Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Can You Tell a Good Story Without a Villain?

Well, this is it. My Villain Month ends today. I've discussed as many elements and techniques about writing villains as I could think of this December, and now that those bases are covered, it's time to ask the ultimate question about this topic:

Can you tell a good story without a villain?

I've said before that the basic set-up for a story involves a protagonist having to overcome an antagonist in order to get what the protagonist wants. I've also said that every villain is an antagonist, but not every antagonist is a villain. Considering this, it seems possible for a story to exist without the cruel and malicious presence of a villain, but how compelling can a story be without that?

Not very, according to some writers. 

The plot of L. Frank Baum's book The Wizard of Oz is extremely different from the plot of its 1939 movie adaptation. While the Wicked Witch of the West serves as the villain in the movie, in the book, she comes and goes in one chapter roughly halfway through the story. The book's real antagonist when you get down to it is the twister that carries Dorothy from Kansas to Oz, and the focus of the story is her overcoming that twister by finding her way home from the place where it stranded her. This didn't seem like enough of a conflict to L. Frank Baum, so he wisely inserted a variety of minor but personified antagonists into his tale at every twist and turn. If he hadn't, the book would have either been two chapters long or so tedious that no child would have ever wanted to read it, and there wouldn't be a movie adaptation to compare it with today.

This episodic structure is also used in the 2009 comedy movie The Hangover. Yes, I just compared The Hangover to The Wizard of Oz. The biggest threat in The Hangover is that the three protagonists won't be able to find their friend, who went missing at his own bachelor party, in time for his wedding. A ticking clock is the antagonist. Despite that, the movie still gives the protagonists everything from bitter police officers to an angry crime lord -- and even Mike Tyson -- to deal with on the side while searching for their friend. Without the inclusion of those opposing characters, there wouldn't be nearly as much urgency behind the protagonists' actions, and the story of them following clue after clue around Las Vegas would get repetitive fast.

Disaster movies in particular like to add villains to the mix to support the main conflict. The film Twister has a subplot about a rival team of storm chasers trying to beat the protagonist's team to the catch. The Day After Tomorrow has a stubborn, closed-minded Vice President who objects to the hero's every suggestion (and who couldn't be a more obvious Dick Cheney caricature if he shot someone with a hunting rifle halfway through the film). And of course, Titanic has a slimy rich fiance who tries to come between the betrothed heroine and her true love. By attaching a nasty personality to the conflict in each story, it becomes somewhat easier to get emotionally invested in the main characters.

But what are some examples of stories that truly have no villain? Ironically enough, the first one that comes to mind is another disaster movie set on a boat, The Poseidon Adventure. A giant wave flips a cruise ship upside down at the beginning of the movie and the survivors spend the rest of it trying to escape without drowning or getting killed by the ship's mechanisms. The characters do argue a lot along the way, but they all share the same goal and never try to sabotage each other.

What makes the conflict so interesting is that not all of the people who initially survive the ship flipping over end up surviving the journey out of it, and our concern for the remaining characters increases with each additional death. On top of that, the main protagonist, a preacher played by Gene Hackman, has his faith put to the ultimate test throughout the story as he questions why God would allow so many innocent people to die so senselessly. The film's main focus is on humanity overcoming hardships and how a single character views that, as opposed to most other disaster movies that focus on spectacle and juggle so many character subplots that they tend to feel like soap operas.  

Another story with no real villain is the Pixar movie Finding Nemo, which is obviously rare for a children's film. We find out that the human who "captured" the fish Nemo only did so because he thought that Nemo was too injured to survive in the ocean and would live longer in a tank. The man's niece Darla, despite her theme music that's borrowed from Psycho, is not a villain who's out to terrorize fish either. She's a little girl who just shakes the bag too much because she doesn't know any better. What's more, the creatures that attack Nemo's father Marlin and friend Dory while they search for Nemo are portrayed more like real, instinctive animals than like anthropomorphic characters; the only attackers who even talk are the brainless seagulls that just yell "Mine!" over and over again. Bruce the shark does briefly go after Marlin and Dory when he smells blood and relapses from his no-fish diet, but the movie makes it clear that he's only attacking in a mindless frenzy, and he's in control again by the end of the scene. Nobody ever plots against the protagonists or intends any personal harm on them throughout the course of the movie.

The real antagonist that hangs over all of this is Marlin's fear of facing life and taking risks, as well as the risk that this fear will ruin his relationship with Nemo. Much like The Poseidon Adventure, Finding Nemo is mainly a character study, albeit a more fun-oriented one. This also seems to be the case in romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally, where the antagonist is Harry's own fear of commitment.

So from the above sampling, I think I've answered my closing question for Villain Month. It is entirely possible to write a good story without any villains as long as your characters are well-written enough to drive the conflict themselves. Otherwise, I say keep giving them bad guys to fight off and match wits with until they've become well-written enough characters.

That's I'm doing in my next book, anyway.

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