Posts Tagged ‘Zootopia’

Today I wanted to talk about something that is becoming much more common in fiction these days, and that’s the twist villain. If you’re unfamiliar, a twist villain is when one character in a story seems to be the villain, but later on it’s revealed that another character, usually a character we thought was a good guy, is actually the villain. This twist villain is supposed to be a surprise, something you didn’t see coming while reading the story. Hence the name “twist villain.” The problem is, the twist villain is becoming such a common trope these days. In the past couple years, we’ve seen it in Disney films like Zootopia and Frozen; popular novels like Gone Girl and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; a couple of recent superhero films; and more than I can possibly name in this blog post. And when so many works of fiction are using the twist villain, we become used to not only seeing the trope but also the signs that a twist villain is going to be used (and trust me, there are signs), and then when we see the twist villain, we’re not very surprised. Heck, sometimes we even predict who the villain is well before it’s revealed.

Why is this trope becoming so popular? Simple: people want a good story. Good stories produce good memories and good profits. As standard stories of good vs. evil have been done to death, creators need to think of new stories and story elements to keep consumers interested in their work. One way to do that is a third-act twist, which when done right can really enhance a story. And a twist villain can be a very good third-act twist, if you’re careful with it.

Sadly, I find that a lot of creators aren’t careful with their twist villains, making the twist ineffective when it happens. Which is sad, because I love the idea of a twist villain. Heck, it’s one I might use in the future, if I haven’t used it already. A good twist villain can make your mind reel, make you look back trough a story to see if there were any clues and make you marvel at the genius of the creators for setting up that twist so well.

A bad twist villain, on the other hand, just leaves you feeling neutral at best (my reaction during Zootopia) and disappointed at worst (my reaction looking back on Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed). Which is why I’ve come up with a few tips for writing an effective twist villain. With any luck, these tips will help other authors (and myself) avoid making a bad twist villain.

1. Does your story really need a twist villain? Any time you want to include something in a story, ask yourself if it’s really needed. I swear, so many stories just add in elements that aren’t needed (*cough* lots of stuff from BvS *cough*). Ask yourself if your story can stand on its own without any of the extra elements. If it doesn’t, DON’T FORCE IT IN! Especially with twist villains.

2. If you’re going to leave clues behind, don’t make them obvious. You can have a twist villain without leaving a trail (Hans from Frozen, for example), but with twist villains, creators often like to leave little hints of who the real villain is. I think this is narcissism on our part; we like to show how clever we are. But that leads to us leaving some rather obvious clues, which our readers/viewers will pick up on and deduce the twist long before the twist occurs. Take Scooby-Doo 2: it was so obvious that the reporter was the villain! Why else would they include a reporter with poor ethical practices unless she was at least in league with the villains?

3. Have a good herring villain. A herring villain is just that: a herring to keep us off the real villain. In Frozen, the herring villain was the Duke of Weselton. He had obvious malicious goals, is willing to kill Elsa, and he was over-the-top, which felt right for a villain in this movie. Imagine our surprise when we find out he’s not the true villain, but Hans, who had no trail leading to him and was such a nice guy up till that reveal! A good herring villain will often lead to a great twist villain reveal.

Compare that to Zootopia or Wonder Woman: the former doesn’t give us a herring villain, which causes us to consider each character and eventually land on Ms. Bellwether, who has said some interesting things and has actually benefited from these events. The latter gives us a herring villain, but it’s a comic book movie, and the General doesn’t do a thing to make us think he’s a famous DC villain we’re very sure will make an appearance.

In short, have a herring villain, and make sure they’re set up in a way where people will actually consider them as the main villain, so the twist will actually be effective. To do that, be aware of what sort of story you’re writing. Often the story will have certain requirements for villains (motive, opportunity, etc), so make it seem like the herring villain has those. You’ll find your herring villain much more effective.

4. Do the reveal earlier than the third act. A lot of twist villains reveal themselves in the third act. Nothing wrong with this, but it’d also work if the reveal was done earlier. For example, Hydra was revealed as the villain in Captain America: Winter Soldier in the second act, and that was a really interesting twist, as we hadn’t expected it. If they’d done it later in the story, we might have actually figured it out by then, or there wouldn’t be enough time for exposition mixed with a great climax. So consider doing the reveal elsewhere.

5. Try a variation on the trope. The twist villain, like most tropes, has a standard formula: something happens, one character seems like the villain, but another character is revealed at the third act to be the villain and why. Oh, and it’s usually not the protagonist.

Variations on common tropes have proven to be very effective in storytelling, so try something a little different with the twist villain, like these examples below:

  • It’s a villain, but which one? In Doctor Who series 8, we’re introduced to a character named Missy, who seems likely to be a villain, but we’re not sure what her deal is if she is. In the second-to-last episode, she explains that Missy is short for Mistress, making her a female regeneration of the Master, a well-known DW villain. A lot of minds were blown that day, believe me. The idea is you can introduce a seemingly new character into a long-running story, and then link them back to a previously-established character. Trust me, it works.
  • Everyone’s the villain! Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express ends with every suspect actually having some sort of hand in the murder. It made the novel a sensation back in the day, because it was a seemingly impossible idea, but it worked. So try something impossible and make it possible: everyone’s a villain, no ones’ the villain, or even two very good suspects with alibis both committed the murder. It could work.
  • The hero? American Horror Story: Hotel is my favorite season of the series, and this twist is one reason why. The protagonist, a police detective, is on the hunt for a serial killer, only to find out in the second half of the season that he’s the killer! Trust me, I did not see that coming until the reveal episode, and only by a few minutes! So making a hero or a character who nobody thinks of as a possible villain the villain can work very well.

And these are just some examples of variations that have worked in the past.

Twist villains are a trope that won’t go away anytime soon, but as long as we have them, we should write them as well as we write any other type of character or trope. Because if we’re not going to give people our best, then what are we actually giving them?

What are your thoughts on twist villains? What are some good tips for writing them well?

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