Screenwriting 101 — The Bad Guy Plot

I’ve worked on a fair number of superhero/fantasy/espionage/sci-fi/what-have-you projects, and the problem is always The Bad Guy Plot.  For some reason it’s always the toughest thing in the script to work out.

To work, to be satisfying, to move with grace and wit and a sufficient amount of danger and threat, The Bad Guy Plot must do ALL the following things:

1. The Bad Guy’s story should be explicitly intertwined with that of the protagonist.  Ideally, the inciting incident should influence both.  The perfect example would be if, say, the chemical explosion that gives a man superpowers also gives The Bad Guy superpowers but also a severe deformity, making it so that he cannot lead a normal life and thus turns Bad.

2. The Bad Guy’s desire cannot be simply the destruction of the protagonist.  The Bad Guy has to have some other goal that has nothing to do with the protagonist (except in the broadest societal sense, ie the hero’s obligation to right wrongs) but which the protagonist must stop.  Like, say, most of the James Bond films.

3. The Bad Guy and the protagonist must interact often and throughout the narrative.  This is a whole lot harder than it sounds.  If the Bad Guy is involved in something Bad and it’s the protagonist’s job to stop him, what usually happens is that the Bad Guy does the Bad Thing in private while the protagonist looks for the Bad Guy, and then there’s a confrontation in Act III.

4.  Hardest of all, the Bad Guy’s plan must make sense and follow a logical progression, not only through the narrative but beyond.  That is to say, the writer must stop and think "Okay, let’s say Lex Luthor succeeds in growing his new continent and drowning half the world’s population: then what?"  This is what I call the "Monday Morning" question.  In Mission:Impossible 2, terrorists plan to take over a pharmaceutical company, release a plague, then sell the world the cure.  And I’m sitting in the theater thinking "And on Monday Morning, when the pharmaceutical company’s stockholders find out that 51 percent of the corporation is now owned by a terrorist organization, thenwhat?"  When Dr. Octopus succeeds in building a working model of his fusion whatsit on the abandoned pier in the East River, after robbing a bank, wrecking a train destroying a number of buildings and endangering the lives of thousands of people, then what?

Keeping all of this in mind, what are your favorite Bad Guy Plots?  Which ones have a plot that intertwines with the protagonist’s plot, has a goal that the protagonist, and only the protagonist, can stop, keeps the Bad Guy and the protagonist interacting throughout, and — gasp — makes sense?

I’ll start: Superman II.


62 Responses to “Screenwriting 101 — The Bad Guy Plot”
  1. eronanke says:

    Here’s the thing- the “Monday Morning” question rarely bothers me.
    ESPECIALLY in the James Bond world.
    SPECTRE is so ridiculous; sure, they hate the Western Powers and the Communist bloc, but, fine, you GIVE them power, and what the hell can they do with it? As an organized group BUILT on the foundation of revenge, terror, and extortion (?), there is no way a group would flourish in leadership of the globe. Sure, the SPECTRE leaders would get rich, but to my knowledge, they already have the money to build secret hideouts INSIDE OF VOLCANOES. Ok, so, what are they after? Political power? WHY? Even in the idealistic 50s and 60s, politics was tied with money and corporate influence; they could have PAID for a candidate who would run (and, most likely, win) in the West, and bribed a man to the top in the USSR, or at least to the upper levels of the Party. I don’t think their “Monday Mornings” are happy ones. I see them full of back-stabbing and in-fighting within SPECTRE.
    /end rant

    Anyway, my favorite bad guys are the simple ones; the ones who are after money or vengeance. If they get more complex, I freak out and start sympathizing with them.

    • Todd says:

      my favorite bad guys are the simple ones

      That’s one of the things that makes The Venture Bros. fun and exciting. The Bad Guys plots have their sights set so absurdly low. It’s like their horizons have diminished just as much as Rusty’s.

      I see them full of back-stabbing and in-fighting within SPECTRE.

      So then the prudent thing would be to not send Bond at all, let them win and fall apart on their own.

      • eronanke says:

        I never felt that Bond was sent in to *defeat* SPECTRE. Ever movie/book I recall, he was sent in because MI-6 thought that SMERSH or the USSR was up to something, but it always ended up being SPECTRE behind it.
        Like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice, etc.

        The prudent thing would be for the two Cold-War powers to realize that it’s always SPECTRE trying to stir things up and stop screwing around.

  2. rotatedstock says:

    bad guy plots

    I think Lord of the RIngs made this made this sor t of intra-plot organic sense. The history of the fiery eye in the sky (bad guy) was totally wrapped up with the Aragorn who with his family sword was the only one who could stop the bad guy (with a little help from some hobbits casting the magic ring into the depths of hell.
    I generally shy away from the superhero/villian genre but I think the easiest(and most boring) villian to write is the crooked lawyer hiding behind the justice system to get theirs share of the booty or venenge or whatever they want.

    • Todd says:

      Re: bad guy plots

      I think Lord of the RIngs made this made this sor t of intra-plot organic sense.

      Note to self: base more movies on classic works of literature.

  3. mcbrennan says:

    Although Kirk’s negligence and culpability was never fully explored, he bears enormous responsibility for Khan’s rampage in Star Trek II. In the backstory/prequel, the original series episode “Space Seed,” Kirk plants (the admittedly already megalomaniacal) Khan and his followers on a harsh but serviceable planet suitable for colonization. And then? And then he drives off in search of green alien tail and apparently never even bothered to log it; no supply ship or survey team ever even bothered to notice when a planet in the same system blows itself to hell, turning Khan’s colony planet into an uninhabitable nightmare world, killing his wife (one of Kirk’s former crew, no less) and clearly, rendering Khan quite mad indeed. And while Star Trek II succeeds as well as or better than the other movies in the series, the “then what” question is pretty much left unasked. Khan’s goal–after killing Kirk–is to steal the apocalyptic Genesis device and apparently use it as a weapon of blackmail to some ill-defined galactic-domination end. But it’s a total McGuffin, it doesn’t really matter at all. Khan’s desire for revenge–entirely justifiable, really–consumes everything as it plays out in its gruesome glory. And while Kirk pays for his sins (with the death of Spock and the wreck of the Enterprise), he never really acknowledges them or is held to account for his genuine negligence. It would have been a much better story if he’d had to face his mistake. Still, the interactions between Khan and Kirk are great–Montalban, especially, does such good work–and the sort of Das Boot meets Moby Dick tension of the second and third acts makes it a pretty good Bad Guy Plot for me.

    I think I’d better go to bed before I get all analytical on Bride Of The Atom, too.

    • mcbrennan says:

      I was really tired when I wrote this last night and it’s probably not worth trying to patch up, but what I meant to do was apply the superhero/supervillain idea to the Kirk/Khan conflict, because they basically play those roles in Star Trek II, and even though they were pre-existing characters and Kirk went on (and on and on and on) afterwards, for the purposes of this movie their characters are both created (and destroyed, figuratively and literally) by the consequences of the “inciting incident” of the backstory. If they’d only made Kirk a little more flawed, a little more human–if Shatner could play that–it would’ve been spectacular. Still, not bad.

      Actually in retrospect it’s kind of funny how Kirk (kind of a pudgy middle-aged guy in a girdle) is often used as the putative superhero in these things. Some huge gargantuan Starfleet apparently exists somewhere, but whenever the slobbering space monster appears, there’s only one man and one ship in “interception range” who can save all of humanity in 100 minutes of screen time or less. But I digress.

      All this still may be way off topic or not what you were looking for, but I wanted to make just a little more sense tonight at 3:30am than I made yesterday at 6 in the morning. Insomnia’s an ugly thing. 🙂

      • Todd says:

        All comments are welcome. I am not a Trek expert, but I remember enjoying Wrath of Khan, and it’s often brought up in story meetings for the reasons you cite.

        I bring this up because, as I often am, I’m working on a fantasy scenario and am looking for models to inspire. Khan is as good a place as any to start.

  4. I have the same problem you do (only it hits especially close to home this week as I am presently in the midst of a collaborative quandry as to what our villain’s doing in another project). Superman Returns especially bugged me on this Monday Morning front because, with the eastern half of the United States destroyed, and thus the greatest concentration of wealth and business in the country (to say nothing of population), just who exactly is Luthor expecting to buy real estate on that barren, rocky island continent of his? (And where are the coast guard ships and Navy jets that should have been circling it the whole time?!? It’s like Superman, Lois, her boyfriend and that kid are the only people in the world once that plot kicks in, and the island is only accessible by Cessna)

    Doc Ock I can forgive for the simple reason that he was out of his mind and no longer thinking big picture. Two pairs of robotic arms programmed to finish building that device were telling him what to do (because the chip this genius built to keep that from happening was more fragile than the little plastic lever on a phone jack). My favorite “what were you thinking?” villain plot was the Green Goblin’s in the previous movie. I kept waiting for him to reach a stunning moment of realization and personal growth–if only he had bothered to try to finish the sentence: “Join, me, Spider-man, and together we will….” …um… …run around and… ? “I really haven’t thought this through, have I?”

    So does it have to be a full on Superhero movie? Because your basic serial killer flicks generally pay off in terms of keeping the hero on his toes and not raising too many Monday Morning questions (though admittedly because there’s always “he was batshit crazy” to fall back on if you’re looking for reasons why the villain’s Monday Morning never occurred to him. In this way, both Seven (I refuse to spell it with an actual 7 in it) and Silence of the Lambs work out. Partially because you know the villain would never stop, even after achieving his “goals.” There will always be sin in the world, and you can never have a pretty enough size 14 dead lady suit. But the hero(es) is kept on his toes by clever evasion and a string of clues and the villain rarely stands on a roof in a colorful costume, shouting challenges.

    One interesting Monday Morning success story comes from one of the worst superhero movies ever: Daredevil. Simply because, rather than a bold new master plan, the Kingpin wants to keep things status quo–evil’s already won at the beginning of the film because he’s got a flourishing criminal empire. It’s actually Daredevil who’s the problem, and so the villain’s motivation in fighting him is simply to remove a problem that’s hurting business as usual, without it being some lame obsession. The hero is the little guy who the villain has underestimated, and thus Daredevil has more in common with, say, Mr. Smith, Elliot Ness or Woodward & Bernstein than Superman. Which is sort of the same thing that makes Batman work until you start throwing Jokers at him.

    I suppose the X-men movies are fairly successful in this department because they’re caught in the middle ground in a two fronted war against intolerance. Having multiple villains at opposite philisophical ends and just trying to keep the peace is a pretty smart way to go with this sort of thing. You get your costumed jackasses, your political intrigue, your armies of faceless guys to throw around. It’s win-win.

    But thank god for those shortsighted supervillains and their long weekends of delusion. Was anything lamer than watching James Bond go after arms dealer after arms dealer?

    • greyaenigma says:

      But thank god for those shortsighted supervillains and their long weekends of delusion. Was anything lamer than watching James Bond go after arms dealer after arms dealer?

      Yes, watching him go after drug dealers. Although that movie did have the surfboard and the decompression chamber.

    • Todd says:

      just who exactly is Luthor expecting to buy real estate on that barren, rocky island continent of his?

      More to the point, how does he expect to maintain control of his new continent and defend it from six billion very angry people? With, oh, five or six guys dressed in black, holding machine guns?

      Two pairs of robotic arms programmed to finish building that device were telling him what to do

      But that’s where the plot falls apart for me. “To finish building the device” is not a goal diametrically opposed to the goals of the protagonist and it’s not even evil in and of itself. Instead, they have Doc Ock “rob a bank” (and do, what, exactly, with the money? Buy reactor supplies at Fusion-R-Us? Why not steal them too? Why does he need money?) and work as an errand boy for Harry Osborn, who can’t even be bothered to put on a costume and track Spider-Man down himself.

      HARRY: I hate Spider-Man!
      DR. O: Why don’t you kill him?
      HARRY: Ah, I think I’ll just get drunk instead. Tell you what, you bring him here and I’ll give you the Maguffin you need to build your whatsit. That’ll fix his wagon but good!

      both Seven (I refuse to spell it with an actual 7 in it) and Silence of the Lambs work out.

      Yeah, I could probably name a dozen different serial killer movies with good Bad Guy plots. I don’t know why superhero/fantasy/sci-fi plots are so hard, but they are. When the pros can’t get it right, I don’t feel so bad when it happens to me.

      One interesting Monday Morning success story comes from one of the worst superhero movies ever: Daredevil.

      Thank you for telling me about this, because I walked out after 50 minutes. There’s no way I was going to sit through the rest of that movie to find out the Bad Guy Plot.

      I suppose the X-men movies are fairly successful in this department

      Magneto’s plans, although a little vague, at least have a clear and thought-through goal. We’re better than you, why don’t we rule the Earth? Why hide?

      I just re-read Kingdom Come the other night, and while there is no Bad Guy throughline to speak of (the plotting of that book in general is a little too fussy for its own good), I liked the notion that the “new generation” of super-people weren’t even separated into good guys and bad guys, they just fought each other all the time out of petty rivalries because, well, what else is there to do? It’s almost the environment that Venture Bros happens in.

      • gazblow says:

        How about Darth Vader? The inciting incident takes place just before the film (Star Wars) starts: the Rebel Alliance has stolen the plans to the Death Star. Darth Vader has to retrieve those plans from Princess Leia, find the Secret Rebel Base and destroy them. This puts him in direct opposition to Luke Skywalker who has to 1) return the plans he’s discovered in R2D2 to the Princess, 2) rescue the Princess and 3) join the Rebels and destroy the Death Star. The Monday Morning question is similar but way more elegant and charming than Daredevil: Once the Rebels are destroyed, our dominance of the galaxy will be complete because no one will dare oppose us. Though the two don’t meet until the end of the film, Luke and Vader interact indirectly. First, Luke is told that his father was killed by Vader leading to the first act climax. Next, Luke is witness to Vader killing Obi-Wan leading to the second act climax. Then, because Luke has proven himself, his friends watch his back (in contrast to the skittish pilots on Vader’s wing) and incapacitate Vader as he destroys the Death Star. Vader’s Goal: to crush the Rebel Alliance, is consistant and logical. As a bad guy, he is iconic and indelible (despite the misguided recent attempts to otherwise humanize him).

        Batman Begins does a twist on the traditional Bad Guy plot. Ras Al Ghul wants to destroy Gotham City. The deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents (or the inciting incident) only fuel his passion for this goal. As leader of the League Of Shadows, he notes that it was the Waynes philanthropism and civic minded activities that have thwarted his goals, thus his interest in the wanderings of Bruce. The twist comes here, where Ras trains Bruce in the ways of the League with the intention of making him his second in commmand. When Bruce finds out the extent of Ras’ ambitions, he turns on him, deciding to save Gotham instead.

        The Monday Morning question here bothers me a little. If Ras intends to poison Gotham’s water supply and cause widespread panic, what then? He says Gotham isn’t worth saving. But is that enough? Does he have to have some plan for after?

        • Todd says:

          How about Darth Vader?

          Well, it has been argued that Darth’s plan all along has been to find his children, reunite his family and overthrow the Emperor. The only thing that makes his plan repugnant, to Western eyes, is that he causes the deaths of untold millions in the pursuit of his goal. But if Vader is a Buddhist, then all of those people’s deaths were always inevitable.

          And look at this: at the end of Star Wars? Vader, head of all Imperial forces, gets into a TIE-fighter and engages in a dogfight over the surface of the Death Star? And the Grand Moff Tarkin (who can’t be all that powerful with a title like Grand Moff) lets him do it?! Obviously, Vader’s plan all along was to let the rebels blow up the Death Star and get out while the getting was good.

          Elsewhere someone has noted that the Empire, who keeps losing the damn plans for their Death Star, takes eighteen years to build the first one, but only six years to build the second one. No wonder it’s unfinished when the rebels destroy it. (My favorite diminishment in movie history. The Empire’s fearsome new weapon? Get ready, it’s really evil — ready? THE DEATH STAR! Yeah, I know, but this time? It’s — UNDER CONSTRUCTION!! Mwah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!)

      • greyaenigma says:

        But that’s where the plot falls apart for me. “To finish building the device” is not a goal diametrically opposed to the goals of the protagonist and it’s not even evil in and of itself.

        Does it need to be evil in motivation? If I recall, the machine was destructive, so it’s tantamount to building a bomb, even if the initial (if monomaniacal) goal is to help humanity.

        Oddly, SFZ just started playing the 60’s Spider-Man theme as I type this.

        • Todd says:

          If I recall, the machine was destructive

          But that’s the thing, the machine is not meant to be destructive. It’s meant to give free, renewable energy to humanity forever. Dr. Octopus robs a bank, kidnaps Spider-Man and destroys all that property in order to complete his goal of, um, of benefitting humanity! That is, if his calcuations are correct. So his goal doesn’t even put him in opposition of Spidey. His goal is actually the same as Spidey’s!

          • greyaenigma says:

            While there’s a big difference between intent and action for characters, it doesn’t make much difference for the plot, does it? (Assuming they’re not sitting around the whole time talking about things.) I referenced the version of Bizarro earlier that wanted to help and be like Superman, but was just too warped to pull it off. “Me am saving Lois Lane!” Dr. Octavius fell victim to both his hubris and his general failure in building safe devices, and lo, we get Doc Ock — a character with the odd case of having forgotten the motivation behind his goals. (I shouldn’t say odd, since this happens all the time, this is just an extreme case.)

            Of course, I should probably watch the movie again before making more forceful statements about what this character was thinking.

            • Todd says:

              All I’m saying is, let’s say Doc Ock’s machine works.

              He robs a bank, takes the stolen money to the fusion store, buys the parts for his fusion machine, builds it on the half-sunken pier, kidnaps Spidey and Mary-Jane to get the precious Tridium that he needs to make the thing run.

              Okay. He starts the machine up. IT WORKS PERFECTLY! He’s just solved humanity’s energy problems.

              Then what?

              MJ is still tied to a post, the bank has been robbed, the subway train destroyed, the buildings demolished, his wife dead. What’s he going to do now? More important, what’s Spidey, the protagonist, going to do? He’s up there on the ceiling, poised to strike. The machine works, I guess now he’ll pat Doc Ock on the back and say “Way to go man, sorry I ever doubted you.” And then they’ll untie MJ and go see a patent attorney. And Harry Osborn will forgive Spidey everything because he’ll get his fortune back.

              See? The villain is trying to save the world. If he succeeds, the world will be saved. The value of the Bad Guy Plot in Spider-Man 2 hinges on the villain’s brilliant scheme failing, otherwise there’s no tension.

              • gazblow says:

                So Dr. Octavius wants to build a device that provides unlimited, renewable energy — a device that could Save The World.

                However, in the course of his experiment/press conference, Octavius has a weird epiphany? Moment of clarity? He says “The Power of the Sun, in the Palm of My Hand”. In this moment, he slips into madness. THEN, he loses control of the experiment and Doc Ock is born. His madness compels him to regain that power. So now he has to rob a bank, go to the fusion store, etc.

                My question is Where does madness factor into the Bad Guy Plot? Should it at all? Cunning and madness are two different things and Bad Guys should have a equal measures of both.

                • Todd says:

                  The twin themes of the Spider-Man movies are, of course, Power and Responsibility. In 2, Spidey wrestles with the amount of responsibility he wants relative to the power he has. Dr. O does not — his “inhibitor chip” has gone kablooey and his “power source” has taken over. So it all makes sense thematically. I just wish he was building something that would do something besides save the world.

                  And you know, even though Dr. O pulls the plug on the thing and throws it into the river, you know that there must be hundreds of other applications to a piece of research and engineering like that, so it’s naive to think that that is the end of that particular machine. That would be like if the Trinity scientists watched the first A-bomb test and then said “Wow. That’s evil. We can’t handle this. Let’s not ever do anything with this awful, awful power again.”

                  • robolizard says:

                    That would be like if the Trinity scientists watched the first A-bomb test and then said “Wow. That’s evil. We can’t handle this. Let’s not ever do anything with this awful, awful power again.”

                    That sounds like that would make an amazing comic. Just one panel, it would BLOW PEOPLE’S *MINDS*.

          • greyaenigma says:

            But… our hero thought the machine would be trouble. Heroes and presidents can’t be wrong.

            But yes, I agree, if the machine were to actually work, what next? Makes me wonder what Tesla would have done with four robotic arms. Maybe invent a machine that will feed the world as well? With Hostess Fruit Pies?

      • laminator_x says:

        To be fair…

        “More to the point, how does he expect to maintain control of his new continent and defend it from six billion very angry people? With, oh, five or six guys dressed in black, holding machine guns?”

        You’re not giving Lex enough credit. After the cataclysm caused by creating his new continent, he’ll only have to defent it against [b]three[/b] billion angry prople. 😉

      • kornleaf says:

        I just re-read Kingdom Come the other night, and while there is no Bad Guy throughline to speak of (the plotting of that book in general is a little too fussy for its own good), I liked the notion that the “new generation” of super-people weren’t even separated into good guys and bad guys, they just fought each other all the time out of petty rivalries because, well, what else is there to do?

        I am assuming you read the watchmen?

  5. kornleaf says:

    i always loved venom from spiderman, mainly because eddie brock had to deal with insanity and issues of feeling incompetent compared to spiderman AND peter parker. And the fact that he later created carnage who is a wonderful muderious and insane character like the joker.

    Luthor I never really cared about, EXCEPT in Red Son.

    • greyaenigma says:

      I like Luthor’s gradual transformation over the years from mad random scientist to evil business magnate. Like Kingpin, he just wants to grow his power.

      The Luthor character in Red Son was just great, too.

    • Todd says:

      I hugely enjoyed Red Son, in large part due to the beauty of the shape of Luthor’s story.

      My favorite take on Luthor, as well as much else in the DC universe, can be found in the Bruce Timm Justice League shows.

      • greyaenigma says:

        It’s worth noting that Luthor in Justice League uses Superman’s distrust of him to ruin what would have been a charity project. Even thought there was ostensible agreement on their goals, there was still conflict. The man’s a right bastard.

      • kornleaf says:

        it is a pretty good take on him, but when he got fused with brainiac and then just became a hopeless fanboy of his, i got a little annoyed (though i did like the anti-life equation bit).

  6. robolizard says:

    So many villains in films feel like overhyped screenwriting tools , be it the Green Goblin in Spider Man [who, I agree with Jackson Publick, never seemed to have any reason for too many of his actions] to, say, Catwoman in Batman Returns [didn’t buy it. I can see why other might like it], or any villain in a light comedy [the snobs! SNOOOBS!]. They exist to have the main character do what he does best, and the best villains exist on a far more complex plain of complexity. My two very favorite villains are Lion King’s Scar and Toy Story’s Sid, partially because they use the Monday detail to thier adventure. For example in Lion King, its not even a question, we SEE what happens. Nobody opposes Scar, and the Pridelands go to hell, while Sid exists not as a villain, but as a force, while Andy’s room is Heaven [clouds and all], Sid’s room exists solely as a hell, and also, he’s an original villain with an original style who, unlike most villains, is not a threat on a huge scale, just on the small scale the characters reside on.

    We seem to be only discussing escapist fantasy, but Speilberg’s villains have always been amongst the most disturbing [like the robot hunters in A.I. or Stanley Tucci in The Terminal, or even the aliens in War of the Worlds] because they are more like humans than anything else. The jerk who cut you off this morning has the ability to lock Tom Hanks in the Terminal due to a technicality and then try to frame him. The same psychology goes into both. The aliens in War of the Worlds are doing thier job in the same way we would put a dog to sleep. The people doing it don’t particularly care THAT much.

    Mr.Burns is a great example too, considering that unlike the traditional villain, the characters are too powerless or too stupid to stop him, and Jack from Gilliam’s Brazil is also chilling due to his realistic traits, cultural hipnosis be it here or in the ex-USSR could lead anyone to do anything.

    Its funny that you choose to use the Monday principle for realism. I don’t want to call Bush a villain, but if he is, there is no Monday principle with that man and his invasions…

    • greyaenigma says:

      Well, the thing with villains is that they don’t necessarily have the same goals as the rest of us. But they should be internally consistent (unless perhaps they are seriously deranged). So Bush’s behavior can be explained by greed and callous disregard to the well-being of the Earth, America, and humanity. Or he’s trying to “save” America by bringing about the rapture.

      I’m reminded of Bizarro, who had various motivations: tryin to be good, but utterly failing because he was so messed up, or just being bad because Superman is good. Even more alien is Mr. Mxyzptlk, who would just show up every once in a while and often appear malicious just because he didn’t care about human life, but mostly he was just amusing himself.

    • Todd says:

      My two very favorite villains are Lion King’s Scar and Toy Story’s Sid

      After I became a professional screenwriter and started analyzing plot for a living, the top of my head almost came off when I realized that the inciting incident of Lion King was the birth of the protagonist. Everything was fine in Mufasa’s world until that kid was born, which sent all the other events into motion. So in a way, Simba is completely responsible for his father’s death. The question facing him is, how will he face up to that responsibility? It’s one of the things that makes Lion King such a great script.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Mark Eleveld, Spoken Word Revolution book

    Afternoon Todd,
    Trying to track you down a bit, can you send me an email at

    Someone sent me an opera made from your ‘Television’ piece, would like to share it with you.

    Mark Eleveld

  8. edo_fanatic says:

    I believe the best villains have a sort of insanity, whether it be extreme love of the kill, sexual obsession, or nihilist beliefs. Another good villain has religious based actions- such as the villains of Sin City.
    The best bad guy plots I believe have a normal person who gets wrongfully hurt by a specific group or the populace and vows for revenge against this group. A good example would be The Penguin, but he wasn’t really transformed by the hurtful group. A person who watches the film should have a bit of sympathy and a bit of hatred towards the villain.

    • Todd says:

      I like the Tim Burton Penguin a lot, because like Bruce Wayne he’s an orphan of wealthy parents, but has lived the extreme dark side of that life. Where Bruce had his parents taken away from him, the Penguin was discarded as garbage. Or as Danny DeVito puts it, “I was their number one son and they treated me as number two,” a line I was insufficiently childish enough to “get” the first time I saw the movie.

      The “sympathy and hatred” thing is important too and works for the Penguin. We totally feel for him and at the same time he couldn’t be more repulsive. It’s actually quite sad when he dies at the end. You can tell that the Penguin was the protagonist of that movie, as far as Burton was concerned.

      And he was transformed by the “hurtful group.” True, he was born a monster, but his parents could have dealt with that in any number of ways. Instead they chose to murder him. I can’t think of a more transformative experience than your parents trying to murder you.

  9. ghostgecko says:

    >>> Which ones have a plot that intertwines with the protagonist’s plot, has a goal that the protagonist, and only the protagonist, can stop, keeps the Bad Guy and the protagonist interacting throughout, and — gasp — makes sense?

    This is almost too embaressing to nominate because the movie is irredeemable goofy and had something like 13 scriptwriters, but “Charlie’s Angels” (which could be counted a superhero movie, since their powers – wealth, gadgets and ninja/athletic moves – are basically the same as Batman’s).

    I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, so excuse me if I overexplain. The angels are initially hired to rescue kidnap victim Eric Knox, a Bill Gates-esque software genius. Although they have no solid evidence, all signs point to competitor Roger Corwin being the mastermind behind this. The angels agree to get back software Corwin has stolen from Knox that would let any cell phone with GPS be turned into a tracking device. As it turns out, the software belonged to obnoxious Corwin the whole time – Knox tricked the angels into stealing it for him for the express goal of tracking down Charlie, who he blames for his father’s death.

    So this satisfies all your requirements. The bad guy, Knox, is involved from the very beginning, we just don’t know at that moment he’s the bad guy because Corwin fits the expectations of what a bad guy is supposed to be be (arrogant, slimy, British accent, etc). Only the angels can stop him because they’re the only ones who know about what’s going on, and there’s a time limit that keeps them from alerting proper authorities – what’s worse, if they do call the real cops, they’re the ones who actually stole the software. As for Monday morning, all Knox wants to do is kill Charlie in revenge. He’s not trying to take over the world, so although he hasn’t made any plans, he doesn’t have any logistical problems to deal with other than covering up a man’s death, and he certainly has thought of a good excuse.

    I cannot believe I just defended that movie artistically. Well, there ya go.

  10. monica_black says:

    Does the EPA guy from Ghostbusters count?

    • monica_black says:

      Okay this may sound wierd, but I would have to say Professor Rattigan from The Great Mouse Detective. I know he dies by the end of the film, but fact that everything that he does in the film leads up to the next thing he does. He kidnaps Flavasham so that he’ll build a Queen Victori-mouse so he can take over the country, but he has to kidnap the daughter in order to give Flavasham a motivation. It also allows him to caputre his arch enemy. And by the end of the film he becomes what he hates to be called, a common sewer rat. Of course he falls to his death like all good Disney villans do.

      • Todd says:

        You know, I’ve never seen GMD. It fell between “movies I was too old to see when it came out in the theaters” and “movies I was too busy to see when it came out on home video.” I should probably see all the Disney animated pictures, although I tried watching Robin Hood, Fox and the Hound and Black Cauldron and found all of them sorely lacking in tension invention. Everything between The Aristocats and Little Mermaid is like that for me.

        • monica_black says:

          Fox and the Hound I found to be a waste of time, I never understood Robin Hood and I didn’t like the protagonist in Black Cauldron. Most of Disney’s films during the time period seem to be terrible except GMD, which I can still watch as a high schooler. Also, I’m pretty sure that it was the first animated film to use CGI.

        • robolizard says:

          Ratigan may just be one of my favorites too, but not because of his logisitics or anything of the sort [essentially he’s Dr. Moreau lite… because this is Sherlock Holmes lite] but he does begin the great and glorious modern Disney tradition of main villains who resemble Satan, be it Scar, Jafar, the Mongol leader from Mulan, then culminating in Satan himself in Hercules. Also the movie’s great, or so my 9 year old memory remembers…

    • Todd says:

      Sure he counts, but is he The Bad Guy in the movie? Isn’t there some huge demon who wants to take over the earth or something?

  11. It’s been a while since I’ve thought of these things…

    The bad guy plot is nearly always what makes a script/ story/ movie so interesting. It’s because he’s the antagonist; he *antagonizes* the protagonist. That’s what creates the drama. (IMO)

    I think one of the more difficult aspects of screenwriting is balancing the Bad Guy Plot so that it doesn’t overtake the Good Guy Plot since usually movies are about the Good Guy. I think a good script is one where the villain’s plot (objectives and actions) subtley enhances the Good Guy’s character and plot. ;P Let’s not forget the objective of the script just because Bad Guys are cool!

    Points 1 & 3 in the list are very similar and *very important*

    Point 2 – an ulterior motive for the villain is nice to have… but I’ll sometimes overlook it in a story. There are plenty of great stories (though, usually in cartoons) where the villains only motive is to destroy the Protagonist. Sometimes, it’s about style, you know. I love The Monarch. Not sure of his motives for wanting destroy Dr. Venture… but it’s still a great show.

    Another good example of this is The Terminator. The robot has been programmed by villains in the future to destroy Linda Hamilton’s character. Ok, technically she isn’t the protagonist (that other guy is), but there’s a Bad Guy who doesn’t have a specific desire, he’s just a tool… for the screenwriter to enhance the script.

    Point 4 – The Monday morning rule, I’m not nit-picky about. As an audience member, I’m just saying. I mean, it’s great if the villain actually has a plan AND it’s logical. But I’ll accept that a lot of cinema is great fluff. If it’s amusing, if it keeps me in the moment, if the story has me caught up and so worried about the protagonist and the fate of the world, then I (personally) will not worry about the Monday morning rule. I just want to know that the Protagonist or whatever it is that the movie makes me care about… that that will be alright.

    Not that I don’t care at all about the Monday morning rule. I do. But I usually just pick up on that to heckle the movie, if some other aspect of it has left me unsatisfied.

    So a favorite Bad Guy Plot that follows all 4 points? I guess I like the Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Series of Events books. Not the movie.

    1) The Inciting Incident is when Count Olaf burns down the Baudelaire children’s home, killing their parents.

    2) His objective: Get access to the Baudelaire fortune. Then destroy the children.

    3) The whole plot of the Unfortunate events stories is that Olaf is chasing these children (see objective above) and these children are trying to escape him.

    4) Monday morning. Not sure. I think Olaf wants to live a life of leisure and style. Maybe he just wants to finance his evil theatre troupe.

    I’m not sure that the Protagonists of this story have a great, lofty goal other than surviving maybe finding concrete proof that Olaf killed their parents, something that would put him in jail and out of their lives. But I like how the plot brings out the best in the Baudelaire children. They stick together. In times of trouble, they turn to each other’s natural talents to help them out of the terrible situations. And it’s kind of hard to say for sure — because honestly the author doesn’t particularly strive for depth of character or thought in the stories — but I think I see character growth in the protagonists. I admire their love for each other and their personal strength in their struggle to survive. (And, wow, that’s kind of melodramatic. But I really do like that about the Series of Unfortunate Events stories.)

    • Todd says:

      The bad guy plot is nearly always what makes a script/ story/ movie so interesting.

      We screenwriters have a saying: “You know these (fantasy movies) are only as good as their villains.” That goes double for James Bond, who routinely ignores all four of these rules.

      I tried to watch the Snicket movie. I couldn’t. My wife adores the books.

      The lives (so to speak) of the Terminator and Sarah Connor are inextricably linked, in the same way that Scar’s and Simba’s lives are linked. Simba’s action, being born, is what set the story in motion, just as Sarah Connor’s giving birth causes the Terminator to come back in time to kill her. She’s done it, she just hasn’t done it yet. She hasn’t had her kid yet because she doesn’t even have a boyfriend. So how is she supposed to have a kid? Ah, but if she is impregnated by the guy who comes back from the future to save her from the Terminator…

      Great script. Great script. Next to Die Hard, probably my favorite action script. That goes for T2 as well.

      • Don’t bother with the Snicket movie. The books *are* adorable. Your wife has good taste. 😉 I suppose you knew that already.

        Can’t think of a favorite action movie. I like mine mixed with comedy or expressing some nice sentimental theme. Or sci-fi.

  12. toliverchap says:

    I’ve always been partial to the cleaner that the antagonist gets to do the dirty work. The no nonsense guy that lets the mythos around him do the talking. Like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction.

    • Todd says:

      Well, that’s the Terminator, too. He literally doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, he’s just got a job to do. His job is to kill you. And he’s unkillable, so he’s not compelled to hide or skulk or plan. He’ll just march right up to you, or anyone in his way, and just kill them. Unstoppable, without reason, without remorse or even insight. That’s one of the things that made the Terminator such a compelling, frightening character.

      Funny you mention Wolf as “the cleaner,” since Harvey Keitel played “Otto the cleaner,” in Point of No Return, the ill-fated remake of La Femme Nikita (where the role was indelibly played by Jean Reno). Point of No Return should have been called No Point in Returning.

      • Actually, I’ve always wondered what the Terminator’s “Monday Morning” would be like, had he succeeded in his murderous work. Not that he cares–he’s a robot and all–but what does he do then? Walk around? Bury himself like Lestat? Kill more people, just for kicks? Until someone somewhere finds a way to stop him? The beauty of the sequel was that it sort of answered my question–no matter what the Terminator chose to do with his time off after killing Sarah Connor (or, as the case was, not killing her), he wins–his very presence in the past facilitated his invention in the future by handing over the super-advanced technology to the people who would eventually develop those horrible, horrible machines. As maddening as the inevitable chicken-or-the-egg arguments the Terminator movies inspire in nerds, sci-fi geeks, time travel enthusiasts and laymen alike are, I’ll take the mind boggling plot twist over the scientifically sound one any day.

        One unrelated note about Terminator 2: they totally blew it in the advertising. Everyone knew ahead of the release that “this time, Arnold’s a good terminator.” When it’s obvious when you watch it that it was filmed (and written) in such a manner as to keep the two terminators’ motives secret until they first meet up. They purposely chose an actor with Reese’s build for the villainous terminator, and the scene in which John meets Arnold was shot for optimum suspense and tension. We should have collectively gasped “whaaaa?!?” when Arnold stuck out his hand and said “come with me if you want to live.” It would have been so damn effective. But no…thanks a lot, Starlog.

        Point of No Return. God, why did they make that? I had such a thing for Bridget Fonda until that movie…

      • toliverchap says:

        I know it is funny but probably sad that I saw that crappy remake and knew exactly what I was doing in my comment and then did it anyway.

  13. kokoyok says:

    Oh, I’m so glad that nobody has said this before me, because it’s completely worth mentioning: Scorpius from Farscape!

    I love him to death, and talk about serious character interaction with the protagonist? Bugger, not only was he a part of his ship’s crew from season 4 on, the sneaky little bugger was in Crichton’s very mind!

    As for the Monday question? Lord have mercy, his motivation makes so much sense from every angle that they really have you flip-flopping so much on his double-agent aspect.

    And other little things, like having loftier goals than destroying our hero… Geez… it’s compelling just to watch him lament what an annoying speedbump Crichton is! Clearly he’s occupying far too much time in his grand schemes.

    Also, in a looser sense, the hero/villian relationship Crichton and Scorpy get in all stem from a single (singularity? hehe) event: the creation of a wormhole. And of course this, and how it affects each in radically different ways becomes the driving point for the series.

    I hope some of you have seen it so you know what I’m talking about, and I hope the rest of you take the time to check it out if you haven’t…

    • Anonymous says:

      Personally, I preferred the Captain Crais Bad Guy Plot to the Scorpius. The inciting incident — Crichton’s module gets shot through a wormhole he accidentally created — causes the death of Crais’ beloved brother and deposits Crichton in the middle of a prison break. Crichton is on the run (along with the other escaped prisoners) from then on because Crais wants to kill him and exact revenge. I agree that Scorpius’ pursuit of wormhole technology fits into Todd’s parameters for the Bad Guy Plot better, but I always thought “Why doesn’t Crichton just give it to him in exchange for directions on how to get everyone home, go find a nice planet and settle down with Aeryn?” The show kinda spun off the rails after a year or so of Scorpius endlessy intoning “Once we have the wormhole technology locked in Crichton’s brain blah blah blah.” Good puppets on that show, though.

  14. kornleaf says:

    i forgot to mention, one of my favorite bad guy plots is Mr. Freeze, a sort of justified bad guy. Now, not even looking at who played him live action. Basically it goes with the superscientist turned bad because of a faulty lab experiment but, when looking at Batman TAS, the plotline is beautifully ecased around this sort of tragic villan, almost anti-villan; a villian you kinda want to root for. He is a heartless man trying to regain his heart (wife) in the live action version and in TAS, he is like a ghost seeking vengence for an innocent.

    However, BEFORE TAS, mr. freeze or mr. zero was a huge joke and nothing character, so i don’t count that.

  15. mikeyed says:

    Grosse Pointe Blank

    Watch that. It’s smart, funny, and has a lot of gunfights. Dan Akroyd makes for a good bad guy.