazy and tries to kill the guy who "killed" Obi-Wan). These complicated attachments in the life of Anakin Skywalker make him a fascinating character, and therefore a fascinating villain.

    (I apologize for my rambling.)

  3. However, I do have some evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil characters that I love. Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes (especially as portrayed by Andrew Scott in the BBC miniseries "Sherlock"), The Master from Doctor Who, and (don't laugh) Discord from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. All of these villains are likable, even though they're totally evil. They're funny. If they weren't so intent upon destroying the main characters, you'd want them to be your best friend. :)

  4. I like a villain that I can't just hate. There has to be something that makes them a little vulnerable, that makes me feel something for them. I think it makes them more well rounded. Great post - new follower :)

  5. I completely agree with your stance on villains, and with two of the villains you examined in your post (I have not finished LOTR. Does that make me a bad author/human being? D: ).

    Have you seen the movie "Summer Wars?" It's a truly amazing movie. The antagonist is a rogue AI who never says a word throughout the entire film, yet I still consider Summer Wars one of the best/most entertaining movies I've seen recently. It's not a particularly thought-provoking, and there are one or two corny moments, but it was still extremely well-done.
    The antagonist (named Lovemachine for some strange, unknown, and hilarious reason) worked to the advantage of the story because the point of the movie wasn't really to defeat Lovemachine. That was a nice afterthought, but it seemed like the real goal was to settle all of the tensions and strife within the real-life family that collectively serves as the story's deuteragonist.