Alright, it's time for more talk about villains, what makes them tick, and why they drive our stories. Last time, we talked about what defined a villain, particularly the presence of menace, and the need for a hero. I briefly touched on my thoughts about villainous motivations, but figured that it would be a good topic to get into further.
What any good discussion needs, particularly when you are as poor a lecturer as me, are tried and true examples. Through this method of illustration, any hack can appear knowledgeable and insightful while playing off of the brilliance of those that have paved the way ahead.
With that in mind, let's take a look at various villainous motivations in The Godfather.
I love the Godfather for many reasons, but at the heart of it all, I love that basically every character throughout the films is a bad guy of some sort. You have liars and cheats and swindlers and double-crossers and murderers and embezzlers, and that's before you even leave the Corleone household. This is a great field of examples for the various motivations felt by antagonists of all sorts, and villains in particular.
Santino "Sonny" Corleone
We start with Sonny because, of all the Corleone family, he wears his villainy out for all to see. He is morally bankrupt in his personal life and outwardly violent in his running of the family business. While he certainly isn't the only one driven by anger, vengeance, and hate, he is certainly the one least afraid to show it.
The driving force behind Sonny's every action is his desire to live up to his father, perhaps even to outshine him. As the eldest son, he is the heir to his father's underworld empire. He lashes out at his younger brother, Michael, when he enlists to go and fight in World War II. His reaction to the attempted assassination of his father is to go escalate a string of vendettas into an all-out war. His final act in his life was, acting as head of the family during his father's convalescence, to attempt to protect his younger sister from her abusive husband, a reaction that proved to be his undoing. In a word, you might call Sonny's motivation "pride," or even "vainglory."
Fredo is an innocent enough character throughout his portion of the films, and presumably for most of his life, but deep within him brewed a darkness that in many ways is greater than any other character from the series. Fredo was never strong enough emotionally to take on a leadership role in the family, or even to keep himself from being humiliated by his floozy of a wife. He was given token responsibilities to try and make him feel included, but that sort of charity only made him more bitter.
Ultimately, envy is Fredo's great motivation for his acts of villainy. Promised great things by family rivals, Fredo turns on his younger brother, who occupies what he feels should be his role as the head of the family. Michael is everything that Fredo is not, and even more crushing is that while Fredo wanted to be important and powerful, Michael was reluctant in taking on his role, adding insult to the injury.
Michael is the villain that wants desperately to get out of the villainy game. At the outset of The Godfather, he wants nothing to do with the "family business" at all, but he gets dragged further and further into that world. From the murder of two men, to organizing the mass murder of dozens while he stood as Godfather to his nephew, even to the murder of his own traitorous brother, Michael was always looking to do that one last heinous act that would allow him to quit and go straight. Family ties, old business dealings, and any number of rocks and hard places all led to his ultimate failure in this regard.
It's tough to put a name to Michael's motivation, but if I had to, I'd say that it was loyalty. He could have given up his life as he knew it for a mundane existence, but that would have meant giving up the power that he wielded, and maybe his security as well, as such a step would surely make him and his family a target for others. Ultimately he chose to preserve the life enjoyed by his family, and I'm sure if you could ask him, he would be reluctant to say that he was a villain. He would probably tell you that you're naive to believe that there is such a thing in the real world. He's the tragic character of the series, doomed from the outset, despite his struggles.
I saved Vito for last, because of the entire family he is the only one that, without a doubt, does not view himself as a villain. He certainly shows some regrets about actions taken in his life, but as we get to see his rise to power in The Godfather, Part II, Vito certainly views himself as a hero, and often that's the most terrifying type of villain.
The young adult Vito, famously portrayed by Robert De Niro, begins his climb up the ladder of the underworld by feuding with, and ultimately replacing the tyrannical Don Fanucci. Vito is certainly an improvement over the iron fisted former Don, and is shown to be respected, and even loved by the people. We see this in later years as well, as Don Corleone looks after the best interests of his family and constituents, working to block the drug trade within organized crime and seeking to minimize violence when he can, and minimizing collateral damage when blood can't be avoided.
Through all of this, it can be easy to forget that at the start of The Godfather, Vito Corleone is, while certainly not the most vicious or evil of men, undoubtedly the most powerful villain in the series of films. He is the principal trader in then-illegal booze and the sex trade, owns the loyalties of corrupt law enforcement, judges, and politicians, and is capable of terrible violence.
Ultimately, while he has his own sense of right and wrong, Vito does not hold to conventional senses of justice, and views his own actions as always being justified. Here we have what I think is the most compelling of villainous motivations: redefinition of what is good, just, and right. I'm not sure I would go so far as to call him a sociopath, though it wouldn't be a stretch.
And the rest
We could go on and on. Connie is the evil whispering in the ear of her brother, the devil on his left shoulder, encouraging only his most evil inclinations. Vincent is eager for evil and dripping with malice, not shying from murder or the taking on of headship of the family, despite Michael's warnings. Evin Tom Hagen and Mama Corleone sit idly by as horrors occur around them, raising interesting questions about their character.
So, there you have it. This is just one set of characters, from one series of films, and you can see the richness that the various evils of the characters provide. From black hearts to best intentions, the villains are what make so many stories worth telling.
So, having addressed all of this, it's time for you to chime in. Or else. Think of it as an offer you can't refuse.