A Bad Man Is Hard to Find
I remember my first villain. The music was loud, the room was smoky, the bodies packed the room. He towered above the rest, dressed all in black.
There are reasons we remember characters like Darth Vader so vividly, and they’re the same reasons you could ask me to name the villain from Iron Man 2, and I’d just say Mickey Rourke: the first impression is key.
So, if you find yourself writing a story and need a good bad guy, Darth Vader represents a crash course in effective villainy, and all it takes are two simple steps.
1. Show Us The Goods
You want your bad guy to be recognizable from across the room. The way he stands, the clothes he wears, his hair, something needs to stand out. Since film is a visual medium, the most instantly noticeable aspect of a character is its silhouette. Now look at Darth Vader in Star Wars.
We see a figure silhouetted in smoke. He approaches the camera, the already imposing form nearly filling the frame from bottom to top. The white hallway and white Stormtroopers on either side frame him even further. All that contrast of whites and grays against his black suit make him seem even bigger. He surveys the carnage, his deep mechanical breathing is underscored by the iconic music. The scene is so well composed that my brain fills in the blanks; when I think about this scene, I can swear Vader stands perfectly centered in the frame, despite the fact he starts slightly decentered. The scene just treats him so importantly that my mind does all the legwork.
2. Keep It Active
I mentioned Iron Man 2 earlier, and if you’ve never seen the movie, I’ll briefly explain what Mickey Rourke is doing when we first meet him. He’s standing in the corner, alone, listening to someone talk in Russian. The first thing Darth Vader does is stride over the corpses of his enemies like he’s disappointed they had the nerve to even slightly inconvenience him; the first thing Rourke does is talk to a dying man while Iron Man makes a speech on television. You know the second thing Darth Vader does? He lifts a man up by the windpipe. Do you remember what Rourke does second? Me neither.
If you’re going to make a villain, make the first thing we see the villain do something active, whether it’s big or small. Obviously Vader’s intro wouldn’t work for a movie about an underdog sports team facing the reigning champions, but maybe have the champions be dicks on the field or in the ring. Whatever suits the story.
And that’s basically it! All you need to set up your villain is a striking silhouette and a strong villainous action. Start there, and we might end up with more Darth Vaders and fewer Whippey Rourkes on the silver screen.
Whiplash! His name is Whiplash. Mystery solved!