Michaeline: Thoughts on Writing a Modern Villain

Wizard of Oz Illustration. Dorothy consoles the Cowardly Lion with Tinman and Scarecrow looking on.

Faking it isn’t a new problem. If you think about it, almost everyone in *The Wizard of Oz* was fronting. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Hugh Laurie discusses his role as a fake space cruise captain on The Graham Norton Show (aired January 24, 2020) while promoting his new TV series, Avenue 5.

He says: “That’s right. I am a fake. The captain is actually not a proper captain. He doesn’t really know anything about space travel and isn’t even American. He has absolutely no qualifications whatsoever.

“Because the premise is that what matters is confidence, is reassurance, is – the façade is what matters rather than the technical competence. And I think that is a pretty telling statement about the world in which we live.

“That fronting things out has become a more valuable gift than actually knowing how things work. And I think that partly accounts for the great anxiety that the world now feels. That we are now bossed by people who have the confidence without . . . or at least with much much less competence than the confidence – you know what I mean.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Graham Norton says, tugging on his ear.

There’s so much I want to say about this clip, and so little space to do it in. So let me bullet point a few things, and we can discuss it at length in the comments.

The Wizard of Oz, sitting on stool with no background, but you know the scene from the movie, probably.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” The Great and Powerful Oz was a hot-air specialist from our world, who managed to turn his incompetence with a balloon into the leadership of a magical country. The meeting with the Wizard resonates very strongly with our times and leaders. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

1. Graham Norton is a fabulous entertainer, and my favorite interview/host. He often puts together a great collection of stars, and puts them on the Red Couch to interact, with just a nudge or two from himself and his cards. This particular couch is made up of Robert Downey, Jr., Emma Thompson, and Hugh Laurie. It’s joined later by Terry Gilliam with a toast to the recently departed Terry Jones and also a clip from his new movie, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (starring Adam Driver). Oh, and a lovely musical performance by Sara Bareilles singing “She Used to Be Mine” from the musical Waitress. If you have a few hours to spend, Norton is well worth looking for on YouTube, both for his talk show and other interviews and appearances.
2. Hugh Laurie! Emma Thompson!! Who dated in college when they were members of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club (former president and vice-president respectively; Footlights produced a whole lot of comedic genius including Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson).
3. “The façade is what matters rather than the technical competence.” I’m still letting that sink in. That’s often been true, especially in show biz, but often in politics and even places where the competence really, really matters, such as structural engineering. It’s OK to have a veneer of razz-ma-tazz as long as there are clearly marked exits that lead to safe, grounded spaces. See also: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, blind them with bullshit.” (Source unknown.)
4. “Fronting things out has become a more valuable gift than actually knowing how things work.” This is a great way to give a villain some dimension. They are very, very competent in managing their public persona, but problems keep happening, because they aren’t very competent at their real job. It can be farcical, sad, tragic. This kind of fakehood, though, feels very, very real in 2020. Readers and viewers all over the world will connect with this, and know exactly what you, the writer, are talking about.
5. Yeah, but . . . does anybody really know what they are doing to the extent they probably should know? This adds dimension to heroes and heroines, as well. Relatable.

The whole show is well worth searching out and spending 45 minutes on. But you’ll have to hurry. If my math is correct, the BBC will take it off their website around February 22, and if you look on YouTube (ahem), it may be gone by Monday. Season 26, Episode 15.

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: Thoughts on Writing a Modern Villain

  1. The con has been with us for a long time, and with it, people who are willing to be conned. Think of PT Barnum, for example. I know this is not exactly what Hugh Laurie was talking about—-he was probably talking about our president, and in that case, definitely the façade of competence is what keeps him propped up.

    I think this idea of facades being more important then core knowledge is true for many occupations that entail persuading people who have no knowledge of the topic whatsoever. But I think it’s less easy to pull off when a group of knowledgeable people is working something out—-say, scientists who are all working toward a particular goal or solution, even if they work for different institutions. Their audience is themselves, and they duke it out in the footnotes of peer-reviewed journals.

    But yes, I basically don’t have any quarrel with the notion that the façade of reassurance is what counts. Even if the person is not a villain—-even if the person is trying to lead a bunch of people through a big fire, say—-it’s important to take a leadership stance if you want people to follow you.

    • I think I take the middle road path so often — ideally, our leaders would be people who have both the knowledge and the confidence. Confidence without knowledge is OK as long as SOMEONE on the team has the knowledge (and is possibly willing to go without credit). Knowledge without confidence, though? Oh. That’s a toughie. It’d take a long history of knowing this uncharismatic character is always or often right to inspire confidence, if they don’t cultivate a façade (or the real thing). People won’t listen.

      Lois McMaster Bujold touches upon some of this confidence without competence stuff, particularly in Falling Free. A corporation has created a race of four-armed space dwelling humans, but then the corporation runs out of money and starts to think of liquidating their stock — but the stock has some clever ideas of their own! People who fake welding seams also come up.

  2. Incompetence covered by a veneer of confidence certainly creates a villain, but for real danger to the protagonist, my money is on the competent and intentional villain. I used to work with a guy who looked like a sleepy-eyed teddy bear. He was a very talented manager–and totally without scruples.

    • Oh, that’s really dangerous, too. Confidence, competence but no ethics or human compassion — eye on the bottom line or what’s good for #1. In fiction, those guys often have a Fatal Flaw that allows the hero to bring them down. In real life? Some of them seem to be quite clever and can keep things going for a long time.

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