Introducing the Villain
Villain... Bad guy/gal... Antagonist?
What are they and what is the purpose of them in dramatic structure?
A basic element that exists in every musical is the introduction of the person or persons that will get in the way of the main character, the opposing force.
Conflict is the energy of every story and in a musical, that conflict is created by an opposing force. This force could be a person or Villain type character, an idea backed up by a mob, a belief that limits the main character or a time-based force that will only allow your main character to achieve once they've learned a lesson or skill.
Every scene in your musical should have an opposing force and it doesn't have to be your antagonist.
For our purposes, I will be using Villain/Antagonist interchangeably, but I would like to define them in regards to musical theatre:
Essentially, an Antagonist is an "opposing force" to the main character and not necessarily evil, they may want the same thing as the main character and will have valid human-like reasons that may be good or bad for getting it.
A Villain is typically portrayed as pure evil. The cliche of "I'll take over the world!" type of character that only exists to stop, hurt or kill a main character. And as a cliche, a Villain usually doesn't need much explanation nor motivation for why they do what they do. Develop a reason why your main character and the villain don't get along and your Villain will be justified.
The reason for an antagonist or villain?
Commercial musical theatre almost always follows "The Hero's Journey" character/plot:
In a future blog, I'll delve more deeply into this fascinating tool for creating a story, but for now it simply means your main character wants something and is forced into new territory to get it and returns to starting territory with new knowledge about themselves and the world.
Now... in the real world, we don't simply get what we want without a few obstacles in the way. Consider:
Dolly Levi has decided she wants to get Horace Vandergelder to marry her. She goes to New York and they get married, they live happy ever after.
It's a story, yes, but not a very interesting one, and it doesn't teach us anything about being human, which is essential to musical theatre.
Now, let's create an opposing force:
Dolly Levi has decided she wants to get Horace Vandergelder to marry her, but he has confirmed himself a bachelor, while also trying to get his niece married off.
Dolly must then overcome the obstacle of Horace's decision and his niece.
The story is getting more interesting now, and we learn more about humanity by watching how Dolly overcomes the obstacles.
In this example, Horace is both Antagonist because he stands in the way of Dolly's goals, and he is the Villain because he, being the object of Dolly's goals has the power to stop her completely. When the writer does their job - we invest in the character and anyone or anything that keeps her from getting what she wants becomes Villain-like to us.
Dramatic structure is life with the boring parts taken out, and thus the need for an opposing force to create interesting situations for main characters to overcome, and in so doing, they reveal more about themselves. It's through watching a character overcome the obstacles put on their path that the audience learns what it is to be more human.
The antagonist or villain is the only reason your story exists. Without Aaron Burr, Hamilton doesn't get shot, without Madam Morrible, Elphaba would never have thought to use her powers for evil and without Bernardo and Biff (who embody the idea of war) there is no reason for Tony and Maria to not get together.
Of note, always try to make your antagonist a person or thing. Audiences don't handle existentialism very well and will be lost and confused if you make an idea such as freedom, the antagonist for your story. Instead, your antagonist can embody the idea which makes writing easier.
Let's look at some examples of opposing forces from Musical Theatre.
Audrey II, the plant from Little Shop of Horrors
A Villain using motivation to convince Seymour to bring him blood, and uses the cliche "I'll take over the world"
A Villain behind the kidnapping of Old Deuteronomy, and all the other cats are afraid or in awe of him.
Wicked, Madam Morrible
If one names their characters literally, then replace the M with an H and you have your answer. Villain.
Hamilton, Aaron Burr
Antagonist. He gets in the way throughout the show even killing Hamilton in the famous dual. However, we learn so much about him that we understand why it happened which removes the evil aspect of it. He is simply a character with needs that oppose our main character.
Annie, Miss Hannigan
Villain. She implies "little girls" made her evil, but to be an antagonist, she must have valid reasons for being evil and though she may have been an orphan herself and is now taking out her anger on the orphans in her care, it is not explained in the story. If it had been, it would have given her a human reason for being the way she is and removed her from Villain to Antagonist. But the story does not show that, nor does Miss Hannigan change at the end of the story.
The best way to determine the antagonist of a story is to look at the climax. The final battle/climax of a story includes the main opposing force of a story.
We know what an antagonist or villain is, how do we reveal them in our musical?
Let's look at how to reveal the villain or antagonist in our musical by looking at how other works have done so:
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
The real antagonist of this story is Audrey II, the plant. However, early on while we are getting to know the characters, we learn that Audrey (the human) has a violent boyfriend Dr. Orin Scrivello DDS. He is first revealed indirectly through the relationships he has with Audrey. She arrives to work with a black eye. And when questioned about it by Seymour, Audrey won't tell him what happened, but it's a shallow moment and Seymour as well as the audience understand what's happening. We then have a scene where Orin sings a song about how he loved to "bash little cats in the head" when he was a boy and his mother suggested he become a dentist. Technically, Orin is an obstacle for Seymour and not the Antagonist. As I said, Audrey II, the plant is the Antagonist & Villain of the story, and his appearance is revealed in a song as a cute, little "baby" plant. The science fiction genre reveals their antagonist early in the story, sometimes the first scene to establish what the main characters are up against.
WEST SIDE STORY
The relationship between Puerto Ricans and Americans is the antagonist of the story keeping Tony and Maria apart. It's such a strong opposing force that the main characters are unable to beat it and ultimately succumb to it. Racial prejudice as the Villain.
THE WIZARD OF OZ Miss Gultch is introduced in the very first scene as someone taking something away from our main character. In this case, she transforms into pure evil and taunts Dorothy throughout the story. Interestingly, the character has only minutes of stage time, but because she is established as the opposing force early on, she is always in the back of minds and we wonder what dastardly deed she may be up to next.
THE LION KING
Scar at first appears as a family member, albeit a sarcastic and negative type character. It is only in the privacy of his den that the writers reveal his true desire and how it will oppose with our main character Simba.
Let's look at this in list form:
1. Introduce the character early and have them do something awful to show their morals or that they are willing to kill for their cause. Using this method makes them omnipresent throughout the story and always in the mind of your audience.
2. Introduce them early and have them act as good or neutral humans, then in private have them reveal their true desires.
3. Introduce them as a good or neutral human and have them flip sides later in your story. Usually this is accomplished by giving them a choice between getting what they want and not getting it. Villains are justified in saying things like "if you don't do my bidding, I'll kill your family".
So the general consensus is to introduce early, otherwise your story never gets started. Some shows give the antagonist a song, others a monologue and still others give them one action that instantly tells the audience who to watch out for.
However, you know me and my fascination with ChatGPT. I asked her to share with me some ways of introduction villains and here is what she said:
Revealing the villain in a musical can be a critical moment that can make or break the story. Here are some ways to reveal the villain in your musical:
Misdirection: You can use misdirection to lead the audience to believe that someone else is the villain, only to reveal the real villain later in the story. This can create a shocking moment that the audience won't expect.
Foreshadowing: You can drop subtle hints throughout the story that suggest the identity of the villain. This can create a sense of anticipation and intrigue, as the audience will be eager to find out if their suspicions are correct.
Song: You can use a song to reveal the villain's true nature. This can be a powerful moment, especially if the villain sings the song themselves. This can give the audience an insight into the villain's motivations and personality.
Visual cues: You can use visual cues, such as costume or lighting changes, to reveal the villain's true identity. This can be a subtle way of hinting to the audience who the villain is without explicitly stating it.
Confrontation: You can have the protagonist confront the villain directly, which can lead to a dramatic reveal. This can be a high-stakes moment that can build tension and suspense.
Twist ending: You can use a twist ending to reveal the villain's identity. This can be a surprising and memorable moment that the audience won't expect.
Remember, the key to revealing the villain is to make it a memorable moment that fits with the tone and style of your musical. The reveal should be satisfying and make sense in the context of the story.
ONE FINAL NOTE
It's important that you stack your scenes in a ascending level of action/severity. In the beginning, your main character would not be able to beat your antagonist. It's only through the obstacles and opposing forces leading to the climax that prepares your character for a final battle where they have at least a small chance of winning.
Alan Saunders, WRITEineer.com
Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.
Check out WRITEineer.com for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!