Oct 15

The bad guy


While I think there is a place for it in some stories, I often find that the concept of a ‘bad guy’ doesn’t quite sit right with me.

Take this line from the opening to the classic Transformers cartoon: “Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons!” Now, nowhere in the opening does it say what the Decepticons do, other than calling them ‘evil’. The Autobots, on the other hand, well the opening clearly establishes that they’re the ones doing the destroying. And these are the good guys?

The idea that it’s okay to destroy (kill) your enemies simply because you brand them enemies or ‘evil’ strikes me as being both naive and quite possibly dangerous.

Not all cartoons or shows these days go in for the destroying of course but the idea that the primary requirement for being ‘good’ is beating the living crap out of those you perceive as enemies is still all over television beyond the preschool years, especially in shows aimed at boys.

I can’t help thinking it contributes to fear, paranoia and says that violence is the acceptable response. Actually… not just acceptable. It’s what makes YOU the good guy.

Of course it doesn’t end at children’s entertainment.

Most screenwriting books will tell you that for any script to work, you must have visible conflict and that means a visible antagonist, preferably with as much screen time as possible. Seemingly, that is usually interpreted in a very basic way: your story needs a bad guy.

Well, to counter that idea, I present one of the most successful entries in the Star Trek series – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which has… (drum roll)… no bad guy. It’s fun, adventurous and, yes, there is conflict. But there’s no bad guy. No evil genius that needs to be destroyed. The good guys don’t have to destroy anyone. The one major threat in the movie is removed not through conflict, not through violence, but through communication. One polite chat with a couple of whales and it turns around and goes home. No bad guy.

And it’s a great movie.

So a story, as it happens, does not need a bad guy.

4 thoughts on “The bad guy

  1. Sam Dransfield

    Another great post! I love chewing over the whole ‘bad guy’ question. I try to avoid bad guys as much as possible too, but I reckon the answer is different for every show. Here’s an interesting example I like to (over)analyse, in defence of the bad guy:

    I worked on the fantastic ‘Poppy Cat’ a few years back, where the ‘villain’ (a testy badger called Egbert) was driven by the simple desire to join in with the main characters’ games – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8HUCVaKwCA

    The gang would of course try to accommodate Egbert but he’d wind up trying to dominate; cause mischief, spook himself as a result, and then leg it – leaving our friends in peril.

    So Poppy Cat and her friends never do wrong by Egbert, it’s always his own doing that sees him get his comeuppance. Egbert is never portrayed as ‘bad’ – just flawed. But we still get our villain!

    Add to this that adventures took place behind not one but TWO layers of make believe; a girl reading to her cat, followed by dipping into the CAT’s imagination within the storybook (Inception for kids) and you’re left with an interesting take on the ‘bad guy’.

    I’ve always thought it was a good example of having a real, tangible antagonist, whilst at the same time keeping him young-kid safe, and avoiding a lot of the pitfalls mentioned in your post (assumed evil, obvious bad guy etc.). An interesting spin.

    Just chiming in!

  2. Jay Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Sam! Yes, that’s an interesting scenario because looking at the video it very much just feels like children playing and that disarms it considerably – I get no real sense of threat from Zoltoid and Poppy Cat seems to resist the urge to go all karate on him. So, yes, an interesting spin and one that I think would work very well for children without running many of the risks of a genuine bad guy. Although Egbert does feel like he’s a child who is playing this role as a result of all those shows with a bad guy he’s watched!

    You’re right about the point of view, Andy. I guess taking our society as a whole, we can take it that certain actions are deemed unacceptable and so judged as bad. That’s not really a problem in itself – it would seem required for any functioning society. Or indeed a family!

  3. Teemu

    Thanks for a great post Jason!

    That’s why Miyazaki’s stories intrigue me. They have antagonists who sometimes are “bad guys”, some of them have a lot of fighting but the bad guys rarely get destroyed in the end. The stories still have a resolution and good always wins on some level. They are more about the personal growth of the main character than about destroying the other.


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