Screenwriting : Should the bad guy win or lose? by Emily Ann Jefferson

Emily Ann Jefferson

Should the bad guy win or lose?

I notice that almost everyone roots for the bad guy. And some people just love evil more then good. I was writing about a child abuser and I was just planning on him just getting away with abusing kids and finds a better paying job/ more comfortable job then the hero. People just hand out things to the bad guy, he doesn't need to work. Why? Because I notice doing this gets the reader more round up, and emotional. Resides after all I see is the bad guy always gets away with doing bad things while the hero suffers. I'm i right? Or do you disagree?

Stephen Barber

Almost every single day I tell my kids, "Good guy's always what?" And they reply with, "Win!" now, whether they ("bad guy") should win or lose? I think it's more important in screenplay to decide (if) the bad guy LIVES or DIES...

Steve Cleary

This is a good question. I think it's about balance and catharsis. If the bad guy doesn't get his just deserts at the end, especially if he's been a total d!ck the whole movie, then the audience will feel incomplete with that character, perhaps even cheated. Moreover, if you can give the bad guy some justification for his behavior, even if it's within his own mind, that would add considerably to their complexity and their conflict with the protagonist.

Pierre Langenegger

"Almost everyone roots for the bad guy"? What sort of movies are you watching?

Aray Brown

Depends on the movie. I personally love villains more than I do the hero but there could be stipulations involved (saying in general) the hero could be dark or the bad guy could have goodness in him

William Martell

The bad guy should dance.

Oben Janet

I agree with you Brown, most writers paint the bad guy as the worst of creation but I think that everyone has a tiny detail of goodness or maybe without a bad guy, there is no great story

D Marcus

Aray; when you say you personally love villains more than you do the hero does that mean you are rooting for the villain? Do you want the hero to lose? As an example; do you watch "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) rooting for the Witch kill Dorothy? When you first saw "Star Wars" (1977) were you rooting for the villain to kill the hero as he attempts to blow up the Death star? I think many people "love" the villain (Frank Booth being my fav) but do most people root for the villain? Do they want the villain to win?

Frederic Lecamus

If you're interested to know why we root for the bad guy, you may want to look at the shadow concept that Jung brought. It basically deals with everything we don't allow ourselves to do in real life that is suddenly impersonated with some panache on the screen. And maybe with a little "glam" on top. Now you assume that whoever does the right thing (on a moral stance) is the hero. Why not. But your movie is about at least one protagonist and at least one antagonist. A "good" protagonist (in terms of quality, not moral stance) should be surprising, not boring, fascinating and memorable; but he does not have to be likeable. The term hero leads often to a preconceived moral argument, so maybe you want to ask yourself around whom your narration will pivot. And that will define who your protagonist is, wether or not he is a "good guy" is up to your inspiration... As for the antagonist, the protagonist is only as good as the conflict he gets in the story. So your antagonist needs to be strong and fascinating as well, for he's supposed to be doing the easy thing. Note that he can also morally win at the end, with the hero, when you're writing a double reversal.

Justice Cole Elias

The bad guy should win, Then you have a Segway in for a sequel.

Aray Brown

@D Marcus - In most films, the villains are more interesting than the hero. More complex, more depth. Did I root for The Witch In The Wizard Of Oz to kill Dorothy? No, everyone roots for Dorothy to prevail but at the same token the witch's character was far more entertaining. Maybe I'm just a fan of any character who's dark, wicked and mysterious.

Steven Michael

What's really cool is when the bad guy loses by winning. He/she never loses their innate nature, and it brings them down. Another interesting slant is when the good guy follows his/her bad side and never returns (I also posted on the Tragedy post, so it's still on the brain).

D Marcus

Thank you Aray. I, too, feel the same way. I often love the villain but I'm never rooting for the villain. Emily stated "almost everyone roots for the bad guy". You said, "it depends on the case". In what movie or story do you root for the bad guy to win over the hero? Frederic, you say "we root for the bad guy". Do we? Do you? Do you hope for the success of the bad guy in most stories? Like my "The Wizard of Oz" example? Do you hope the Witch succeeds is killing Dorothy?

Frederic Lecamus

Well, to be more precise, some people will openly root for the bad guy, some will root for him but won't admit it... And some will be in complete moral opposition. The theory is that the more ego we have (identifications) the more shadow we create (tabous). The result is that the more identifications and rules we force on your social behaviour, the more likely we are to be fascinated by the antagonist who openly transgresses the morale rules. See it as "he can do what I can't" -or- the heavier the burden, the deeper the fascination. It is close to the exaltation you can feel when doing something that is socially forbidden or unacceptable, it comes from the exception you allow yourself to go beyond your ego - and it translates either in fear/anxiety (self preservation from the mind) or excitement (exterior manifestation of a repressed emotion). I guess that, depending on the moral action of the antagonist, we will all go through one or more of the three possible stances. It can change over time, of course, but the inner workings are pretty "simple". Am I making sense?

Aray Brown

@D Marcus - I always root for the good guy

Cherie Grant

Wow William, I can't imagine that film ever being made or distributed. Yeah I'd turned down some things if they went against my morals. I mean I might bend a little, but I certainly have my limits.

D Marcus

Frederic, no, you're not making sense to me. I'm less educated than you. I'm sure what you're saying is intellectually sensible but I'm more creative/right brained. I'm coming from a storytelling focus. Do most people root for (hope for success) the bad guy in a story? I'm sure you're right about the deeper roots of theory, but I'm curious about how people react to a story.

Guillermo Ramon

My theater group and I were participating in a play festival. They assigned us a play in which the main character laughs about how something smells as bad as a hospice. We found it denigrating and rejected the play. During performances, we realized some other group were performing that play. We, and many other people were disgusted by them. Still, someone actually performed the play. There are all sorts of people in the world. I am sure, someone will produce a play that encourages child abuse. However, there will be many, like me, that will repudiate it.

Bradley Peter Scott

I wouldn't suggest a blanket response to a debate like this. Just like in life - sometimes the good guy/s win, some times the bad guy/s win. I think it depends on your characters, and the events that unfold. Stephen King once suggested (in Stephen King's 'On Writing') that the story's bones already exist - buried beneath the earth - and that it is our job as the writer, is to excavate .

Frederic Lecamus

Okay Marcus, let's use a different angle then. My position is that bad or good makes absolutely no sense. Bad or good is a judgement, and a moral judgment is subjective. What is morally good to you might not be for someone else and that's why we should talk about what the protagonist does - if it fits his construction and not just if he's "good or bad". Examples of people rooting for the "bad" guy: - Dexter. How good is the protagonist? He's obviously morally wrong but with his flaws, and that's why people root for him. - House of Lies. Same thing. - Marvel and comics: you know no one who roots for Spawn or Magneto? - House of Cards. People admire Franck's ambition, but that only works well in North America. The character is hated in Europe, because he's too opportunistic and raw (although deep down people express the frustration at not being like him). - Game of Thrones. A huge example of various characters with different moralities. Take a look at this infographic ( and see how, in general, people react. Joffrey is NOT a good person, yes? Yet, he's the one receiving the most attention in the US when he's absolutely and genuinely disliked by the rest of the world. To summarise, defining characters as good or bad is one the nose, it's script dumbing down. Maturity has come from TV shows and has forced hollywood to step up its game, to get out of the black and white profiles to enter the gray areas. If you think a good character should always win, then you're not making a realistic character since no one in life is always good or bad. People also bear profound contradictions when it comes to moral perspective. And that is why "good" or "bad" means absolutely nothing, just for the fact that doing evil is good morals for an evil character... Now if you define your protagonist as a "good guy" then you're most likely writing him the way -you- see life, with your own morals; and that is not a universal perspective. It's just the writer's. Some people will agree, some people won't.

D Marcus

Interesting take, Fredric. So there is no "Good" and no "Bad" - only personal, subjective judgment. Raping a child may be "good" depending on ones subjective moral judgement. Helping an elderly person carry groceries up a flight of stairs may be "bad" to someones subjective moral judgement.

Cherie Grant

D Marcus he's taking a philosophical POV. In a way he is right. But that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

Guillermo Ramon

It is obvious that from a logical perspective good and bad are relative, since they are adjectives. Adjectives and adverbs are subjective. However, there are two very different worlds out there. Some people live in the arm chair philosopher world, in which values are relative and reality is contextual. However, even as they get hungry they have to return to the world of senses. No matter how subjective your hunger is, you have to end up eating. Else, even though some people think that there is no real death, you die. There is a`difference between considering that broccoli is good only for some people, and thinking that rape can be good for others. This is the fact. I was walking by the street one night at 2 AM when I was in college. A young girl was walking half a block ahead of me. A guy came from behind the bushes and drag her into the alley. I ran. She screamed for help. I grabbed him, punched him, he ran. I went after him, wanting to kill him. He was faster. The girl was so scared, she was afraid of me. I had to insist on walking her home. She kept looking at me with fear. She could have been my sister, my mother, or even a girl that any of you guys met later and became the mother of your children. The fact here is that an evil action is one that scars us. Actions that cause suffering in others are bad. You can be very good at philosophizing, but your actions have consequences that are good or bad, in the eyes of the law, of society, or of people who may want to avenge what you did. Will their revenge we good or bad? I think that is the question you must ask next.

Bill Costantini

Good discussion about morality, and right versus wrong. Sometimes the line is blurred because we love the bad guys so much who may be purely evil beings (think of your favorite gangster movies), and sometimes it can be based on an issue where both sides have different sets of morals (think of issues like nationalism, abortion, illegal immigrants, business goals or political tyrants ), and the good guy or bad guy is relative to your position on the issue. The line between good and bad can certainly become blurred AT TIMES. Some movies that explore that line (like No Country for Old Men, The Wicker Man, most war movies). And sometimes, the truly evil bad guy wins at the end (movies like 7even, Primal Fear, Rosemary's Baby, The Vanishing, The Usual Suspects). And sometimes, one bad guy wins, and another loses, and the good guys/girls win, too (like in The Silence of the Lambs). Many studies have been conducted over the last 20 years or so that address how the lines of ethics and morals have been changed due to the needs of people, corporations institutions and countries. It's a good theme to write about - from personal, group, institutional and societal standpoints. Here is a line from a review about an interesting film (The Boy) that blurs the lines, too. "Void of any significant violence and gore, The Boy resides almost entirely in the viewers' psyche until the very end when we first see Ted's inner sociopath emerge from his cocoon in a gloriously twisted fashion that remarkably still maintains a poetic, contemplative undertone and blurs the lines between right and wrong." Travis Keune

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