Antagonists: When Vice Becomes a Virtue

With spoilers for: The Dark Knight

A few weeks ago, I did a short piece on Jesse Pinkman and concluded that there are many, often conflicting, ways of making a character likeable. Today, I just want to hit that point home a bit, by turning your attention to antagonists – and how they often come with characteristics which make us support them more than we probably should.

Proficiency

You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration of his skill.

This quote follows Sherlock Holmes’ first encounter with Moriarty, and I love it because I think it perfectly encapsulates how most of us react to a good villain. Antagonists are usually the main source of conflict in a story, so it seems to follow that they should be incredibly good at what they do – incredibly good at stopping the hero from achieving his goals. However, by making them this way, writers often endow them with a level of excellence, lacking in most of the other characters, including the hero.

Breaking Bad Salamanca Cousins

A good example of this is the Unstoppable Evil archetype, home to characters such as the Salamanca twins from Breaking Bad. These are the two silent, almost mechanical cartel hitmen, barely with a moment on screen where they’re not shooting someone, beheading someone or trying to find means to facilitate either of those activities. Natural to their line of work, they don’t have much going for them on a moral level – and they aren’t exactly providing the comic relief either.

However, they are incredibly good at what they do. Hell, they hardly have to speak to each other, they’re so accustomed to killing. Like a great sportsman or musician, every movement they make is calculated but relaxed, alert but assured. Similar is their Chigurhian attitude to life and law. You know there’s no bargaining with these people – they can’t be bought or reasoned with. And there’s something very powerful about that.

Breaking Bad Salamanca Cousins Explosion

It seems most of us are a bit Sherlockian when it comes to the very worst of bad guys. Such characters appeal to our megalomania. They invite us to step into their shoes for a while – part metaphorically, to see how it feels to act without hesitation or restraint – but also literally, because they have cool skull boots.

Or it could just be that we appreciate people who are good at what they do, even if we totally condemn what they’re doing. It’s a hard one to test, but given what I said previously, I’d expect that the greater your desire for power is, the more these characters will appeal to you. Certainly feels right to me, but I’m not sure if it is.

Honesty

It’s not like the Salamanca twins are pretending to be charity workers in their spare time. Both are unambiguously killers and make no attempt to disguise that fact, even carrying out executions in public areas.

Breaking Bad Salamanca Cousins Twins

This is just an offshoot from the Power trait, really. These twin golems don’t tell lies or act dishonestly because they don’t feel like they have to; there’s no benevolence about it. Still, we seem to prefer our antagonists honest (c.f. The Departed, where the rat Damon is several times more loathsome than his boss.)

Intelligence

Again, this is just the Power point rebranded and given a pair of spectacles. An evil genius is still a genius. Personally, I kinda admire Moriarty, Gus Fring, Tyler Durden, Don Corleone. There’s a feeling that they deserve the status they have, which is severely lacking in a character like Commodus from Gladiator.

Moriarty Sherlock

Genocide Neglect

Genocide neglect is basically the finding that we care more about the suffering of one human being than of a thousand combined. It’s an initially shocking statement, although explanations come easily. It’s easy to identify with a single individual, less so with an entire demographic. It’s also very relevant to our admiration of cinematic villains. Quite often they exhibit a form of nastiness that we just don’t have an emotional conception of.

Dark Knight Ferry Scene

For me, this is exemplified by the Dark Knight boat scene. In all honesty, I don’t really care if the Joker blows up a ferry of faceless hundreds. Obviously, I realise it’s a hideous thing for someone to want to do – but I just don’t feel it. (Actually, I’d argue that the Joker’s snuff video is the most disturbing part of the Batman trilogy, in which you witness a short recording of one man’s humiliation and torture.)

In other words, super-evil villains – with their grandiose plans for mass destruction and world domination – often end up exploiting a moral loophole. To paraphrase Barbara Kingsolver, we didn’t evolve to understand tragedy on a global scale.

High Opinions

Another point I recently noticed was this: villains often have a high opinion of the protagonist, it just happens to be a negative one. The Salamanca Cousins hate Walter White. The Joker and Moriarty view Batman and Sherlock as ‘playmates’ and relish having them around. The Determinator himself, Anton Chigurh, seems to be following some asocial set of principles which transcend his personal feelings or desires.

In reality, the people we hate aren’t generally the ones who hate us, they’re the ones who couldn’t care less about us – or worse, feel grossly superior. That’s why the ‘Box Cutter’ scene from Breaking Bad is so effective. This is the moment when the antagonist reveals his true feelings about the other characters – that they’re nothing more than pawns to him and he can take their lives without consequence.

* * * * *

No Country for Old Men Chigurh Motel

So there you go. A few ways in which a villain can become likeable, although I can imagine others: maybe there’s a greater range to antagonists, which makes them inherently more intriguing; maybe their alien inhumanity prevents us from judging them in the same way as ordinary members of the public. I’m less convinced by these last two ideas, but maybe there’s something there.

I should point out here that I’m not criticising these kinds of antagonist. Anton Chigurh, Colonel Hans Landa, the Joker, Gus Fring are some of my all-time favourite characters. All I mean to say is that, if you want your antagonist’s defeat to be a truly cathartic, celebratory moment, probably best that you don’t make him too powerful, proficient, intelligent, honest – or even too evil. I truly believe that Nolan never killed off the Joker because he couldn’t, it just wouldn’t have made for a satisfying ending.

So, the question remains: if we can like characters as evil as the ones listed above, how do you make a character loathsome? That’s the question I want to turn to next, starting with a study of Joffrey Baratheon.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Jesse Pinkman: A Lesson in Likeability – we like characters that are intelligent, powerful, good at what they do – so how did the writers of Breaking Bad turn a small-time drug-dealer into such a beloved character?

Joffrey Baratheon: Creating the Hate – how has a 16-year old boy become one of the most hated villains in TV history?

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Zetland

About the author

Software developer turned rookie farmer. I'm interested in screenwriting, film, linguistics, science. Also co-founder of Vocular, the voice-deepening app.

13 Comments

    1. I think liking is often the product of fascination, and I think that that factor’s definitely at play for a lot of the characters listed above. However, there are characters I find fascinating but really dislike. Commodus is a good example of this, I think. He’s the most interesting character in Gladiator, purely by virtue of being incredibly messed up – but, at the same time, he’s probably one of the most loathsome villains I’ve come across.

      There’s some ambiguity to the word “likeable” though. I use it in the sense where you support the character and want the best for them – so the character you like the most is the one you want to come out on top. If I were writing a book, I’d add a foreword to clear up this confusion – but I realise this is the internet, and nobody’s going to read that here.

      Reply
      1. Exactly! Since you can like AND be fascinated by, OR just be fascinated by (or, for that matter, just like), they are clearly distinct measures. Seinfeld is my canonical example for a show comprised entirely of characters I hated (they were horrible, horrible people), but which fascinated me (the writing mainly, which was amazing).

        I think we have the same sense of likeable… I’d add, a “likeable” character is one I’d want to spend time with or have as a friend.

        Reply
  1. In some respects, our interest in the villain is a failure of the protagonist. Villains become fascinating because they are good at what they do and yet for some reason they’re also evil. There’s always a past psychological damage, inferred (the Joker) or explicit (Bane). Too many protagonists lack this depth, this mental scarring–or if it’s present, they’ve already figured out how to deal with it, that’s why they’re good! The bad guys are just the people left wrestling with their demons.

    I make it a point in all my protagonists to give them similar psychological damage–but instead of turning to crime or murder, they turn to heroism. (This is a defect too, in many ways: “I cannot fix myself so I fix the world.” This is known as Jack Syndrome, from Lost.)

    But now I want to write a story where the antagonist eventually subsumes the protagonist as the hero. A reverse Darth Vader, if you will. But better.

    Reply
    1. That’s an excellent idea. (Although I have to say Jack had the opposite effect on me; I always thought he was quite an arrogant individual. An unfortunate case of nominative determinism, in that he saw everyone else as being his sheep.) I get what you mean though, there are too many heroes who are good just for the sake of being good.

      Villains become fascinating because they are good at what they do and yet for some reason they’re also evil.

      It’s interesting that you say that, because I can also see an argument for the opposite. “The lion does not concern himself with the opinions of sheep”, as someone from Game of Thrones said. If you truly believe yourself to be indomitable, then why even bother being nice? This isn’t my personal view, I’d like to point out, but I realise that there’s an argument that ‘power corrupts’, so a superhero who chooses to be heroic should be more intriguing.

      I guess another thing to be said here is that heroes don’t always have to be interesting. Sure, it helps, but there are loads of other criteria which make characters likeable. I find Commodus a more fascinating character than Maximus – however, I still root for Maximus throughout, thanks to a bunch of other reasons. (He seems more noble and compassionate than Commodus; he’s a more deserving leader; I feel bad that he’s just had an empire pinched from him.)

      Reply
      1. Agreed on Jack–the mindset of “I can fix the world” or “at least everyone I know” is founded in arrogance. That was one of my favorite parts of Lost, when is it acceptable to go to help people, and how can we know when we’ve gone too far? When does assistance become manipulation?

        Fair point on the difference between likability and preference, I’d agree with your positions on Commodus and Maximus. Commodus is more complex–taking delight in violence (while unable to be violent), imprisoning and violating his sister, patricide, on and on. But he’s not the heart of the story because of that weight; if the story focused entirely on him we’d hate the story and possibly ourselves.

        If I wrote fan fiction about Gladiator, however, I would write it about Commodus. His power has corrupted him and therefore he doesn’t need to concern himself with the sheep, but the power doesn’t get him what he truly wants–the love of the sheep. We understand his need to be loved is founded in the (imagined) lack of paternal love, and so watching him struggle to love/be loved is a rich theme in the Commodus narrative. I find Maximus’ revenge narrative comparatively bland, although of course once the Hans Zimmer music is pounding, I’m rooting for him anyway.

        Reply
        1. I think this, in itself, highlights another good point about protagonists. Quite often they’re introduced in such a way that it tells us they’re the hero. It’s like they announce “ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be your ego for this evening” and we just go along with it out of cooperation.

          (On the Jack point, I found he had a different kind of arrogance. To me, attempting to fix the world isn’t arrogant in itself. Attempting to fix the world because you believe you’re the only person capable of doing so is.)

          Reply
  2. Pingback: Joffrey Baratheon: Creating the Monster | Arbitrary Nonsense

  3. Well written.But I must add that Nolan didn`t kill the Joker because in comic book mythos he doesn`t die.And when the reader thinks he`s dead,it turns out he has faked his own demise.

    Reply

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