MAKING COMICS: Writing your Villain (or, Why General Zod was Right)
There’s a writing tip that I’ve come across in many forms, and seen applied to a variety of media. Most recently, @bang2write (Lucy V Hay) tweeted it rather succinctly:
Never forget: the antagonist never knows s/he’s the antagonist … The antagonist thinks s/he’s the ‘good guy’.
To put it in more ‘comicky’ terms: the villain of your story should think he is the hero. Of course, of all the media that I am familiar with, mainstream comics regularly do the worst job of applying this rule. The villains are far too often one-dimensional, even caricature-like, whose only motivation is being a villain. Being a bad guy is not motivation, any more than wearing a cape and spandex is motivation for the hero.
It doesn’t help that characters have such long lives in comics, and so do their villains. At this stage, we practically expect Batman to fight the Penguin, Daredevil to fight Bullseye, etc. So inserting a well-known villain into a story has become a kind of shorthand for a threat. There is no motivation required – it’s Bullseye! He hates Daredevil so now they’re gonna fight!
A fitting example for me has always been Captain America’s nemesis, the Red Skull. The Red Skull was a Nazi, which carries a system of beliefs and a world view that actually makes him an excellent villain. But the genocidal, disturbing nature of Nazism does not make suitable fare for superhero comics, and so the Red Skull is simply presented as a relic of WW2 Germany, rather than Nazism. There is no mention of his beliefs in eugenics and the extermination of lesser races, these being too gruesome for kids. Take this away and what you are left with is a high-ranking officer in an army that failed to take over the world. He is neutered, left a pantomime villain, cackling evilly from the shadows, forever pursuing revenge against a soldier of a country that defeated his armies. He is a symbol, but a hollow one.
To say all comics are like this would be lazy and grossly over-generalising. There are outstanding examples of villains within comics. Lex Luthor, for instance, is an excellent foil for Superman, and he has always seen himself as being in the right. Another more recent example of how to write a great villain is that of General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.
Zod is unquestionably a wonderful villain. He killed Superman’s birth father in front of his mother, and is willing do the same to Superman. He even wants to kill everyone on earth. He is driven, almost to the point of madness. BUT he has reasons for wanting to do so. To General Zod, death and destruction is simply an unfortunate by-product of his mission to resurrect his home planet and to save his own people.
Even in killing Superman’s father, Zod was simply doing what he believed was best for Krypton. Jor-el had broken the law, and had in fact stolen an essential element in maintaining life on the planet: the codex containing the genetic information necessary to ‘grow’ more children of Krypton. And Zod was literally born to be a soldier, dedicated to protecting Krypton and its people. In attempting to retrieve the codex he was simply trying to ensure that his race was not lost forever. He truly cared about Krypton, and Superman was standing in the way of the last hope in the galaxy of Krypton living on. Superman was not only anathema to the laws of Krypton (due to his natural birth), but his victory would actively ensure the death of Zod’s race. A race he had devoted his entire life to saving.
So we can see things from Zod’s perspective, we know why he is doing things. We sympathise with him, albeit to a point. When his plan necessitates wiping out all human life to facilitate a new Krypton, he crosses over into super-villain territory. But we can see how he got there, and we understand that in his own eyes, he is in fact the hero. He is just trying to save his race. And yet he still makes a great villain.
The reader doesn’t always need to sympathise with the villain, but the villain must make sense, if only to himself. He must be motivated by what he believes to be the best: for himself, for the hero, for the world, whatever.
Ozymandias in Watchmen is painfully real, wracked with doubts by the terrible things he did to, as he saw it, save the world. And of course, in Watchmen, he did save the world. He killed millions doing it, and this tore him apart. What better way of seeing your antagonist as a hero than having their plan work? Of foiling the heroes only to save the world doing it? This makes Ozymandias, for my money, one of the most fascinating villains comics has ever produced.
So spend as much time on your villain as you do on your hero. And this does not just apply to superhero books. Any story involves conflict of some kind, so think both sides of it through, even if you are only telling the story from one point of view. If both sides ring true to the reader, the story will feel more real, the conflict more compelling. If you can’t get into the head of any given character in your book, if you don’t know what makes them tick, why they are there (in terms of character, not story), then you need to re-think things.
Of course, this is far from the only way to improve your villain, and there are always exceptions – the Joker works as a Batman villain for completely different reasons – but bearing it in mind will certainly improve your story. A good villain can make your hero shine, and your conflict will have real resonance for the reader.
And finally, simply because I cannot resist including them – I find A.I.M. to be another great example. They are a collective of scientists who amount to a group of techno-anarchists, believing in the power of science and technology, wanting to overthrow or hold to ransom the governments of the world. Replacing their rule with the rule of science and reason.
Who wouldn’t look around and see the world’s leaders, corrupt and selfish, and think: It’s time for a change. It’s time for A.I.M.
That’s not just me, right?