When I teach about writing a movie script, I advise students that it takes real work to become a great screenplay writer who makes characters come alive. In my book, The Story Solution: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take, I discuss writing screenplays that use Hero Goal Sequences® to create dynamic heroes, but a screenplay can also become successful when memorable villains are created as well. Screenplay writers love to add a villain who serves as a counter-balance for their hero.
The best books on screenwriting reveal that movies work because of conflict – the better the conflict, the better the movie. When it comes to scriptwriting, a great villain can make a good movie terrific. Here is what I learned from six great movie villains:
- Willem Dafoe in “Spider-Man”: The Green Goblin and Spider-Man are similar because they are both transformed. While Peter Parker turns to fighting evil, Norman Osborn taps into his psyche’s dark side. This echoed inner conflict reflects the struggle we all have when choosing between good and evil.
- Tom Cruise in “Collateral”: Cruise plays Vincent, a hired killer who takes Jamie Foxx’s unsuspecting cab driver, Max, along as he eliminates people on a hit list. Vincent constantly thinks about what life means, even as he takes it. In an argument the driver calls Vincent a sociopath, while Vincent derides him for being so passive. After the car crashes and the hit man runs off, Max realizes the next person on the hit list was his recent passenger Annie – a woman he “hit on” himself. Max turns hero as he rushes off to save Annie. This villain was necessary for our hero to be confronted about his faults, and learn what he was capable of achieving.
- Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”: Streep plays the villain who sparks a transformation in Anne Hathaway’s mousy character. Although she spends most of the film being unbearably demanding, the curtain is pulled back and we see her anguish over her personal life. The best screenwriting books provide advice on how to make an audience empathize with a villain, but here it is done to perfection. Give your villain their own inner suffering.
- Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate”: Before becoming the dowager detective in TV’s Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury played the perfect villainess as Mrs. Iselin. Hailed by Time as one of the top 25 best villains, she twists the ideals of motherhood into evil while directing her son on a killing spree that will lead to her husband becoming president. This is the perfect example of screenplay writing that turns the notions of hero and villain upside-down when mothers are villains and assassins are heroes.
- Stephen Lang in “Avatar”: Lang played the villainous Colonel Miles Quaritch in James Cameron’s original Avatar so well that he will be back for all three sequels. According to Hero Complex, Lang’s secret is that he was just playing a man doing his job. “He makes choices. Quaritch cauterized some aspects of his soul. Dirty wars numbed his psyche and spirit, but I did not go at him as a villain.”
- Michael Douglas in “Wall Street”: Even after more than 25 years we remember Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” advice. Douglas provides a great example of how a villain corrupts a young associate who is the hero of the story, Charlie Sheen, as Bud Fox. Bud is conflicted between following Gekko’s ideals or his own father’s. Our young hero eventually realizes there is more to life than money and turns against his former mentor.
I hope these thoughts on screenwriting help aspiring screenwriters learn how to define their onscreen heroes and villains. To learn more about writing a great story, attend Story Expo 2014, coming September 5-7 to Los Angeles. I’ll speak, along with many other great lecturers, on the art and craft of storytelling.
Good Luck and Good Writing!
About The Story Solution: The Story Solution was written by accomplished screenwriter Eric Edson. It reveals the 23 actions used to create dynamic, three dimensional heroes and link all parts of a captivating screenplay. He also covers screenwriting tips, screenwriting resources, and screenwriting books. Visit the website and Facebook page or call 818-677-3192 for more information.