Everyone Loves a Good Villain

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Malachi (aka my criminal mastermind)
When I was working at the Pentagon several years ago, I found out that a number of people were referring to me as Dr. Evil and not in jest. At the time, I was working for the Assistant Secretary of Defense who oversees the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a behemoth defense agency with over 2,000 employees and an annual budget of over $3 billion. It was my job to oversee several projects of interest to him and make sure they were running on time, not over spending and doing what they were intended to accomplish. That meant that I regularly interacted with project managers in the trenches at DTRA. And since their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss reported to my boss, they were not always keen on my involvement.

A certain project manager, an Army Lieutenant Colonel (LTC), did not like that I had power and was not afraid to wield it, even if I was doing so in support of the mission. To him, I was the equivalent of a dentist rooting around in your mouth, scraping off plague, poking your gums and telling you about your cavities. As the character of Dr. Evil, I was his antagonist. On some level, I kind of liked the notoriety that came with that nickname. Why? It gave me a role to play. When we are part of a conflict either as the lead character or the lead character’s opponent, it feels like we really matter. Deep down, I think each one of us wants to be the hero–at least of our own story if not of something much bigger. But to become a hero, we need a villain.

Heroes do not exist without villains. A villain is the antagonist to the protagonist. And for the rise of every villain, a hero needs to be born. The villain provides the conflict for our hero to overcome. The villain’s job is to make the contest seem impossible. Through conflict with the villain, the hero learns his or her true potential and earns a new identity. And this journey makes a story worth telling, turns the pages of a book and keeps us in our seats at the movie theater.

My all-time favorite villains are those who have some redeeming qualities and show signs that they can still be saved from their paths of destruction. Maybe the villain set out to be a hero and was simply misunderstood. His intentions were good, but his actions were bad. Perhaps, he thought the ends would justify the means. Maybe he isn’t quite sure anymore.  Maybe he was terribly hurt and is seeking revenge. We understand his anger and his temptation to act out. Or maybe he is simply self-interested and sought to gain power only to find out how meaningless it is. We’ve all chased illusions at one point or another. In any case, this kind of villain is conflicted about his choices. We relate to his weaknesses, and we might even start cheering for him.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved villain characters, maybe even more so than the heroes themselves. From my perspective, writing a good villain is even more important for the storyline than the hero or heroine.  If the villain isn’t believable, isn’t wicked smart, or a capable evil mastermind, then the hero character will suffer for it. If the villain is so-so, the hero will also be “meh” and fall flat. A compelling story, in particular, one that pits good against evil, needs a good villain.

The villain makes the hero. The most loved heroes of all time are the unlikely ones who emerge from nothing to triumph over a dark and powerful enemy. Darth Vader makes Luke Skywalker a hero (though somewhat predestined). President Snow makes Katniss Everdeen an unlikely heroine. Voldemort makes Harry Potter an even unlikelier hero. And my all-time favorite, Sauron makes Frodo the unlikeliest hero of all. Without the villain, the hero doesn’t become a hero.

By the end of my trilogy of political thrillers, my protagonist Morgan Shaw will become a hero (spoiler alert!). In book 1, The Nuclear Conspiracy, she is just starting her new job as a professor at the National War College. She is young, smart and a newly minted Ph.D. She is green, quite uncertain of herself at times and far from hero material. In fact, she doesn’t want to be in the limelight. She is desperately trying to start her own life apart from the legacy of her famous family. The Shaw family is quite well known in Beltway circles and beyond for its accomplishments in the nuclear weapons arena. Her father, Wesley Shaw, is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon and responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Her uncle, Jack Shaw is the CEO of a company that develops advanced nuclear technologies including laser uranium enrichment. Morgan will be made into a hero  by overcoming a “duet” of villains she faces throughout the trilogy.

I wish I could tell you more about them and their evil plot, but that really would spoil the story. You’ll just have to wait until the book is released in December 2016–muah muah muah ha ha ha (plus evil pinky finger). Hey, I have to live up to my nickname, right?

While on travel overseas, the LTC told me that he and his team had been calling me Dr. Evil. Over a few months, however, he had come to realize that my oversight was a huge benefit to him. As long as we were working well together, his boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss didn’t get in trouble with my boss. And that was good for him–even if I was annoying sometimes. He admitted that he didn’t always see it that way and hence gave me my nickname. I asked the LTC to keep calling me Dr. Evil around the office as much as possible. He laughed and asked me why. I told him there were other project managers to contend with, and the villainous reputation might be helpful.

It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both–Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

 

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