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Johne

The Villain Never Apologizes

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I saw author Steven Pressfield last weekend at Story Grid LIVE 2019 in Franklin, TN. He's forgotten more than I'll even know about writing bestseller novels. 
https://stevenpressfield.com/2019/09/the-villain-never-says-hes-sorry/

 

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In the classic Western Shane there’s a character named Chris Calloway (played by Ben Johnson, who later won an Oscar for his role as “Sam the Lion” in The Last Picture Show.)

Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson) picking a fight with Shane (Alan Ladd) in “Shane”

Chris Calloway is the original bully in Shane. He’s the first of the Bad Cattlemen to humiliate Shane (Alan Ladd) in the bar room at Grafton’s, calling him “Sody Pop” and slinging a shot of whisky into his face. Chris brawls with Shane and in general shows himself to be a world-class (SOB).

But later in the film when Chris learns that his boss, Rufe Ryker, plans to dry-gulch Shane’s friend Joe Starrett and kill him, he has a change of heart. He appears at midnight outside Shane’s door. Shane draws his gun, suspecting treachery. But Chris has come to make amends. “Hold on, Shane. I got something to tell you.”image.png.58f8baa17aa87ef59d91c6ad1b7795c5.png

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CHRIS CALLOWAY

Starrett’s up against a stacked deck.
 

SHANE

Why are you telling me?
 

CHRIS CALLOWAY

I reckon something’s come over me.
 

SHANE

I don’t figure.
 

CHRIS CALLOWAY

I’m quitting Ryker.
 

Shane realizes that Chris has truly had a change of heart. He lowers his gun. He thanks Chris. The former enemies not only shake hands but seem to actually form a bond of goodwill that might carry forward into the future.


CHRIS CALLOWAY

Be seeing you.


And, with a nod of farewell, Chris rides off into the night.

 

 

You will never see a villain play a scene like this—that is, one in which he, the villain, faces up to the error of his ways and actually changes.

The villain doesn’t change.

The villain never says he’s sorry.

If he does, like Chris Calloway above, he ceases to be a villain. He becomes the hero of a subplot of the story, in this case the Shane-Calloway Subplot.

Why won’t the villain ever apologize?

Because is his view, he is 100% right. His beliefs are sound. His actions are honorable. To apologize would be to betray his most deeply held convictions.

Remember, the villain does not believe he’s the villain. In his eyes, he’s the Good Guy.

The filmmakers of Vice (writer and director Adam McKay) put the following speech into the mouth of VP Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), who, in the movie’s eyes, is most decidedly the villain.

image.png.117fe70db2acc327f4cbf019a9635d75.png

There are monsters in this world. We saw three thousand innocent people burned to death by those monsters. And yet you object when I refuse to kiss those monsters on the cheek and say “Pretty please.” You answer me this: what terrorist attack would you have let go forward so you wouldn’t seem like a mean and nasty fella? I will not apologize for keeping your family safe and I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night. It has been my honor to be your servant. You chose me. I did what you asked.

The villain is unrepentant to the end because, in his eyes, he has nothing to repent for.

 

 

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That certainly is something worth thinking about.  I never thought of Dick Cheney as a villain, though.  It was an interesting example, though.  The world just keeps getting more complicated.

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I'm having trouble with the Cheney example, too. It's too political. He's only a clear-cut villain to those who oppose his political ideologies. Steven should've picked a better example.

 

2 hours ago, Johne said:

The villain doesn’t change.

The villain never says he’s sorry.

 

Um, I think Steve's getting a little too technical with this. If a villain changes, sure, I suppose you can say he/she isn't the villain anymore. But it doesn't mean they weren't ever the villain. Think of Darth Vader. He's arguably the baddest villain in film history. But he turned at the end. Does this erase his past villainy? Does it change the iconic image we'll always see? 

 

 

Edited by Accord64
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I'm still hoping that's the difference between a villain and a antagonist then. My antagonists do change their minds, do make amends, and do apologize. After all. Their plan was supposed to help people, but it just made things worse. And, so, they end the plan.

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In Christian writing, change can happen anywhere, because miracles are real.

 

As an example, in the very successful movie, "God's Not Dead," the villain not only apologizes, he accepts Jesus (and then dies...)

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13 minutes ago, Wes B said:

As an example, in the very successful movie, "God's Not Dead," the villain not only apologizes, he accepts Jesus (and then dies...)


(GOD'S NOT DEAD is a terrible film imo and I wouldn't depend on using it as your masterwork example.)

I do believe miracles are real and God can change lives - I look to THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO as a masterful example of that.  

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1 hour ago, Spaulding said:

I'm still hoping that's the difference between a villain and an antagonist then

 

I think there is.  An antagonist could change but a villain doesn't.  To me a villain is a character who does not show remorse or learns from their mistakes. An antagonist however is someone who challenges and thwarts the hero but is redeemable (or not as the case may be).

 

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 "Vice" is a fictionalized biography and the portrayal by Christian Bale is masterful storytelling.

 

Like Lt. Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men, Cheney is the villain of this story because of his philosophy that the ends justify the means. Jessup gives the heartfelt and passionate "You can't handle the truth!" soliloquy. He is the villain, unrepentant to the end. But the story's antagonist is the system that runs roughshod over the enlisted men who executed his orders.

 

" There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is death. " You may agree with Jessup that "You need men like me on that wall..., " but you can't escape the sense of injustice, the feeling that we as a nation should do better than that.

 

A good villain deserves justice. He will not accept mercy or grace.

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5 hours ago, Johne said:


(GOD'S NOT DEAD is a terrible film imo and I wouldn't depend on using it as your masterwork example.)

 

You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but I'm not sure how it relates to the OP. The broad and absolute claim that the villain never apologizes runs into some serious support problems. It might be a useful rule of thumb, especially with cartoon-villains, but trying to turn it into a law of some kind tends to fail, especially in Christian writing, where most anyone can accept the offer of forgiveness. The example given in the OP is most certainly not a Christian story.

 

No one will insist that you like a particular movie (not sure where the idea of "using it as your masterwork" came from; i certainly never used the term; I used it as an example...) but its broad success indicates that many, many, many people disagree with you on the movie's value.

 

In the end, your opinion, or mine, or anyone else's, isn't particularly relevant here. The broad appeal of a story in which the villain apologizes deeply would seem to demolish the idea that the villain can never apologize. That's the point I'd want to make; the rest is more of a distraction.

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6 hours ago, Shamrock said:

  An antagonist could change but a villain doesn't.  To me a villain is a character who does not show remorse or learns from their mistakes. An antagonist however is someone who challenges and thwarts the hero but is redeemable (or not as the case may be).

I appreciate this distinction. 

 

8 minutes ago, Wes B said:

especially in Christian writing, where most anyone can accept the offer of forgiveness.

And then there are as many degrees of forgiveness and the awareness of the need as there are humans alive on the planet.  It is not a black and white term, is it?  The antagonist may apologize for ulterior motives. The protagonist may forgive for a time and then regress.  This is the joy of good literature!

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1 minute ago, Wes B said:

(not sure where the idea of "using it as your masterwork" came from

 

You used the film as an example of a 'very successful film.' I countered and said it's a terrible film and I wouldn't recommend drawing any writing lessons as Christians from a terrible film. (I know it's a terrible film because I've seen it, and my opinion matches the critical judgment of ALL the Christian film critics I follow. I mean, there's more consensus around the quality of that film than any other I can think of. (That has nothing to do with popularity nor personal opinion but I can argue that it is critically bad and back that up with many reviews.)

Which leads me to the idea of using masterworks as a guide when writing. Conventions and obligatory scenes come out of masterworks. When writing a novel about a creature who was created to be a large killing monster who experienced the freewill glitch and went a different path, I used THE AUTOMATIC DETECTIVE by A. Lee Martinez as my masterwork. That gave me some general story beats and elements, some of which I have employed in my book.

https://storygrid.com/write-better-novels-using-a-masterwork-to-guide-you/
 

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Masterworks, in Story Grid parlance, are books that are noted examples of the genre. In Story Grid, Shawn Coyne uses The Silence of the Lambs as an example of a well-executed thriller which uses an internal worldview disillusionment plot to create a complex page-turner. He provides a complete spreadsheet and Story Grid graph so that the reader can see the bare-bones structure behind a brilliantly satisfying read.
 

But Story Grid was developed as an analytical tool. Analysis, after all, is destructive, not creative. One does not analyze if one is trying to create; rather, one must “synthesize.”

How do we use Story Grid analysis in order to help us create our own work of genius? How do you engage in a destructive activity like analysis at the same time that you are supposed to be synthesizing?
 

This, my friends, is the million-dollar question, because trying to Story Grid your own work while you create it is like being at war with yourself. Which, in essence, you are. Taking your words and boiling them down to dots on a graph is painful—but that’s how the reader receives it, after all. The experience of a story can be reduced to: emotion up, emotion down, becoming more and more intense over the course of the story journey. This is how you define a page-turner. And if we analyze as we write, we are simultaneously the giver and receiver of the experience. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.
 

We know the result that we want: the story that works. We know what it looks like, because we’re readers, and we can think of lots of examples of books that work. And with Story Grid, we know why they work.

 

The middle ground between Story Grid and our novels lies in studying masterworks and using them as guides. The goal is to internalize these successful stories, their cadences and trajectories, so that we can aim to please our audience in that “surprising but inevitable” way.

 

 

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6 hours ago, Shamrock said:

 

I think there is.  An antagonist could change but a villain doesn't.  To me a villain is a character who does not show remorse or learns from their mistakes. An antagonist however is someone who challenges and thwarts the hero but is redeemable (or not as the case may be).

 

In my story's case, the antagonist didn't no more considered stuffies as real than we do, so no direct challenge ever given. Thwart. Definitely thwarting going on. But the antag didn't know that either until he came face-to-face with the protag.

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16 hours ago, Accord64 said:

Think of Darth Vader. He's arguably the baddest villain in film history. But he turned at the end. Does this erase his past villainy? Does it change the iconic image we'll always see? 

It should. It did for the apostle Paul, didn't it? We don't think of Paul as the guy who persecuted Christians, but rather as the guy who changed his ways and wrote almost half of the New Testament.

Edited by Lucian Hodoboc
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3 hours ago, Lucian Hodoboc said:

It should. It did for the apostle Paul, didn't it? We don't think of Paul as the guy who persecuted Christians, but rather as the guy who changed his ways and wrote almost half of the New Testament.

Yeah, but Paul didn't die right after conversion.

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I really like what Steven Pressfield has to say on a lot of topics, but this looks like splitting hairs. I'm struggling to see his point, actually.

 

I'm going to reference one of the great artistic works of our time... My Little Pony. 😉Stay with me here, please don't leave.

 

Several months ago, my children and I were talking about wicked people who repent, vs. those who refuse to do so. MLP was great source material for our discussion, since they know the stories inside out. The series has some great villains who repent and redeem themselves, in addition to those who harden their necks and go down to destruction. Princess Luna, Starlight Glimmer and Sunset Shimmer were all powerful and believable antagonists who later learned the error of their ways.

 

It's splitting hairs to say they can't be called villains just because they changed their minds. For a significant part of the story, they were very believable villains.

 

I haven't yet read the Story Grid -- it's on my massive TBR list. Is there a Story Grid reason for making this distinction of villains never repenting?

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36 minutes ago, EBraten said:

I haven't yet read the Story Grid -- it's on my massive TBR list. Is there a Story Grid reason for making this distinction of villains never repenting?

 

I'm going to say no, this is a Pressfield thing, not a Shawn Coyne thing.

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As an aside, I heard Steven Pressfield talk in Nashville this last weekend for Story Grid LIVE 2019. In this picture, I'm listening to him answer questions for a Q&A and he's the man standing over my left shoulder.

 

image.png

 

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2 hours ago, Johne said:

I heard Steven Pressfield talk in Nashville this last weekend

What's he like as a speaker? I benefited a lot from his books The War of Art and Turning Pro, although he gets a bit woo at times. Resistance is real.

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He was witty and engaging and his knowledge of writing is immense. He's a wise old writer and I enjoyed his session.

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I think the point of the article is that a villain who repents becomes something different than a villain--an anti-hero, perhaps. 

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And so, this leaves us with a conundrum. The villain must be thwarted or the consequences are dire.  In story terms, a villain chooses to abandon rescue and redemption, and this must be a deep and final rejection, striking out at the hand of the rescuer. But the henchman can be converted, persuaded to forsake or actively oppose his master.

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37 minutes ago, EClayRowe said:

And so, this leaves us with a conundrum. The villain must be thwarted or the consequences are dire.  In story terms, a villain chooses to abandon rescue and redemption, and this must be a deep and final rejection, striking out at the hand of the rescuer. But the henchman can be converted, persuaded to forsake or actively oppose his master.

 

Othello's Iago is a true villain, whereas his wife, Emelia, is more of a 'henchman', because she ultimately repents of Iago's villainy. I am not sure if 'henchman' is the most accurate word, but she was converted to oppose her husband, becoming a heroic martyr.

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