What Makes a Good Villain?

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For many, Donald Trump poses a significant threat to the world, his rhetoric often filled with hate and divisiveness. But beyond Trump himself lies a belief system, and that is the true threat.

If this was a movie written by Michael Arndt, it would end with Trump’s defeat, as well as the defeat of his ideology. Arndt wrote “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Toy Story 2” & “3,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” and is a fierce proponent of the three act structure, but he insists that a satisfying story must include more than just a tangible “second act goal” (blowing up the Death Star, defeating Trump, etc.). It must also have a “global goal.”

BTRtoday caught up with one of Arndt’s admirers, writer/director Nat Livingston Johnson, of the creative-production studio Mr. Wonderful, to help shed light on this claim.

“The global goal, from what I understand, is the larger, usually unimagined obstacle that reveals itself through the hero’s journey,” Johnson explains. It’s a goal that must be achieved to bring about the ultimate catharsis.

“The second act goal only gets the hero so far,” he continues. “It is something fathomable from the start and is characterized by a more “front-brained, specific approach.”

Johnson cites 1979’s “Alien” as a good example of the second act goal versus the global goal. In it, the obvious objective is to kill the alien, but the ultimate goal that comes into clarity through the progression of the film is to defeat the corporation that created the problem by intentionally jeopardizing human lives.

The ultimate villain in “Alien” isn’t the alien, he says, but “the corporation, which is a symbol of corporate greed, and the source of all that’s wrong.” From one dark source to another, “Alien” succeeds in painting the universe as a cold, cynical place, where life is cheap and bonuses are big.

At the end of a screenplay, Arndt believes that the hero should experience a “eureka” moment as a result of attaining the global goal, and that this in turn should bring about an epiphany that changes his or her worldview. For this, Johnson again points to horror.

“Rosemary’s resolution in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is an example of a great ‘eureka’ moment,” he says. “At the film’s climax, Rosemary overcomes her disgust for the demon child and chooses to be a mother to Satan’s baby.” Evidently, her maternal instincts triumph.

Arndt also believes that a villain should be more than two-dimensional (just watch Adam Driver in “The Force Awakens” and witness a fully fleshed-out character, brought to life by a stellar performance). What is behind a successful hero/villain relationship?

“The best stories usually have both a dynamic hero and villain,” Johnson observes, “who are both in total opposition to the others’ desires.” However, what makes this relationship compelling is what the hero and villain have in common: an unrelenting will to attain their goal.

“Michael Arndt would probably say that the best stories can only resolve themselves when the hero and villain are diametrically opposed,” he continues, “and that the story forces one to triumph over the other, leaving no other possible outcome.”

Does Arndt’s model provide hope? Does the the arc of a global goal ring truer today, or are these themes timeless?

Johnson believes they are. Like Arndt, though, he cautions against oversimplification. “Thinking about things as good versus evil when you’re writing is a death knell,” he says. “If you’re thinking about your hero as this super dynamic, interesting person, and you’ve cast your villain as ‘evil’, the chances are that you’re going to write a boring story.”

In order to write with any insight, Johnson maintains, one must humanize the villain. John Malkovich’s character in 1993’s “In The Line of Fire,” for example, annoys him. “There are so many films like this, where the bad guy calls up the hero on the phone, cackling, putting him through an obstacle course of evil for just the sake of being bad.”

This “Machiavellian evildoer,” motivated by a compulsion to spread chaos and disrupt the hero’s path, is actually a pretty unrealistic character. As Johnson says, it really can’t go anywhere meaningful. He adds: “Trump is the king of this simplistic brand of storytelling, obviously.”

Johnson is doing the opposite: he’s currently working on an ambitious screenplay about two sisters who grew up completely dependent on each other, and who realize, over the course of their lives, that they are each others’ worst enemies.

“It’s a story about realizing your biggest ally is actually your nemesis.” Talk about taking the hero/villain relationship to the next level!

“It’s a strange twist on that,” Johnson muses, “because they need each other in order to fight each other.”