Theory of Villains: 4 Traits

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Last week, I had a fun discussion with some friends on Facebook about what makes a good villain. After reading the feedback I went away with some new and specific ideas.

I now have a Theory of Villains ver. 1.0.

The context: I’m playing Jigger Craigin in Carousel with the Las Cruces Symphony. He is a villain, and I’m hoping he has the traits of being a good villain, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant.

First, it’s important to answer this question: what is a villain?

This seems intuitive, but it took me some time. Here’s the best I can approximate: a villain is a character who is motivated to make an overriding choice to destroy or otherwise harm another major character or characters and acts on that choice.

It’s that simple and that specific. As a list:

  1. Character
  2. Motivation
  3. Choice to do harm for duration of plot (super objective)
  4. Action

Must there be a villain?

No. We can all list beloved fictional works that have no villain but instead have characters making choices that lead to the harm of another character. Life is full of people who hurt others without intentional malice but just out of some weakness or accident. So theater, opera, film and literature are full of those characters.

But we all – probably – know someone who truly does harm other people intentionally. So theater, opera, film and literature are full of those people as well.

The Character

A villain has to be a character. It can’t be an idea (society, disease, existence, etc.). If the goal is social criticism then there must be some personification of that.

For example, in The Fountainhead it’s clear that Ayn Rand has a beef with society at large. But she focuses the worst traits into the character of Ellsworth Toohey. Whether you agree with Rand’s worldview or not, Toohey is effective as a villain because he can show us directly what traits Rand finds so repulsive. 

Another instance is Abigail in The Crucible. While the play is obvious social commentary, Abigail exploits the society’s flaws for her malicious ends.

The Motivation

The villain will feel justified in his/her own mind to act the way he/she does, and sometimes that motivation can be awful enough that the audience sympathizes to a point. There’s plenty of tragedy in the lives of villains.

In the original Facebook discussion, some people answering my question emphasized the need to sympathize with the villain. This can even go so far as to turn the villain himself into a tragic character. While this isn’t always necessary, it does make some heroes their own villain and expands the definition of a villain.

But often, the motivation won’t inspire sympathy in the audience. Sometimes it’s childish envy or overblown self pity. Sometimes the villain is a psychopath, and their motivation is incomprehensible. For example, Heath Ledger’s Joker may have some tragic past, but he uses it to confuse his victims like a cuttlefish doing its pre-strike glow, rather than providing some actual backstory.

Nevertheless, the villain is always justified to himself.

The Choice to Harm

Their reaction to their motivation goes too far. They become obsessed, and they make a choice to hurt someone deliberately.

Agency

A villain has agency, that is, the ability to choose. The primary example might be Iago from Othello. Why? He chooses to hurt Othello and as many of Othello’s closest loved ones as possible.

Another example is Khan from Star Trek II. His overruling purpose is to hurt or kill Kirk and everyone on the Enterprise. Khan is willing to sacrifice his entire – albeit small – society and family in the name of revenge. It’s a choice. His line “And I wish to go on … hurting you” – before Kirk’s infamous “Khaaaaaan!” – is the telltale sign that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Monsters Aren’t Villains

A villain is different from a monster. For examples, I don’t believe that the Terminator or King Kong are villains.

Monsters don’t make choices, they do what’s in their nature or they act out of incomplete and confused information. The Terminators were instructed by the intelligent Skynet to act, and – being computers – they acted. King Kong is so large that – especially in an unnatural environment – he can’t help but destroy things.

A more challenging case exists for Frankenstein’s monster. The monster could be called a villain since it does gain some measure of self-awareness and chooses to hurt Frankenstein in various ways. These choices are clearly motivated but are obsessive and overblown.

And yet, the monster can be perceived as an overgrown child, and we have a hard time ascribing the same level of responsibility to a child as to an adult. Absent his enormous body, he wouldn’t be able to harm in the same way, and it can be argued that it was created to harm: what else could a hideous 8 foot tall man with the maturity of a child who was rejected at birth do but hurt people intentionally or otherwise?

It’s a more grey area, but I still come down on the side of Frankenstein’s monster not being a villain.

Action

The villain acts and propels the plot by forcing reactions.

The Best Action?

Ask yourself these questions:

Why is Darth Vader so frightening? How does Hagen defeat Siegfried? How does Scarpia convince Tosca? What does the Ring (in LOTR and the Ring Cycle) inspire its owners to do? How does J. R. Ewing get people to do what he wants? How does Iago convince Othello to murder his wife?  Why does Khan put worms into people’s ears? How does Lady Macbeth convince her husband to kill? Which of Voldemort’s powers does Harry fear the most in the final three books?

Mind control. You could also call it manipulation, but I like mind control because it cuts to the core of what the villain is doing. In supernatural villains, this might involve some form of magic that forces a character to act a certain way. Non-superpowered humans are con artists who play on human failings to steer someone down a dangerous path. Sometimes it’s a mixture of both.

The goal is to make other people do the villain’s work for them. At the very least the protagonist must feel like they cannot fully trust themselves or those around them. At the worst, the protagonist makes a choice that advances the villain’s goal.

Back to Iago: he’s a con artist of the highest order. He uses no violence on his own behalf but instead persuades his victims to attack one another. He is not only sincere but is amongst the most trusted of Othello’s inner circle. “Honest Iago” and all that.

Here he is contemplating his con:

The best villains are often extremely charming, which assists the con. J.R. Ewing in Dallas is charming even as he delivers insults or ruins someone’s life. Many villains have lots of sex appeal as a part of their technique. Jarreth the Goblin King (David Bowie) in Labyrinth is this kind of villain. His sex appeal works against and confuses the protagonist even while it fascinates the audience. This heightens the danger because the girl is clearly an inappropriate target for a man his age.

Check him out in this video, which my girlfriend claims has seduced many female viewers:

The prevalent use of mind control by villains fascinates me. It’s very human to fear our own minds. We’re not particularly strong animals, and our minds are our greatest asset. A good villain must make our strengths work against us.

To reiterate: charm, sincerity, sex appeal and all that are techniques the villain uses to control the audience’s and the other character’s perceptions of them. They are trying to fool everyone. As Leslie responded on Facebook:

“I’ve known a few real life con artists and their strongest characteristic is sincerity… Con artists don’t “fake” sincerity. They seem to have a little glitch in their thinking pattern that causes them to actually believe their own fiction.”

If you love a villain, then they have fooled you and controlled your opinion of them. Which is fine for the audience. Who doesn’t love a charming villain?

Good Villains Raise the Stakes

Now that we know what a villain is, how can we identify a good villain? Raise the stakes:

  1. Character ——> More interesting given circumstances, more unusual character
  2. Motivation —–> Greater hurt suffered by villain
  3. Choice to harm —–> Bigger choice in higher risk situations, dirty (betrayal, corruption)
  4. Action —–> More effective, more capable character (mind control/manipulation, intellect, social power, wealth, magic, physical strength), reasonable chance of success (Iago is a better villain than Don John in Much Ado About Nothing partially because he’s much more effective)

Let’s Get Dangerous

This is ver 1.0, so any other thoughts are welcome (even if you just want to let me know your favorite villains). But this has already helped me clarify my choices during this rehearsal process, and I hope it will help someone else when they play a villain.

Tenor or a Baritone? 5 Questions to Help you Decide

Do you know what the real definition of a lazy tenor is?
A very rich baritone!
Thomas Hampson

Note: I have edited this article slightly since it was first published, and I’ve changed one of the original five questions. I sing baritone now, and am very happy singing baritone. As I write this, I’m 30 years old, and my voice has grown into itself. My experiences singing as a tenor probably slowed down my career as a baritone somewhat, but those experiences also made me a much smarter singer. I feel a responsibility to keep this article current with what I believe about singing because it is – by far – the most read article on this site, and I don’t want to steer anybody wrong. Enjoy. – Ian, Aug. 30, 2013

In Spring 2009, I switched from baritone to tenor (and since then, I’ve happily switched back). Since I’ve written about this struggle often, a lot of people have found this blog by asking the question via Google: Am I a tenor or a baritone?

The answer: it depends.

Fach Identities as a Tenor or a BaritoneIt's not everyday that you see Werther  sung by a baritone.

There is a lot of identity that goes with singing within a certain fach (voice type). One person’s personality may be attracted to one kind of character over another, but their voice may point them in a different direction.

Baritones play more villains (Scarpia, Jago, Jud Fry, Javert, Klingsor) or men of questionable integrity (Count Almaviva, Oppenheimer, Escamillo, Don Giovanni, Wotan) than tenors. Baritones are often cast in comic roles (Figaro, Papageno). When they’re heroic, in opera, they can often have a fatal flaw (Valentin, Amfortas, Wolfram, Flying Dutchman, Athanaël).

Tenors tend to be lovers (Nemorino, Fenton, Rinuccio, Rodolfo, Alfredo, Faust) and heroes (Siegfried, Jean Valjean, Parsifal), and, at their worst, they can be jerks (Pinkerton) or creeps (Hermann), but they are rarely murderers (Don José). Tenor roles can be less dramatically complex and meaty than baritone roles, but musically – in my opinion – they tend to get the soaring tunes that folks tend to whistle afterwards.

If you are a baritone who wants to play primary protagonists all the time, your options may be limited in opera and more plentiful in musical theater (Curly, Lancelot, Marius) or operetta.

In my early struggles with being a baritone, I was hoping that I could be the next Thomas Hampson and get some of the rarely performed baritone versions of popular tenor roles tenor roles transposed (Werther ), but that was and remains unlikely.

Questions to Ask Yourself

None of these questions are fool-proof. Some baritones have high passaggi and some tenors have a hard time with high C’s, but these can get you thinking more clearly about who you are:

  1. Are you uncomfortable or in pain?

    If you feel sore when you sing, whether it’s high or low, then you may want to try something else. If A2 on the bass clef feels bad to you, then you may be a higher voice. But if E4 feels bad to you even after regular practice, then you may have a low voice.

  2. Where is your passaggio?

    Where is the most unstable area of your voice? That’s likely to be your passaggio. Usually, it is a good guide to help you decide whether you are a high or low voiced person.

    Normally, we speak of having two passaggio breaks: the first break (primo passaggio) and the second break (secondo passaggio) with a zone in between (zona di passaggio).

    For me, the zona di passaggio feels similar to singing on a tight rope where one wrong move will cause me voice to flip in and out of falsetto in a fluttery kind of way. It is also difficult to hear my own voice properly there.

    Here is the chart from Richard Miler’s The Structure of Singing laying out men’s passaggio points (with those in parentheses being alternates):

    Voice Type primo passaggio secondo passaggio
    tenorino F4 Bb4
    tenore leggiero E4 (Eb4) A4 (Ab4)
    tenore lirico D4 G4
    tenore spinto D4 (C#4) G (F#4)
    tenore robusto (tenore drammatico) C4 (C#4) F4 (F#4)
    baritono lirico B3 E4
    baritono drammatico Bb3 Eb4
    basso cantante A3 D4
    basso profondo Ab3 (G3) Db4 (C4)

    Test out your voice by singing a truly pure “Ah” vowel beginning in your speaking voice area. As you ascend, you will reach a point where you have to tilt your jaw up if you continue to sing in the exact same manner as you began. That’s your primo passaggio. A fourth above is your secondo passaggio. This doesn’t work in 100% of cases, but it usually is helpful.

  3. What is your most comfortable tessitura?

    I’m editing this question because I’ve changed my mind about it. The best guide to your range is where you’re happiest singing with good technique for an extended amount of time, or the tessitura. Even if you can manage to sing all the notes in a given tessitura, it must sound pretty easy for you, or the audience will have a kind of cognitive dissonance with your performance. You might be able to honk out a killer high note, but if you cannot actually sing in the tessitura required by a piece, then you aren’t actually that voice type.

    For me: I’m happiest singing in the baritone range. When I sang Nemorino, I did it, but it felt so incredibly difficult and stressful, while singing Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro felt great. This takes experience and lots of trial and error, but if singing stops being fun due to an incorrect choice, then it’s best to make a different choice.

  4. What is your reaction to other singers?This gives "Big Mouth Frog" exercises a whole new context

    If you listen to a singer and think “Yes, we can!”, then give it a shot and see. Try what they do. Don’t get attached because it might be wrong for you right now, but there’s nothing wrong in trying something out once. Your gut may be telling you something.

    If you feel inadequate after listening to a singer or a sense that it is totally beyond you, then maybe that repertoire is not right for you.

  5. Are you faking it?

    You may not feel any discomfort or pain when you sing, but you may be faking it.

    Faking Baritone?

    Faking baritones will make choices that appear to make their voices lower and darker than they naturally would be. The voice might be quite dark, but something won’t ring true about it.

    Examples of baritone fakery include a tongue shoved into your throat or an overly lengthened vocal tract by shoving your lips outward. You may be pulling your top lip down to darken your sound. You may be modifying your vowels too early to create an artificially low passaggio. You may sound incredibly loud to your own ears but small voiced to everyone else.

    Baritones are able to have a clear phonation lower than most tenors. Baritones aren’t basses, and they don’t need to sound like basses, but at G3 and lower (down to Bb2 or lower depending on the baritone) they must be able to phonate without breathiness. It doesn’t matter how dark the timbre is if the singer doesn’t have this fundamental clarity.  Naturally, beginning singers may have a hard time phonating clearly in any part of the voice, so some flexibility is required there.

    Faking Tenor?

    Faking tenors will make choices that make their voices appear higher and lighter than they naturally are. They might be able to sing very high notes, but something will feel false.

    Faking tenors may have a larynx that is pulled up into the backs of their throats. To give the appearance of a high passaggio, they may keep their voices spread instead of modifying their vowels appropriately. This sound may not sound like singing at all and may be highly unpleasant to listen to (though even the prettiest voice can sound unpleasant if it’s loud and in a small room).

    True tenor high notes must be connected to the body. A faking tenor can use a well rounded hard rock wail to sing very high notes, but it won’t have the same rooting that true tenors have, and they won’t have a smooth transition to the rest of the voice. A true tenor should be able to briefly grunt most of their high notes with full abdominal support, while a baritone will hit an early uppermost limit.  Try it through lazily rounded lips using the word “buddy” with a Texas drawl for help (Thank you, Julian). The “u” will sound more like the vowel sound from “book”.

    As a general bit of advice: try singing as simply as you can for awhile and forget all of your technique and Fach identity. Just intone some “Ah”s and try to avoid creating any tension in your throat. Record yourself. What do you hear?

Do I have a choice?Melchior made the switch. Should you?

For most people, the answer is ‘no’. For most people, they are clearly in one camp or the other, and there is very little they can do to alter that. The question becomes “What kind of (bass,baritone,tenor,alto,mezzo,soprano) am I?” That takes time to learn as well.

But for some others, they may have a choice. Lauritz Melchior sang as professional baritone before he switched up, and he must have been credible to audiences at the time. Thomas Hampson could probably have made a credible tenor, but he’s done ok for himself.

The choice to remain or change is a highly personal one. If you are toying with the idea then talk to your teacher (and maybe several; I got a second opinion with my teacher’s blessing) and take some time to play with it. There’s no harm in play.

[Have you made a change in your fach? What was the experience like? Was it easy, hard, in between?]

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{“Si se puede” frog by artfulblogger.}