Writing The Empathetic Villain

Sunday 27 October 2019

It’s about time we commented on the current #1 movie in the world. 
Three-time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix might be far on his way to some well-deserved, statuette-in-hand Oscar notoriety. Not that the Oscars are the only possible venue to validate his acting mastery, though. Some of us have already seen it and some of us are about to, but we can all agree on one thing: it’s one of the year’s best performances. 

Joker not only shattered box-office records, but it’ll have legs for a while. It’s blowing minds and getting people to put on makeup, dress, and pose as the smoking clown on Instagram for all kinds of challenges. Not too shabby.  
Whatever your final opinion on this blockbuster is, you’ll be leaving the theaters one (or more) of four ways: tear-stained, disoriented, scheduling your second session, or if you’re on the conservative side, wanting to know who’s responsible for such a riotous and violent depiction of the society we’re in.
Thoughts similar to the last-mentioned are the reason why Phoenix stormed out of an interview, so keep that in mind. 

What’s so funny?
This psychological suspense with a 1980s backdrop in the depressing Gotham City slithers into the mind of Arthur Fleck, a hired clown by day and struggling stand-up comedian by night.
His clowning skills, his slow and disturbing theatrical dancing, and the fundamental distorted faces sure meet his employer’s and children’s expectations. But when it comes to his night job, there’s a caveat: he’s pitifully unfunny. 
He lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in an unkempt building, next door to the lovely Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother caring for her little daughter. Penny has a rather singular nickname for Arthur: Happy. 
Unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker, Arthur has no red-tinted “smile” slashed onto his face. Instead, we find that he suffers from a real condition—Pathological Laughter Disorder—which interrupts even the gloomiest moments with laughter spurts that are uncalled for. The scenes are painful to watch, as Phoenix masterfully replicated the condition
Although the film is peppered with a few genuine smiles, in Arthur’s own words, all he has are negative thoughts. 
The Joker is a timeless icon, and I don’t mean an icon restricted to the DC Universe and dedicated fans.
Everybody knows who the Joker is, regardless if they’ve decided to skip all Batman movies or are only familiarized with his cartoon version on TV or comics. Overall, we all know exactly who the green-haired clown with a creepy laugh is. 
Despite well-portrayed roles over the years and the same cornerstone characteristics (green hair, clownish makeup, and a laugh that’s a halfway meeting between spine-chilling and contagious), even highly comparable characters aren’t similar by a long shot.
Maybe that’s where Jared Leto’s spaced-out, guttural and slightly twangy snicker may have failed a few expectations. But hey, isn’t it all about innovation? 
But here’s the thing. Joker has no Harley Quinn or Batman.
Our job here is to pinpoint which factors were responsible for knocking the audience’s socks off during the trailer, and brilliantly justifying all the hype as soon as the credits rolled. 
The question is: what is it about Arthur Fleck that made people get to the movies hours before the premiere, and leave with more than they had anticipated?
In the writing lingo, how does one write a living, breathing villain people care deeply about and unconsciously root for, in spite of his (or her) dreadful decisions? 

1 – Make them care about the villain’s motivation

During his appearance in the acclaimed talk show Live With Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur states that, in the words of his own mother, he was brought into the world to bring joy and laughter. What could possibly ruin such warm words?
Several factors could, and of course I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet. However, one we can all agree on is the fact that some a-holes have the audacity to beat up an honest worker without a plausible reason but morbid fun (as seen on the trailer). 
You all remember Carrie.
Good girl, intellectual, pure. No initial reason to kill. But when dull-witted teenagers try to test her, we witness her slow descent into insanity throughout the prom carnage.
It wasn’t the only way out, but it was the result of accumulated frustration and, well, a superpower. It’s a comparable motivation. 
Of course, anyone could simply shrug it off and go “teens, right? They’re wild these days”. 
Trouble is, it’s not a one-time event, and it’s not just the teens who like to play around with fire. Do it once, it stings. Do it twice, you burn the wick a little shorter. The third time is when everything burns to the ground. 
  • When creating an empathetic villain, note that horrendous actions should be preceded by enough warnings.
  • It should make enough sense for someone to go from 0 to a 100, and they mustn’t simply decide it overnight. Otherwise, there’s no space for sorrow or any consideration whatsoever. Make them reach a slow, yet potent boiling point. 

2 – Let readers (and viewers) know: being the way they are isn’t their fault

Arthur’s life is quite tear-jerking. 
People make fun of a condition he can’t control, and he doesn’t even have the time (or oxygen) to explain himself. His therapist doesn’t seem to listen to his problems. For Christ sakes, he’s a 30 year old who lives with his mom because he’s still her baby, he needs to take care of her, and a shabby apartment is likely all he can afford with his job. 
It would be easy to despise Arthur if he just woke up one day and went “I want to kill!”, but we know it doesn’t happen that way. 
To top it all off, Arthur’s skeletal. Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role, incorporating a drastic diet to his lifestyle—one that led him to almost develop an eating disorder for the sake of embodying an anorexic man.  
  • When it comes to making the audience feel pity for your villain, make sure that the character tries their hardest to be a better human being. In spite of mental illness and debilitating conditions, they smile at children. They love their mother, they want a relationship, they’re following their dreams. Make sure that, above all, they don’t initially inherently wish to harm anyone. 
  • That is, until outside events and people play a role in ruining their 'goodness'.

3- We live in a society...

One specific line from the film was a field day for memers all around the web, when Arthur (as Joker) violently rants about a “society that treats him like trash”. 
Interestingly, Phoenix winged it there: the word “society” was supposed to be “system”. It worked just as well, if not better. 
All Arthur really wants is to be seen, and not stepped on.
He wants people to listen to what he has to say, whether it be a joke or a compliment.
He wants warmth, and kindness. He wants a decent society. Is that too much to ask?
Are people crude enough to partake in turning a desperate plea into madness? 
  • Although not strictly necessary, it works to make your villain a part of the ill-treated side of society. People who feel the same way about this mad world will deeply relate, and may even support the villain’s decisions, as wrong as they may seem. 

Had Arthur been spared from depreciative mockery and immoral accusations, his reputation would’ve remain untainted, the same way condescending jackasses wouldn’t have dared to mess with him if they knew a mental illness was involved. Or at least we hope not.  Sadly, some people would rather laugh in the face of danger before it’s too late. 
Stating that Joker was an emotional roller-coaster would be a trite understatement.
Efficient storytelling isn’t supposed to take you along the ride—it should put you in the front seat right beside the main character, where you can experience it first-hand and feel every moment intensely...but alas, you still can’t control the curves. 

When something happens, it should come as unexpectedly to you as it does to the character.
That’s where the chills and thrills lie, and that’s where Joker got it splendidly right from the very first scene to the grand finale.
Laila Resende is a 20-year-old freelance copywriter and a Feature Writer and Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. Her insatiable passion for movies and blogging is perfect for her role as Feature Writer & Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. 

Laila shares all of Into The Script's news on her Instagram page (@lailarsnde) and Facebook.

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