villains

A Small Matter of Priorities

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I’ll admit it. I tried the helmet on Prissy. It would have required me to alter her bangs, and that cute little barrette would have had nowhere to go. Barrettes under helmets are painful, and I couldn’t see Prissy casting hers aside.

Villains, like protagonists, need to have their priorities, after all.

Priorities determine a villain’s objectives, their motivation to achieve those objectives, and how much time they dedicate to the whole endeavor. A villain who prizes puppies above all else will stop in the middle of a murderous rampage to pet one, or at least agonize over the decision. (And, presumably, will be the villain of a slapstick.) Likewise, a villain who prizes power will stop at nothing to gain it.

The cliché Villain’s Exposition speech sometimes contradicts a villain’s presumed priorities. For example, how many times has James Bond been in the clutches of his arch-nemesis, only to have that arch-nemesis pause and expound upon his grand dream of destruction and control instead of just blowing Bond to bits? That’s not a villain who truly craves power. That’s a villain who craves validation.

“You see, Mr. Bond? I’m so insecure that I must have your reaction to my diabolical plans before I kill you, so that I may savor your shock and defeat all the more during those long, cold nights when I’m all alone. Only my cat loves me. And only because I feed him.”

But then, the villain simply pulling the trigger (or lever, or switching, or whatever mechanism will bring about death and mayhem) doesn’t draw out the suspense: Will Bond escape? How will he outsmart the bloviating bad guy?

Just kidding. No one goes to Bond for suspense. They go to him for action and fighting and explosions and babes and manly grunts. So it doesn’t matter that he keeps running up against insecure would-be despots who mask their insecurity with a supposed thirst for power or revenge. The Bond villain is simply part of the Bond formula. His priorities are pretty messed up, but that’s human nature for you.

In real life, there are always two sets of priorities: the What I Say and the What I Do. Rarely do these two sets match up, because humans are fractured creatures. Applying this duality to fictional characters brings an interesting dimension of reality to a story. It can either kick the reader out or draw them further in.

“Why did she do that?” The answer to this question must be something better than, “Because that’s how the story gets from A to B.” Everything a well-rounded character does ties back to who that character is as a person. If it doesn’t, the character’s not well rounded, and the canny reader, accustomed to interacting with well-rounded people in real life, will be able to tell the difference.

This applies to protagonists, antagonists, window characters, and the rest of the character spectrum.

Exhausting to consider in its full scope? Yes, absolutely.

Should writers make it a priority in their craft?

(I’m sure you can guess my answer to that.)

A Battle of the Sexes

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This particular installment of Average Everygirl is, of course, pure silliness. Or is it?

Cheerleaders are pretty dang strong. They have to be to accomplish all of the lifts and flips and back handsprings and whatnot. Plus there’s all that running and dancing and… y’know… cheering. The more I’ve contemplated it, the more I’m convinced that a cheerleader could make a pretty awesome villain. So why is it that when one appears in that role, bullying and humiliation are the typical calling cards of her villainy instead of racketeering or gun running? Is it because she dedicates too much of her life to physical prowess already?

On the other hand, maniac genius inventor-villains have spent the lion’s share of their time experimenting, usually in a lab with neutral-colored walls and fluorescent lighting. There probably hasn’t been much bench-pressing in their past, and yet, the minute these glorified nerds get a ray gun and a cape, they’re somehow prime physical specimens, ready to crush the world. Their villainy takes the form of death and mayhem—in addition to any psychological elements, depending on how intelligent a character the villain is supposed to be.

Sometimes, the psychological warfare of a lesser female villain renders her more hated than the all-out genocide of a major male villain. (See Dolores Umbridge vs. Lord Voldemort for a prime example of this.) Sometimes, when poorly executed, it renders her into a caricature.

Women in general are physically weaker than men, so it makes some sense to gear a female villain’s evil-doings more towards the psychological end of the physical-psychological spectrum. If you’re going to pit a cheerleader against a lab-chair jockey in a physical fight, though, my money’s on the cheerleader.

Unfortunately, when a physically powerful female villain does come on scene, more often than not she’s posed as a sex object: super hot, super fit, and wearing super tight clothing that reveals every curve and dimple.

And in the event that she’s not impossibly attractive, she’ll probably be repulsive beyond all measure. Girl-as-Object doesn’t apply only to female protagonists.

The best female villains, though, are the ones who don’t have to pull on a spandex bodysuit to get attention. They can employ a mix of physical and psychological assaults against their victims. They are clever, devious, manipulative, self-serving, and they use their “weaker sex” stereotype to its full advantage. They are, in other words, fully rounded characters instead of flat, uninspiring Mean Girls.

And we need more of them, just as we need more level-headed female protagonists.

Really, why should men get to have all the fun?