What Makes a Great Villain?

hannibal-lecterAt Comic Con in Chicago last weekend, I attended an intriguing workshop on the psychology of supervillains, conducted by a panel of writers and psychologists.

One of the discussions in the room was about who our favorite villains are and why.

It occurred to me that there are two general flavors of villains that seem to really stand out:

1) The Admirable Villain.  These are the ones that you either root for, feel sorry for, or admire in some way for their strength or cleverness. Memorable examples are:

  • Kahn in the new Star Trek Into Darkness movie (justified, clever, and formidable)
  • Hannibal Lector (clever, wittty, formidable, with a soft spot for Clarice and a desire for a room with a view)
  • Magneto, especially as portrayed by Michael Fassbender in X-Men First Class (justified and powerful)
  • Loki in The Avengers (witty and formidable)
  • Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (deliciously evil, clever, formidable, and witty)
  • Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones (clever, witty, justified, though he’s more of an anti-hero – one of the most well rounded characters I’ve ever seen)
  • Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (clever, formidable)
  • Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films (witty – and quite formidable)
  • General Zod in Man of Steel (justified in his own mind, passionate)
  • Norman Bates in Psycho (warm, vulnerable)

Why do these particular villains stand out? They have a justifiable cause (at least in their own minds). They have a passion about something. They’re charming in their own distorted way. They’re extremely clever. They’re formidable. And they’re often witty, sometimes dryly so. They often have the best lines.

Then there’s the second kind of villain, the kind you absolutely hate and can’t wait to see die. This takes us to:

2) The Despicable Villain. As the panel pointed out, these types of villains are selfish, lack empathy, are narcissistic, often sadistic, and frequently are psychopaths. They also tend to be an unpredictable force of chaos that disrupts everyone around them. Examples might be:

  • Goffrey in Game of Thrones
  • Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon’s character in X-Men First Class)
  • Commodus in Gladiator (played by Joaquin Phoenix)
  • Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Joker in Batman
  • Voldemort in Harry Potter
  • Caligula in The Robe (or any other film Caligula is portrayed in)
  • Eleanor Iselin (Raymond Shaw’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate, played by Angela Lansbury)

Why do we hate these villains so much?  I’d venture to say that it’s because of the things they do to people we like. They are memorable to the extent of the damage they cause to people we like and the degree of selfishness they portray. That’s important, because otherwise they could come across as a flat, “mustache-twirler” who’s more a caricature than a memorable villain. It’s very hard to pull off a memorable, hate-worthy villain who’s pure evil, without the character being flat. The above are notable exceptions.

The bottom line is that, for either type of villain — the Admirable Villain or the Despicable Villain, they’ll be more memorable if they are extremely clever (or devious) and formidable, either due to a special skill or the chaos they inflict,

What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite villains and why? Which ones do you admire? Which ones do you hate?

 

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Robocolypse Now: Man Charged with Shooting Police Robot

060419_gort_lgRemember Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still? Well, we’re getting closer to that. Nowadays, in special cases of dangerous shootouts or where a bomb is suspected, police send in robots to scope out the problem.

On February 23rd, Ohio police sent two robots into a home where a man was making threats and had fired a gun in his house. The man, who was as drunk as Rooster Cogburn on a bad day, shot at one of the robots. Allegedly, the injured robot was undeterred and the distraction allowed police to come storming in with a stun gun. The man was arrested at the scene. This is the first case I’ve heard where a man was charged with shooting a robot.

No word on the robot, but I assume he/she is in stable condition.

Now in case you’re thinking the police robots are indestructible behemoths like this…

Gen3_Police_Robot-md

 

Not quite. The police robots look more like Wall-E or that cute robot in Short Circuit. Definitely not a Transformer type. This is a typical police robot below …

bomb_robot061407

Makes you want to tremble in your shoes just looking at it, right? No? Well, at least it works, and it does save lives. In this case, police found two AK-47 rifles and lots of ammunition.  I wonder what the robots looked like to the drunk guy?

I”m still holding out for Gort. Klaatu Berada Nikto.  Here’s the full article from PopSci.

 

It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

It’s incredible how far and wide-reaching misconceptions can spread, and certainly the Mayan “end of the world” prophecy for December 21st, 2012 is no exception. I know from my nonfiction writing (much of which is based on history) that falsities run rampant, even in history books and, dare I say, TV shows. So I shouldn’t be too surprised.

The first hint that you’re being misinformed is when you come across an article or website that highlights the classic circular sun stone calendar that looks like this:

Aztec Calendar

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly legitimate calendar. It’s just that, well… it’s NOT MAYAN!!!  It’s Aztec! The Mayans never even saw this calendar.

So, anyone passing it along as the Mayan calendar and then making predictions of the end of the world, is not exactly starting off on a credible foot. Unfortunately, about 90% of the websites I’ve seen on the Mayan calendar mistakenly reference the Aztec calendar (and even the popular cartoons, like the one below).

maya_cartoon

In actuality there are three Mayan calendars, the civil calendar (the circular Haab calendar, pictured below, which covers about 52 years — the average lifespan of a person at the time), the ritual/sacred calendar (Tzolkin, which is also circular and interlocks with the Haab calendar), and the one in question, the long count calendar. Below is a picture of the Haab calendar (note the Disney-esque cartoon-like center, which easily differentiates this from the Aztec sun stone):

mayan-calendar

 

This is the long count calendar, which is the one everyone’s been talking about with regard to the apocalypse. It’s a column — not circular.

Mayan-Calendar-300x200

 

Now, as for that pesky 12/21/12 reference. To understand that, it’s important to understand how the Mayan long count calendar works.

One B’ak’tun is 144,000 days or about 394 years. 20 B’ak’tuns make up a Piktun.

There are higher orders as well (20 Piktuns make up a Kalabtun, 20 Kalabtuns make up a Kinchiltun, and so on), all of which are referenced in Mayan tablets when depicting events in the distant future.

We are currently nearing the end of the 13th B’a’ktun (which began in the 15th century). The next B’ak’tun starts December 21st, 2012. The current Piktun doesn’t end until the year 4772.

The only mention of the 13th B’ak’tun (the end of which correlates to December 21st, 2012) is on the following stone tablet.

tortuguero_2012_1

The section highlighted makes reference to the 13th B’ak’tun as a time when a new god, dealing with change and wisdom, will reign, and generally a big celebration occurs at the change of a cycle. There is no reference to the end of the world or anything remotely resembling an apocalyptic event.

Overall, the Mayan calendar depicts 5 columns that work sort of like an odometer, with the leftmost column representing B’ak’tuns (it starts at zero and bumps up one cycle every 394 years), then, moving left to right, the next four columns are …

Katuns (cycles approx every 20 years), Tuns (cycles approx yearly), Uinals (cycles every 20 days), and Kins (cycles every day). There is some debate whether the B’ak’tuns reset to zero after 13 B’ak’tuns or 20, but most scholars say 20.

So, on December 21st, the Mayan calendar would look like:  14.0.0.0.0. On the 22nd, it would look like 14.0.0.0.1, and so on.

Keep in mind, there are higher orders than B’ak’tuns, as I mentioned, and these are references on other tablets, but they’re not part of the Mayan calendar per se. Why?

The same reason our computer systems in the last century only had two digits for the year (the famous Y2K problem). It seemed good enough at the time.  Either that, or they ran out of room, like the cartoon says (albeit showing the wrong calendar).

For those familiar with Y2K, when we hit the year 99, every computer programmer in the world was scampering to change their systems to a 4 digit year (though some people kept a 2 digit year and coded their systems to bump up the century if the year was less than 40 — which means we’ll have the same problem again in 2040). But I digress.

In any case, what we have is the Mayan equivalent of the Y2K problem. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course, people into new age science may talk about the alignment of the planets and stars, and there may be some some truth in that (the Mayans, after, all, were brilliant astronomers), but I’ll leave you to decide what that does or doesn’t mean for world consciousness.

As for the rise of a new Mayan god, keep in mind, the ancient Mayans also believed in bloodletting and human sacrifice.

Meanwhile, let’s all have a Mayan-like party (minus the human sacrifice) and celebrate the end of the 13th B’ak’tun and the beginning of the 14th on December 21st!

Top Undersea Hotels – The Wave of the Future

For those who’ve read The Kronos Interference, you know that part of the story takes place in an undersea facility.

In fact, the inspiration for Jacob’s cabin was taken from the Poseidon Undersea Resort in Fiji (hey, the rates are only $15,000 and up), and the complex itself was loosely inspired by the design of the never-completed Hydropolis resort in Dubai, even though the facility in the book was completely submerged.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of the top 5 undersea hotels, for the next time you’re looking for something a little bit different.

PS: Apologies to those who suffered the brunt of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, and probably haven’t the slightest interest in underwater hotels at the moment. Ed and I live in the midst of it, and many of our friends and family still have no power (and indeed neither does Ed). We hope and pray that all of our readers and their families are safe. 

Concept vs. Story: Turning Good Ideas into Workable Stories

People often ask how Ed and I come up with our story ideas (after, all, we have several books in the works now that The Kronos Interference has hit the market).

Well for one, we’re always batting around concepts. But then we need to see which ones we can turn into a compelling story. Because there’s a big difference between a concept and a story.

Here’s an example. Let’s say we wanted to write a book about aliens invading Earth.

That’s a concept, but not a very good one. What we want is a high concept, one that has a unique twist that engages people in a single sentence. We can usually come up with one by asking one of two questions: Why? and What if?

There are lots of additional methods for coming up with concepts as well, such as: starting with a title; changing the genre or locale of an existing story; brainstorming nouns; create an opening line; and many more. Not all ideas will be generated in the same way. But even after one of these methods leads to a concept, it’s still good to ask “why” and “what if” and see what magic it may conjure up.

So let’s ask a few questions about our aliens idea: Why would aliens be invading Earth, besides the usual, worn clichés? What if they weren’t invading, or what if we needed them for something?

Building on our aliens idea, a high concept might be the following:

In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Can we make this better?  Sure.

A higher concept:

In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror. But the cost is high and the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.

Now we have some intrigue going. Not only would there be some interesting elements involving aliens combating the war on terror, but people will be wondering what the catch is that makes the solution backfire.

So we have a high concept, but it’s not yet a story.  To have a story, we need a lead people care about.

Turning a high concept into a story:

A story needs to be about an individual protagonist or two; something they want desperately (the external challenge), some unresolved internal issue that gets addressed by the end, and an opposing force (ideally a person) that’s standing in the way.  If there can be multiple leads whose desires are intertwined and conflicting, all the better.

As you can see, the concept is the easy part. It’s turning it into a workable story that’s hard.

In general, people don’t care about “the United States” or “the world’s population.” They care about individuals and their fate. It’s why Steven Spielberg always insists on keeping a narrow focus through the eyes of the lead, or group of leads, involved.

So, in order to develop a story for our high concept, we need to think of these other factors. As an example, let’s build on the concept statement by adding lead characters:

 In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror. But the cost is high and the cure turns out to be worse than the disease. When CIA trainee Victoria Hawk’s parents are murdered, she discovers the truth and enlists the help of her med student boyfriend and a mysterious benefactor named Carpenter, who’s begun sending her cryptic messages.

While not perfect, this begins to open a world of possibilities for refining into a workable story. Details such as the cause of the parents’ murder, the relationship with the boyfriend, the healing of the protagonist, the status of her CIA career, and the role of the mysterious benefactor must all be fleshed out. And a compelling individual representing the opposition is vital. After all, in the old James Bond films, what would SPECTRE be without Blofeld (or Largo in Thunderball).

As for the opposition, is it the U.S. Government, the aliens, both, or some third party altogether? Or is it the benefactor, Carpenter, who just may be leading her on a wild goose chase? These are all questions that would need to be addressed in the story development process before even setting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

Once you feel you have a solid story, a high level outline is needed to make sure the sequence of events is compelling. That’s where story structure models can come in handy (a whole topic in itself).

So voila, we took a weak “been there, done that” concept (aliens invade Earth) and created a much higher concept, and then added the root elements of a story. And that’s how Ed and I typically bat around our story ideas. If we cant turn the concept into a good story, then all we have is a backdrop for a story, not really a story. And in that case, we ditch it and move to the next big idea.

Now it’s your turn. What other variations can you think of for the story example above? What new concepts and ideas do you have, and how would you turn them into stories?

Evidence of Time Travel? You Decide

There’s been lots of speculation over the years as to whether time travel is possible or not.  Of, course, some of the most respected minds in the world have their own opinions on the matter. Take Stephen Hawking, for example.

In a recent interview, Hawking said, “I have experimental evidence that time travel is not possible. I gave a party for time-travelers, but I didn’t send out the invitations until after the party. I sat there a long time, but no one came.”

Of course, several years back, he also famously asked, “If time travel is possible, where are all the time travelers from the future?”

There’s actually an interesting  philosophy website that tackles this question head on.

Meanwhile, another website, Stranger Dimensions, offers a handful of photos as possible evidence of time travel. The photos range from a 400-year-old-Chinese coffin with a rare Swiss watch inside to a woman on a cell phone in a Charlie Chaplin movie. You decide!

BUT . . . after you decide, see this list of debunked time travel myths. Of course, that still leaves the watch in the Chinese tomb as the most puzzling source of evidence yet.

 

 

Mystery Package to Be Opened in Norway

A 100-year-old mystery package left by a local politician  is set to be opened this Friday, August 31st 2012, in a small village in Norway.

The man, Johan Nygard, left the package with the mayor on August 26th 1912 with instructions not to open it until 100 years from then.  He claimed the contents would “benefit and delight future generations.” Whether he meant in that village alone or the entire world remains to be seen.

Interestingly enough, someone actually remembered that it’s supposed to be opened. I can’t even remember to take the trash out on Sundays.

In a touch of “life imitating art,” readers of The Kronos Interference may notice a slight parallel, as the book has its own mystery package plot element.

Here’s the full article.

You Only Die Twice: How Ian Fleming and a Dead Homeless Person Won World War II

Operation Mincemeat. It sounds like something right out of a James Bond story (or at least a spoof of a James Bond story — Our Man Flint, perhaps).  But it was a real operation, conceived by Bond creator Ian Fleming when he was in the British Navy.

Glyndwr Michael, homeless, jobless, and desperate (and without a vowel in his first name), killed himself with rat poison in 1943.  Thanks to an ingenious plot by Fleming, he died again, this time for king and country.

Prior to a critical World War II operation, the British took the dead man and made him up to look like a Royal Marines courier, then planted him in Spain with a fake ID and a bunch of fake “top secret” documents indicating the Allies were going to invade the Germans in Greece. It was a decoy of course. Spain was chosen because it was loaded with Nazi spies that would probably take the message to Hitler.

Thanks to the ability to decode the German Enigma machine, the Allies could observe what was happening, and the message did indeed get to Hitler. Hitler sent 90,000 men to Greece, while the Allies invaded Sicily, toppling Mussolini and turning the course of the war.

The story was told in the 1956 film with Clifton Webb, The Man Who Never Was.

It occurred to me when reading about the British use of fictitious double agents, that this must have influenced Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, where Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill was mistaken for George Kaplan, a spy who (HUGE SPOILER ALERT) ….

turned out to not exist.

Here’s the full article about Operation Mincemeat, which was also covered in a book by Ben Macintyre and made into a BBC documentary. Hare’s another article, this one from the New York Times, on Macintyre’s book and the operation (which was originally called Operation Trojan Horse).

4 Billion Years to Doomsday: So Says NASA

Better start preparing. According to information gathered from the Hubble telescope, NASA has calculated that the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are heading toward each other slowly but surely, and will crash in a direct hit.

Of course, that’s 4 billion years from now, and we might all look like flying toads or something by then.

Even then, the two galaxies are so vast that it’s unlikely the sun or the Earth will be impacted, but we’ll have a much better view at night. Whew! I was worried there for a minute.

Here’s the full article.

The Balanced Scorecard of Writing: A Self-Review Checklist

In the business world, many organizations use a “Balanced Scorecard” approach to holistically measure how well they’re doing (the concept was introduced by authors Robert Kaplan and David Norton). The idea is to self-examine your business through four lenses or perspectives: customer, financial, internal processes, and learning and growth.

It occurred to me that a similar concept can be applied when self-critiquing your manuscript, chapter by chapter.

Let’s say for each chapter, you assessed the chapter from four perspectives. Using classic and perennial writing tips, it might look as follows:

1) Tension– Is there tension and inner or outer conflict on each page? Can lectures become debates? Can suspense be dragged out? Are readers left dying to know what happens next at the end of the chapter?
2) Dialogue– Is the dialogue crisp, realistic (but not so realistic as to be boring), and unique to each character? Does it read well when you read it out loud?

3) Plot– Is the plot moving forward? Is anything distracting us from it? Have you cut out the parts readers tend to skip (per Elmore Leonard’s sage advice)?

4) Character– Where are the characters in their arc? How are they changing? Are we learning a little more about them? Do we see things from the POV character’s perspective? What’s motivating each character in this chapter? How do their motivations conflict with one another?

A streamlined version is to use the three O’s (a slight variation on a tip offered in James Scott Bell’s excellent book, Conflict & Suspense):

  • Objective: Each character must have an objective in the chapter (especially the POV character)
  • Obstacles: There must be obstacles (internal or external) to achieving the objectives
  • Opinion: The POV character’s opinions and inner feelings should be made vivid
Sure there are many other tips, and many other editing passes (proofreading, logical flow, etc.), but I found the above to be a useful reminder to examine the book from all these perspectives.  The balanced scorecard of writing. It has a ring to it.  What self-editing tips have you picked up along the way? To comment, click the little cloud in the top right of this post.