Was giving some feedback on the first thirteen lines of a story in progress. For the record, I think the first thirteen are only important in that they acurately foreshadow the essence of the story. “Hooking” someone with a great thirteen that is nothing like the story that follows is called false marketing.
“But they won’t give my story a chance if I don’t give them a spoonful of sugar at the beginning?”
The first thirteen standard really applies to an editor who has to burn through as many applicants as possible; it is a tool to weed out candidates. Whereas a real reader looked at the cover and thought it looked pretty, looked at the blurb on the back and thought it looked interesting, so they have already decided to like it before they even see the first thirteen. So write a good story and use the thirteen as an introduction to that story.
Anyway, this opening focused its thirteen mostly on an unlikeable character, presumably the villain. And I had to ask myself . . . why are we reading this? Do you think it would make a story to have Darth Vader kill Jedi children for two hours? Why isn’t Lord of the Rings about Sauron having orcs flauged and the river town sacked? His quest to get back his personal effects? Why isn’t The Hunger Games about President Snow’s escapades in the capitol instead of some nobody peasant girl? Why did Aliens vs. Predator follow non-villain humans?
Think of one good story that is about evil?
It’s hard because every story worth reading/hearing/seeing is about something good. So why do we want likeable villains? Why do we give page space to the depiction of evil? I think there’s a surprising school of thought that thinks the the bad guys being bad is somehow beautiful. Frank Capra called it the Ash Can School. All life is dirty, and gritty, and grimey. There are no heros, no villains, just life. Some nun gets gunned down, that’s life. Kid gets molested, that’s life. Marriages fall apart, that’s life.
That is a load of horse hockey.
That is not life, that is death. I think that school only exists because people are giving up hope, and settling for what’s around them. This is as good as it gets so lets just call this good. It’s an act of despair. If art is about despair, if life is despair, then depression and suicide is normal. My other theory maybe the kid who grew up craving attention becomes the story teller throwing in everything that might “hook” someone’s attention. Look a naked actress! Look I actually show the head exploding! Look I ran over a puppy! Maybe someone is craving attention and it has nothing to do with what they actually think belongs in the film.
Anyway, I put to you that the villains evil is the backdrop of good. Katniss is a hero because of what she’s willing to suffer to save someone else. So is Frodo. So is Luke. Maximus, etc. What makes them heroic is standing up to some form of evil. And it doesn’t have to be a super-villain. Jim Carrey in The Majestic; Michael Or and Sandra Bullock’s character in The Blind Side. Elizabeth in Pride and Predjudice.
So why spend anytime on the villain? The stories should be about the heroes only with a villain getting a cameo? Let me give you maybe why we like likeable villains. When Vader grows depth, and we see him struggle with his evil; we are reminded that Luke is great because he overcomes the same temptations that his father fell to. We see by Mockingjay that Katniss, if she made a few more decisions like Gale, would end up like Gale, and Gale is on his way to being like the President of District 13. Through the trials of George Bailey we begin to see that he really is like Mr. Potter. As Mr. Potter says “Bailey, you once called me a ‘warped frustrated old man’. Hmm, what are you but a warped frustrated young man!” Batman and the Joker have a kinship. In a sense I would say every hero is just the villain who made different choices.
The second reason to like a likeable villain is that we are all born villains. We lie, cheat, steal, betray, act selfishly from our very earliest days. The likeablness of the villain is a reflection of hope that despite our villainy, someone out there might find good in us waiting to come out. Imagine if Lex Luther became a charity worker? Imagine the good that Congress could do it only its heart was right. Seeing the good in a villain is an echo of God finding something worth loving in us.
And if God can love us, and the author/director/audience can find something to love in the villain . . . maybe the villain doesn’t have to be a villain? As Frodo said, “I have to believe [Gollum] can come back.” At our darkest moments, when we are most villain, we each have to believe that we can still be saved. That is the message of the gospel, that as long as we turn around we can be saved from anywhere. Whether we’re a shepherd boy watching the flock, or a thief dying on a cross. Or Vader standing beside the evil emperor.
What we love in the villain is not that he is evil. We don’t like his hate, his cruelty, if we do we need to take a look at how close we are to being our own villain. What we like is the good in him; the good we struggle in ourselves to bring out so that we are not the villain. What we like in the villain is the good part. The part that can come back if he will only turn from his ways (which is usually found in a twisted pursuit of good, mind you), and the part this also lost when he does not turn. Every good villain is a tragedy of lost goodness, what is lost inside of them and what is lost that they might have done.
As artists we should understand that the story is always about the good, even the good in the villain. The evil is just the backdrop. Do we need to visit the evil, yes. God didn’t leave villains out of the Bible. In fact some of the biggest villains are those who had the potential to do the most good. But remember the story is not their evil, it is the tragedy of their good.