This is a companion post that is meant to be read along with my post on the 4 Superhero Types. I argued in that post that all superheroes fall into one of four categories: The Liberator, Crusader, Renegade and Guardian.
Here, I'll argue that all villains also fall into four different categories, or “types.” These are: The Evil Mastermind, Cult Leader, Assassin and Soldier Villain.
1. The Evil Mastermind
Personality model: Independent/Strategic
Superhero counterpart: The LIBERATOR
Probably the most clichéd villain in all of film and comic book history, the EVIL MASTERMIND often looks exactly the way his name sounds, like a big, evil, walking, talking brain (Think Pinky & The Brain, or Stewie from Family Guy, Voldemort fromHarry Potter, the protagonist ofMegamind–the list goes on and on…).
My favorite EVIL MASTERMIND villain would have to be Hannibal Lecter. In my opinion, no one else can hold a candle to HL when it comes to pure, calculating evil (except Marlo Stanfield–more on that later).
I’m not alone in praising Dr. Lecter: to date, there have been five films with Lecter as one of the villains, and there’s a TV show coming from NBC.
Instead of listing all of the great EVIL MASTERMINDS and describing what they have in common, I’m going to give you three reasons Hannibal Lecter has become such a cultural icon.
THREE REASONS HANNIBAL LECTER IS SO MEMORABLE
1. He has superpowers. Yes, yes, I know Silence of the Lambs wasn’t a superhero film, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hannibal Lecter possesses extraordinary abilities, not just of the mind, but of the senses. When Clarice first visits him, he can tell exactly what kind of skin cream she usually wears and what she is wearing that day (“You use Evian skin cream, and sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today”). Then we see his detailed drawings of famous buildings (“They’re what I have instead of a view”) which indicate that he has a photographic memory. And, of course, he’s a brilliant psychiatrist who uses his knowledge of the human mind to find peoples’ weakness and exploit them using language (Remember when he made Multiple Miggs swallow his own tongue?)
2. He plays a mentor to the main character, thus earning her trust and ours.Hannibal Lecter would never hurt you or me. At least, this is how we feel when we watch Silence of the Lambs. We strongly sympathize with Clarice Starling throughout the film. She’s smart, pretty in a desperate way, eager for advancement in the FBI so she can honor the memory of her slain father. Plus, there’s her uber-symbolic story about saving the lamb from being slaughtered. We love Clarice and we want to protect her, tell her it’s OK, help her to become the agent she was meant to be. Hannibal Lecter does all those things. He becomes her father, and because of that, we feel like he has taken us under his wing as well.
3. He’s got a fatal flaw. Hannibal’s fatal flaw is pride. It’s the reason he gets caught in the first place. In Red Dragon (the film version) Lecter works with FBI agent Will Graham to create a psychological profile of himself. He even leads Graham to believe that the killer has removed parts from the victim’s body because he is a cannibal. Graham then finds a book of recipes with Lecter’s notes indicating that he has killed people and used parts of their bodies to cook his meals. Lecter obviously believes he is smarter than everyone else, and this leads to his capture.
If you’re creating an EVIL MASTERMIND in your screenplay, novel or comic book, keep in mind that this role has been done to death. I had to create a brilliant, sociopath school-shooter in my novel TRAINLAND, and I relied heavily on characters like Hannibal Lecter, but I made sure to give my character his own unique set of “superpowers,” his own style of mentoring Danny (one of the story’s protagonists) and most importantly, I gave him a unique fatal flaw (not pride–you’ll have to read to find out).
In comics and video games, the EVIL MASTERMIND’s ultimate goal is power. A great example is Sephiroth from the Final Fantasy series, most notably FFVII. His primary objective is to become a god that rules over the entire planet by merging with the planet life force, known as Lifestream. This is symbolic of the EVIL MASTERMIND’s reliance on the abstract (intricate plans and strategies, an intuitive understanding of technology, science and human nature) to achieve his malicious goals.
Other notable EVIL MASTERMINDS: Lex Luthor (Superman), Doctor Octopus (Spiderman), Magneto (X-Men), Dr. Doom (Fantastic Four)
2. The Cult Leader
Personality model: Cooperative/Idealistic
Superhero counterpart: The CRUSADER
The CULT LEADER is the most intense of all villains, and probably the scariest. His goal is not to kill you (or, in Hannibal Lecter’s case, study you and eat you) but to convert you into one of his disciples. The emperor in Star Wars is a great example; he has devoted his life to studying the Dark Side and tries to convince Luke Skywalker to give in to his anger and join them. It almost works.
Two things to keep in mind when creating a CULT LEADER villain:
1. He has to have followers. A CULT LEADER without followers is about as scary as one of those raving religious nuts you see in New York City subway stations. In Star Wars, Palpatine is the ruler of an empire; Isaac Chroner in The Children of the Corn [film] convinces an entire town’s worth of children to murder their parents, and partakes in human sacrificial rituals with his followers out in the cornfields.
2. He must embody an emotion so powerful that it loosens his grasp on reality. Every CULT LEADER–in fiction but probably in real life, too–must be adamant, on an emotional level, about whatever he is fighting against. A CULT LEADER who hates capitalism and writes books criticizing it on an intellectual level is not a CULT LEADER at all (a professor, most likely). But a CULT LEADER who convinces twenty people to strap bombs to their chests and blow themselves up inside twenty different shopping malls definitely fits this label. In fact, the CULT LEADER’s emotions are so powerful that no rational or logical argument can reach him. He has lost his grasp on reality, believing his mission to be absolutely vital. He has to be this way, otherwise people wouldn’t follow him.
Other notable CULT LEADERS: Voldemort (Harry Potter)
3. The Assassin
Personality model: Independent/Practical
Superhero counterpart: The RENEGADE
The ASSASSIN is either a wickedly awesome character, or a boring cliché. This all depends on how you present him. One of the most common characteristics of an assassin (beside wearing some sort of mask or hood, or face paint) is introversion, and this makes sense.
ASSASSINS are, and should be, introverts. Why? Because only an introvert (someone who becomes excited by, and feels at ease performing, solitary activities) would have the patience and dedication necessary to spend tens of thousands of hours practicing skills like knife throwing, sneaking around, planting cameras and other surveillance gadgets, and studying anatomy to best land an attack that will paralyze or kill his target.
The ASSASSIN is first and foremost, a mercenary. Unlike the SOLDIER VILLAIN, who follows his superior’s orders without question, ASSASSINS are “independent” and work for money, protection, or because they’re being blackmailed, usually by an EVIL MASTERMIND. The most interesting ASSASSINS are those who kill because they have been brainwashed, again usually by an EVIL MASTERMIND (Darth Vader is probably the best example). One ASSASSIN who works in exchange for protection is Mystique from X-Men. She knows humans will never accept her, so she works for Magneto and believes in the evil mutant cause of world domination. But she is not an idealist. She’s just looking out for herself (because, as an ASSASSIN, she is by nature “practical“).
HERE ARE THREE WAYS TO AVOID CREATE A CLICHÉD ASSASSIN:
1. Do not–I repeat–do not make the character completely silent. This is one of the most important rules you can follow in making your assassin memorable. A lot of films make the mistake of either rendering their ASSASSIN silent (except for maybe an uttered “yes, sir” or “I’ve got him in my sights” over the phone – i.e. the Jason Bourne films) or incapable of speaking altogether (Jason Voorhees, for example). There’s a reason Freddy Krueger is a much more memorable ASSASSIN than Jason; he has personality. Silent ASSASSINS are not scary; they’re boring.
2. Do not make your ASSASSIN a purely rational being. Probably one of the worst mistakes you can make with your ASSASSIN is have him kill because it is somehow the rational thing to do. Like the contract ASSASSIN who is just doing his job (again, the Jason Bourne films and their expert but faceless agent assassins) or the ASSASSIN who is just plain following her boss’s orders, like Mystique in the first X-Men film. Let’s be honest, Mystique is not all that interesting the first couple of films (aside from her awesome superpower) because we don’t know anything about her past. We don’t really understand the pain she’s been through or her reasons for rejecting the love she once had for Professor X and the other good mutants. Unfortunately, in the first couple of films, she suffers from the “silent assassin syndrome” (see #1).
So, if your ASSASSIN is not a purely rational being, what is she? A memorable ASSASSIN is secretly driven by intense, almost uncontrollable pain/anger/self-hatred. The two crowning examples of this are Vincent, played brilliantly by Tom Cruise in Collateral, and Agent Smith, played exceptionally by Hugo Weaving in The Matrix Trilogy. Here’s why they’re such great characters: Vincent is secretly afraid of being a nobody, of being ignored by society. As he puts it: “I read about this guy who gets on the MTA here, dies. Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices.” Then, at the end of the movie, confronted with the end of his mission and his life, he says: “Guy gets on the subway and dies. Think anybody’ll notice?” This is beautiful dialogue. It is a perfect expression of EVERY ASSASSIN’S SECRET FEAR: That no one will care about him when he’s gone.
The other example, Agent Smith, is just as good. When we first meet Smith inThe Matrix–throughout the whole first half of the film, actually–he is nothing more than a stuck-up, robotic jerk of an ASSASSIN with no emotion and no desire other than to capture Morpheus. Then, amazingly, we hear him say these lines:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.
– Agent Smith, The Matrix
It turns out that Agent Smith is actually a highly emotional ASSASSIN. He hates humanity, calls us a virus that should, like any virus, be eliminated as quickly as possible. And he’s highly analytical and rational about it, too, which only heightens how scary his angst really is. Thanks to the quote above, Agent Smith immediately goes from being an uninteresting, robotic assassin to a badass, angsty, supervillain ASSASSIN worthy of resurrection from death for two more films!
3. Finally, do not make your ASSASSIN physically weaker or less skilled than your hero. This could cause a major problem for your storyline. Even at the end of the journey, your hero should never be noticeably stronger or more skilled than the ASSASSIN. This is because ASSASSINS devote their lives to the art and craft of death-dealing. They are experts and exercise every day, eat the right foods, read the right books, and train with the right masters. Unless your hero is also shown doing these things, for years on end, he or she should never *magically* have more skills than the ASSASSIN just because he managed to stick around until the end of the plotline.
LEARN FROM STAR WARS. Luke Skywalker does not defeat Darth Vader or the Emperor at the end of the original trilogy by blasting them with the force. Sure, he survives a lightsaber battle with his dear old dad, but you could chalk that up to Darth Vader’s advanced age. HOWEVER, Luke does not heroically blast the Emperor or Darth Vader with force powers. He doesn’t beat them down using force-heightened reflexes. He defeats his enemies using his own ability: HEART. He manages to convince Darth Vader to go back to the Light Side and turn against the Emperor.
It’s truly one of the most beautiful moments in film. Why? Because it’s 100% believable, among other things. A lot of action movies make the mistake of buffing up the hero at the end without explanation (NOTE: The Jason Bourne films don’t fall prey to this problem; Jason Bourne actually IS more skilled than those hunting him). The only way to buff up your hero, if this is the path you want to take leading up to the final battle with the ASSASSIN, is to do what the writers did in Rocky. Stallone’s character, Rocky Balboa, doesn’t just magically beat his opponent at the end because he’s talented; he trains and trains, then trains some more, taking breaks only to man-hug his best friend in the ocean.
Other notable ASSASSINS: Darth Maul (Star Wars), Deadpool (Marvel universe), Bane (Batman), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)
4. The Soldier Villain
Personality model: Cooperative/Dutiful
Superhero counterpart: The GUARDIAN
The SOLDIER VILLAIN was perfectly realized in the Terminator films as an efficient killing machine programmed to follow orders without question or hesitation. That’s the essence of the SOLDIER VILLAIN right there: he’s just following orders. We’ve seen this villain countless times, especially in action and sci-fi films. Who doesn’t remember the merc in The Rock telling Nicholas Cage “I’m gonna gut you like a fish.” SOLDIER VILLAINS can range from being complete idiots (Byron Hadley from The Shawshank Redemption) to geniuses who are completely capable of thinking like EVIL MASTERMINDS, and may even become EVIL MASTERMINDS at some point in their careers (Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel from The Rock).
SOLDIER VILLAINS should not be confused with ASSASSINS. Though their duties and actions may at times seem similar, both types are actually very different from each other. SOLDIER VILLAINS are “cooperative,” meaning that they gladly serve the group of which they are a member (unless they’re fed up, in which case they’ll look for another group to join). This group could be the army, a gang, a crime family, etc. SOLDIER VILLAINS are not loners like ASSASSINS; they are lost when alone and need the structure imposed on them by their gang.
Also, the SOLDIER VILLAIN is “dutiful.” Whereas ASSASSINS are concerned with tactical success and physical finesse, SOLDIER VILLAINS are concerned with getting the job done right, as quickly as they can, so they can report back to their superiors. For this reason, the knife or the head twist is more suitable for an ASSASSIN (quick and quiet) whereas a SOLDIER VILLAIN would prefer a gun (loud but it gets the job done).
If you’re a writer trying to create one or more SOLDIER VILLAINS, I highly recommend that you watch The Wire. In Seasons two and on, there is an EVIL MASTERMIND called Marlo Stanfield (the greatest villain in film/TV history, in my opinion) who employs two of the deadliest, scariest SOLDIER VILLAINS you can imagine in a realistic setting (Chris and Snoop). These two SOLDIER VILLAINS are terrifying and memorable for many reason, the most important of which is that they are completely believable. You can totally imagine misfits like them existing in poor areas and doing what they do out of necessity.
If you like the idea of “typing” heroes and villains, click here to read my post on superheroes.
To check out my own "superhero" work of fiction, click the cover to the right and buy SAVANT on Amazon.com.