I am making my way through Robert McKee’s Story (subtitled Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting) for the second time (it’s just so good!) and I wanted to touch on McKee’s principle of “the negation of the negation” and how it used to create the most powerful villains.
First, when I say “powerful villain” I don’t mean that they command armies, are all-seeing, or in any other way like Sauron from Lord of the Rings. I mean a character that is emotionally powerful to the audience, memorable so that they become etched into the readers mind and become a living, breathing villain of such menace that they cannot forget them. (For the record, I believe that Sauron fits into the latter category as well).
But why create such a villain?
As McKee says:
We pour energy into the negative side of the story not only to bring the protagonist and other characters to full realization. . . . but to take the story itself to the limits of human experience.
He even claims that:
The primary reason weak screenplays (or novels), and the films made from them, fail is ignorance of the principle of antagonism. A protagonist and the story he or she lives can only be as fascinating, as emotionally compelling, as the forces of antagonism make them.
To set up his principle we must first understand that protagonists and antagonists exist on a value spectrum, where protagonists exist at one end and antagonists, usually, at the other. When it comes to the controlling value of the story the antagonist is, to a certain level, the opposite of the protagonist.
And that level at which the antagonist is opposite the protagonist most times depends on the skill of the writer. For there are three levels of antagonism, and each is more difficult to obtain then the last. Here they are:
1st – THE CONTRARY
2nd – THE CONTRADICTORY
3rd – THE NEGATION OF THE NEGATION
The contrary is the least powerful. If, for example, the controlling value of a story is love then the contrary to love would be dislike. The contradictory takes us slightly deeper on the spectrum of human nastiness where the contradictory of love would be hate.
Most writers, he warns, stop there. Which isn’t surprising to be honest. The contradictory is easy to think of and a seemingly clear end of the line. For if I am writing a story about love then obvious opposite should be hate right?
There are countless works out there that do this. But in order to create the most compelling villains, and thereby the most compelling conflicts and stories, the writer needs to go one more step: The Negation of the Negation. “A force of antagonism that is doubly negative.”
Let me explain.
You would be correct in thinking that hate is the opposite of love. That fear is the opposite of faith. That greed is the opposite of generosity. But that’s not enough. The master writer must negate this opposite again in order to delve deeper still into the dark corners of humanity to find antagonists that are truly menacing and equally memorable.
Perhaps this is best explained with an example:
In Harry Potter the controlling value is love. Love is what protects Harry throughout the series. Love and tolerance is what Harry and his mentor Dumbledore embody. Hate then is the opposite, here is the spectrum:
Controlling Value: Love
Contrary Value: Dislike
Embodiment: The Malfoys – for they dislike Harry and Dumbledore and everything that they stand for, but in the end their love for their son, Draco, overcomes their allegiance to Voldemort, their desire for evil, and their dislike of Harry.
Contradictory Value: Hate
Embodiment: Bellatrix Lestrange – it is not hard to see her as the embodiment of hate. She exudes it every time she makes and appearance. But she still loves one person, Voldemort. And therefore she cannot be the arch villain in this story and settles for second fiddle. I might point out though, that in other stories, less talented writers may have made her the main antagonist.
Negation of the Negation: Hate of One’s Own Self
Embodiment: Voldemort – in his lust and quest for power he loses love not only for all others (including his followers), but also for himself. To the extent that he rips his soul into pieces in an attempt to maintain his power and cement himself as immortal. In this way Voldemort a quality and rememberable villain, because he is completely devoid of love, even for himself.
McKee points out a couple other examples, not applied to a particular story:
Controlling Value: Justice
Contrary Value: Unfairness
Contradictory Value: Injustice
Negation of the Negation: Tyranny
Controlling Value: Truth
Contrary Value: White Lies
Contradictory Value: Blatant Lies
Negation of the Negation: Self-Deception
Anyways, the point of all of this is that a story can be judged by the quality of it’s antagonism. For if the forces of antagonism are weak then the protagonist and their story will also be subsequently weak. It reminds me of Newton’s Third Law of Motion where:
When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction
Meaning that antagonism MUST BE strong so that they opposing protagonist must rise to meet it.
This is what I hope to do with my writing! Try to think of your favorite villains and apply McKee’s principle to them. Do they reach all the way to the negation of the negation? Feel free to share below.