Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Embrace Your Inner Villain

Most of us who've been at this storytelling thing for a while know that it's important to understand and show the motivation of not only your protagonist, but also the bad guys.

And while I already understood that, this is an area where I sometimes cop out... "Because he's evil!" LOL And one other tidbit I remember from that Paul Haggis talk was about understanding villains. He made me see that it shouldn't be a surface level thing.

He said that for every character he's written, who does something most of us would consider "bad", he works hard to put himself in that character's shoes and write the scenes with the understanding of why the villain truly believes he/she is doing good. That is, it's not enough for a villain's motivation to be the hero deserves this for I am evil, or for I want revenge, or whatever... Better if the villain truly believes he/she is doing the right thing and for the writer to explore and understand that.

This discussion came up after we watched a clip from Crash. It was the scene early in the movie, where Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton are pulled over by the Matt Dillon cop character (when she was giving her husband a BJ while he was driving) and the Dillon character basically uses his power of authority to sexually molest Thandie Newton.

Stepping back for a second, the amazing thing about Crash, for me, is how Haggis forces us to see two sides to every character in that movie. The people who initially seem bad, we see good things and vice versa. But listening to him talk about how he developed all that, I realized it was more than just showing the sympathetic side of the "villains". It was his understanding why each character thinks his actions are not villainous.

For example, he reasoned that in that scene Matt Dillon truly believed he was doing Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard a favor. He wasn't just wielding his power to get off on it. He believed he was teaching them an important lesson to keep them safe. He thinks something like: Fool around while you're behind the wheel of the car and there could be dangerous consequences. This, what I'm doing now? Is nothing compared to what could have actually happened if you'd crashed the car or hit a pedestrian. Me doing this to you now, humiliating you both, will help you remember those consequences and think twice before you act recklessly again.

Sure the audience doesn't get all that. We see a cop we assume is a racist arrogant asshole using his power and position to put his hand on Thandie Newton's private parts in front of her husband who's too afraid to do a thing about it... But listening to how Haggis thought about it and talked to Dillon about it on set, and then thinking through the other things that happen with his character (until he ultimately saves the Thandie Newton character from a car crash...) it all resonated deeply for me. And I think I understood a bit more why I love that movie.

And from now on, I'm going to work harder on thinking about my villains' motivations and why they truly believe they are doing the right thing.

BTW When asked about the coincidences in Crash, which didn't bother me at all when I first saw that movie -- to me, that movie was like a miracle, but Haggis's response (and I'm sure he's been asked that questions a million times) was that Crash was meant as a parable. But that modern audiences can't recognize a parable in a modern day setting. Some people might not buy that and might think he's making up an excuse after the fact, but I buy it. The story was about connections, lives colliding into each other, so the conicidences of their meeting was part of that overall story. (Crash is one of my top 10 movies...)

One final thing on Haggis. He also talked about how furious fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg was with him for using that title. (Cronenberg has a 1996 film also called Crash.) Haggis said Crash was actually just a working title he didn't plan to use, but the distributor liked it. And Cronenberg... Really mad. I was lucky enough to be at the world premiere screening of Crash about 15 months before it hit theatres and when Haggis introduced the film he didn't say much, if memory serves, except that we were the very first people to see it (not even any industry screenings before) and then he apologized to David Cronenberg for using that title.

How much do you think about your villain's motivations? Do yours think they are doing the right thing?


Eileen said...

OMG. I got so into my villains' motivations writing Vanished in the Night that they practically took over the book. It really was their story at the end of the first draft. I had to cut a HUGE amount of the book to have it be the least big suspenseful because I had all these scenes from the villains' POVs telling exactly what they did, why they did it and what they were going to do next.

Maureen McGowan said...

Ha! But I bet the final product will be richer for it, that the villain will seem more real?

Sinead M said...

I love writing villain POV. And I think giving them a valid reason for their actions makes sure they veer away from cliche.

Stephanie Doyle said...

I've been thinking a lot about this because my next villian will be a murderer...

And in my head it makes perfect sense why this person kills... but I don't think it's because they think they are doing good. They know it's bad... they just choose to do it anyway.

Isn't that what happens to most people who kill with premeditation.

Just watch 48 hours. All those husband's out there killing their wives... they don't think it's okay. They just think they can get away with it.

Maureen McGowan said...

That's what I thought was interesting about what Haggis said, Steph. And super challenging depending on the villain. I don't know enough about psychopaths and sociopaths... but is it possible that your murder does it to stop himself from doing something worse? Or because the victims need saving? Or something like that?
I feel like I've been lazy about this a few times... But feel inspired to think more about it next time.

Stephanie Doyle said...

I get that we do need to understand the villian.

But I have to say... in Crash... I didn't see Matt as having any "good" reason to do what he did.

To me it felt like a person on a power trip wanting to exert that power.

I get Haggis wanting to go deeper - but I also think sometimes we have to take people as they are.

It's not unheard of for someone in power to want to use that power just because they can. And to try and reach for something like... "hey I'm only trying to help this couple remember this night so they never do this again"... I don't know it sounds a little farfetched... to me anyway.

Although I had a really hard time with Crash for just that reason. The awfulness that he showcased in everyone.

But then I'm not an Oscar Nominee so Haggis is probably right.

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