Making a Monster
by Brad Brookes
I want you to imagine a hypothetical person for me. They’re rude, dismissive, narcissistic and, they wield snobbery like a weapon to those they deem uncultured. They have an unpredictable and fiery temperament and, to top it off, they eat people…
Now arguably, having this hypothetical person anywhere near you would be terrifying. It’s difficult to imagine that you’d be able to find a place in your heart where you can emotionally connect with them, right? Well not exactly, when we see these traits poured into big-screen characters like Walter White, Nina Sayers and, Hannibal Lector, we root for, revere or even empathise with these creatures of darkness? Why?
There’s always the case for voyeurism, in seeing someone brutally snuffed out through the eyes of the maniac doing the snuffing. However, the lasting connection with these depraved fiends must go far beyond cinematic schadenfreude. The allure of aligning with these fictional characters’ outlooks can be a powerful one. On the surface, one of the key factors that seem to set them apart from life’s real villains is their fragmental existence.
Some historical villains like Bonnie and Clyde or Jack the Ripper have, over time and through familiarity, slipped into a mythological category where they straddle both fact and folklore. However, some of life’s modern monsters are far less palatable when trying to see them through an empathic lens. I’d bet my right arm that the uptake for tattoos of Heath Ledger’s Joker is far higher than the requests made for those of Peter Sutcliffe. But of course, it isn’t that simple.
It’s not only that a character is fictitious, but more accurately, it’s the very way in which the fiction has been created. When the nefarious character of Nurse Ratched was rendered for both the novel and movie of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s safe to say that the development process didn’t stop at ‘big bad nurse that hates her patients’.
The process of characterisation would have delved deep into her past experiences and motivations to fully understand how she might react in certain situations. Being an adaptation, the novel will have fed into the screenplay, and although not mentioned in the movie, Ratched’s past as an army nurse will have influenced the crafting of her persona.
Writers often draft lengthy and insightful biographies for many of the main characters in a screenplay to ensure that their actions, interactions and dialogue all seem genuine. Most of the narrative written in a bio will not be seen or directly referenced on screen, but it will be much more evident in the effect a character’s past has had on them, illustrated in their very nature. The character of Ratched herself has long been an icon of evil. A heartless, vicious, authoritarian and antagonist designed for an audience to hate. However, with the recent release of the prequel series Ratched on Netflix, viewers have been given a chance to learn the story of how the titular character became the woman who lobotomised Jack Nicholson in the 1975 classic.
Almost Stockholm Syndrome like in its nature, to understand a villain’s past and even experience some of their most formative and tragic moments can bond us to them in such a way that we begin to relate. And although only halfway through its initial two-season run, this stylish thriller is already looking to remould the legacy of the murderous matron, from one of terrifying reverence to that of the macabre anti-hero (who is also terrifying).
The guilty pleasure model of villain connection is really only half the picture. Although each of their stories has a good dose of tragedy and we see some flashes of humanity in them, connecting with characters like Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane (Game of Thrones) or Annie Wilkes (Misery and Castle Rock) is really a case of surrendering your ideals in return for guilt-free complicity. The flip side of this demented coin is one where we find the kind of evildoer that was once a proud protagonist, and what’s more, we’ve watched their descent into villainy in all its gloomy detail.
Characters like Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars), Nina Sayers (Black Swan) and Walter White (Breaking Bad), whether they were seduced, tormented or stumbled toward the darker side of their ethical compass, they all ended up embracing their shadow selves to dramatic effect. Watching their long and fretful evolutions into these states not only laid bare their struggle against the magnetic path they seemed destined to be upon but also illustrated the levels of manipulation they suffered at the hands of the figurative bad actors surrounding them.
Whether they were evil all along and these experiences simply peeled away the outer packaging is beside the point. As a viewer, seeing their struggle, experiencing it with them and ultimately willing them to be better in spite of it, we find ourselves relating to their plight and sympathising with them. Even when they are lopping countless padawan heads from shoulders in an unforgivable lightsabre tantrum.
The eponymous godfather atop this list of fallen heroes must arguably be the character of Michael Corleone (The Godfather). When he is first introduced, Michael is literally a decorated hero in uniform returning from WW2. He is an outsider to his family’s criminal business and longs to be free of its orbit. However, as one of the five Mafia families running New York, tradition and loyalty runs deep and Michael struggles to break away from the ruthless duties assigned to him through his bloodline. As his family goes to war with the opposing gangs, Michael sees his father and several siblings attacked and either killed or hospitalised. He himself has his jaw horrifically broken by a corrupt police official that’s on the payroll of the enemy. Brutalised, terrified and backed into a corner, Michael becomes a shadow of the man that returned from the military who was ready to turn his back on the family business. Now left with no other emotional or physical options, he is forced to embody the callous and merciless monster of retribution that his family name demands. His tale chronicles an epic struggle of a man born into a blood-soaked destiny that he seemingly can’t escape from. The audience is dragged through the same agonising and heart-breaking saga as Michael and it would take the most uncompromising of cinema-goer to deny a deep feeling of affinity with the Mafia’s most reluctant son.
Whether our favourite villains have been grown and nurtured in front of us or have let us secretly travel along with them as their own voyeuristic dark passenger, it’s undeniable that we have more than a little fondness for the baddies on both the big and small screens. Without breaking into a rendition of Julie Andrews’s Getting to know you from The King and I, I can only repeat that the irresistible connection we have with these monsters comes directly from understanding them more fully. The crafting of relatable biographies and backstories is the tried and tested method that helps these dangerous maniacs creep into the warmest and softest parts of our hearts. But you can rest assured, it's entirely normal to empathise with these poster boys and girls of the criminally insane. Just remember it’s probably not a great idea to start channelling them, especially when in the queue at the post office.
(Image copyright: Disney ABC, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Paramount Pictures)
Brad Brookes is a screenwriter and award-winning copywriter based out of the UK. You can follow his latest work at bradbrookes.co.uk.