Monday, March 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Villains: the Dark Knight by Susan May Warren

This Manuscript Monday we're kicking off a new series with award-winning author Susan May Warren: Craft Tips and Techniques from Today's Blockbusters. She'll take movies and help us writers learn new techniques from them. Please welcome this author and friend back to Seriously Write.

Craft Tips and Techniques from Today’s Blockbusters series
A Tale of Two Villains: The Dark Knight
by Susan May Warren

So, a great villain is human . . .

I love Batman. I don’t know why—maybe it’s the cool gadgets, but my fascination started with “Holy Toledo, Batman,” in the fifth grade as I watched Adam West run around in his blue pajamas. Even then, the villains scared me—the Penguin and Catwoman . . . but no one was worse than the Joker. And through the years, he’s only gotten scarier—first through Jack Nickolson’s portrayal in the 1989 version of Batman, and most recently the late Heath Ledger’s amazing performance.

But what makes the Joker so frightening, the quintessential villain? It’s not just his face, or his crazy antics, although they help. No, there is a formula to every epic villain and the Joker nails it.

First, however, let’s find out what makes a villain.

“Holy super-villain, Batman! Is that a list?”

1. A great villain is Human, a little bit like us. He wants what we want, or has been through what we’ve been through. For example, the sad (but untrue) story the Joker in The Dark Knight tells one of his victims about being abused by his father makes us, just for a second, feel for the sick, deranged Joker. Says our favorite caped crusader: “Criminals are complicated . . . we just need to find out what they’re after.”

2. Except when they’re just a bit Eccentric. Weird. Creepy. Like the Joker’s scars, and his propensity to lick his lips, play with his hair, wield his knife to etch smiles into his victims’ faces. As wise Alfred says, “Maybe you don’t fully understand him.” Or, maybe we don’t want to!

3. Especially since we don’t have to understand him to fear him. A great villain is Believable. We know he’ll do what he says. Like the Joker videotaping and killing Batman look-alikes.

4. A good villain also Goes after People in Power —like the Joker taking out the judge and commissioner. They don’t stop at the little people, they aim for the Big Dogs.

So, a great villain is human, he’s creepy, he’s believable, he’s taking out the power players, and then he is . . .

5. Tricky. A great villain can find his way into private places . . . like a meeting of the Mafia minds, or Bruce Wayne’s penthouse party. Nowhere is safe.

6. And it’s not enough that he can find anyone anywhere, but he does Big Ticket Crimes, like commandeering a semi and taking on a SWAT convoy. A great villain doesn’t let a daunting thing like a police escort or a heavily armed building detour him. He thinks BIG.

7. Because he’s also Indestructible. He walks away unscathed from terrible crashes and flying bullets. Like the Joker, walking away from said semi flipping over onto its back.

8. Most of all, a great villain Taunts Death. He seemingly doesn’t care about being defeated, even about dying. A great villain seems fearless before his own demise.


The Dark Knight allows us the perfect opportunity to apply our list of Great Villain elements and compare villains. In a surprise twist, Two-Face appears to finish the movie.

So, let’s see how Two Face stacks up against the Joker.

1. Human? Yep, Two Face has lost the woman he loves, and we understand his motivation for hating the people who killed her.

2. Creepy? Take one look at his face, and you can’t deny he’s got the Joker on the creepy scar scale.

3. He’s also a bit Eccentric with his coin flipping.

4. But will he kill people? Yep, Two Face tracks down a bad cop, and point-blank takes him out. He’s Believable.

5. And Two Face has developed Tricky track-down skills. He’s found the mobster responsible for freeing the Joker.

6. Then he becomes Indestructible when he survives a car crash that kills the mobster.

7. Two Face even Taunts Death, putting the gun to his head, ready to let the flip of the coin decide his fate at the end when he is deciding whether to take out Batman and Commissioner Gordon.

So, who wins the war of the Two Villains?

Without a doubt, the Joker. Because while Two Face has all the ingredients of a great villain, his motives are sane, even understandable: revenge.

The Joker however has no motives.

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred says about the Joker. He kills to kill. He destroys to destroy.

And that’s the scariest villain of all.

Susan May Warren is the founder of My Book Therapy, a boutique fiction editing service for writers, and runs A Writer’s Blog. Join her and 300 other voices to write a book online in 2009 – Blog a Book with www.MyBookTherapy.com!

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