Common Character Types

Sylar was originally portrayed by stunt double...

I’ve begun to notice a little more about TV than I should.  It’s an indication I’m watching too much of it, for one thing.  For another, it means things are going to start falling apart.  You can’t chip away at those facades too much or there’s going to be a collapse.  So it is, so it has been, so shall it ever be.

One of the funniest things about the portrayal of villainous characters in movies and on television is how incredibly versatile and insurmountable they are as obstacles.  In particular, the ones who are recurring characters are especially prone to this.  For instance, in the movie Untraceable, the antagonist is someone who’s barely old enough to vote and isn’t yet old enough to drink.  Yet, he’s mastered multiple technologies, each of which might take lifetimes to master.  But, he’s a genius.  The antagonist is always a genius.  He has to be, or else … well, he’d get caught.  And we can’t have that, now can we?

For another thing, the antagonist must be wealthy.  Always.  Unrestricted financial means are necessary for the success of their nefarious deeds.  This was portrayed with good success in the movie Seven with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.  On television the same must also be true, because if the antagonist isn’t of unlimited resources, he won’t have access to all the great things they need to be the recurring character.

If they’re not financially independent, they must then be of astonishing power somehow, such that monetary necessity is irrelevant.  The character I’m thinking of here is Sylar from Heroes.  He had almost unlimited power and thus didn’t need the unlimited resources.  He didn’t require access to man-made goods or services for which money is normally exchange in our current societal structure.

The television show The Mentalist has been heralded as an outstanding new drama.  There are elements of horror, humor and intrigue in many episodes.  Their recurring antagonist, the force driving the central character Patrick Jane (played by Simon Baker), is a serial killer known as “Red John”.  His calling card is painting the toenails of his victims in their own blood and leaving a painted, stylized happy face at the crime scene.

The show involves the pursuit of crime by the California Bureau of Investigation, or CBI.  They have hired Patrick Jane as a consultant to assist them with solving their crimes and with their pursuit of Red John.  But they never even get close to Red John.  In a couple of episodes, they are in the same general vicinity, or on the same property, but in every case, there is insufficient manpower to cover contingencies and alternative escape routes, and in every case, Red John slips away, either by outwitting the hapless police or by their inability to properly plan their moves.

This is problematic.  First of all, the police have some experience in catching serial killers.  They also have access to other, more powerful resources and agencies, such as the FBI, which has specially designed divisions devoted to catching serial killers.  But no one ever calls the FBI in, unless it’s a show featuring the FBI, such as Criminal Minds. And who wouldn’t call in those cool FBI agents?  Only one of them dresses and grooms in something remotely like FBI regulation.  The others are more like The Mod Squad with degrees in criminal psychology or behavioral science.  How cool is that, huh?

Anyway, the set-up for the recurring antagonist is almost nothing like the actual serial killer profiles we’ve banked since those kind of things have been done.  A lot of them have either a preferred victimology or methodology and/or geography, but I can’t recall ever hearing about one that had James Bond Villain-type money.  While serial killers of wealth aren’t unheard of, they aren’t the norm either … except on TV.

Given all that BS (and that was a lot of BS), how does this touch upon fiction in other media?  For example, books?  (In which I have a particular interest.)

When does archetype become comic book supervillainy?  When does it go too far?

We writers know your antagonist must be as strong or preferably stronger than the protagonist.  If the reader isn’t concerned the hero can be stymied in his quest – hurt or killed by whatever antagonist he’s facing – there’s no need to read the book, no compelling reason to turn pages.  We know, after all, the hero will triumph in the end.  But that strength, that fear for safety, can take on a few other forms, and isn’t very appetizing when the antagonist is super-human.

Why does television then rely so much on it?  Why can’t they come to the same sort of character creation we as writers are forced into?  Why is it acceptable for those villains we see in movies and on TV to be so untouchable?  It’s a lot of the reason TV and movies, for me at least, fall flat.

Sound off, y’all.  I really want to know what you think.


All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.

16 thoughts on “Common Character Types

  1. Maybe it’s because they have to show everything from the outside. No access to thoughts. They can choose action which shows the thoughts, but only to a certain extent.

    Interesting point. I know there’s limits to what the audience can “access” about the character, but I think there has to be more substance than they generally get, ESPECIALLY in movies. (TV’s a bit different, I suspect. More limitations still.)

    They’re also limited by time constraints. Notice that these shows spend most of their time developing the cool protagonist and his/her relationships, as well as the mystery itself. In order to get the richness of the protagonist they use a cookie cutter villain which the audience can understand instantly.

    All right, this helps explain movie super-villainy, but with TV, the audience is (theoretically) already familiar with the cool protagonist. No need to develop them; get on with the UNfamiliar characters then, no? Or am I off here? But the time constraint point is a very good one. I guess I missed that somehow. (Duh on me!)

    A show I’m enjoying is Castle, about the writer shadowing the lady cop. It has its problems, like how this crime writer figures out-thinks the cops on a regular basis, also how this civilian is able to go to crime scenes and the morgue and question perps without limitation. They jump through a lot of hoops to make that possible, but in the end I still just have to suspend my disbelief. I like it, though.

    Hm, I’ve not heard of that one. I’d have a lot of trouble swallowing that one too. Like I have trouble swallowing the swill of the CSI franchise, wherein CRIME SCENE TECHNICIANS are doing ALL THE CRIME SOLVING and INTERROGATION of suspects. That’s so ludicrous it effing HURTS me.

    And, in the end, you said it best, I suppose: You have to choose to suspend disbelief and go with it. Something I’ve not been able to do in many, many years.

  2. Villians that are easy to catch aren’t that fun to watch. Look at this way. Who is the better Batman villian: the Joker or Thug #2?
    Thug #2 gets beat up trying to rob a bank with a pistol.
    The Joker, successfully robs the bank, ties up all the banker employees, subjects them to smilex or whatever what Joker poison is called and sets up a series of traps for Batman to overcome before the Joker and Batman actually fight.

    True enough, and I’m okay with that. But when a sense of reality is trying to be created — with Batman’s universe there’s a fantasy element wherein the rules of the universe are accepted as they’re revealed, like with Lord of the Rings, so a rich man-cum-masked vigilante is accepted as a fact of the universe — portraying rich man/supergenius-cum-serial killer is much, MUCH harder to take. See the problem?

    So, here’s a question for you. How does The Joker keep escaping from Arkham and why hasn’t Batman finally just got fed up and killed the guy.
    (Okay, in one version of the Batman story, Robin kills the Joker and that was really cool. If you haven’t seen it, find it and watch it, Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker – Director’s Cut.)

    In the later comic books (Joker is introduced in the 1950s, if you don’t know), Batman continues to NOT kill Joker because he’s NOT a killer. He’s BETTER than that. On the other hand, in the 1930s and ’40s, Batman DID kill criminals. (He slapped women on the ass, too.) Why the change? I don’t know. I think Tim Burton sort of returned the TRUE vision of The Dark Knight, wherein Batman didn’t have a problem killing someone he knew would be an ongoing threat. Justice my ass — solve the problem. In the “new” Dark Knight, they try to marry the virtuous Batman with the Dark Knight and his “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” routine. That’s better than previous incarnations, I guess, but not the true essence of Batman. Batman, as he should be, WOULD kill the Joker, first time he could. He’s a psychopath who will continue to kill if he’s not permanently stopped.

    How does he keep getting out? Great question. I know Harley Quinn let him out once. I know Bane let him out once. And I think he’s pretty clever at getting out himself.

    That Batman Beyond? I saw it, but not the DC. I’ll have to find it someday and check it out.

    • That DVD was made but not released because Warner Bros thought it would get a higher rating than G. So they cut out some parts and released it. Eventually the original cut was released. Joker is nice and violent in the director’s cut. He likes to kill people. But he isn’t too keen on disposal of the corpse.

      True to the character, I’d say. Sounds like a blast.

      Comic books fundamentally changed after the comic book code thing was implemented. It’s all fallen by the wayside now, but for a while, it had a big effect. Throughout the sixties, mainstream comics were very Superfriends-esque.

      Wonder Twin powers, activate.

  3. Of course if we could easily catch the bad guy, the story would end. Motivation is key. At least in my stories the protagonist wants something that has nothing (or next to nothing) to do with the antagonist. Or maybe I mean that the character just wants to get away from the bad guy, but the bad guy wants to stop her from reaching said goal. This is different if you’re talking serial killers, but wanting to get away from someone else is different that wanting to ruin them.

    (I shouldn’t be trying to answer this at work.) Hehehe. Naughty, naughty!

    Time limits, visual media, an ongoing storyline, appealing to your widest demographic–all these things figure in. I recently read a book by Russell T Davies that broke down this TV writing business. Money. What can they afford to film? Every minute counts and they need to make plot points quickly and according to the filming schedule. Some plot points were decided based on the actor’s availability.

    Wow, THAT I didn’t know. Actor availability?? Okay, fine; but what impact does that have on not writing a very believable bad guy? Any? I doubt it, but I’m curious now. Time constraints, I got. Money? Would it be more expensive to film a believable villain than a weak one? Hm.

    I like my novel’s bad guy to have a strength that play off my good guy’s weakness.

    Okay. I can’t concentrate anymore.

    Breathe. Relax. Good points all, but don’t hurt yourself — I’m enjoying your input too much.

  4. Ah yes… villain is a hard thing to create because lets in real life most evildoers are a pretty pathetic lot. And if your villains are super competent then it makes it all the harder for your scrappy heroes to win the day and still be, you know, scrappy.

    See, I disagree. In real life you have people like Dennis Rader, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Gary Ridgway, The Hillside Strangler(s), Richard Ramirez, Bell Sorenson Gunness, Charles Manson, Albert Fish, Herman Webster Mudgett, Coral Eugene Watts, Richard Angelo, and the list goes on and on. Those are true monsters, and NONE of them were super-villains in terms of resources or power. They’re just … monstrous. Very much so. Scary, threatening, and not someone to be trifled with, but stoppable just the same. So, that’s good stuff, right? And it’s all real.

    I guess that’s why in STAR WARS the Empire is this massive planet shattering thing but their stormtroopers can miss a smelly wookie hiding in the air vents of a captured spaceship.

    Just follow the trail of shed fur, I’d think. A little arsenic in a ball of hamburger and problem solved. Or hell, make him fetch a stick off the edge of Cloud City.

    With my current project I have been worrying about that… my villains are smart and deadly but how do I keep from painting my protagonists into a corner?

    Always a dilemma. Has to be stronger than the protag, not so strong he can’t be overcome. A tight rope we all have to walk.

    And I think in some ways people enjoy a super-tough villian more than a super-tough unstoppable hero. After all which would you rather watch, a Steven Segal film or one about Cthulhu?

    I like Steven Segal, and haven’t read/seen anything about Cthulu (or however the hell it’s spelled). But that “elder god” (gimme a break, they age for pity’s sake??) is exactly the unstoppable force you were talking about before, isn’t it? How do you defeat a god? The idea is ridiculous. (To me it is; but then I’m not that into Lovecraft.) So aren’t we back to the beginning?

  5. Really? You’ve never read Call of Cthulhu?

    Haven’t been able to FIND it until you provided the link. Now, I’ll see what I can do. When I get a chance, I mean.

    It is one of Lovecraft’s better stories and to a certain degree he just takes the standard tropes of a horror story and instead of the villian being the emisaries of a Satan they’re the worshipers of an alien presence that could care less about them.

    Isn’t that Scientology??

    Here give it a read if you’ve got time… at the very least it could be fodder for a new blog posting…

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age…”

    Thanks for the link, Al!

  6. Oh and if you ever get the chance check out the TV series MILLENNIUM… they did a good job with serial killer stories… then season two went delightfully off the rails.

    Being a fan of Lance Henrickson, I did indeed watch the show. It was … okay. The little ESP elements killed it for me. I mean, before the whole getting stupid part happened.

  7. Okay, I’m not a writer so I may be way off the beam here but one of my favorite shows on TV right now (and books) is Dexter. I mean, come on – you have a main character that is a serial killer yet you get to root for him to off the actual bad guys and not get caught. He gets close to being caught or turning himself in. I think this series in both book and TV keeps things moving and you don’t know where it’s going to go and isn’t that the whole point of fiction? To keep you guessing and interested?

    First, welcome! Thank you for stopping by and commenting! Always glad to have a new reader.

    Dexter RAWKS. I loved the show during its brief stint on CBS. I don’t have Showtime so I can’t see it regularly, but I’ve enjoyed what I saw. I did, however, hear the books turned hokum toward the end. Too bad, but still, a GREAT twist on a protagonist.

    Like I said, I may be way off but I enjoy this one and True Blood which I also read the books the show is based on and enjoy the heck out of them.

    Not familiar with True Blood, but I’m not into vampire lit. I have friend who adores the Sookie Stackhouse books; are those the same? I thought so, but don’t know. And the show has a VERY loyal following.

  8. With the exception of Spiderman n could you not root for the bad guy. How come the villian can never shoot straight, or the good guy escapes with seconds to spare…..I love the gray area characters….Go Green Lantern thats what I say..In real life the good guy gets it everynow and then…..The NCIS Jenny Finale….Criminal Minds the SUV Explosion….real life Dr Moriarity does the deed and escapes..but TV is suppose to an escape from reality…great post…Zman sends

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  9. Yeah it is kind of fun when the bad guy gets away with it.

    A pair of good examples would be FARSCAPE’s Scorpius and BABYLON 5’s Mr. Bester. Both of them wreaked untold amounts of havoc on the heroes lives and walked away scott free in the final episodes.

    (and to think DarcKnyt was worried about his blog getting responses. :p )

    Interesting. Sort of the Hannibal Lecter ending, eh? And it does indeed seem I struck a nerve with this one, doesn’t it?

  10. Okay, I didn’t mean (even if it is what I wrote!) that actor constraints and money directly influence the writing of the bad guy character. I was mostly thinking of tv series where these things might just slightly influence the writer–for example, Davies taking into account that Dennis Hopper wasn’t going to play a particular character. The character ended up being played by that husband on Keeping Up Appearances. This casting choice did change the character.

    That has a lot to do with how it is played, but Davies did make that character more sympathetic too.

    I understand; how one actor portrays the character will wildly vary from how another does the same role. Hence the difficulty in recreating iconic characters; who could play Hannibal Lecter but Sir Anthony Hopkins now?

    But for bad guys (oh what? your actual point?) Maybe the demands of tv series writing inhibits writers from thinking too much about these issues. They got serious deadlines to worry about–crank that stuff out! And most tv shows are written by groups of writers–not the best way to get something original no matter how wonderful the individuals might be.

    Hm, deadlines? But don’t all writers have some sort of deadline? And when the character’s a recurring character, isn’t it possible to map it out ahead? Just thinking aloud here.

    Maybe writers just like playing god. Sure, at least one lame storm trooper ought to be able to shoot a wookie, but I am god. I’ve decreed that it shall not be so and who are you to stop me?

    This is probably closer to the truth than you realize with George Lucas.

    Hey, isn’t that the difference between drama and comedy? Super-Powered Bad Guy means drama. Inept Bad guy mean comedy.

    Enough! I’m moving on.

    And I’m so glad you came back to speak your heart and mind again! Thank you!

  11. Okay, I can’t help myself.

    Now you know the power of the Darc Side. Hehehehe.

    Yes, all writers have deadlines, but I was thinking that TV deadlines are more inflexible than others. And more constant.

    I dunno; all writers face relentless deadlines. But not being in the biz, I couldn’t say. You may be right.

    It would be interesting (to me anyway) to compare the series with the way the show is written. How are bad guys when written by committee? When written by an individual? When written by a writer with enough Hollywood clout to write what he wants instead of a newbie who has to make the changes or look for a new job?

    That would be interesting indeed. I think they all have to stay with the same tropes, though.


    And why am I so taken with this subject anyway? Maybe I’m too worried about my own bad guys.

    This is something a LOT of folks seem interested in; I’ve never had this many comments on a single entry, ever. It’s been a blast!

  12. Pingback: Bad Shoes and Bad Guys « writing in the water

  13. Why does television then rely so much on [the super-human villain]? Why can’t they come to the same sort of character creation we as writers are forced into? Why is it acceptable for those villains we see in movies and on TV to be so untouchable?

    Okay, not to get all artsy and literary-theoretical and pop-psych and stuff, but first think about why ANY fiction in ANY medium relies on villains, even super ones: because personalizing (i.e. humanizing) conflict and tension is both an indirect (less-than-obvious) and the easiest way to help audiences see the darkness in themselves. And even if someone in the audience has the sunniest, most blameless life imaginable, everyone — without exception, I’d guess — has some recurring experience (something, if not someone) that drives them crazy. An obstacle. A difficult fact of life. A nemesis.

    Mine appears to be a job, and the keeping thereof. 😉

    And welcome, JES, and thanks for chiming in on this discussion! I’m glad you stopped by!

    So the tension between (super-)hero and (super-)villain is “just” a personalization, but personalizing a conflict at least makes it seem resolvable. If Michael Myers ever stops coming back from being shot, stabbed, beheaded, bludgeoned, drowned, shoved off skyscrapers, dropped from airplanes, shot from cannons, fed sulfuric acid, eaten by Hannibal Lecter — if he ever really dies, all the gas runs out of the “Halloween” franchise.

    I’m afraid that happened 25 years ago regardless. 😀 ZZZZZzzzing!

    Like others have said, the time factor is really important (and movies are just expanded TV shows in this respect). You can’t develop a convincing villain in an hour of episodic drama, or really even in a half-dozen hours.

    Hm. I’m not sure if I agree, but I have seen the point to this; I think for a single-entry villain, this is true; for a recurring one, I dunno. And if there’s time to develop the hero in a movie, AND his love interest, there’s time for the villain too. DISCRIMINATION!! Let the lawsuits fly!

    Remember Windom Earl, on Twin Peaks? Evil genius, constantly thwarting not only the good guys but even the regular bad guys in the series. Never really “too clever for his own good,” although it may have seemed that way towards the end (when much of the series seemed to be coming unglued). Loved that guy.

    Never caught the show, regrettably.

    • (Whoops, forgot to close a hyperlink there. Sorry! (But it’s not my fault. It’s this evil, ultimately unbeatable villain in HTML.))

      Fixed. I must be a superhero. 😉

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