Stories are only as compelling as their villains, and people are only as interesting as their problems.
These two statements are a lot more connected than you might at first realize.
It’s been said that every story every is essentially about one of two things: either a stranger comes to town, or a hero embarks on a journey. I’ve sat and thought about this a little bit and I don’t know — it’s like semantics at a certain point. I mean, in Bridesmaids, did Kristin Wiig’s character embark on a journey…? Anyway point being, hero characters always have their Reasons, their backstory — how they got here. It’s important that they’re relatable, as we will experience all the action and tension through their perspective, in light of whatever’s at stake for them. Hero characters are almost always fully realized.
Villains are more of a mixed bag, ranging from vague emanations of otherwise-unemployed evil to fully realized characters in their own right, and of relatable moral worth, but with a set of Reasons that necessitates their antagonism of the hero.
I pay a lot of attention to the villain because I’m most often disappointed in this area of story. Obviously what I want is a villain I relate to. We all bang around in the world victimizing one another by accident, often enough, that an unjustified villain is simply an unforgivable failure of someone’s imagination.
When I watch a movie or read a book with an unjustified villain, I experience the tension more as tedium than excitement — how could I not. No Country For Old Men (the film; haven’t read the book) was excruciating. The evil guy just went around being evil, for two straight hours. I’m mostly turned off by the horror genre for the same reason. The villain’s backstory will be as flimsy and phoned-in as the gardener’s, in a porno. One notable exception is The Haunting of Hill House, on Netflix, where the house itself is a manifestation of a common, fascinating, and highly relevant form of evil — the love that seeks to bind.
The persistent problem of the unjustified villain, in my mind, represents our sloppy thinking about evil in the first place. I mean, why bother doing all the work to reverse-engineer an antagonist’s motivations when no one in the audience is likely to critique them in any case? Smarter people than me have explored this topic much more thoroughly than I ever can or will, but essentially we have prey brains. We’ve spent millions of years recognizing and avoiding snakes and fire, or else dying in the attempt. Incidentally, I think that’s part of the reason Christianity’s whole “dominion over animals” deal gained such popularity, whereas less gratifying edicts remain negligible — only a prey animal with a profoundly butt-hurt human ego could spend this much time validating something as stupid as dominion over beings that are utterly unable to fend for themselves in any case. We’ve been terrorized by snakes and fire for millennia, and we’re fucking mad about it, and when we see our old nemesis represented in books and film, we don’t need a backstory — we have the entire contents of our medulla oblongata to stand in for it.
Which brings me to, people are only as interesting as their problems. I’ve heard a lot of people’s problems over the years, and none of them are unjustified, but some of them are uninteresting. The same can obviously be said for my problems, past and present.
We live in a time, now, of the breakdown of entire definitions of accomplishment. As Teal Swan noted recently in a video about the metaphysical positioning of the millennial generation, these people, as young adults, have struggled through not one but two catastrophic collapses, now, of human economy in the most basic sense. I’m a late Gen-Xer, but my childhood did not include many of the typical, formative Gen-X themes: being a latchkey kid; having divorced parents; growing up in suburbia or a community that functioned, like, at all, in any sense; negotiating the post-nuclear family American dream in its latest, twilight version; etcetera — and my adulthood has included many of the more typical Millenial themes: why be “loyal” to any particular company or occupation when they’re only going to fuck me over; everything I was taught about how to succeed is wrong, even when I do it right; conscious consumerism; disinterest in the American dream as typified by excess and achieved through global economic tyranny; in-it-for-myself but in a mostly dejected sense; etcetera.
Asking people to have interesting problems is such a First World thing to say, right? I mean, what could be more “interesting” than starving to death. As usual, I’m framing my thought for people whose lives and problems are a rough equivalent of mine. So what’s an interesting problem? It’s the difference between a meaninglessly evil villain and a thoughtful antagonist, with inherent, even inevitable, Reasons for arising as such. I’d argue that the villains of our personal issues can be as tedious or as fascinating as we allow them to be.
I like problems. I like talking to people about theirs, and I like telling people about mine. I like the way they point directly to our deepest misunderstandings of reality, and how helpless we tend to be, in the face of them. I like how, often, other people’s problems aren’t shit to me — I’d solve that in a heartbeat — and my problems aren’t shit to them, for the same reason. I like having the problem of this blog, every day, or every day that I’m able: what to write? When I was a kid, I constantly asked my mom to doodle on a blank page and then give it to me, so I could try to transform the doodle into a picture, and then I’d write a whole story about that picture. That’s what this blog is, version 2.0 (the adultening) — crafting a piece of art from the random doodles life hands me, just for the sake of trying.
Often we oversimplify the villains of our own lives in an attempt — a pretty understandable attempt, really — to distance ourselves from them. The result? Our lives become one of those ehhh movies, with a vibrant hero and a cardboard cut-out villain.
Consider, alternatively, the conclusion of the Matrix series: after spending the entire trilogy fighting Agent Smith (and I mean that almost literally), Neo neither “wins” nor “loses”, as we expect — instead, he travels to Machine Town and makes the case that Smith has become as much a liability to the Machines as to the humans. Smith is a computer virus run amok, and Norton Neo stands to be the antivirus. The Machines frankly agree, and support Neo in a strategic self-sacrifice, which is okay because Trinity already died, in which Neo takes down Smith and all his copies. The resulting reality reboot accomplishes something much more exciting than a final beat down of the Machine oppressors, as our Hollywood-washed synaptic systems demand — it’s a triumphal truce, transforming the entire landscape from one of competition to cooperation, and solidifying Neo as the One to end all Ones. All his predecessors simply reset the chess pieces, but Neo changed chess to…I don’t know, Parcheesi? Abe, help me out here.
Anyway, I loved this, and of course box office audiences mostly hated it. It’s a rare cinematic example of an initially interesting villain — Smith — becoming less and less interesting over time (that’s not the rare part); but then that precise uninteresting-ness is salvaged and masterfully reframed, becoming itself the impetus for a total quantum shift of the operative premise. Now that’s compelling!
Do we live in a world of unjustified villains? I prefer not to think so, simply because it’s more interesting. There’s more juice to that squeeze. More importantly, we stand no chance of recognizing the quantum-level solutions contained within the very seed of our problems, if we can’t get out of fight or flight mode — ie, millennia of snakes and fire. I believe we’re essentially fractal, in that the essential pattern of necessary ingredients is represented in everyone’s experience. In other words, there aren’t any better, or more important, problems to solve than the ones we have, simply because we have them.
For years, decades, I wanted to have the problems of a successful writer, an accomplished musician, a beautiful woman, a loved and desired being who belongs, a financially stable adult — NOT the problems of someone trying to write, trying to compose and distribute music, trying to improve my appearance, trying to improve my relationships, trying to keep some money coming in. It’s easy to walk around thinking, “if only this” and “if only that” — to see our intended lives as the blank space, and the problems as the unfortunate dark lines criss crossing it in every direction — but if we pan out far enough, we might see that the problems themselves form a unique masterpiece, the planes and angles and shadings of our intended life, not barriers between us an our intended life.
How might this look in real time, boots on the ground? I’m not sure. I have all kinds of problems — I mean like right this second — that I’d prefer not to have, and which aggravate me, and which can’t seem to be tamped out, and which involve uncontrollable people doing uncontrollable things which feel genuinely asserted into my experience by means of transactions I feel I have no choice but to engage in. Ideally, each problem could be received as a cool new way to experiment with modes of behavior beyond fight and flight; a chance to expand my own life skills video game repertoire; to show myself that I can be the Neo to my own matrix. Less ideally, and probably more realistically, I react to my own problems in an exasperated way. “Not this again.” I think it’s okay to recognize myself as the common denominator in all my problems, while at the same time acknowledging the shit sandwich I, really all of us, have been handed, on some level.
I may have had it the most right when I was nine, and made my mom create problematic doodles for me to create about.