The Make-Up Of A Villain: Establishing A Powerful Opponent

 

 

Is there a difference between a Villain and an Opponent? There is a fine line, yes, and it’s usually dependent upon genre. Disney has basically cornered the market on the “Villain” and yet, at the same time, any Villain is also an Opponent. But when looking at a Drama or even a Romantic Comedy, one wouldn’t necessarily have to call the Opponent a Villain. Why? It’s primarily due to how the Opponent is set-up from the start. Is the Opponent’s motive purely evil? Is it for world domination? Population enslavement? To gain ultimate power and control? If your answer to these questions (when considering the Opponent you are currently creating) is ‘yes’, then you most likely have a Villain on your hands.

14 - Lannister - Opponent

 

The purpose of a Villain compared to an Opponent, however, is basically the same thing: to help the Main Character achieve his physical goal, and to assist the Main Character in overcoming his emotional problem. 

Yes, you read that correctly – “to assist” and “help”. Please remember that each and every character in your story is developed in order to serve the purposes of your Main Character’s story.

2 - The Queen - Opponent

(“I have an apple and I’m not afraid to use it!”)

This is the part of story building where you get to act as a philosopher or deep spiritualist thinker. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic in explanation, but we are discussing Villains after all. Consider any person in your life who has happened to be some kind of an enemy. Whether this person was a bully in high school, a power mongering boss, a demented teacher, there has most likely been someone in your life who has represented all that you find wrong in the world (again with the dramatics). In your response to these people, you had two options: you cowered in the corner and accepted the jerk’s command over you and your fears, or you overcame this enemy and therefore became a better person because of him.

This is likely the most important aspect of any Opponent in any story. She gets in the character’s way with a specific goal and yet the Hero somehow overcomes her and becomes a stronger individual in the end. Basic. Obvious. Straight forward. Now let the nuances begin.

 

A Representation of a Physical Goal and Emotional Problem

3 - Wicked Witch - Opponent

(“I can fly on a broom and shoot fire from my hands, but please don’t make me do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”)

Setting aside the differences between a Villain and an Opponent, we will look at what an Opponent generally represents in most stories. I say “most” because it is a challenge to generalize every single Opponent ever written, and it would be foolish to say it in such a blanket statement. Nonetheless, when developing a Main Character (as I have covered in previous blogs), the writer has to come up with the basics of some kind of emotional issue or problem that the Main Character must overcome – even if just a little – by the end of the story. The resolution and/or correction of this problem is what states theme – either literally or figuratively. Most Disney movies quite literally state theme verbally, but most do not and thus you, the writer, must state it through the correction of whatever emotional issue the Main Character is facing. This is where the Opponent can really shine.

4 - Mr. Potter - Opponent

(“Have you gotten rid of that idiot Uncle Billy yet?”)

The Opponent (and his motive) is virtually always connected to the eventual correction of the Main Character’s emotional problem. What does this mean, exactly? As a very basic example: if a Main Character is dealing with issues of being romantically hopeless, from which stems issues of self-doubt and lack of confidence, then an Opponent would enter the scene in order to draw out those emotional issues. He would present the Hero with situations, moments, and scenes that force the Main Character to face up to his fears. Even more importantly, the Opponent could have a motive that has something to do with achieving the same intended goal as the Hero (like dating the most popular girl in school – the very girl the Hero is in love with, etc). These goals will clash in some way and therefore create obstacles for the Main Character. Obstacles that eventually make the Hero stronger.

5 - Stanwyck - Opponent

 

In a lot of ways the Opponent is very similar to the Dynamic Character (the secondary character that goes on the Adventure with the Main Character). Both are placing obstacles in front of the Hero, but for different reasons. The Dynamic Character is pushing the Hero to do things, say things, “be” things in order to achieve a goal because he wants his Hero to achieve the goal. The Opponent is doing the same thing, but unaware that the obstacles will help the Hero in the end. The Opponent doesn’t understand that the support he is giving the Hero is actually helping him because the evil little jerk is acting out of his own selfish devices and motives.

The obstacles presented by each can also be different in that the challenges the Hero will face due to the Dynamic Character’s intervention will be disguised as positive and necessary steps, whereas the Opponent’s obstacles will come in as surprises or twists or a possible estrangement from a loved one (a death, relationship break-up, etc).

6 - Hannibal - Opponent

(“Clarice, just give me a sandwich and you’ll be fine.”)

The nuances I am explaining here can of course be considered formulaic, but when you understand the basics of a formula, you can tinker with it, alter it and beautify the formula in whatever way your mastery allows.

 

The Romantic Comedy Opponent

7 - War of the Roses - Opponent

(“War of the Roses” – the marriage bliss ended years ago)

This is the biggest nuance for any writer when considering the development of an Opponent, and it’s primarily due to how difficult everyday romantic relationships can be! I say this with only half a giggle. Joking aside, the very make-up of a romantic relationship is rooted in the differences of two people and the eventual acceptance of such differences. It is ironic that one of the largest challenges the human race faces is the acceptance of each other’s differences. Love and romance tend to draw out such differences immediately. The inherent conflict within romance stems from the inability to accept change and the change that someone else – someone you apparently care about – is bringing into your life. This basically sums up any story every written. Change means conflict. Conflict means drama. Drama means Story. And yet within the natural structure of a Romantic Comedy reside the goals and motives of not one Hero, but two, and therefore not one Opponent, but two Opponents.

When Harry Met Sally… is the perfect example for the structure of a Romantic Comedy. It can be argued that Harry is the Main Character and Sally is Harry’s Opponent. Sally represents everything Harry doesn’t want in his life; extreme optimism, excessive naiveté, obsessive compulsion…the list can go on. Deep down, though, Harry needs to learn at least some of these things in order to live a happy life. At a lower level, Harry knows that he is a rather unhappy person. Sally is an extremely happy person. It takes Harry a long time to realize that it’s not just Sally that he needs in his life, but the subconscious lessons she taught him throughout their relationship. Looking at it from Sally’s perspective, however, shows that Harry is therefore Sally’s Opponent.

 10 - Sally - Opponent

(“Ya see? You say things like that and make it impossible for me to hate you!

And I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.”)

They are each other’s Opponents, placing frustrating obstacles in front of each other unknowingly and yet, at times, on purpose (both Opponent actions and Dynamic Character actions). Sally is selfless, overly loving, wants to be married and to lead a simple little life. She wants to have a steady job, live in a nice comfortable house and live out the plan she made for herself after she graduated college. Harry is haphazard, unorganized, dangerously care free, and doesn’t have a plan. Can you see that based on the differences of motive (Opponent), the relationship between Harry and Sally (Dynamic) will result in both an extremely challenging adventure and an explosion of emotional issue-correction by the end?

8 - Harry Sally - Opponent

Romantic Comedies usually have a Main Character that faces off with one other character (a Romantic Interest) that is both an Opponent and a Dynamic Character, but this is primarily because of the role in which that Dynamic Character is playing. They tend to switch roles as the story progresses. In other words, you can break down most Romantic Comedies and see that a Romantic Interest begins the story in the form of an Opponent and ends the story in the form of a Dynamic Character. How they get to that point is completely up to the writer (again, learn the formula and then change it).

 

The Sympathetic Opponent

11 - Maleficent - Opponent

In this writer’s humble opinion, the best way to create a strong Opponent is to offer the audience a strong reason as to why the Opponent is the way he is. Give the audience a very clear understanding as to what the Opponent’s Motive is and why he wants it/needs it. On one hand, the clarity simply helps move the story forward and doesn’t confuse the audience, but on the other hand it solidifies the emotional connection between the audience and Opponent and, therefore, offers more drama.

12 - Maleficent Gif - Opponent

 

Creating sympathy for an Opponent or Villain doesn’t mean that a full back story is needed (a la the recent Maleficent), but a clue into the fears or deeper intentions of your Opponent can help the audience get a handle on why he or she is being so evil, nasty, or illegal, or whatever it is the Opponent is doing. In defense of Disney’s Maleficent, though, the audience clearly understood why she was so evil and it allowed us, the viewers, to always have that memory of “why” in the back of our movie-going minds while watching her act out. Sure, it could be argued that Maleficent was the Main Character and therefore allowed the writer(s) to delve deeper into her character development, but even the slightest show of why will give the audience a deeper rooting interest in the full story, and allow for the Hero to better understand the mind of his enemy (which, ultimately, will enable a stronger statement of theme).

13 - Newman Gif - Opponent

(A blog post about Villains and Opponents is not complete without a little Newman.)

Everything is connected. The Opponent is just as important as the Main Character since he or she presents your Hero with conflict, change, drama, and his eventual victory. Challenge your Hero as much as possible by making his or her journey as difficult as possible – your Opponent will be happy to help. 

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