Steven Den Beste has been thinking about what makes a villain interesting in anime. (No permalink, but look for the post dated 20060918.1940.) Over at Twenty-Sided, Shamus Young has added some additional perspective as well. Very good, thought-provoking stuff at both places (which is generally a given).
I’ve been thinking along similar lines, lately, having to do with the number of (main) characters in a story, and how that number shapes the narrative. Not in a numerological way (something I don’t really understand anyway) but how a particular perspective is shaped by the story elements chosen to tell it. (I hope to write this up into something “shortly.”)
Obviously, if a villain is more than a vague threat, he has to be factored into that formula as well. And that breaks the underlying story into two parts, the force working toward the narrative goal, and the force working against it.
Villains are simultaneously very easy and very difficult to create. It’s very easy to have someone swirl a cape imperiously and say, “Fools! You have fallen into my trap! Nya ha ha ha ha!” What’s difficult is keeping the reader from thinking, Oh, come on and rolling the eyes in contemptuous disbelief. A villain has to be believable to be effective (in the context of the story of course). A reader has to be able to say, “Well, that was a bit extreme, but I can understand this guy’s perspective. If I were in his shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.”
That I think is key: the reader (or viewer) has to be able to embody the villain’s perspective (not necessarily sympathize or empathize) and see it as a coherent world-view. And that has to be accomplished with as few caveats as possible.
Doctor Doom is a good example of what I mean by caveats, if we contrast his comic book personna with the one seen in the recent Fantastic Four movie. In the comics, Doom is a commanding figure who has been humbled and disfigured because of Reed Richards (almost inadvertantly it must be admitted). One can see his perspective: because of the accident, Doom has to hide behind a mask in his remote ancestral home of Latveria, far from the eyes of civilized men. As I recall, he had to work hard for the opportunity to come to America; now he’s back to where he started. You can see how that would cheese a person off. All that work, for nothing; gosh darn you, Reed Richards!
In the movie, though, Doom is quite a different person. He’s a rather effete guy who seems to have never struggled a day in his life. His biggest issue–even bigger than losing his corporation–is that he’s getting a couple of scars on his face.
In contrast to the comic character, this guy has no presence at all. One can embody his viewpoint only if one thinks, Yeah, if I was a kind of swishy guy whose face was everything to him, I’d be soooo miffed right about now. I’d consider that a big caveat. The guy isn’t commanding; I at least can’t watch him on screen and think so. He might have lackeys, but they follow him because he pays them, not because they fear defying him.
Doom is a central part of any story he appears in. He can’t help but be; he’s a hands-on guy. It’s interesting to contrast him with Sauron, the bad guy from the Lord of the Rings. I read the books some years back, and I don’t think Sauron made a single appearance in the entire trilogy. (Yeah, one of the Hobbits spoke to him through one of those glass things but I don’t think that counts. That was like a wrong number.) He certainly managed to drive things without showing up, though.
This absence freed Tolkein from having to create a perspective for Sauron; he could be a vague, threatening force (like an active volcano) without having to articulate any kind of viewpoint. Quite a trick, that.
Villains are hard to do well. I suspect that’s part of their villainy. Nya ha ha ha, after all.
(Please pardon the misspellings herein. I’m still trying to get used to the tools available at WordPress. Also, I’m evil!)