Last night I caught the Sweeny Todd remake with Johnny Depp, after hearing a lot about the violence and the story. Overall I didn’t like it, not because it was a musical (I was never a fan of musicals), but because I found the actual character of Sweeny Todd not that realistic. It is very easy to create a stereotypical or crazy bad guy, but it requires some though to make a great villain.
Having read several books by Joseph Campbell on the hero archetypes, in my opinion his observations break down when dealing with a story with a villain protagonist. The “shadow” archetype or antagonist in a story is someone who is the antithesis of the hero; more importantly they are on a mirrored quest similar to the hero.
In a story dealing with a villain as the hero this usually doesn’t apply. Our “hero’s” quest isn’t the opposite of the antagonist, as they want to kill the person. I do think that there are certain characteristics that elevate someone to be a good villain both as the protagonist and as the antagonist of a story.
In my opinion the following characteristics are what define a great villain. First their goal can’t be to kill everyone they see for no reason; completely insane sociopaths aren’t really that deep. Next they must believe that their goal is right, this is from Joseph Campbell, they can’t be doing this just for revenge or profit, but because they believe that they are right (even if they’re the only ones that see it that way).
There must also be an end, something the person will do once his plans are over; sitting in a tower laughing hysterically doesn’t count. Lastly, they must have a set of morals; yes I know that sounds odd for the villain of a story. Defining a good villain in my opinion you need to have some human (or perhaps the right word should be realistic) element to them.
Even if it is a really loose set of morals (” I swear not to kill anyone on Tuesdays between 1 and 2 PM” for example). The villain must have some personal limitations similar to the hero that shows that they’re not some invincible monster sitting in a lair somewhere. Moving on it’s time to talk about anti heroes.
Some people think that a good anti hero can be the villain of a story; I have to disagree with this. Most often the difference between an anti hero and a true villain is their reasoning. An anti-hero does what they think is right to better the world above the views of society. While a villain does what they want without any regard to society in general and goals are more just for them. Recently I’ve watched two different amines with very interesting protagonist, who both walk that line between anti hero and villain.
I will be mildly spoiling the basic plots of two amines, so be warned. In the series “Death Note”, a boy name Light finds a notebook which can kill anyone whose name is written down in it. After trying it out he decides to remake the world by killing anyone who commits a crime or goes against him, the “god of the new world”.
Next is the anime “Code Geass”, Lelouch is a student living in the conquered land formerly known as Japan. The ruling empire treats all Japanese citizens as second class citizens, and is fighting against a rebellion seeking to free Japan.
One day Lelouch receives a strange power and decides to use it to destroy the empire and rebuild the world; if this means lying to everyone he knows and killing innocent people in the process then that is ok. Both characters are real winners right? While they both sound like villains in a normal story, one of them is an anti hero, can you pick him out?
The winner is Lelouch, while neither one of them won’t be winning any humanitarian awards he is the anti hero, the reason in my opinion is the cause for their crusades. Lelouch was antagonized by the empire which led to his plan to destroy it; he wouldn’t have done anything if there wasn’t an empire controlling the world.
Light on the other hand had no one that was an antagonist and decided to do this for himself. His antagonist is created by his actions of killing people, which makes him the villain in my opinion. Both characters have a set of morals, a clear goal above just killing people, something their trying to attain. The only real difference is what started them on their journeys, Lelouch wanted to attack the empire before he got his power, while Light decided to do his goal on a whim.
Getting back to Sweeny Todd and why I didn’t find him compelling, he did not have a moral code, killed everyone he saw, did not have a goal past killing people for revenge, and lastly from what I saw, he did not even show any hint that he believes he is right.
Now while he works for the subject of the story, it was hard to root for him as the main character. I don’t want to get too much into this as I’m working on an entry about it, but Saint’s Row 2 also has this problem. The main character (the player) in this game is very hard to root for. As his actions come off less as trying to retake the city; more like a sociopath.
Lastly, I have a challenge for you; can you create a great villain whose goal it is to kill everyone? You can create their back-story, personality, but it must explain why their goal is to kill everyone.