Green Limelight and Twirling Moustaches
“In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.”
Well, Al, you’re far more successful in your field than I am in mine, but I will say in rebuttal…
Yes, yes, sometimes the ordinary person can be truly, scarily villainous. Think of the controlling, obsessed mother who claims to want only the best for their child while systematically destroying the object of their affections. The spurned lover who thinks he’s within his rights to stalk his ex, or the seemingly nice, quiet man who can’t talk about his pain, only take it out on unsuspecting others. Cheerleaders/most popular girls in the class make great villains, wielding their power with all the hormone-driven desires seething in their teenage hearts. Who knows what evil lurks in the souls of ordinary men and women—or how it will be manifested?
Yet, the truth is, sometimes I want the green limelight, the moustache, even the propensity to kick at small, furry creatures. Sometimes, that’s exactly the kind of over-the-top, Joker-painted-face kind of villain a story calls for.
But…but…here’s the thing…
There has to be something more.
The villain has to play against the hero or heroine in such a way we’re occasionally drawn to wonder if there isn’t something wrong with the way the supposed good guy/girl relates to life. He or she must shine a light on the hero or heroine’s actions, be the funhouse mirror if you will, showing us something we might not have seen before. And they must have that little something extra, a quirk or habit we find interesting—maybe even just a little endearing. Something the hero or heroine apparently lacks.
There are a host of characteristics that can take a bad guy from cookie-cutter, Snidely Whiplash stereotype to someone we love to hate. Pathos, a kernel of kindness, a true (even if twisted) affection for someone else, or a need—for love, revenge, power, visibility—we can all relate to.
Perhaps even a sense of humor.
One of my favorite villains ever was Q, played with gusto by John de Lancie in the Star Trek, The Next Generation television series. Q is everything Captain Jean Luc Picard isn’t—omnipotent, amoral, disinterested in preserving life or viewing much with any sense of gravity. Q has no conscience. Not even the destruction of an entire specie gives him a qualm, while we’re quite sure Jean Luc remembers every crew member who died under his command and sometimes lies in bed reliving the moment he had to inform the families of their losses. Even physically Q is Picard’s opposite— 6’ 4” and solidly built to Picard’s 5’ 10” and trimly slender physique.
Yet, while Q no doubt was a crazy, life-form destroying, humanity judging, Enterprise endangering bad guy, lordie, he was also an absolute hoot! He had the kind of sense of humor Picard didn’t have, or couldn’t allow himself to have.
I always remember the scene at the end of the episode “Deja Q” when the Enterprise crew believes Q to be dead. Picard is being completely solemn, not hypocritical enough to pretend to mourn Q’s passing, but searching for meaning in the despised being’s demise. Suddenly, Q appears with a cry of “Au contraire, Mon Capitan. Q is back.”
There is a mariachi band! Cigars! Women! And, in that moment, you want to dance with Q, while shouting, “Lighten up!” at Picard. Although you can understand the captain’s annoyance, and know he doesn’t have the freedom to behave with Q’s abandon, you can’t help laughing at Q’s antics, and wonder what he’ll come up with next.
So yes, Al, the ordinary person made extraordinary by their inner demons definitely has a big place in the villain pantheon, but don’t count out the dude with the handlebar moustache or the wild eyes…give them a relatable quirk and we’ll love to hate them too.