Last time, I talked about the need to torture the heroes of your story. One of the best ways to do that is by writing a really great villain. Every hero needs one.
“You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible. Aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
The above quote is from Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). This is one of the best examples of the Dark Reflection type of villain.
The Dark Reflection is exactly what you’re thinking. It is the ying to the hero’s yang. They are what the hero might become if they went down the darker path. If they chose the dark side over the light side. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Frodo and Gollum. Joker and Batman.
There’s a great scene in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) when Luke faces off against the Emperor and Darth Vader. Luke and Vader fight and while it doesn’t really hold up to some of the fight scenes of the current films of our times, it does hold immense emotional weight. Luke ends the fight by cutting off Vader’s hand. The Emperor commands Luke to strike his father down and fully turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Luke looks at his gloved right hand. It’s the hand that Vader chopped off in the prior film. The next shot shows Vader’s stump of a hand with all the wiring poking out. Then back to Luke’s face as he realizes that he’s one step away from becoming his dark reflection.
Dark Reflections are everything the protagonist isn’t. Where Luke is light, Vader is dark. Where Joker is chaotic, Batman is law and order. This particular villainous type has various pros and cons to it.
Pro: Deep emotional conflict. Often enough, the real conflict between the hero and the villain isn’t a physical fight, it’s an emotional one. A test of wills. In The Dark Knight, it makes Batman and Joker fight for the “Soul of Gotham.” Joker wants to see what it takes to destroy Gotham’s sanity and hopefulness. One of the things about the Joker, generally speaking, that he also tests Batman and his rigid code of not killing people. I’m pretty sure Joker would be okay with Batman killing him because he would die knowing that Batman violated his own code.
In this same vein, I would talk about the film Fight Club (1999), but… we don’t talk about Fight Club.
Con: Weak physical conflict. Sure, Vader and Luke are the exception to the rule. But look at Batman and Joker. Joker would, and has, lost in about 99% of all physical fights against the Dark Knight. Baron Zemo in Captain America: Civil War (2016) is another great example. Zemo knows that if he tries to physically assault the Avengers, he’d be defeated in about two seconds. But, if he pits them against each other, then they’d be ultimately shattered. Zemo tells Black Panther, “I knew I couldn’t kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other…”
This is probably one of my favorite types of villains. Sure, I like reading about Roland Deschain (aka the last Gunslinger) trekking across the crumbling multiverse trying to save it from the Crimson King but it doesn’t compare to reading about Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom. Because every step that Hobbit takes brings him closer to becoming Gollum. Frodo eventually succumbs and becomes Gollum by giving in and putting on the One Ring. Thankfully, Frodo gets attacked by the creepy dude, gets his ring finger bitten off, and sees what would eventually happen if he continued down his dark reflection’s path. Gollum, happy with finally obtaining “his precious”, dances and stumbles into the lava below.
I love stories with villains that mirror the heroes because they challenge the morals and ethics of the hero. When you go about writing a Dark Reflection, you need to analyze your hero first. Define your hero and what makes him/her tick. If your hero has a strict no killing policy, your villain will try to get that hero to break it. If your hero has an addiction to something, maybe your villain tries to get the hero to succumb to it.
Conversely, if your hero is the villain of the story, then it would only make sense that your antagonist would be the hero. That sounds confusing, but it’s really not. If Vader was the focus of the story, then Luke would be the one opposing him. For example, if the film was about Vader’s path further down the Dark Side, then Luke’s attempts to turn him to the Light Side would be the “Dark Reflection” part… even though it’s the Light Side. Okay, so that’s a little confusing, but I think you got the message.
A hero is only as good as his/her villain. A villain challenges and competes against the hero ultimately making the hero into a better hero… or into another villain.
Next week, I’ll be continuing on this dark path by talking about another type of bad dude: The Anti-Hero.
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