I have nothing against the white wizard of light battling against the ancient lumbering darkness, but these days conflicts need to be more sophisticated than that.
Threesomes are Complicated
One sure-fire way to mix things up is to add a third party. An outlaw wants to free his friend from jail and the sheriff wants to stop him – that much is fairly straight-forward. But what if the prisoner has plans of his own? What if the mayor wants the prisoner to die and the sheriff to appear incompetent?
Conflicts become much more nuanced when there are intermingling motivations that aren’t simply polar opposites of each other. They keep readers guessing and off guard. Think about the showdown scene in Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance. These interweaving problems are the things great storylines are made of.
Paradoxes are Interesting
Protagonists without faults are dry and boring. It’s okay for the good guys to do bad things. In fact, I’d argue that it’s difficult to make a great character without giving them something complicated to struggle with. There is a reason we love Walter White.
The same goes for villains. A ruthless military commander may be a great father. An assassin might try to save endangered baby turtles. These sorts of quirks are not just additions to a character’s personality – they are what creates the actual ‘character’ to begin with.
Motivations, Not Archetypes
Villains need to be believable. The desire to simply enslave the world might well serve a GI Joe cartoon but it’s not going to resonate with today’s readers. Giving the bad guys internal motivators is the key to making their actions logical. They shouldn’t be evil simply for the sake of foiling the protagonist.
Granted, many times villains will kill or maim for the sole purpose of making money. Greed is a natural (and common) motivator. It’s fine to keep things simple, as long as what drives the character rings true. Otherwise they are in danger of being simple archetypes – just ideas and clichés – instead of anything believable.
The Bad Guy Test is a great measuring stick for the above ideas. Just take any plot and try to imagine the entire scenario from the villain’s point of view. In many, MANY cases, the entire house of cards will collapse. It’s laughable how many Hollywood movies fail to convince from this perspective. Star Trek featured a Romulan who wanted revenge for his home planet being destroyed, who then went back in time and used the only thing that could save it for violence, thus destroying his own home planet. Not an example of a thinking man’s movie.