***SPOILER ALERT*** Star Trek Discovery spoilers ahead! If you’re not past episode 12 “Vaulting Ambition” then just back on out of here and come back later.
But if episode 12 is old news to you, or you’re not a Trekky, then read on! This isn’t a love letter to the scf-fi world. I’m only using Star Trek as an example.
I want to say straight up I loved the new Star Trek series. After the rather lacklustre Enterprise series of 2001–2005, this is a really welcome change. It’s got multifaceted characters, an amazing female protagonist and has brushed off some of that gold-leaf, starry-eyed idealism that previous series were heavy with.
That being said… a new element which was brought up in episode 12’s “Vaulting Ambition” unfortunately had me eye rolling. Quick summary, the crew have been transported to an alternate dimension. Here, the human race, far from being peacemakers and explorers, are warmongering, racist and murderous thugs who rule the universe with an iron grip. Our crew meet their evil counterparts, question whether or not they could ever commit these terrible crimes and character development ensues.
The only way you can tell these two worlds apart? Easy, the bad guys are light sensitive.
Cue my eye roll.
I really don’t want to talk this series down! But come on… light sensitive bad guys? Because it gives the director the chance to use the moody, dark scenery and low lighting? If you were to pick a baddy out of a lineup, the guy who can’t stand the light is definitely up to no good.
This bad guy attribute has been with us since Bram Stoker’s Dracula and has to be reaching its expiry date by now, surely. Maybe the light-sensitive guy is a good guy who’s just had laser eye surgery?
So in honour of the cornist tropes, here’s my list of five signs that the character you’re writing is clearly a bad guy.
1. Physical deformity
From Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, this has always been the hallmark of the bad guy. Before medical science, it was often assumed that a physical deformity was a mark of something wrong with the soul. Victorians, the wonderfully tolerant bunch that they were, were big exponents of this and created phrenology, the study of the head and face to determine characteristics. I doubt anyone will have any difficulty naming a round dozen bad guys who suffer from this tropes; Lord Voldemort, The Joker, Caliban, Medusa, Frankenstein’s Monster (though I would argue not!), Dorian Grey, Gollum, Igor, The Twits, Freddy Krueger, The Wicked Witch of the West, etc. It’s a very easy way to indicate to your audience that this character is a wrong-un, but maybe we can find another way? After all, aren’t the villains who seem beautiful on the outside, but are twisted and gnarled on the inside always so much more intriguing?
2. Maniacal laughter
Even villains deserve a good chuckle every now and again, but must they really cackle maniacally? Frankly, I blame Vincent Price. When you think of an evil laugh, I’ll bet you’re probably thinking of his voice. You’ll have heard it in the Michael Jackson song Thriller.
One of the earliest “evil laugh” was by Sir Nicholas in Living Age by E. Littell published in 1860. For a “wicked laugh” we can go back further to Captain Bouchier in The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay by Frances Burney. Both men, notably. I wonder who the first female character was to laugh maniacally? Maybe Bertha from Jane Eyre with her “demonic laugh” and “goblin-laughter”? Though, as Bertha is not a villain, rather insane, this hardly seems fair.
3. Wanting to destroy the world
This is a cliche I’ve never understood. I mean, why?
The problem with wanting to destroy the world – without a spaceship waiting in the wings – is it immediately pushes the villain into the insane or Lovecraft category. They’re either so mental they don’t care that destroying the world means they’d die, or they’re such an inhuman, cosmic horror being that we can’t even fathom the whys or how’s behind their motive.
Let me make this category a little border. Villains are usually nuts. This ties into the maniacal laughter. We’re usually not supposed to understand and agree with the villain’s motives so making them and their thought processes so distant from ours is a sure bet to make them the bad guys.
This is an expected trait that physical or supernatural strength will always be in the bad guy’s corner. Usually, the good guys defeat this force with an added something, like friendship. Or moral rectitude. Or deus ex machina at a pinch. Something which embodies the fact that pure power isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Does anyone remember M. Night Shyamala’s “Unbreakable”? It features a brilliant twist on a bad guy who cannot rely on any kind of physical strength whatsoever. Apologies if that sounds vague, but it’s not a movie I want to spoil!
5. Extreme Hubris
Embodied by Greek heroes and Shakespearean baddies, hubris means excessive pride or self-confidence. When your character struts into the spotlight, giving a speech on how bloody brilliant he is, odds are he’s either a villain or an anti-hero protagonist who’s about to experience a massive tumble.
What turns hubris from a character-defining trait to a villain cliche is excessive confidence in the face of obvious destruction. Disney villains rock this category from Jaffa to Scar to Cruella de Vil.
6. The villain is foreign
Back at university, my dissertation focused on the use of the ‘barbarian’ in 5th and 6th-century Athenian literature. The barbarian is uncultured, unintelligent and uncouth. Of course, when the ancient Athenians were referring to the ‘barbarian’, they meant ‘anyone not Greek.’
The strange and dangerous foreigner has been the bad guy for as long we’ve been able to tell stories. Because they’re the others and that means they’re dangerous. And what I can’t understand is how, in a world which is becoming smaller and smaller thanks to global communication, this can still be true? Our perception of who’s foreign changes through the years, but we still cling to this out of date boogie man. In the UK, the French were the archetypal ‘foreigner’ for generations but now we’ve transposed that image onto countries in the Middle East.