Friday, June 3, 2011

Villains "Noble" Intent

In story development we often speak of heroes as having a weakness or imperfection. It is what allows audiences to identify with the protagonist and morally be sutured into his or her life. We also speak of villains has having an understanding (within themselves) that what they are doing is just, good, and right. No one else may believe it, but the villain, in his or her twisted logic, believes it.

This "light" of righteousness, as dark as it may be, also allows the audience to identify with the villain. Why? Because subconsciously, we, the audience, know that our best intentions often miss the mark. What we think is right, is often wrong. Maybe not to the extent that we'd be thought of as a villain, but it does put us in that arena.

What is right and wrong lies on a continuum. See this POST.

Today I was struck by three headlines where the three villains written about all have noble intent behind their actions. AP reports both:

From the AP & Fox News: Dr. Jack Kervorkian, the Michigan pathologist who championed physician-assisted suicides, died early Friday after being hospitalized with kidney problems and pneumonia. The 83-year-old Kevorkian, who said he helped some 130 people end their lives from 1990 to 1999, died about 2:30 a.m. at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan."

Notice the "noble" smile on Jack's face as he prepares again to help kill someone. Have you seen this man's "art."  Google it. It's what an art director would create for a villains lair.

And then there's Ratko Mladic claim:

From the AP and Fox News: "Ratko Mladic defiantly refused on Friday to enter pleas to what he called "obnoxious" allegations that as the Serb military chief during the Bosnian war he orchestrated the worst atrocities of a conflict that claimed 100,000 lives. He claimed he was defending "my people and my country."

Notice the ironic patriotic salute.

Well, we don't want to be like these guys, but they're great "role models" for our story's villains.

And just a reminder... the villain can be the protagonist.


joyonboard said...

This is just the post I needed to read today - well, almost. The main focus in my screenplay deals with morality. The notion that one person's hero is another's villian.

For instance many people feel that Dr. Kervorkian was doing a just, even noble service. Many feel he was a murderer.

I believe that morality can be where your value-system lies on the morals continuum; as with the case with Dr. Kervorkian.

I am almost finished reading your book, which I find instructive and fascinating. [I've been working on Arc Tables all day].

In your book you say that your story's Moral Premise must be a universal truth. Therefore, must the assumption be that a story cannot/should not be about one's view of morality? Since it can be a subjective and not universal truth?

It would be very helpful to know: What is the Moral Premise of the movie about Dr. Kervorkian?

As a side-note: After reading no less than 35 books on screenwriting, and studying [six days a week] for over a year I am feeling sensory overload. Is it possible to incorporate your method with what I already have spent 5 months writing?

Thank you for your consideration.

Stan Williams said...

Hi Joy,

Good to get your question. Here's my response in TWO PARTS (character count limit). I'll copy a phrase or question from your email (in italics) and then comment.

The main focus in my screenplay deals with morality.

This concerns me. All stories that connect with audiences deal with morality. I fear that what you may need to focus on is the physical arcs (goals, actions, consequences) and SECONDARILY ensure that the decisions made in that physical arc are motivated by moral values (good ones or bad ones.) Of course, I'm not sure, since I don't know your story. But that's the red flag that flew up the flag pole when I read that sentence.

one person's hero is another's villian

Yes, this is very true. Make sure the hero and the villain part is physical and visual to the audience, and SECONDLY reflects the moral under pinnings of the characters.

I believe that morality can be where your value-system lies on the morals continuum; as with the case with Dr. Kervorkian.

Yes, but regarding general universal principles there are fundamental values that are not relative, they are clearly on the good side, or the bad side, of that continuum. In the case of Kervorkian, I was hedging my bet that most audiences may think that what Jack was doing was wrong, although they may have sympathy for him. A good story writer can write a sympathetic view of a monster, without endorsing their violent acts. In many horror stories, that is the magic ingredient. I mean, monsters are often endearing, seductive individuals who can sell morphine to a healthy man. We find that we like them while trying to stay far enough away that we don't get trapped. Assisted suicide of a person in pain, while contrary to the religious teachings that the majority of U.S. citizens might endorse, those same individuals would find the issue not so clear cut. So, I would steer clear of making the moral premise literally about assisted suicide. But you could take a stand against it IF the moral premise was about something else... thus pushing the topic into the background. A study of MILLION DOLLAR BABY and SEVEN POUNDS is helpful here. The first was popular, the second was not. I think the reason is that MILLION DOLLAR BABY comes off as a tragedy, whereas SEVEN POUNDS tries to come off as redemptive, and audiences didn't buy that. BUT NEITHER movie's moral premise was about suicide -- directly.

must the assumption be that a story cannot/should not be about one's view of morality?

You cannot write anything but your own view of morality, if you are to write something well. All stories are about moral decision making, and the natural consequences that result from the related decisions. BUT, the stumbling block of the book, and something I must correct if I write a second edition, is that the MOVIE on the explicit, physical level must be about a physical issue, that the audience can see and cheer for. Yes, it's REALLY about the psychological values (moral motivation) behind the physical decisions -- by all of the characters.

subjective and not universal truth?

Many truths are both subjective and universal. (But not all universal truths are subjectively embraced.) That is, a universal truth may be embraced because of a person's personal, visceral experience with a physical event that leads her to a universal understanding.

It would be very helpful to know: What is the Moral Premise of the movie about Dr. Kervorkian?

Ah, that's a good (question) project, the answer which could be varied.

If the moral premise supported HIS perspective on Assisted Suicide, I'd think it would bomb, because I think the majority of movie goers believe (subliminally, at least) that a person's life, even as an invalid or in pain, has meaning and purpose. There are many such examples.

Stan Williams said...

Is it possible to incorporate your method with what I already have spent 5 months writing?

I have no idea. I do a fair amount of consulting on stories that are already well-along. About half of them are based on a true moral premise and focused, and the other half are typically several stories interwoven that have hints of a true moral premise but no center physically or morally. I've worked with a number of writers who have good story ideas, but the stories are not structured in a way that would naturally connect with audiences. Or the writers claim they have a moral premise, but the scenes are not consistently about it. I hate to break it to you, but 5-months is not very long in the genesis of great screenplays. With all I know about structure, I'm rewriting a project for the 4th time in 3 years.

Hope this helps.


joyonboard said...

As I read your response, I immediately had a "duh" moment followed by and "aha" moment. When I read my comments after you broke them down, they took on a totally different meaning to me. My words literally read differently when broken down point by point. [Another good lesson for story outlines.]

It hit me right away that pretty much everything is about morality in one way or another - and many situations are subjective. My screenplay isn't really about "morality" per se [my duh moment] at its core, it's about deceit/downfall - honesty/success [my aha moment]. I know it may change somewhat, but that will make the Arc Chart easier.

I'm sure once I break my story down [again] I will discover a fresh feel for the overall picture. I think the reason I would throw the blanket of subjective morality on the story is that I rarely see anything as just black or only white. It’s not always easy, but I make a strong effort to not be personally judgmental of it.

Your response is very helpful, thank you again for your insight.