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Villains Before Heroes

I truly wish “Vills before ‘roes” was a common jackass statement akin to “bros before hoes,” but alas I have yet been unable to instill the phrase into the popular vernacular. However, it’s something you might want to keep in mind as you structure your story, because, as Batman will prove, villains make your hero.

I mean, we all agree Batman is cool, what with his tragic concept, the gadgets, cool cars, detective abilities and completely hetero-relationship with his young ward, but it’s his rogue’s gallery that really cements him as one of the best superheroes (and Superman as the worst). And heroes, especially superheroes, are often reactive in that they need to STOP the evil deeds of their enemies rather than driving the action with a plan. Which is why villains are often introduced BEFORE the heroes in the hero’s own stories.

Chances are you can name all the villains in this picture even if you aren't a comic book nerd.

This usually happens in the form of a TEASER, which is usually a single scene that takes place before the story kicks into gear with the traditional hero’s journey. I’m sure we all remember the Joker’s intro in The Dark Knight, which is probably the best of all times and pretty much made the movie as a whole. In that single scene we learn exactly how unpredictably violent and diabolic the villain de jour is, which instantly gets his character across, as we learned was paramount not long ago.

Same thing happened with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises in that we are introduced to Bane in another iconic scene long before we meet the now-withered Bruce. And I would like to point out that both these movies were much stronger than Batman Begins with its tired retread of Bruce Wayne’s backstory, though now that I think about it, it could be argued that Batman Begins is introducing the idea of crime in general for Batman to aspire to defeat.

As I also said recently, Star Wars introduces Vader before any of the heroes, but it’s been pointed out to me that I go to the Star Wars well too often. So let’s look for more examples.

Lord of the Rings goes on for quite some time establishing Sauron and his mighty ring before that long and boring detour to happy Hobbiton. Game of Thrones, it both its book and show iterations, opens with the White Walkers long before you even get a whiff of the Starks.

We can even step away from the fantasy/ superhero examples if we were so inclined and note that the Cormac McCarthy penned and Coen directed Oscar darling No Country For Old Men opens with the terrifying Javier Bardem demonstrating exactly why you should be so terrified of Javier Bardem.

The early villain introduction isn’t just limited to intelligent villains either: Jaws opens with the hint of the shark as the skinny dipper dies long before the main characters arrive. And I’d bet there’s more horror movie villain teaser openings than I could shake a very large stick at.

Neither Campbell’s Hero’s Journey nor Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat account for the villain teaser overtly, though I would argue that Call to Adventure/ Opening Image do somewhat take it into consideration. In many ways, this is the first step in setting up your dramatic question that the hero must answer. After having met such an imposing enemy that the hero is probably still ignorant of, we are left wondering how on Earth the hero will be able to overcome such a formidable foe as s/he answers the call to adventure. And in doing so, the author instantly elicits empathy by casting the hero as the underdog in his/ her own story.

Which is exactly what happened with Batman in both of Nolan’s last two films. Which is by no means an easy thing to do, but certainly pays off when done correctly. And extra points are given if the author can tie the villain's introduction into the hero's setup phase as masterfully done in Conan The Barbarian.

What is it with the bad haircuts for these villain examples?

In instances like these the author has not only have demonstrated how evil and formidable the villain is, but has additionally intrinsically linked him/ her to the hero in a seminal and defining moment in the hero's life. The villain is also no longer a faceless threat, rather a nemesis personally responsible for the hero's development. The call to action and dramatic question are already asked in just the first few moments, centering the story on how the hero will overcome this insurmountable obstacle.

Because heroes can only be heroic when they have something insurmountable to overcome, which is why you should spend just as much time developing your villains as you do your heroes.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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