5 Physical Traits That Determine if a Character Is Evil
Movies are an audiovisual medium, so they've had to develop a bag of tricks to convey the depth of their characters. If a film adapts a book, it can't let you hear a character's internal monologue without making Dune, and nobody wants to watch Dune.
No ... just, no.
Instead, they cue the audience to more subtle details with sights and sounds. For example, in this movie I'm watching right now, the female homeowner is giving an audio clue that she is very much enjoying the installation work of her local cable guy.
But some details are subtler than that. A nuanced performance is fine and dandy if you're filming on a tight budget, but major motion pictures are costly, and they can't afford to let details sail over the audiences' thick heads. The characters' personal appearance must tell you everything about them, right down to the slightest imperfection on their skin.
Example: Just a quick glance tells you that this man isn't attractive enough to play a Cracked writer.
Directors use physical traits to share with the audience more than what they could with words. In the March 8 release of Dead Man Down, Niels Arden Oplev (director of the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) does just this. He opens with Beatrice, played by Noomi Rapace, removing the bandages from her most recent surgery, which tried to save the face she once had. Now covered with scars, Beatrice's pain lays the foundation for what is to come in this thriller, which tells the story of two strangers irresistibly drawn to each other through a mutual desire for revenge.
A physical clue to someone's maleficent nature is known in Film Trope Land as a "red right hand" (and that's also the name of a particular act illegal in 49 out of the 50 states). Maybe you recognize these telling characteristics from every movie you've ever seen anywhere forever.
Since we were inspired by Beatrice's scars, let's start off with the obvious: As in real life, scars let us know that a person has been through some decidedly real shit. But here's where fiction differs: placement counts. Receive a wound over your eye and, good or ill, you're the fierce bastard who walked away from a hand-to-hand battle.
Although whether you'll kill children to achieve your goals remains up to you.
But raise that scar to your forehead, and now you're some poor slugger who's taken his licks and come out stronger for it. In Sin City, Hartigan's an old man, but a hell of a fighter, as most men are when the prize is Jessica Alba, Cowgirl Stripper Edition. Even a villain like Renard in The World Is Not Enough is more of a poor dope in love who's slowly dying of being too impervious to pain.
The most prominent forehead scar in pop culture history belongs to Harry Potter, who was just a baby when Voldemort tried to kill him. The bolt on his brow remains a toehold for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to try again. On the plus side, it serves as an early warning system for Harry to detect when the Dark Lord is plotting evil or stubs his toe. It literally, as well as symbolically, toughened the teen up while blemishing his daily life.
It also gave him a great pickup line: "Yeah, I was that baby who was too tough for the world's most terrifying sorcerer to kill." A scar like that is a sweet deal compared to the acne all the other kids are getting. Sure, it left him with a telepathic pipeline to an evil sorcerer, but how dark could that really be compared to the thoughts of the average teenager?
"I- I had the chicken dream ... again."
And speaking of those two heroes, let's talk about shape and color for a second. Got a cool white "X" or a beige lightning bolt? Then chicks dig scars. But if it's a glossy, burning keloid, my advice is not to tell 007 your plan before leaving him alone to die.
Put a scar on a guy's chin? Same as the forehead: He's rugged. But move it closer to the mouth, and you have a lunatic clown like The Dark Knight's Joker, or a sneering twerp in Gladiator's Commodus. Think about it: The eyes and mouth are the most expressive parts of the whole human being. Since we're wired to recognize facial expressions, limiting or distorting them creates a dissonance that can disturb people. It's not as off-putting as having your face sliced open, but still.
The reality, of course, is that Commodus' scars are nothing more than a real-life microform cleft palate. Whatever that is, it has not stopped any of the women you date from pretending you are Joaquin Phoenix when you have sex at them, but the movie doesn't care. Gladiator, you might remember, had another scarred character: Cicero, played by Tommy Flanagan.
Chibs cleans up real nice.
Flanagan's real-life "Joker" scars are also known as a Glasgow smile because ... Jesus, are enough people doing that to each other that it has a name? Anyway, Flanagan's resume is a relentless string of tough-guy roles pretty much because something awful happened to him one night and Hollywood said, "Great!"
He's a swell actor, and it's great he's getting the work, but even when he plays a priest, there's a decent chance he's a gun-wielding priest.
Basically, it all comes down to "Does the pain these scars represent define the character, or does he persist in spite of them?"
Hollywood prides itself on being cutting edge, but there's one thing that's been true ever since the '80s: The guy with the oiliest hair in the room is untrustworthy.
Blame it on one film: Wall Street.
Wall Street is to blame for everything.
As we've mentioned, once Michael Douglas started playing upper-class men in suspenders doing very bad things, people just went with it, despite the fact that when Wall Street was made, nobody on Wall Street dressed like that. But now it's gone beyond brokers and bankers. In fact, it's become such a prevalent image, you get satires of these Jell-O mold clods like American Psycho:
If you can't watch that scene because you're at work and your boss with the slick hair won't let you have any fun, I'll summarize: A half-dozen puddles of hair gel attempt to stand out from one another by seeing who can most closely resemble their oily idol.
You can see this in major bad guys like Hannibal Lecter, whose precise, widow's-peaked hair gives the impression of a devious Dracula, or Agent Smith, the impossibly perfect image of a G-man. Neither of those characters would have the same presence with a stylish tousle of hair. Draco Malfoy has it even though no kid ever bothered to slick down his hair unless it was time to impress girls.
A shiny suit also accounts for an 18 percent rise in violent crime.
Despite being a pretty common hairstyle for decades and decades, that's what people have decided looks evil. And they're still going with it.
Gordon Gekko became the image of the white-collar bad guy (and of Michael Douglas, even though his hair is only slicked back for that one movie). But don't worry, someone else is carrying this stereotype forward. The basic rule of thumb is that any movie set in the present day slicks Andy Garcia's hair back to make him the villain and forward to make him look trustworthy.
Now if you want a deeper character study, break out the safety razor, because the scalp isn't nearly so revealing as ...
There is nothing so willfully telling as facial hair in movies. "Hey, look at me!" says the character with a mustache that makes him look tight-lipped, "I will betray Hunky McHero in the second act!" As with scars, placement counts. Is your beard connected to your mustache? Is either attached to the sideburns?
Can you guess which of these Cracked editors will betray the team once the Omega Device is safely aboard the cargo plane?
If you're a guy and you grow facial hair, the cut and trim will label you clearly to the world. The reason for this is a combination of our society's preconceptions:
1. It's an internal barometer. The amount of work a character puts into maintaining his facial hair says a lot about his ability to manage a schedule. How many times has a movie used a beard to let you know that time has passed for a guy? Why do you think House M.D. and Elementary feature scruff-muffins? It's not because switching from an English accent to an American one tricks your internal clock into thinking you only have a noon o'clock shadow. It's because they're frazzled geniuses too busy decoding the world to slow down and do basic upkeep, but also because these are, in concept, antisocial nerds, so they need a bit of grizzle to sell their authority. Without it, they're just know-it-alls. Speaking of which ...
2. Hairiness = Manliness = Toughness. It takes manly chemicals like testosterone and fuzztrogen to produce a beard. You're shoving keratin through your face like it's no big deal, as if you've got protein to spare, when we both know that's a big waste of resources for your body. So this tells the audience that a character is naturally tough, booming with androgens and eating steaks for breakfast, because you can't tell him what to do, Mom.
3. The cut itself is the complement to point No. 2's natural forces. This is where we see what a character does with the plumage allotted to him. If No. 1 is the character's accountability to himself, this is the statement he chooses to make to the world. Here's John Turturro as a clean-shaven, twerpy black ops director in Transformers:
And here's Bumblebee, doing to him what this movie did to the franchise.
Now here's John Turturro as a creepy late-night bowler and pederast in The Big Lebowski:
Never trust a man in a leisure suit.
Obviously there's a whole lot of acting and wardrobe going on here to distinguish these characters, and in The Big Lebowski's case, even some directing. But no government agent would rise to the top of his sector with Jesus' chin beard and fadeaway 'stache (just as comedies prefer their perverts to have them). His facial hair makes him a clownish freak who we can laugh at rather than fear, because we can recognize and avoid him.
The loose guide to how Hollywood sees your beard is something like this:
Flourishing: You are a juggernaut. Whether erratic or dependable, manic or mute, a guy with a full beard is a force to be reckoned with. Or there may be snow in your beard, indicating that you have just returned from exile in the frozen North -- the only environment befitting of your loss.
Neatly manicured: People will try to guess which class of sex offender you are. Also popular among sleazy bosses and the villainous underling Bruce Willis kills 40 minutes into the movie.
Neatly manicured, but Tony Stark: Special exception for Iron Man, who is nevertheless a sleazy boss who doesn't take "no" for an answer.
"Oh -- if you'll excuse me, I've been summoned to another sexual harassment hearing."
Unkempt: Unemployed and not worried about it.
Unkempt and uneven: You goddamn hipster, what are you, too indie for hormones?
Cultivated 19th century mustache: Hipster again, but owns the coffee shop or has a great job in graphic design.
Either way, you're probably reading this article on one of these.
Sparse fuzz: Awww, that's adorable! You're harmless!
Scruffy: Too much man for any multi-ethnic middle-aged gang to defeat.
Stubbly, accenting your jaw: Tough guy.
Stubbly, emphasizing your neck: You have given up on life.
"I'm a week away from converting my entire wardrobe to 'day sweats' and 'evening sweats.'"
Clean shaven: Damn right you're a straight shooter. Maybe you're a creep, but at least people know exactly what kind of creep they're getting.
Too cleanly shaven: As a child, you were beaten for not finishing your chores.
Hairless: There is a pile of human torsos in your basement.
If you're a lady with facial hair, you will teach the audience a Very Special Lesson about not judging people by appearances. Or people will laugh at you. That's the great thing about humanity: You never know how they'll disappoint you next!
When they're not being used to solve murder mysteries, tattoos are how movies tell us that someone is either living hard on the streets or a suburbanite making bad drunken mistakes. Still, some characters sport them so we know who they are the second we see them.
Even if he's not yakuza or a Russian mobster wearing his personal Wikipedia entry on his arm, a character tells a story with his tattoos. And why not? That's what people do in real life, and as with facial hair, Hollywood hones that to the point where you can't miss it. If they bother showing it to you, they want you to appraise what the characters have chosen to say about themselves. Wedding Crashers brought the term "tramp stamp" to the mainstream.
And sadly brought a career extension to Vince Vaughn.
Characters in movies have the same tattoos as the rest of us: a weeping swan cutting his wrist (OK, characters in movies have the same tattoos as the rest of you) -- except theirs tell us a lot about their past. A name on the arm is a sure sign that someone died (or, at least, was taken away by social services).
Ink on the knuckles? You don't need to even read 'em to know it's someone with a murderous right hook, although they probably mimic Night of the Hunter's "LOVE/HATE." Never mind that in reality plenty of thoughtful people are tattooed with varied designs. Like the ones on our knuckles that say "MORE/TACOS." (We have an eleventh finger. It's an uncomfortable subject, but suffice it to say that our mom drank a lot of radium back in the day.)
Night of the Hunter makes the point that hands take action for us, and a word inked on a hand marks all its movements as agents of its concept -- like the Latin for "truth" and "justice" on the Boondock Saints' trigger fingers. Just don't pick a word that's really long and gets jammed up at the end when you run out of space.
He's been playing "The Gambler" for 11 years now.
In Hollywood, there are no tattoos that people get for their private satisfaction. They're all meant to be seen, because they're all meant to be read by us. These statements can work against characters, like when they outgrow the concepts they wear for the world to see -- Brad Pitt's character, Rusty, in the Ocean's Ever Increasingly Dreary Number series wears stylish cuffs that hide his tribal tattoo (we'd be ashamed of our past too if we used to be the kind of guy who got tribal tattoos). Oh, and the crime thing.
But what about internal defects? Are we to assume that every bad guy has hepatitis C? Absolutely not! The hep is a bottom-rung henchman's affliction. And can you imagine a villain whose internal corruption was hemorrhoids? Would you want to final battle a guy with a bleeding sphincter as he gingerly circles around you?
The worst part is when he starts tossing this at you like he's Oddjob.
No, for a top-of-the-line bad guy, only a respiratory ailment will do. Partially this is because it's an affliction we can hear. Partially it's because it usually requires a breathing apparatus that again obscures their faces and dehumanizes them. And partially it's because nobody thinks differently of you for having a spleen disease, unless it's to laugh when you try to Force-choke them.
But the main reason is that there's symbolism in breath. If you've got air in your lungs, you're alive! You have animus -- a soul. And when a character has audible lung problems, he's inevitably a villain, because his lungs -- where his soul lives -- are a corrupt environment. It's a great image, which is why Hollywood saves it for the big names like Darth Vader, Cobra Commander, General Grievous, Bane, and ... uh ... Le Chiffre.
Although he got closer to a clean getaway than most on that list.
Even the platinum inhaler that sustains little Frenchie DuCowardice has a purpose. See, breathing problems also plague another class of film character: frail little kids. Want to show an overprotective parent? Justify their woes by giving the kid asthma. And then show that all the kid needed was the courage to face the world and he'll grow out of it. Or maybe grow superpowers and murder a man, same thing.
Now consider a guy like Le Chiffre, who's designed by a team of screenwriting engineers to be the most punchable twerp in Western civilization -- he's just begging Bond to take his lunch money as he does complex math in his head, weeps blood onto his pouty little lip, and refuses to fill his lungs with a noble gulp of air like any real man would do. Obviously, the problem is that he's a wimp who refuses to will his terrifying disease out of existence.
"Ugh, I can barely look at you."
Final note: The world's asthmatics want you to know that nobody ever uses an inhaler correctly in films. That said, you ever watch somebody hold their breath for 10 seconds? That's a lot of movie. In that amount of time, Michael Bay can stage 17 different set pieces featuring no fewer than three offensive stereotypes. Two of them explode.
For stories that are more insane than any action movie, check out 6 Insane True Stories More Badass Than Any Action Movie and 6 Real Acts of Self Defense Too Awesome for an Action Movie. It's Cracked ... with a vengeance!
For tattoos that advance plot as well as character, Brendan recommends Eric Palicki's creepy Red Angel Dragnet. Follow the Gentleman Bastard on Twitter @BrendanMcGinley for great justice!
Brendan made fun of this kind of laziness before with Coming Soon to a Theater Near You (Unfortunately) and 6 Tips for Turning Awful Fan Fiction into a Best-Seller.