A Good Villain Energizes Your Story





Nothing infuses energy into a story like a powerful and grotesque villain.  If you ardently hate a villain in a book you’re reading or a story you’re viewing then you’re hooked!  You’ve invested emotion in the battle between good and evil, you’re waiting for justice to be served.

            These wicked characters must get under your skin.  They have to arouse a visceral sense of repulsion and fear, the way spiders and snakes evoke primitive terror, the way decaying fecal ooze repels the senses.  Villains are difficult to write because we instinctively recoil from the dark sides of life and the more grotesque aspects of our selves.   That dark side, that shadow, is the only place from which a truly compelling villain can emerge.  We can’t  tear off evil like a number at the grocery meat counter.

            “Number Twenty Two!”

            “Here I am.  Let’s see.  What have you got that’s horrible and scary?”

            A good example of a well written villain came in the film CYRUS.  The cast consisted of John C. Reilly, Marissa Tomei, Katherine Keener and Jonah Hill.


Jonah Hill as Cyrus

            The emotional engine of the story comes from the dark portrayal of Cyrus by Jonah Hill.  Cyrus is twenty two years old.   He  lives with his mother, played by Marissa Tomei.  Their relationship is what the shrinks call “enmeshed”.  Mother/child/husband/wife/lover and beloved, all have become confused.  Cyrus wants to be with his mother forever.  She’s his best friend, his only friend and he expands his presence to fill her life nearly to the exclusion of other men.


            John C. Reilly, playing a decent shlub  named John, meets Molly (Tomei) at a party.  In the usual sequence of events, John starts dating Molly and soon enough  comes to her house, where he meets Cyrus.

            Like many evil characters, Cyrus is a charmer.  He exudes a disarming “honesty”, he’s well schooled in modern therapy-talk.

            Let us pause and consider this concept, Evil.  What is it?

            I’ve parsed my own definition of evil to a simple formula: Evil is the inflicting of pain to avoid pain. This inflicting is often done in the name of Good, i.e. Hitler was saving Germany and the Aryan race from humiliation and contamination.  I exclude those beings who enjoy causing pain because it’s their nature.  Such creatures exist but not for the purpose of this essay. 

            Cyrus is going to destroy the relationship between John and Molly.  He’s a smart, tubby man-child who can easily read John’s psychological roadmap.  This gives him power.  He also gets power from his mother’s uncritical support of his efforts.

             Evil characters have malice and they have power.  Many of them are concealed behind a facade of charm or apparently benign goodwill.

            Evil people are trying to wriggle out from under a burden of pain by forcing others to experience pain.  What is the pain that Cyrus wishes to avoid?  He doesn’t seem to have any friends.  He isn’t engaged with a community of his peers.  He creates techno music on a bank of keyboards and electronics.  The music quickly devolves into sterile monotony.   Cyrus is a twenty two year old loser,  a lonely fat kid.  That’s pain enough.  If we follow the formula that evil is pain inflicted on others to mute the suffering of the self, we find Cyrus’ motivation.  He will obstruct any of Molly’s efforts to be happy.  If she’s happy, she will elude his possession.  She might become attached to another man.

            John quickly understands the game that is being played.  It’s impossible to carry this information to Molly.  She won’t believe him.  Cyrus is too clever.  Cyrus quietly stands behind Molly in a hallway as she talks with John about their burgeoning relationship.  Cyrus faces John while showing cardboard signs over the back of his mother’s head.  Cyrus has printed phrases of malice and contempt.  “You don’t have a chance.”  “I’ll get you.”   “You’re out of your league.”

            This is the moment in the film where I truly grew to hate Cyrus and to fear for John.  This is where the bad guy engaged my emotional investment in the film’s outcome.  Cyrus’ mask slips and he shows a chilling blankness, as if John is simply beneath consideration.  John may be a shlub but he’s a decent shlub and he steps up, steps up to the dragon, willing to fight for Molly.  That’s the narrative counterpoint to hating the villain.  It offers an opportunity for the hero to draw upon courage he doesn’t know he has.  Hate the villain, love the hero. It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

            Unless we’re writing comic books or cartoons, it’s not so simple.  Each of us is a composite personality.  Our inner child is really a little car filled with squabbling midgets.  The steering wheel passes from hand to hand, the brakes are fought over, the car veers crazily.

            A villain takes advantage of the muddle of human nature by having a clear point of focus.  A fixation, an obsession, a purpose.  This purpose empowers the villain at the expense of ordinary people.  Bad guys know who they are and why they act.  In many narratives the hero struggles with doubt and obscurity of motivation.  His struggle isn’t just with the villain;  it’s with his own confusion.  When he sees clearly, when he knows what he wants, he obtains the weapons he needs.

            All through this essay I’ve been thinking of two characters: Adolph Hitler and South Park cartoon nasty Eric Cartman.  Hitler annihilated millions; Cartman is a fictional character in a television show.  Yet they have attributes in common.

            My emotions regarding Hitler are an historical abstraction.  He’s become a universal symbol of evil.  Cartman, on the other hand, keeps my guts in an uproar.   I HATE the fucker, I loathe him!  It’s a very personal engagement.

            The lessons of Cartman are numerous.  All of his actions are manipulations.  He is completely without sincerity.  He’s a bigot.   There is no minority group who escapes his ire. When he’s told that white people have become a minority group, he simply doesn’t hear the message.  This may be Cartman’s greatest signifier: his inability to hear anything with which he disagrees.  Intellectual and moral deafness is a widespread symptom of evil.  Cartman, and villains in general, like to blame other people for their own emotional discomfort.  This profound moral choice, to blame others,  is a basic step into the world of evil.  When writing a villainous character, it’s useful to give him someone to blame. Give him a scapegoat.     

            A villain can’t be frightful without power.  It may be supernatural power, political power, military power, physical power, but a villain cannot elicit fear, revulsion and anger without significant power.  It’s the abuse of power that sparks the reader’s anger.  Most of us see power as a privilege that entails responsibility.

We get angry when power is used for gratification of the ego and the appetites.

            Cartman’s power comes from several sources.  He’s clever, inventive, without moral scruple and completely selfish.  His mother gives him everything he wants because it’s easier that way.  Cartman is a fatherless boy.  His mother always takes the lazy way out; she gives in to her son’s demands.  If I take South Park as a microcosm, a model for the larger society in which we live, Cartman’s mother represents economic power.  She makes him rich in comparison to the other kids.  He has all the latest toys, the best video games and a total lack of supervision.

            To further amplify Cartman’s power he has a follower: Butters.  This sweet but witless innocent will go along with any outrageous scheme Cartman dreams up. Cartman generates momentum.  While Stan, Kyle or Kenny may have qualms about Cartman’s ideas, Butters is always there to support him.  The plan, the idea, the scheme always seems to run away with itself before it can be thought through.  Its consequences are never anticipated.  The only brakes on Cartman’s destructive power are the other boys’ common sense and lack of malice.  In the end, Cartman always brings himself to destruction, but he will never admit defeat.  In some people this is an admirable trait.  In Cartman, it’s merely irritating.

            In Hitler it cost millions of lives.  If Cartman were a real adult person he would be a frightful monster.  Think what Hitler and Cartman have in common.  Scapegoats.  Blame.  Moral and intellectual deafness.  Unwillingness to take responsibility for errors in judgment.  A will that generates great momentum,  and attracts followers who are willing to obey without question.

            In the episode called “Breast Cancer Show Ever” Cartman takes a schoolyard beating by a mere girl, by Wendy Testaburger.  She played the righteous avenger when Cartman mocked breast cancer and persisted in telling hurtful jokes on the subject of breasts.  When she established the time for the duel, when Cartman realized that Wendy was serious, he tried to buy her off.  She would have none of it.  In spite of the fact that Cartman was pounded to a bloody mess, he twisted events in his mind so that he won the fight, that he was still “Cool”, or “Kewl” in the eyes of his compatriots.  Kyle and Stan told Cartman “You suck, you’ve always sucked.  We hate you.”  Cartman can’t hear these declarations.  He is still Kewl.

            This amazing deafness made me want to jump through the screen and pound the fat twerp to a pulp.  My emotions were completely engaged.  When a writer can raise the emotional stakes to such a pitch, that writer has succeeded in creating a compelling villain.

            I have used a silly villain in a silly cartoon show to highlight the power of a villain to propel a good story.  Ignore Cartman at your own risk.  He’s a first class little asshole.

            People ignored and dismissed Hitler as a buffoon.  We know what happened to those people.  Monstrous villains  have arisen throughout history.  We are writers;  we deal in fiction.  The  most frightening villains in fiction draw resonance from history’s tyrants.  Lazy writers may imitate these tyrants in their narratives.  Good writers draw villains out through themselves, knowing that each of us is capable of monstrosity.

Why Do We Pick On Ourselves?

Why Do We Pick On Ourselves?
Copyright Art Rosch
Jan 3, 2010

Americans pick on themselves. We do it constantly, relentlessly, awake, asleep, we pick on ourselves about everything. It’s as if a perfectionist mother –in-law sits inside our heads on a platform at the very center of our thoughts and points here and there, hectoring us with criticisms.

“You could lose a few pounds, you know. You’re getting heavy. What’s wrong with your face? Is that a zit? How could you have a zit at your age? Your pores are kind of large, too. Speaking of age, wow, you’re getting’ over the hill, and it shows, it shows! I see wrinkles at the sides of your mouth and eyes. And that big one in the middle of your forehad, wow. Who could love a mess like you? Who buys your clothes?!! A retarded pygmy? Where did you get those awful shoes? Who does your hair, a baboon? Get another stylist before it’s too late. The damage that’s being done, what a shame. Your hair is thinning out day by day. You’re getting a pot belly, by the way. Ever think of wearing something, a brace, maybe? Your skin’s losing its elasticity, there’s a cream that I can recommend. Your teeth are a little funny. Has anyone ever suggested cosmetic dentistry?”

Pick pick pick, pick pick pick. Am I wrong? Have I overstated the case?
She never stops, this critical demon of the shadows. She is a product of decades of indoctrination.

“I should remind you to get your cholesterol checked. Wouldn’t want you suddenly keeling over. It can happen; any second it can happen, bam! You’re dead! I’ll bet you haven’t provided for your family if something happens. Do you have a good lawyer? My brother in law knows one. Are you seeing a doctor? Have you checked your prostate lately? I hear there’s a new medication for that. There’s a pill for everything these days, just watch Sixty Minutes. I mean the commercials, not the show. There’s a pill that’ll help you stop smoking if you survive the side effects. I love the medications where one of the side effects is “diminished semen”. What does that mean? What kind of pill can have “diminished semen” as a side effect? Isn’t that the scariest thing a man can hear, short of “penis may wither and fall off?” Loss of semen really means having crappy sex, doesn’t it? So why don’t they say, “may have brief weak orgasms due to lack of sperm?”

This yapping harridan, this carping abusive inner voice, how did it get inside our heads? Let’s make it simple. First there’s television. There are a lot of good things about television, it’s not the monolithic purveyor of propaganda it might be in some other countries. Still, it hauls a freight train of psychological toxins every second of every day, no matter if the sound is on, whether or not Tivo has blocked the commercials. It doesn’t matter. The marketers behind television are so sophisticated that we don’t have to turn on the device to be contaminated. In our society, television has become a self-referential culture, the subject of billions of conversations. It has moved into our thoughts and taken residence, permanently.
After TV there’s movies, the internet, magazines, newspapers, radio, you can’t escape marketing anywhere, not even in an airport restroom.

We barely live real lives any more. We talk about fictional characters whose lives are infinitely more exciting than ours and whose dangers are far beyond anything we would ever permit ourselves to face.

It would be interesting to snatch someone from the past and have this person witness our marketing techniques. Show a Viagra or Cialis commercial. What if we brought someone from the Victorian era, from around 1895, and showed him or her commercials for keeping your thing hard, every ten minutes another commercial showing a man of about forty five with a woman of about thirty eight, snuggling together, holding hands, watching the sun set. We would have to explain the nature of this product to the viewer. Without the warning “see a doctor if erection lasts more then four hours” there is nothing to indicate what this product does, what’s it’s for. When we explain it to our time traveler, what will this person think about our culture? How embarrassed would he or she be, how shocked at the impropriety?

Well, sure, they were prudes. Their repression caused them vast inner conflicts, but I would speculate it added an extra thrilling dimension to sex. It seems that when we started discussing our President’s blow jobs on the public airwaves, some line was crossed, some basic decency and sense of proportion was jettisoned off the side of our big ocean liner of a culture. Sex also got a little bit more ordinary, a bit more like costume jewelry.

I digress, I was talking about how we pick on ourselves. It’s stupidly obvious. It’s about getting us to spend money. The entire purpose of marketing is to manipulate our desires. The basic technique is to infect us with feelings of inadequacy. Then we are bombarded with glittering images of things we’re led to believe will make us feel better. If we feel bad enough we’ll go out and buy some ridiculous cream, or pill, or car, or hair weave, or something that makes no sense at all, we’ll just go buy anything, walk into Walmart with our credit cards and shop, as an anesthetic. We’ll be perfect consumers, depressed, dazed automatons piling up debt. Glassy eyed, we walk the aisles of the stores, pace the infinite mallways without destination until we find ourselves back home with bags full of junk. How did all this crap appear in our houses? I don’t remember buying an eighty eight inch Super High Definition TV set with a quadruple-woofer ten speaker sound system with Dolby nine point two noise reduction software.

We’ve been had. We’re nuts. We pick on ourselves because all our role models are distortions that are dissonant with real life. We don’t see authentic people in the movies or on TV. We see heroes who can kill a dozen trained hyenas by throwing wooden chopsticks from fifty feet. We are not encouraged to admire people who aren’t particularly beautiful, rich or talented. We aren’t given strength of character as a yardstick of true heroism. It isn’t enough to be an ordinary person anymore, we have to be some carefully crafted mannequin, with no missing teeth, no bad habits. We’re going to live to a hundred and fifty in perfect health, glowing and radiant, with a beautiful partner by our side. There won’t be any old age, slow decay, debility, nothing like that because the inner witch-voice won’t allow us to relax and be human, be ordinary and obey the laws of nature even when they take our youth and beauty.

Isn’t that the primary mechanism of marketing? To raise dissatisfaction to a level where we’ll do anything to “better” ourselves in the form of consuming whatever’s consumable to get a buzz for a few minutes or hours?

Pick pick pick, we’ve learned to pick on ourselves without mercy. Go ahead, take a look at yourself in the mirror! Do you like what you see? Have you been taught to accept yourself with all your flawed genes and pathological behaviors?

Can you accept and love yourself as the unique creation that you are?
Of course not. There’s no money in love.

Not yet.

The Suicide Hotline Boogie

Several years ago I got involved with suicide hotline counseling. I took a two month training course, and spent four hours a week answering a phone, knowing that utter despair might be on the other end of the line.
The training was terrifying. Two thirds of the initial class dropped out in the first month. I wasn’t dropping out of anything. I was training my character about the concept of commitment. All the volunteers had the same fear: what if we said the wrong thing and were RESPONSIBLE for a suicide?
The latter parts of our training were about role playing. We’d gather as a group and the trainer would ask someone to go first. I always offered to be first. I preferred to get my terror over with rather than sit and anticipate. The trainer and I would pretend to be on opposite ends of a phone conversation. The trainer would say “Ring Ring” and I would answer, “Suicide Hotline.” Then the trainer would act out a scenario and it was my job to respond to the situation as if it were real.
My heart started pounding, my throat went dry. The trainer would play an adolescent in crisis, or an elderly person sick, alone and without hope for the future. The trainer could be anyone at all. We didn’t know until we answered the “phone”.
In this way we got past certain inhibitions. It’s not only okay to ask if someone is thinking of doing harm to themselves. It’s mandatory.
“Are you thinking about committing suicide?”
Yes, we ask the question!
“Do you have a plan? Do you have the means to do it?”
“Have you attempted suicide before?”
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, if the caller has a history of attempts, and is holding a gun, a bottle of sleeping pills or a pack of razors, then it’s time to go into action. We try to find out the location of the caller. If the caller won’t give up this information, we have the ability to trace the call. We have a reverse phone book, addresses that yield phone numbers. We can call friends, relatives. We can call the police. We’re not helpless.
By sheer wonderful luck, this is the hotline associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. There are call boxes at regular intervals where would-be jumpers can get a direct line to a counselor. I never got a jumper. I got a lot of other things.
When the training was complete, I went as an intern to the switchboard. An experienced counselor was on hand to help out. We worked in teams. For a few sessions, the supervisor could listen on an extension to my calls. I got some calls, but they were mostly sad people wanting to hear another human voice. No serious threats.
On my third shift, it was time to go solo. There was another counselor there, but I was now officially on my own.
I was terrified when my first call came in. I picked up the phone and said the requisite, “Suicide Hotline” in a calm neutral tone. Then I waited, listening to hard breathing on the other end. After about fifteen seconds, a woman with a thick southern accent said the following:
“I have a loaded gun pointed at my head, and my finger is on the trigger.”
This is my first solo call! Okay, okay, be calm, work from the training.
“If you really wanted to die, you wouldn’t have called me.’
“Maybe I don’t want to die and maybe I do,” the caller responded. “Maybe I called to see if you could come up with a single good reason for me to keep living.”
“I can’t talk to you until you put the gun down. And I can’t give you reasons to live, you’ll have to do that for yourself.”
My supervisor had heard all this. She came and stood behind me. She took a pen and bent over to write on a piece of paper on my desk: “did you say gun?”
I shook my head yes.
The woman on the phone spoke in an acidly sarcastic manner. “You mean you’re not going to give me Jesus or Buddha or some crap like that?”
“I’m not here to promote religion,” I responded. “I’m here to listen to you.”
“Oh bullshit!” Now she was angry. “I’m going to pull the trigger!”
I braced myself for a blast. It didn’t come. There was just the sound of labored breathing from the telephone.
“Hello?” I spoke to the breath. After some seconds, the voice responded, with the same angry sarcasm.
“Yesss. What!”
“You didn’t pull the trigger.”
Then I heard a click click click.
“That’s the gun,” said the woman. “It’s not loaded. But I can load it, in a second.”
“You don’t want to do that.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you would have. I think you want to live, whether or not I give you a reason.” I was beginning to feel a little angry. I felt a sudden intense dislike of this person. I felt that she was bullshitting, that she had called just to mess wth my mind.
Again, the sound of three clicks. Mocking. I had a cigarette lighter in my pocket. I took it out, held it to the receiver and clicked it three times. My supervisor had been standing behind me. I saw her arm come over my shoulder with the pen. She wrote, “what the f…?”
I shrugged, then wrote, “B.S.”
I saw Leslie, my supervisor, nodding.
The woman with the southern accent said, “What’ve you got there, a thirty eight?”
“No,” I responded, “A Bic.”
She laughed in a witchy sounding cackle. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”
“I know I’m smart, but that has nothing to do with what’s happening right now. Are you intending to hurt yourself, or anyone else?”
“I’m not gonna tell you, now. You’ll just have to live with not knowing.”
Click. She hung up. I sat there, half terrified and half enraged.
I pivoted my chair so that I could talk to Leslie.
“Doe she sound like this?” Leslie did a perfect imitation.
“That’s it.”
“Okay, well you just met Lynn Brogan. She calls four or five times a week, and if she gets a newbie, she does the gun routine.”
As I was letting the air out of my lungs, as my shoulders settled, the phone rang again and I nearly levitated from the chair.
“Suicide Hotline”, I said.
“You know, I have a pretty important job.” Same southern accent. It was Lynn Brogan.
I had to restrain my anger, restrain my urge to answer with sarcasm. After all, if this was how she spent her time, she was pretty unhappy. She was in a lot of pain.
“That’s good,” I said in a neutral tone. “What do you do?”
“I’m head of Research and Development.”
“With what company?”
“I can’t tell you that. It’s a VERY big company. Very important to the government. You’ll just have to take my word. I have thirty four hundred people working for me.”
The other phone line rang. Leslie moved into the next cubicle and took the call.
“Suicide Hotline,” she said.
Thus began my acquaintance with a list of characters who used the hotlilne as their primary social focus. They were hotline addicts. Kendra S. called fifty times a day until we cut her to a maximum of five. She started calling all the other Bay Area hotlines. San Francisco thirty times. Berkeley twenty five. Oakland fifteen. Each day. Her hoarse voice assaulted hapless volunteers with anger and self pity. She could not live without calling hotlines. As she got thrown off one, she migrated to another until she was calling hotlines in Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles.
One of our clients, named Gwen, had multiple chemical sensitivity and would go into a psychological meltdown if she thought she was exposed to a carpet that wasn’t detoxified or a whiff of someone else’s perfume. When she weakened and ate a piece of chocolate she entered a state of panic in which she believed her toxicity would be fatal. It wasn’t.
Bob R. had flown B-17’s during the war and couldn’t stop re-living his experiences, fifty years later.
Working the hotline was like that truism regarding war: hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of sheer panic.
Most of the time, my method worked. I kept at bay all the things with which I might lose my sense of equality with these people. Compassion can only operate on a field of equality. If I lost sight of the fact that I could BE one of these people with the tiniest slip of fate, then I was in trouble.
At one time I WAS one of these people. I could never forget that. I always felt a vulnerability, always felt as if the despair were as close as my skin. After five years, I reached the burnout point. The despair penetrated and I began to become my callers. That’s when I started leaking anger and judgment, impatience and contempt. It began to come out through the holes in my skin, through the membrane of invulnerability that I had worn in order to do this kind of work. The membrane was leaking pretty badly.
When I said to Kendra S., “For god’s sake Kendra there might be someone in real trouble trying to get through here….”
That’s when it was over.


Feb 13 2002
I envy normal people.
I am aware, rationally,
that these so-called normal people
look to me with envy.
I am aware, that, in fact,
there is no such thing as normal people.
I’ll put it this way:
I envy anyone without a major vice,
addiction, character flaw or personality disorder.
I have all of these things.
I feel as though some invisible
but highly palpable psychic booger
is hanging from a prominent place
on my visage.
Any idiot should be able to perceive
this booger, this gap, this wound,
this unwholesomeness
at the center of my soul.
And I wonder, “if I am this good a con man,
what is everyone else hiding?”
But my envy is emotional, is not amenable
to my carefully reasoned and observed
perception that there are no normal people
in the world,
that to be alive in these times
is to be disordered
and full of concealed untidy fragments.
I envy normal people with normal lives;
with homes, families, jobs.
These are the good people engaged so fulsomely
in the pursuit of happiness.
Far from pursuing happiness, I have long since abandoned myself
to the avoidance of misery
by any reasonable means.
After fifteen years of therapy,
I’ve given up on health, happiness, thriving,
any of those curiously modern concepts
with which we aggravate ourselves.
I still envy normal people.
But I have decided to engage myself
in a ferocious loyalty to my abnormality.
It has, like an old friend, sustained me
these many years.
I’m afraid of what I might lose,
if I became, suddenly, in spite of my envy,