Character is everything in stories, in my opinion. You can have the most thrilling plot imaginable, the most dazzling special effects, the most triumphant score, but if you don’t have the characters, for the audience to root for, hiss against or engage with, then you’ve got nothing. You need to have interesting, compelling, well-written characters. And it is possible that no other single thing is as important for characters as consistency.
Consistency – The actions of the villain must have a consistency to them, the same as any character.
Characters, hero, villain or in-between, have to be consistent. They have to act in a manner that makes sense, and their actions down the line of the narrative need to match up with actions previously taken. Consistency means that the characters are believable and, in the right situation, the audience can suspend disbelief. When the character lacks consistency, the audience won’t buy them, and engagement, that most critical of connections between the story being told and the people watching be told, unravels. Once we have understood who any particular character is at their core – hopefully this is something we have understood at any rate – we can judge their subsequent actions and determine whether they pass this test.
In the context of antagonist characters, consistency is as key as anything else. Going back to our stock villains that I’ve talked about before, the con-man might have a change of heart late on in the story if his actions up to that point have had a consistent swing towards a redemptive arc: a refusal to take extra harsh steps with the target for example, a stated aversion to what he/she is doing, etc. The megalomaniac taking over the world will presumably kill and run rampant in his efforts to achieve his or her goal, and we wouldn’t expect them to just give it all up and walk meekly into police custody late-on in the story. And the planet-destroying supervillain probably won’t balk from killing a minion or two for humanitarian reasons after being responsible for the slaughter of millions.
As we can plainly see, consistency covers just about everything in some way: the villains relationships with other characters, how they go about achieving their goal what lines they will and won’t cross. To put it another way, everything that the bad guy does has to make sense: the audience shouldn’t look at what the villain is doing at any point and think “Wait, why are they doing that?” The logic has to be there, contradictions should not be.
Let’s have a look at some examples, good and bad.
I will never not be talking about Darth Vader. His actions throughout A New Hope show clear consistency. Early on he’s murdering rebels in interrogations, and that cruel sense of purpose continues throughout in the actions he undertakes, like contemptuously choking the Imperial officer, torturing Leia, killing Obi-Wan and shooting down rebel fighters in the finale. The time will come for Vader to be remorseful and seek redemption, and Star Wars will build to that, but for now Vader is a remorseless killing machine with no problems pulling the trigger himself: we never have any doubts about his capacity or commitment to such acts, and we never question them either.
Then take a look at Darth Maul. The failure of consistency here is actually only partial, as for what we see of Maul we can see that there is an element of consistency there. He hunts down the heroes on Tatooine on the orders of his master, has a brief fight with Qui-Gon, then with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon late on. Through all this, we can detect an angry viciousness hidden under a layer of somewhat cold calculation, But it’s really shallow, as the failure for Maul is a more general failure of character: it’s hard to judge his consistency because we know precious little about him at all.
I’m also coming back to Heath Ledger’s Joker a lot, because he’s a very interesting case study. As with my thoughts on his goal or motivation, the initial appraisal would say that his consistency is lacing as the character’s actions are all over the place, inherently unpredictable, chaotic. But really there is a consistency there, and the underlying consistency is one of simple, clear malice. The motivation behind it may be questionable, but it’s existence is there: as Joker kills his bank-robbing accomplices, as he murders Gamble and sets his men against each other, as he uses the mentally ill as pawns, as he continually – and consistently – treats other characters as either tools for his own demented will, useful only as long as they continue to be so, or as targets to be physically and emotionally tormented. The Joker would be inconsistent if he showed a capacity for mercy or just restraint, but he never does. From start to finish, he’s unpredictable, but not inconsistent.
On the bad side of things, superhero wise, is a character I’ve talked in-depth on before, namely Obadiah Stane from Iron Man. Stane is all well and good up until the third act, when his character arc threatens to swamp the film through his own illogic. Stane is showcased as a character of financial clout who gets others to do the dirty work for him, as evidenced by how he deals with Raza and the Ten Rings: he might be present at the massacre, but it’s his men pulling the triggers. Later, he goes a small, step further in sideswiping Tony Stark and taking his miniaturised Arc generator. But from there things go sideways: realising that he has been discovered by the authorities and is facing imminent arrest, Stane’s reaction is not logical or true to the character we have seen before. Instead of running for it, or hiring someone else to deal with it or anything like you would expect such a powerful businessman to do, he instead dons a mechsuit and starts murdering government agents, before engaging the titular hero hand to hand. From being the man with a plan – getting the Ten Rings to kill Stark so that he can take control of the company and maintain dominance over the arms trade – Stane becomes a deranged maniac, without the film adequately explaining why.
Similarly, Dominic Greene in Quantum Of Solace has a consistency issue in terms of how far he is willing to go physically to make sure his schemes come to fruition. Throughout the course of the film, he’s portrayed as a very hands of sort of guy, who gets his goons to do the shooting and the killing for him. Then, suddenly, in the finale he decides to try and take James Bond on hand-to-hand in a hotel that’s burning to the ground around him. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition, likely included only so Bond would have a bad guy to actually fight at the end, without due consideration for the sort of character that Greene is supposed to be. Having set-up Greene as a bit of a wimp, it’s impossible to buy into him as being both mentally prepared and physically capable of taking on a professional spy/assassin.
Let’s talk about a few films I have watched recently. 2010’s The Karate Kid is a passable remake, that has a couple of antagonist characters, the most prominent being Master Li, the cruel operator of a martial arts school. We only see Li in a few scenes but his actions and characterisation remains consistent throughout: he treats his students ruthlessly, punishing weakness and failure. He decisively attacks opponents any way that he can. While we never get a real opportunity to see him as anything other than “Bad Guy”, his consistency marks him out as a dangerous opponent for the two protagonist characters. Not all that better than, say, Maul, but at least there is some consistency there.
Then there is Ego from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, only revealed as the villain late on, but a villain nonetheless. In many ways, I think that Ego could have stood to have been written a bit better, most notably a scene where he reveals that he inserted a brain tumour into Peter Quill’s mother so that he wouldn’t be tempted to stay on Earth with her, a somewhat lazy effort at making clear that “Yes, Ego is the bad guy”. But that being said, it is at least consistent with the Ego character as he is presented throughout the film: as, well, an egotist, a defiant and arrogant blowhard, who loves talking up his own accomplishments and enlightening smaller minds. To him, Peter’s mother was a disposable plaything, a biological means to a genetic end, and in his efforts to get his son inside for the “expansion” plan, he just casually drops the information that he was responsible for his death. Hammy, unsubtle and a bit tired? Yes. Inconsistent? No.
Lastly, the last film I watched (or re-watched) prior to writing this post, 2001’s Shrek. I’ve actually mentioned Lord Farquaad on this series before in relation to the introduction of a comedic villain, but it was just coincidence that the film popped up on my Netflix queue recently. A Napoleon complex is Farquaad’s defining trait, and everything about him – his sudden temper, his desire to appear grander and more dignified than he actually is, and his tendency to get bigger, tougher looking guys to do all of the hard work for him – stems from that. He’s a bit of a deceiving weasel at times, and loves pouring on the charm, but that barely hidden childishness is always within reach, from the moment we first see him torturing the Gingerbread Man, to the finale wedding scene when he contemptuously dismisses the titular character as being incapable of emotion. Farquaad is remarkably consistent for an animated comedy villain, all the way up to when he is devoured by the dragon, helplessly swinging a relatively tiny dagger around in a vain attempt to get his own way. At no point does Farquaad actually inhabit the role of the valiant hero that he so desperately wishes that he was: he is consistently the smaller man.
And in connection to that will come our next topic, the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to the antagonist’s character. We’ve covered goal, risk, consistency, but now we have to move on to something often missing, but so vital: justification.