What Makes A Great Villain?

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To listen to the audio version of this article, download Episode 13 of the Story Punch podcast. This article is a heavily expanded version of an older Story Punch article.

A hero is only as interesting as their primary villain. Why is that? I think it is because a good villain is the litmus test for any aspiring hero. If you stop to think about it, heroes are a reactionary force. It’s in their nature. They see evil and they step in to stop it. But it is always the villain that drives the plot forward. The villain comes up with their plan and the hero struggles to prevent it from happening. The villains acts, the hero reacts.

In many stories, the villain is the protagonist moving things forward while the hero is an antagonist trying to slow things down. But this creates a problem.

If you don’t have a compelling villain, you probably won’t have a compelling story. If you mess up this part, if there is no real threat, if all you have is an ineffective toothless villain, nothing the hero does will matter anyway.

This is perhaps the biggest problem we see in comic book movies today. The villains are blandly evil, predictably stupid, and never feel like a real threat. They are simply another hurdle to climb when they should be an impenetrable wall. They should be not just evil, but cruel. Not just menacing, but calculating. The villain should not simply oppose the hero, they should oppose everything the hero stands for by offering an alternative perspective on the world.

THEIR PLAN SHOULD ACTUALLY MAKE SENSE FROM A WARPED PERSPECTIVE

A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it. But not only that, they somehow represent different shades of evil. Not just one generic kind of evil, but a multifaceted complicated evil. If you’re too evil, you’re just a monster. But the best kind of villains are the ones that actually have a deeper moral purpose behind what they are doing.

They think what they are doing is reasonable, necessary, and justifiable. Their actions are logical, even if it is a rather twisted logic. But at some point, you should have to stop and think, wait what if the villain is right? What if this is the only way? Part of the hero’s journey should include a point where they actually wonder if the villain is right. Maybe their plan isn’t all bad and could even result in some good. Even though ultimately we might reject their methods, the villain should still make a really good point about the world and the way it works.

zodLet’s pick apart one example, General Zod from Man of Steel. Some parts of Zod’s character work pretty well, but other parts don’t at all. Zod has a mission to protect Krypton. It is his guiding force and under normal circumstances, we would agree. That’s a good mission. Protect your race. Save your people. But instead of keeping Zod in between good and evil, he immediatley falls into the villain camp right away. Unfortunately, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet of people in the process of rebuilding his own? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced?

He does everything “for his people” but he will kill all the humans in the process? It feels inconsistent. It’s a strange mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work. When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes on a rampage targeting innocent civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. It is warrior DNA? Is it is a psychotic break? I couldn’t tell you.

But let’s imagine a scenario where Zod was on the same team as Jor-El back on Krypton. They work together as colleagues and friends to try to save Krypton, but ultimately fail. Instead of Zod leading a military coup he watches his people be wiped out because he didn’t try hard enough. He showed too much restraint before. So the next time he has the chance he is doubly motivated. To do what he and Jor-El couldn’t the first time but this time by any means necessary. When I close my eyes I see a Zod who is a tragic figure, a man who has lost everything, and is trying to make up for his past failures.

His plan needs to make sense. It can’t be just convenient to destroy Earth in the process. There has to be a logical reason. The Kryptonians made a big deal over the fact that they did not possess a sense of morality and it gave them an evolutionary advantage. But that is dumb. Morality and caring for others is an advantage, one specifically shared by all mammals who raise their young. We are better off together.

I want to see a General Zod who sees the problems on earth and decides that they are the same things that led to the destruction on Krypton. Instead of having Zod bring genocide, he should bring a global dictatorship. An universal vision for peace and harmony. He doesn’t want to destroy everybody. He wants to rule them because he doesn’t think they are able to.

Humans would never agree with terraforming the planet for Krypton and wiping out us in the process. But they might go for world peace. A vaccine that can cure cancer. Renewable clean energy. They might even sell their planet to Zod for unlimited data and faster wifi. Who knows?

Of course a global dictatorship would not be easy or ethical. Superman would have plenty of reason to prevent Zod from forcing the whole world until his control. There is still a way to get lots of drama and turn Zod into a true villain. But destroying the human race right off the bat? It’s just not logical or sympathetic. It turns Zod into an angry genocidal psychopath.

That’s not a great villain. That’s a shortcut.

kobaOne of the best villains in recent memory is Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now here is a villain whose plan makes perfect sense. In fact, Caesar, the leader of the apes, is actually far too trusting of the humans and if it were up to him alone, his people might have been wiped out in a surprise attack.

Koba does not trust the humans. He firmly believes that Caesar is endangering the whole colony by working with the humans. But the thing is, Koba is right. The humans are pretty dangerous and untrustworthy. They have a stockpile of machine guns, tanks, rocket launcers, and they are ready to strike.

Yet Koba is still the villain. Why? Because of his methods. He tries to assassinate Caesar. He starts a war on the humans. He locks up any apes that disagree with him. And he executes anyone who stand in his way.

Even though war was a possibility, it was never inevitable. Koba took matters into his own hands and compromised the most sacred values of the apes. Apes do not kill other apes. That is what separates them from the rest of the animals. Those moral principles. And Koba violated them.

Was he right about the humans? Yes. Was he right about how he went about dealing with them? No. He became jealous of Caesar, he turned against him, and betrayed everything that the apes stand for. But he had really good logical reasons that in a twisted way makes really good sense. In some alternative universe where things were just a little bit different, Koba could have been right. His reasons were sound, but his methods were way off. He went too far.

A VILLAIN SHOULD BE MYSTERIOUS BUT NOT A MYSTERY

A villain should never be a total mystery, but we also don’t need to know everything about them. Darth Maul is a total mystery, but it’s too much mystery. He has that double-bladed lightsaber, facial tatoos, and a black trenchcoat, but who is he? We don’t know. But what does he want? To rule the universe? To scare little kids

The thing is, a mystery cannot also be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and a sense of their personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.

On the flipside, we don’t want to know too much. Nobody wants a prequel trilogy explaining how the villain became a villain.

Think about Koba. We know from the first Planet of the Apes movie that he was a lab animal who underwent some pretty gruesome experiments. But in the second movie, do they go ahead and explain his life history and how he was born a cute little chimp baby and how the humans beat that innocent out of him? Nope, the only information we get is when he points to his scars and says, “Human work.” He has seen a lot of cruelty from the humans but we don’t need to know what it is When it comes to villains, their backstory is best left to the imagination

On the blog Overthinking It, Ben Adams has a great article called The Banality of Evil Origin Stories. In it he talks about why most villain origin stories simply don’t work:

In the end, most of these stories are simply unconvincing. For an implacable and unabashedly evil evil villain, it almost impossible to create a origin story that both a) makes the audience empathize with the future villain and b) portrays a convincing transformation. In Episode III, Anakin jumps pretty much straight from “arrogant but still good Jedi” to “murdering children in cold blood.

And he’s totally right. In Episode III, Anakin goes from being a pretentious brat who is mad about not being on the Jedi Council to helping wipe out the Jedi in exchange for the power to bring people back to life. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t even get that power. Trying to make a great villain like Darth Vader sympathetic doesn’t work because you can’t explain that kind of evil in a satisfying way. Evil is elusive, unpredictable, hard to define.

Villains are evil but we don’t need to know exactly how they got that way. You can hint at it, suggest some possible factors that helped cause it, but you can never explain it.

fiskOne of the greatest villains of the modern superhero age is from the tv show Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a man trying to save Hell’s Kitchen by first tearing it down to the ground first. He doesn’t even think he is a villain. He thinks he is doing what is right. That he is the hero saving the city and that the only way to rebuild it is to start over. There is one episode that give us insight into Fisk’s past and it centers around a defining moment from his childhood. When Fisk was a boy, his rage got out of control and he brutally attacked someone close to him. It’s a shocking scene and it goes a long way to let us know how Fisk ended up how he is, but don’t mistake this short glimpse into his childhood for what it is not. It is not his full backstory. It one crucial turning point in his life. But it does not try to explain everything. The truth is we have no idea how Wilson Fisk went from a kid who committed a terrible crime to the head of a powerful criminal organization. We don’t know how he learned to throw a punch or how he can stand toe-to-toe with Daredevil. How did he get to the top and what did he do to get there? It’s a mystery. And we the audience don’t need to know all his secrets. He is menacing, his name is not to be spoken, and he might snap at any moment, and that is enough. If Daredevil were to explain exactly how he became the man he is, it would take away his claws. It would overly humanize him. Fisk is a terrible foe to reckon with and we will never know exactly how it happened.

But perhaps the best villain of the last decade is universally acknowledged to be Heath Ledger’s Joker. and there is a similar mystery surrounding the villain of The Dark Knight. While the 1989 Batman movie went out of its way to show the Joker murdering Batman’s parents and falling into a vat of chemicals that transformed him into maniacal clown, the modern Joker has conflicting backstories all revolving around his scars. They are gruesome accounts, making the line, “Why So Serious?” both memorable and morbid at the same time. But the point of them is that they keep Joker’s real history in the dark. Was Joker tortured as a child? Was he married once? Are these real or are they just the ravings of a lunatic? We’ll never know. We just know that the Joker cannot be reasoned with. He can’t be bought off. He cannot be tamed or rehabilitated. Whatever he once was, that is now gone. As Ben Adams points out, his backstory is contradictory because it is not necessary. It would actually hurt the character’s intrigue and appeal if we knew where he came from.

Villains should be fully fleshed out in their motivations and identities, but we don’t want to know all the details of how they came to be. Some things should remain forever a secret.

VILLAINS SHOULD EXIST WITHIN A LARGER MORAL UNIVERSE

Villains are evil, but evil can also be relative. The best villains are not unstoppable forces of destruction. That is too much like a force of nature. No one blames the hurricane for being a hurricane. Villains are evil but they exist within a much larger moral universe. And a good villain doesn’t have to be the most evil thing around. Because on some level, we actually do want to root for our villains to succeed sometimes. Villains are not just plot points and obstacles for the heroes to overcome. They are characters. They have their own motivations. And at least some of the time, we want to see them succeed.

The best way I can explain is this is through the concept of the anti-hero. Which is a pretty close analogy for what we are looking for in our villains.

Anti-heroes are interesting. Take for example the Wild West. Out there on the frontier there are no good guys. There are just shades of grey. You have bad guys and you have helpless victims. And then along comes the anti-hero. Think of Clint Eastwood in a green poncho. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these guys. But when your town is being overrun by bandits and oil barons, he is the best you’re going to get. Sometimes working with somebody bad is better than falling into the hands of somebody evil.

The same principle can apply to villains. Just like anti-heroes, a good villain is not necessarily a good person. But you can create sympathy for them if you can show the villain to the best worst option in a terrible situation. The villain is still bad, but at least they might be more cunning and more principled that the other scum around them.

cobblepotA great recent example of this is Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, from the television show Gotham. Cobblepot is a ruthless sadistic guy. He is horrible. He is brutal serial killer. He doesn’t mind killing just to get a pair of clean clothes. But we never fully turn against Cobblepot because he is at the bottom of the totem pole. All the other criminals in Gotham treat Cobblepot like dirt. He gets pushed around, underestimated, and routinely humiliated. He is still a bloodthirsty murderer, but somehow, I don’t know why, we still feel for him because of how badly he gets treated.

When a villain gets treated unfairly, when a villain is up against even worse criminals, when they have a determination and resolve in the face of adversity, it helps the audience stick with them and want to believe in them, even if they still have some major reservations about it. Anti-heroes make the best out of bad circumstances and so the audience is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is the same thing when it comes to villains. Remind us that this villain exists in a world with even worse people, unscrupulous traitors with no morals at all. Maybe the villain will only kill if it helps further their plan and they will let the hero go if they think it might help them out later. Maybe the hero and villain can work together to prevent an even bigger threat that goes against the villain’s interests. It might not be much a difference, but humanizing the villain just a little bit cann go a long way. The villain is still bad, but the criminal underworld out around them might be even worse.

To the extent that it is narratively possible, contextualize the villain. Make their evil plan just a bit more reasonable and less bloodthirsty than the other options out there. Give us a scenario when the smart thing is to work with the villain temporarily to prevent an even greater disaster.

Wow, I think I just turned evil for a second. Snap out of it.

VILLAIN SHOULD PROVIDE A REAL THREAT

Something about a villain should strike fear into people. There are far too many villains out there that don’t have this primal essence to them. They are just stock bad buys with no spine to them. But a real villain is in control. They command the room with their presence. I guess you would say they provide good management of their employees. Just as a good CEO inspires confidence, a good villain inspires fear. Fear that you will be punished. That everyone you love will be taken away from you. That you cannot escape their grasp if you betray them.

baneThere’s a great moment in the movie The Dark Knight Rises involving Bane, a brutal mercenary who has taken over Gotham City. Although he is highly intelligent like many of Batman’s villains, Bane possesses a sheer physicality to him that makes him quite a formidable foe. Bane moves fast and hits hard. He’s got a creepy mask. He is a scary guy. But my favorite Bane moment showcases one of his more villainous qualities: he is just plain intimidating. In the film John Daggett, a corrupt businessman who hired Bane is chewing him out for not delivering him control of Wayne Enterprises as promised. Daggett tells Bane, I’m in charge, to which Bane simply puts his hand on his shoulder with his palm open and says, Do you feel in charge? It’s such a simple move. He just puts his hand on his shoulder. And as he continues talking. But as he keeps talking, he slowly moves his hand against Daggetts’ face, then his neck, and by the end of their conversation Bane has got Dagget’s whole head. We hear the sounds as Bane kills Daggett offscreen. At the beginning of the conversation Daggett thought he was in control but by the end of the scene the truth has come out.

Bane is not just physically intimidating, he’s also psychologically intimidating. Just by putting his hand on you he is reminding you that yes he can do whatever he wants. And if he wanted to he could squeeze you like a soda can.

A villain who runs around punching people or showing off their karate skills is never as scary as a villain who looks you in the eye and reminds you how powerful they are. Usually the threat of violence is just as scary as actual violence. A great villains always manage to stay in control by reminding those around them of what they are capable of.

While a villain should be able to rule through intimidation alone, but it’s also good to show they mean business. They can rule from their shadows, but their handiwork should also come out into the light.

It’s not enough for Darth Vader to threaten to blow up your planet. He has to be willing to actually fire up the Death Star and prove his point sometimes. The villain should be menacing but also follow through with actionable behaviors.

But to be truly threatening, it’s not enough for them to simply do bad stuff. They should be very precise in what they do. The best villains are able to get inside the protagonist’s heads. To mess with them. They know things about the protagonist that the protagonist is only vaguely aware of. Great villains can read their enemies like a book. They know how to manipulate the hero and exploit their flaws. And this is the part that makes them scary. Not the fact that they can hurt you, but that they know how and where can hurt you the most. They know how to get what they want. To turn the hero against himself

VILLAINS ALSO HAVE A WEAK SPOT

But villains also have a weakness. Usually it is a moral one. They are greedy. They are too proud to admit their mistakes. They overstep their bounds. They get the upper hand but they press their advantage too far.

Villains have a fundamental flaw. They will always eventually lose because of their internal character. They don’t know how to win even when they have all the cards because something about them is broken inside.

Villains take something good about humanity and they twist it. Villains are fascinating because there is something clearly off about them. It is not just that they are evil and bad. There is something about them that is admirable.

They are often eloquent speakers. They have great leadership ability. They usually highly intelligent. Oftentimes they are visionaries, they are ahead of their time.

But whatever was once good about them has now become twisted beyond recognition. Every villain has the same basic problem. They wanted something good but they wanted it too badly and it corrupted their soul.

And that’s why the hero will always defeat them. Because the race does not belong to the strong, nor the wise, nor the powerful. Evil is quite tiring. Twisting everything around you is exhausting. But doing the right thing, doing good, becomes its own reward. When you chase after good, you become stronger. But by the time the villain figures that out, it’s always too little too late.

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The End of the Movie and Its Narrative Purpose

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Spoilers for many recent films below!

The ending of a movie wraps up both the final moments of the story as well as all its major thematic elements. A story’s conclusion offers a brief emotional summary of everything that been said throughout the course of the narrative. What the audience walks away with in those few minutes is a reminder of what this whole endeavor has all been about.

The ending is our final destination. It is where we’ve been headed from the start even if we were unaware of where exactly we were off to. Here we see with clear perspective the precise reason for how the story began and what its real purpose was. Like the conclusion to a college essay, most endings do not contain new information or surprising changes in opinion. Rather, they are the summation of all that has come before. Endings are a tiny moment of catharsis that wraps up that great turbulence that has just transpired in a tender moment of reflection and understanding. By tender, I don’t mean boring. I mean something meaningful, something with firm intention.

Endings are also a bold statement. Although during the narrative is it okay to play with ambiguity, wrestle over what is right and wrong, compare two opposite ways of doing something, at some point you have to take a stand. The end is a good place for that to happen. And in order to build to a satisfying conclusion, a story better achieve some kind of lasting resolution.

Some movies pull this off really well, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment and definitive proof that the central characters and the overall story have arrived at new stage of awareness and growth. Other movies really botch this up, somehow undoing and unsaying the very things they promised they would do and say.

Let’s look through some popular films from this past year and evaluate how well their endings deliver a satisfying unifying thematic message. Of course, beware of spoilers.

Pacific Rim

How it ends: Raleigh and Mako survive the first triple Kaiju attack and close the rift between worlds. They float together on the ocean, powerfully embracing but without a hint of romance.

What it means: This entire Kaiju war has been about the outmatched Pacific nations coming together against the odds to prevent the extinction of the human race. Raleigh and Mako are the prime example of this, their teamwork and mutual trust becoming the decisive factor in both the battle of Tokyo and the closure of the rift. They have been inside each other’s heads and learned how to work in harmony, an experience as intimate as the closest of human relationships. What need is there for kissing when they have so much respect, understanding, and compassion for one another. Saving the world from destruction calls for a hug.

Verdict: A little thin, but definitely classy.

Thor: The Dark World

How it ends: Thor tells his father Odin that he does not want to rule Asgard as king, preferring to return to Midgard and Jane Foster. It is revealed that Odin is actually Loki in disguise.

What it means: All of Loki’s character development was actually a ruse, a trick to escape prison and take over Asgard. His alliance with Thor and his heartfelt sacrifice were just more trickery. He has only changed his status, not his nature. The fate of Odin is unknown. This twist uproots the relationship we have just seen nurtured for two hours.

What made Thor and Loki’s fraternal struggle so moving was that here at the loss of their mother facing down a terrible evil, Thor and Loki are forced to trust each other again. Unlike Iron Man 3 or even The Avengers, the ENTIRE universe is at stake. Yet the impact on the characters and scenery is so minimal. Loki is still the trickster. Thor is still the exiled son. Asgard is still the shining city. We’re left unsure of how Malekith’s devastation affects anybody in any significant way, save for Thor’s unsurprising abandonment of the throne and Loki’s unsurprising grab for power. This ending comes across as nothing more than an advertisement for more Marvel movies.

Verdict: A comic book ending full of comic book nonsense.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

How it ends: Katniss wakes up in an aircraft, dazed and weak. Haymitch and Plutarch are there, explaining that the games were staged as part of an elaborate plan to rescue Katniss and groom her as the new leader of the revolution. Also, everyone was in on the plan except her.

What it means: Not only had Katniss been manipulated by President Snow and the Capitol, but also her friends. They neither trusted her nor sought her consent in events that deeply affect her. Their plan not only requires her to become the face of their revolution, but also has resulted in the decimation of her entire district. Essentially everything that has happened has happened outside the control of the main character. Her courageous actions in the Hunger Games are seemingly nullified as her agency as a character are stripped from her. Katniss comes across as a political pawn not a rebel leader.

Verdict: Are we watching the same movie, people?

Frozen

How it ends: Princess Anna freezes over trying to save her estranged sister, Queen Elsa. Her act of true love melts the curse and thaws the permanent winter over the kingdom of Arendelle.

What it means: Sacrificial love is of higher value than romantic “love”. Separated from her sister for so long, Anna demonstrates the lengths to which she would go for Elsa by running out onto the ice, her body consumed by ice. With no thought for her personal safety, she goes to rescue the sister who has shunned her at at every turn. Sacrificial love becomes Anna’s salvation.

This runs parallel to Anna’s experiences with Hans and Kristoff. Although Anna believed she loved Hans, that superficial feeling faded away once his true intentions were revealed. On the other hand, Kristoff accompanied Anna on her search and proved himself a faithful friend, an act far greater than demonstrating attraction or romantic fancy. A proven friend who has learned sacrificial love is a far better illustration of love than a handsome charmer who dazzles the senses.

Verdict: A truly valiant effort, but one that doesn’t quite gel for some reason. The story tried too hard to avoid the true love’s kiss trope without really earning the emotional revelation needed. Perhaps if the entire main cast, Elsa, Hans, Olaf, and Sven also all sacrificed themselves it would have resonated more deeply.

Gravity

How it ends: Dr. Ryan Stone makes it back to Earth, her pod crashes into a lake and the control panel catches on fire. Forced to evacuate the pod, she struggles to escape the submerged vessel. Finally she swims to the surface and pulls herself to the muddy shore and takes her first step back on earth.

What it means: Stone has finally found a reason to live. After the initial catastrophe, Stone reveals that her desire to stop living began long before she was stranded in space. Her entire journey throughout the film is about recovering her purpose, overcoming her grief over her daughter, and deciding to survive. The audience knows that Stone won’t drown in that lake because she has already made the decision to live. The lake scene simply reminds us that her decision is permanent. Stone has already been reborn.

Verdict: Extremely effective.

Monsters University

How it ends: After discovering he did not legitimately win the Scare Games, Mike travels to the human world and finds that children are not scared of him. Sully goes after him and together they find a way to generate the biggest scare on record. Although they still get kicked out of Monsters University, their newfound confidence allows them to work their way up the corporate ladder to finally become professional scarers.

What it means: This entire movie is rebuttal to the idea that you can accomplish your dreams simply because you are special. Most movies would have ended at the final scaring contest when Mike outscared the other team through sheer willpower. That ending was completely hollow because it felt untrue. Willpower was never going to get Mike into the scaring major. Dreams don’t always come true.

However sometimes there is another way. At the end of the movie, Mike and Sully sort through mail and mop floors as they dedicate themselves to working at Monsters Inc. They succeed not because they are somehow uniquely gifted or because they got a lucky break at the Scare Games. They succeed because 1) they have managed to become legitimately scary in their own way, 2) they don’t give up, and 3) they work really hard to earn a spot in a highly competitive field. In essence, the ending tells us that “thinking you are special” is nothing compared to “knowing your true strengths, having determination, overcoming setbacks, and working hard until one day the right opportunity opens up.” Not a simple message, but a beautifully stated and deeply resonant truth.

Verdict: Best ending of 2013.

A Special Case: The Superhero Ending

Let’s talk about a special type of ending unique to the superhero genre. Recently superhero films have made an effort to add weight to their endings by concluding with a moment that signals either the beginning or end of the hero’s career to save the world. It’s so prevalent these days that this phenomenon crops in almost every superhero film. Look at the ending of these fairly recent superhero films:

The Dark Knight: Hero quits.
The Dark Knight Rises: Hero quits again.
The Avengers: Heroes start.
Iron Man 3: Hero quits.
Man of Steel: Hero starts.
The Wolverine: Hero starts gain.
Thor: The Dark World: Hero quits.

Whether it’s Tony Stark shedding his many suits or Clark Kent joining the the Daily Planet staff, superhero films like to end with a larger statement about their hero’s development. Heroes might sacrifice themselves like Batman or take up their mantle again like Wolverine, but either way it drives home the point of the entire story. Whether the hero returns to civilian life or comes back with renewed resolve for their mission, it attempts to give the narrative a lasting impact on that hero’s goals, identity, and future.

Does it always work? Not really. But sometimes it is used to great effect. It all depends on if the big decision is backed up by the actual narrative or not. When Batman flees at the end of The Dark Knight, there is no way he is coming back without some serious consequences and a real explanation. When Wolverine decides that he can move on from Jean and overcome his fear of hurting people for the sake of stopping bad guys, it feels right. But when Tony ditches his whole superhero gig at the end of Iron Man 3, is there really any doubt that he won’t be back in the suit once Downey and Marvel sign a new contract?

As long as the decision to don or shed the cape falls in with the major themes of the movie, it can really work. But when it feels tacked on or not truly life-altering, that’s when it comes across as tired and tropey. The ending should convince us that this whole thing had a point. A solid ending is not new information or a clever plot twist or an advertisement for the next film, but rather serves as a lasting moment of closure that ties everything up with a sense of finality and progress. It should both release us from the story and yet continue to haunt us long afterward.

Evaluating the Importance of Influence Characters

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Everyone intuitively gets that a story has a main character, but what often gets overlooked is a special little story element known as the Influence Character. In contrast to the Main Character, the Influence Character is not the lens through which the audience experiences the story. Instead, the Influence Character challenges and prods the Main Character to consider another path, thereby also forcing the audience to rethink their point of view. The tension between these two characters creates much of story’s overall dramatic tension.

In Dramatica theory (an overly complicated but sometimes useful narrative framework) this secondary character, the Influence Character, provides an opposing alternative worldview from that of the main character. Through the interactions between the Main character and the Influence character, the story is allowed to develop and exercise its major themes. It is the influence character who forces the main character to grow and even change course, creating the gut-punching drama needed for a great story.

One familiar example given in the book is Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Story of Two Methods

The overall story of Star Wars is the rebels trying to topple the evil Empire. The main character story is Luke’s personal journey to become a Jedi and fight the empire. The influence character is Obi-Wan Kenobi, a wisened Jedi, who pushes Luke to learn the ways of the force.

Luke wants to do something with his life: get off dust-covered Tatooine bowl and join the Rebel Alliance. He is young and headstrong, wanting to become a Jedi quickly so he can fight. Kenobi is a retired Jedi, wanting Luke to complete his training but also wanting Luke to slow down and invest the years of quiet meditation and self-restraint it takes to become a Jedi. Although they both have the same goal (stopping Vader and overthrowing the Empire) their relationship exhibits two possible means of getting there: brash enthusiasm or slow deliberate preparation. Over the course of the movie, Kenobi tempers Luke’s eagerness through his constant reminders that defeating Vader will require acquiring the patience and persistence needed to wield the Force.

The Influence Character model works pretty well with Star Wars, but does it hold up with other stories? I can’t really say. And speaking of Star Wars, the Luke-Kenobi relationship is only a small fraction of the great drama of the movie. Is Kenobi really that unique and special of an influence character? That’s a tough question to answer.

What other movies out there can help us test this concept of the influence character? Any movie that has two central characters who are at odds with one another but forced to work together is a probably a good candidate. Some examples that come to mind are Toy Story (Woody and Buzz), Star Trek 2009 (Kirk and Spock), and The Matrix (Neo and Morpheus).

Toy Story: The Story of Two Attitudes

Woody, our main character, wants to be Andy’s favorite toy believing himself both special and the de facto leader of the rest of the toys. The arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a naive but loyal space ranger, upsets Woody’s world. Woody believes that Andy has a special connection to his cowboy and is happiest when playing with him. Buzz innocuously replaces Woody as Andy’s favorite, simply letting Andy make his own decisions and playing along.

In his jealousy Woody does the unthinkable, pushing Buzz out the window and accidentally stranding himself as well. For the rest of the film Woody and Buzz learn that they share the same goal of making Andy happy and fulfilling their duty as faithful toys. In their adventures outside the house the two learn from each other and eventually forge a deep friendship and mutual respect in spite of their different approaches. Ultimately Woody changes through the influence of Buzz and decides to focus on being the best possible toy for Andy even if that means he is no longer the favorite.

This works well with the influence character theory. Woody and Buzz, who both share the mission of making their owner Andy happy, disagree on the method and yet manage to become friends and learn from one another in the process.

Star Trek (2009): The Story of Two Approaches

The central relationship of Star Trek is eerily similar to Toy Story. Kirk is an arrogant emotion-driven cadet while Spock is a calculating logic-driven commander. Both are the best Starfleet has to offer but their vastly different approaches lead them to butt heads almost immediately. When a decisive crisis befalls them, the pair spar openly. The human goes with his gut, the Vulcan sticks to his rational assessment. Officially in charge, Spock ejects Kirk from the Enterprise leaving Kirk to find his way back to ship. This is great drama, two beloved fan-favorite colleagues forced into a situation where they cannot get along.

When Kirk finally gets back on the ship, he manages to tap into Spock’s inner emotional turmoil thus proving that underneath the Vulcan’s stoic demeanor lies the same primal instincts that make Kirk such an effective captain. Ultimately Spock rejects this approach but gains a new appreciation for Kirk’s innate leadership and decides to defer to his moral authority. This relationship is expanded further in Star Trek Into Darkness.

In this story, the Nero threat and destruction of planet Vulcan are all just background stuff, an excuse to test the bonds between these two dissimilar characters who play off each other so well but just don’t know it yet.

The Matrix: The Story of Two Worldviews

Neo, our Main Character, has his life changed forever when he meets a mysterious man named Morpheus. Under his influence, Neo decides to leave the Matrix and discovers a new reality he could never have imagined. However Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One (an anagram for Neo) while Neo is certain that he is just an ordinary guy, not at all what Morpheus is looking for. Morpheus is defined by his faith in the One. In contrast, Neo is defined by personal experience and the self-knowledge that he is really quite ordinary. Their two incompatible worldviews form the central dramatic relationship of the movie.

This all comes to a climax when Neo, still not believing himself the One, goes back into the Matrix to rescue Morpheus from certain death, thus becoming the One he never thought he would be.

Those three examples fit the bill nicely, but I’m concerned that the Influence Character is not easily producible. What about movies that aren’t focused on two buddy characters? One examples that come to mind are The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The Hobbit: The Story of Two Influence Characters

Clearly the Main Character in this story is Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit. But who is the Influence Character? The two obvious ones are Gandalf and Thorin, but both seem to represent opposite views and have quite a different relationship with the young hobbit. For the first hour of the movie, Bilbo’s struggle is that he does not belong out in the wild on adventures and such. He firmly believes himself a homebody. Through Gandalf’s influence and prodding, finally Bilbo takes a chance by signing the contract and joining the company of dwarves.

For the first section of the movie, the influence character is clearly Gandalf. The playful relationship between hobbit and wizard is really all about convincing Bilbo to leave home behind and go on the adventure. It is Gandalf who brings down the domestic destruction upon the hobbit hole, inviting ravenous dwarves in to pillage the pantry and scuff up his home. However once Bilbo accepts Gandalf’s charge the Influence Character almost immediately switches to Thorin, the friction between Bilbo and Gandalf having been resolved.

Thorin interestingly now plays on Bilbo’s hesitation at joining in the first place. Bilbo never wanted to leave home, took a concerted risk in coming, and now must deal with Thorin’s constant reminders of his inadequate preparation for the quest at hand. This new Influence Character seems to confirms Bilbo’s greatest fears: he never should have come. The rest of the movie deals with the relationship between hobbit and dwarf-king as they work to resolve their irreconcilable attitudes on Bilbo’s place in the company.

An Unexpected Journey seems to employ two different Influence Characters, Gandalf and Thorin, at different times to great effect. (Notice how at the end of the movie Gandalf and Bilbo’s relationship remains unchanged since leaving the shire. Perhaps it’s best to never have two Influence Characters both active at once.)

Traditional Approach vs. Non-Traditional Approach

Many stories will have clear and straightforward Influence Characters as in the movies we discussed above. They fit the bill perfectly, and the relationship between the Main Character and the Influence Character becomes the central emotional axis of the entire story. Some examples of traditional influence characters in movies:

Skyfall: M influences Bond to serve his country

Oblivion: Victoria influences Jack Harper to stay home

Revenge of the Sith: Obi-Wan influences Anakin to resist the dark side

Inception: Ariadne influences Cobb to confront his inner demons

The Amazing Spider-Man: Captain Stacy influences Peter to weigh the illegal actions of Spider-Man

The Dark Knight Rises: Bane influences Bruce to give up hope for Gotham

The Dark Knight: The Joker influences Batman to reject his ethical restraints

Avatar: Neytiri influences Jake to fully embrace Navi’i culture

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Clementine influences Joel by erasing her memories of their relationship.

The Sixth Sense: Cole influences Dr. Malcolm to believe in ghosts.

Back to the Future: Doc Brown influences Marty to fix the timeline.

Those are traditional examples of the Influence Character at work. But what about movies that don’t work quite as well?

Iron Man 3: Is it Harley or Pepper or the Mandarin, I don’t know. The best candidate is probably the Mandarin but it’s a little unclear since their interactions are limited. More likely is that the functions of the influence character are split up between those three characters each representing an opposite worldview from Tony in different areas. The Mandarin influences Tony’s approach to military stuff, Pepper influences his approach to relationships, and the kid Harley influences his approach to dealing with his psychological wounds.

Contagion: The real main character of Contagion is the disease itself. It evolves throughout the film following a typical character arc. The epidemiologists influence the disease by searching for a cure.

Pacific Rim: Pentecost influences Raleigh to fight dispassionately, Mako influences Raleigh to fight passionately. Two influence characters who both influence Raleigh to fight.

Jurassic Park: The rampaging dinosaurs influence the humans by exposing their hubris.

The Avengers: Nick Fury influences the Avengers to assemble.

Lincoln: No idea who the influence character is, perhaps Mary Todd or even the entrenched idea of slavery itself.

Man of Steel: Jor-El influences Kal-El to inspire humanity, Pa Kent influences Clark to conceal his identity, General Zod influences Kal-El to reveal himself. Lois and Martha Kent do stuff too. That’s a lot of Influence Characters and perhaps one explanation for its poor critical reception.

So What Did We Learn?

Some movies fit the model perfectly. Other movies are a bit harder to cram into the model. However even the ones that fit quite well also have a lot of other things going on in the movie: tertiary characters, subplots, external forces that come from outside the Influence Character relationships, and more.

I don’t think the Influence Character is absolutely necessary for every story. Obviously you could create a working story without one single character who represents a diametrically opposite view from the main character. However when it works, it does seem to work pretty well. Movies that mishandle the resolution of the Influence Character relationship tend to suffer as a result (e.g. Bane in the Dark Knight Rises or Superman’s dads in Man of Steel).

A lot of stories have what appear to be multiple Influence Characters broken up to represent different aspects of the Main Character’s worldview. That appears to be okay as long as you follow through correctly, but it seems much more difficult to pull off.

Some other observations that we didn’t have time for but deserve to be mentioned:

  • Many superhero movies tend to fall into the trap of relying only on the villain for the influence character when they could be exploring the interesting counter-perspectives of other characters.
  • Romantic movies usually feature the two lovers who serve as Main and Influence Characters respectively.
  • Buddy films about two unlikely partners or friends are the same way.
  • Stories that tend to happen in the mind of one person or that are about a person wrestling with their own opinions could potentially have the same person be both main character and influence character ala Fight Club.
  • This is just a jumping in point to the the concept of the Influence Character. I’m sure some of the Dramatica people and other narrative experts have much better things to say.

Bottom line: The Influence Character is a useful tool in telling stories but not a hard and fast rule that every story must obey. You would be wise to implement a well-defined Influence Character (or some other outside force) that provides a strong counter-perspective for the main character in your story. If you are going to have multiple Influence Characters, make sure they have a clear analog in a different aspect of the Main Character’s worldview (as in Iron Man 3).

Now’s it your turn to help me in the comments:

  • What other Influence Characters do you recognize from film, tv, or books?
  • Are there any movies that have NO Influence Character whatsoever?
  • How would you explain the Influence Character(s) of a complicated multi-part narrative like The Lord of the Rings?

Coming Up Next on Story Punch!

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One way in which I hope to differentiate Story Punch from the multitude of other movie and storytelling blogs out there is through sheer brute force. In other words, by featuring long form articles that present a fuller perspective than a quick 500 word movie review can normally provide. It’s called film analysis, baby!

However this comes with a catch. Longer articles require more time to write, proofread, and edit. This means some articles are going to be in the crockpot for a while. Don’t worry, I’m still planning on getting new stuff up every week but the long meaty stuff is going to have to brew for a bit.

Just to give a little sneak peak of what I have in store for this month, here’s what I’m currently working on:

A Universal Theory of Bad Movies

What makes bad movies worse than the average movie? What special qualities do they possess that the rest don’t? It’s pretty simple really. The answer will be revealed in this groundbreaking earthshattering worldrattling mega-article.

The One-Word Themes of Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is a talented filmmaker who has won critical acceptance, popular acclaim, and box office gold. Each of his recent films seem to revolve around a one-word theme, usually some primal human emotion with a negative consequence. Let’s explore Nolan’s dark protagonists and their films’ corresponding themes.

Evaluating the Importance of Influence Characters

Dramatica theory claims that the main character of any fully formed story requires a dynamic relationship with an important influence character. This secondary character represents the opposite of the main character’s worldview and through their relationship the story develops its major themes. What are influence characters? Are they really out there? We’ll go through many recent and popular examples in copious detail.

What Is A Story Punch? A Definitive Explanation

I’ve alluded to the title of this blog a little bit, but what exactly is a Story Punch? Why would you name a blog after it? We’ve been covering a lot of movies since they are readily accessible but it’s about time to go deeper into the storytelling principles that this blog hopes to explore. Movies are just one launchpad for learning to tell better stories.

Stay Tuned

So that’s what is coming up next. Leave a comment or suggestion for any of these upcoming articles or perhaps an idea you would be interested in hearing about. Thanks for reading!

Are Stories Arbitrary?

Are stories arbitrary?

There are no objective stories. There are available facts, pre-processed within the particular context they were first learned and all but impossible to fully divorce from the stories in which they were initially found. The same set of facts can be arranged to create many different competing stories, each arguing for interpretive supremacy over the situation.

How does one then come to terms with this unseemly flexibility of storymaking? Is it fundamentally dishonest to assign any one comprehensive grid of meaning to naked facts at hand? If stories can dress them up any way they want, facts don’t stand a chance.

Ambiguity of meaning need not be totally paralyzing to our ability to tell meaningful stories. Meaning is not so much created by our sheer skills of interpretation as much as recognized. It is much more work to force a story to lie against its own observable data than it is to let it speak the obvious truth. Any lawyer in court would rather represent an innocent man with a clean alibi than to strenuously reinterpret and spin the evidence on behalf of a conspicuous murderer. Stories can lie, but not easily or without sincere effort.

Assigning meaning to the facts of a story is not to whitewash the canvas for sake of convenience. Just as a painter draws from his palette of colors, selecting which shades and tones to feature and ignoring others for the purpose of clarity, the storyteller must choose which facts form the essential spine of their story. Just as the resulting painting portrays its chosen subject with exactness and unity from only a few of the near infinity colors available, the story must be both highly selective and intelligently focused. Extraneous irrelevant details are detours that the medium of story cannot afford. When the painter is finished, anyone can look at the finished work to see if it accurately reflects the object of its focus. A painting of China by someone who has never seen or known China will not impress China upon its viewers. A story comprised of facts twisted and coerced against their nature into service of an unfamiliar meaning will not remain effective, at least not for very long.

The non-arbitrary meaning of story is discovered, not made from crude manipulation. False meanings usually ring false, lacking the intended inspiration for which their creators had hoped. True meanings ring true, carrying with them a powerful agent of change. This is usually evidenced by the storyteller. It is an aura they carry around them. They sincerely believe in the meaning and they sincerely believe it is not merely their self-imposed interpretation. Of course, that does that prove it to be so, but it is a place from which to start.

Dramatica Doesn’t Make Sense To Me, But I Wish It Did

I got pretty frustrated today, almost to the point of crying.

It was over something quite silly, but important to me nonetheless.

The last few days I’ve been trying to understand this Theory of Story called Dramatica. I really started to get into it and see how different characters blend different archetypes and how every story can be understood in terms of its specific thematic components blah blah blah.

Anyway I was really hoping that by understanding Dramatica I would have the tools to assess and restructure any story. However last night I hit a huge wall and so far have not been able to get through it. The theory is just too dense, too undercommunicated, too stricken of helpful examples.

I can’t get my my head around it.

The main problem is the presentation of the “chessboard”, a huge three dimensional grid with interlocking components not unlike a Rubix Cube. There end up being 64 “elements” that intertwine with the 4 different main story threads and it doesn’t make any sense without pre-knowledge of how it all works together.

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In order to get Dramatica, you have to essentially memorize these 64 elements (plus the top level layers) which don’t always mean what you would assume they do.

People claim it takes years to master this theory. Supposedly it is versatile enough to describe every possible story by boiling stories down to their most generic parts. It could be good/useful/significant if it weren’t so ethereal to pin down. Perhaps where it shines the most is its ability to identify weak story structure and make suggestions on how to fix it.

Sadly there’s too much good in the theory to completely write it off, but too much complexity to know whether it’s truly worth “years” of investment. Plus, I’ve read the book so what is there left but for me to keep re-reading it in the hopes of getting it next time?

What I could really need is better examples to explain the confusing terminology, a better understanding of how all the puzzle pieces of theory fit together, and more working films/stories actually explained by the theory without having to scour the humungous Dramatica dictionary.

It’s a beautiful theory overshadowed by needless confusion and complexity. Maybe my breakthrough will come in time or maybe not. Surely Dramatica has a perfect little box to describe my ambivalence.