Writing Villains: Lessons from Bane and The Dark Knight Rises

A writer’s work is never finished. Ideas, inspirations, to-do lists, and drafts flood our thoughts and our time. The act of writing should not stop when we turn off our computers. We can draw inspiration and instruction on writing from anywhere, and movies are full of examples of the how-to’s and how-not-to’s. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises gives us a few of both with the villain, Bane.

DISCLAIMER: I promise not to spoil any plot points, but I will be discussing a few things about Bane. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, read at your own risk.

Regarding character development and villains: your villain MUST scare your readers–especially if you are writing epic fantasy, horror, or paranormal fiction. Remember the number one rule of fiction writing: Conflict & tension turn pages. Fear of your villain will increase the tension in your readers, forcing them to keep reading even after they planned to stop. Consider The Dark Knight‘s Joker. We feared the Joker, and that tension helped propel the movie to greatness. Other examples of feared villains include: Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, Star Wars‘ Darth Vader, and The Lord of the Rings‘ Sauron. Imagine if these villains had been less feared, and ask yourself if the series would have been as successful.

Bane’s character has a few qualities that make him a formidable super-villain to be feared:

  • He has a group of mercenaries who are 1) loyal to him, and 2) willing to sacrifice their lives for his cause. A villain’s henchmen increase his power. Hitler had his SS, a mafia lord always has underlings who do his dirty work, and Voldemort had his death eaters. Bane’s mercenaries are tough people you don’t want to confront. They also display a frightful level of loyalty to him. In the first scene, he tells one of them to stay behind on the crashing plane because the authorities will need a body. The man agrees without hesitation. We know from the beginning we should fear Bane because his groupies will do anything for him. Mercenaries can also create a physical barrier between your hero and your villain. After all, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.” What kind of “mercenaries” have you given your villain? Who protects him or her? Increase your villain’s fear factor by tinkering with those who follow him.
  • Bane himself is powerful. Few men could defeat him in a fight to the death. Bear in mind, a villain does not need to be physically powerful—like Bane, but he or she needs to display power in some form. In The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly has no fighting skills. She would lose in a fight to the death, yet she wields such power in the fashion industry that her words can make or break a person’s career. In Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Professor Moriarty’s personal power comes from his intelligence (among other things). Think about your villain. What power does he or she wield, and how do they wield it? How can you boost that power?
  • Bane has the will to do what many won’t do. The will to do evil can create fear. Is this person willing to destroy a reputation, imprison the innocent, or unleash a nuclear bomb? Your reader needs to fear your villain because the question “How far is this person willing to go?” has an uncomfortable answer. The will to do evil makes Bane a super-villain and Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy just an annoying presence at Hogwarts. Because I don’t want to spoil the movie, I will say only that Bane is willing to um… mass destruct. Malfoy is willing to destroy reputations, buy his way onto a sports team, use mean spells on Harry, and get Harry in trouble–arch-villain material for a mainstream, middle-grade novel. (Always keep your audience in mind when it comes to your villain.) However, Malfoy is sickened by the thought of a dead bird showing up in the vanishing cabinet, he can’t bring himself to kill Dumbledore, and he won’t turn Harry in when it actually matters. Malfoy lacks the will to do ultimate evil, and that makes him someone we pity or feel annoyance with–not someone we fear. You must show that your villain has the will to do evil if you want your reader’s heart to speed up during your ultimate showdown in the climax.

Bane has many super-villain characteristics. He also displays one characteristic that makes him less feared than his predecessor, the Joker. I mentioned it this week when I posted a movie review on the Misfit Politics website (Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises | Misfit Politics):

…while Bane has everything we want in a super villain: a bulky physique, the ability to fight, and a following of crooks, he has one shortcoming: his voice. His higher-pitched, voice sounds like an eighty-year-old German professor’s voice. Truthfully, I kept thinking of Hellboy II: The Golden Army’s elderly German agent, Johann Krauss. Imagine Darth Vader saying, “And bring me the passengers, I want them alive!” in Bane’s voice. Star Wars would have failed.

While a few people disagree with me, Bane’s voice made it hard for me to take him seriously–especially because my mind kept forcing a picture of a feeble old man into my head, and that affected my view of the movie.

While all villains need weaknesses (another blog post altogether), make sure your villain does not have a disconcerting weakness that will distract the reader or make your villain’s power seem unrealistic. If a few of your beta readers have a problem with your villain’s weakness, you might want to consider a rewrite.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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6 Responses to Writing Villains: Lessons from Bane and The Dark Knight Rises

  1. Amanda says:

    I agree with you about Bane’s voice. The first time I heard it on the movie screen, I wanted to laugh. I even looked around me to see if anyone else thought it was strange. A deeper voice would have made him a little more terrifying


  2. Rojomark says:

    Yes the voice totally ruins the supposedly bad ass character image. Poor choose


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