Villains: Create a Good Bad Guy Without Making the Bad Guys Good

Everyone loves a good villain. The really fun ones—Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West (stick with us)—even become archetypes. But how does an actor craft a truly good portrayal of a terrible person? How does one crawl into the mind of, say, Hitler, and look out at the world through such foreign eyes in a believable fashion?   Obviously, few villains are as clear-cut as this example—some of them aren’t even bad people, just to tack on a little extra work for everyone involved. When tackling an unlikeable character, from the petty to the psychotic, here are some tips to get you started:

1.     Figure Out What Kind of Villain You Are

Not all villains are cut from the same cloth. As with any character, you have to understand what purpose your particular desperado serves in the greater arc of the play. Are you a mustache twirler, written to highlight the protagonist’s heroics? Are you a relatable psychopath, using extreme situations to mirror the darker impulses of human nature? Are you the bumbling thug, bringing comic relief? Knowing your place in the greater scheme of things can give you valuable tools with which to approach your character.

2.     Understand Your Motives

This one seems like a given, but can become difficult when dealing with varying levels of depravity. It can be easy–even fun–to play evil for evil’s sake, and while that is sometimes warranted, most non-satirical villains require more subtlety. Otherwise the performance becomes about showing off for the audience rather than showing them a real person. So now is the time to dig deep. Research (or establish) a backstory and timeline—track the maturity of wickedness from the root. Loveless childhoods and traumatic life events come in handy here. Ultimately you have to find a way to relate to your character; some seed in yourself that could conceivably grow to bear similar corrupt fruit. Remember that most villains do not consider themselves as such. They think they are right, justified, and deserving of their desires, just as much as any other character. Knowing why and how your villain came to want what he or she wants will help flesh out a believable and impactful character.

3.     Learn to Love Them . . . 

Now that you understand where your character is coming from, it is time to make peace with it. So you’re cast as Olga, kicker of puppies and murderer of orphans? Well, Olga needs a friend too. You are her friend. In accepting the role, you have accepted the responsibility of abstaining from judgment of Olga. It doesn’t matter how despicable your character is, how disturbing her actions. If you allow yourself to sit in judgment of your character, you sacrifice the intimacy and humanity that make for effective storytelling. Villains are written to discomfit, to shock. Don’t shy away from it, commit to it and embrace it.

4.     . . . But Accept That No One Else Will

On the other hand, it can be just as harmful to go too far in the other direction. Some actors get so caught up in justifying their character’s actions that they make their villain too relatable. No one wants to see a bad guy turned into a good guy (unless it is a redemption story, in which case, timing is king). Going back to tip number one, you have to remember your place in the story. If you are meant to be hated, by all means do what you need to do to relate to a despicable character, but accept that the audience is going to hate you for it. This is a good thing. It means you are doing your job. So yes, you as the actor have to forgive your villain his flaws and foibles. But don’t fall so in love with him that you end up treading on the hero’s terrain. As a villain, you might have to work hard to get your story straight. But remember that sometimes the larger story belongs to someone else.

Finally, remember that villains are a gift. They allow you to explore sides of yourself that you would never otherwise develop. They let you go to extremes. They afford you the rare luxury of being safely disliked. Celebrate this opportunity, and twirl that mustache to your heart’s content.

 

 

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com

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