Classic storytelling involves two main elements: a hero, and a villain. It’s easy to spot these guys most of the time. Batman stops The Joker from brainwashing the city. Spiderman protects citizens from the madness of Doc Ock. The western Sherif arrests the bank robbers. Good and bad, hero and villain. But sometimes the villain isn’t as easy to see. Sometimes the true villain of a story is invisible, and I’m not talking about spirits or ghosts.
Evil doesn’t have to have arms and legs. It doesn’t have to have a clever name or a hideout or a master plan to take over Gotham City. Truly sinister villains are the ones that don’t have one face, one body that can be locked up in prison or even sentenced to death. Real villainy has many faces. It sneaks in the back of people’s minds and hearts and sets up camp. Pretty soon, the hero isn’t in a battle with guns, or magic spells, but he’s fighting against prejudice. He’s fighting against pride, his own or someone else’s. He’s dodging around rumors and words that cut him worse than any knife or dagger. He’s trying to escape political tyranny or memories that won’t leave him alone. He’s screaming for peace, when everyone around him is fighting for war. He’s defending against his own thoughts, the ones that beat him down and torture him from the inside. He’s grasping for patience when his loved ones are filled with stubbornness. He’s losing the battle for his heart that keeps being broken by people who are supposed to care the most. He’s exhausted from standing up to the fear that is making good people act crazy.
The unseen villain is like fighting off the weather – it never goes away, and you never know what form it will take next. You win in small steps, not huge leaps. So when you’re thinking about the conflict of your story, and you’re mapping out your heroes and villains, don’t forget about the ones that stand offstage. Hate. Pride. Selfishness. Paranoia. Memories and the never-quiet conscience. Fear that infects like an incurable disease. Rumors and words that are meant to be weapons. Heartbreak and segregation.
The invisible villains aren’t really invisible, they just like to commit subterfuge among the things you know best: your mom, your lifelong friend, the mayor of your city, the pastor of your church, the girl you love, the voice in your head. Sometimes it’s you. Sometimes you are the villain and the hero.