The Illusion of Genius and The Lure of the Villain

Frank Underwood

So, I’ve finally got around to watching House of Cards these last two weeks (I know, I know, very late on this one!) and I have to say that I was really sold for most of season one. It dipped a little bit for me closer to the end but then it had a nice little shock in store, which reinvigorated the show. Season 2 started off with a bit of a bang but I found I just wasn’t as involved with the drama as much in this season and now I think I know why . . .

It got me thinking about what I’ve called (for want of a better phrase) “The Illusion of Genius”. Basically, House of Cards, if you haven’t seen it, revolves around an anti-hero played by Kevin Spacey. As is the case with many antiheroes, because we generally become so familiar with the darker aspects of the character, it’s when the story shows us the human side of this otherwise villainous personality that we really become invested. I found this was definitely true of HOC; the story excels when it shows us this other side of Spacey’s character – his relationship with his wife; his fears, his worries. Heck, even his love of singing, which came out in a later episode, became riveting precisely because it was, at first, difficult to reconcile this passion with an otherwise cold, calculating megalomaniac. This in itself is a great point for analysis – the lure of the villain. Present us with a villain and then peel away the layers of their personality with a gripping narrative and we’re hooked. Great villains such as Count Fosco in The Woman in White work so well because of this. Or, for a more sympathetic example, how about Captain Hook? Most of us are drawn to darkness but there’s something truly compelling about exploring how the light can function in the dark or vice versa. That, I feel is one of the most interesting things that is at work with antiheroes here but I would welcome other peoples’ opinions for this really is something I’m only just starting to think about.

Now, the “Lure of the Villain” is one thing, how about this “Illusion of Genius” stuff? The other common aspect of the villain is maintaining their devious nature and maintaining this sense of a higher intellect. What I said to a friend was that, when creating a good antagonist, you basically have to create a character that is cleverer than you yourself are, maybe a great deal more so. It’s not good enough just to have them saying witty things or to be constantly confounding the protagonist – their very actions are what’s steering the plot of the narrative because the villain’s actions are what the hero reacts against. So, put simply, you have to make these actions damn clever if you really want to make a memorable, well-written villain. What’s more, you can’t just cheat and make your good guys stupid so that your villain seems a genius in comparison, no no, to really succeed you have to make your good guys clever as well. It’s comparable to trying to turn yourself into a genius every time you sit down to write – pretty much an impossible task. Of course, the time you can spend planning a single choice or action as a writer – a whole day spent crafting the tiniest remark, for example – certainly tips the odds in your favour but it can still cause a dilemma for even the best of writers.

Back to my model, House of Cards. In my opinion, the illusion of genius was compromised in the second season of the show. Kevin Spacey’s character seems clever, I still felt somewhat in awe of what he’s able to do (usually a mixture of awe/repulsion) but Senator Frank Underwood’s (Spacey’s) machinations are often directed against a host of witless adversaries. Everyone seems to fall for Spacey’s tricks and there were moments when I thought, “Hang on, would I have fallen for that?” “No . . . then why have you got mateyboy who you’ve just spent a whole season convincing me is much more adept at dealing with people/manipulating people/who is, in all respects, far more intelligent than I am – falling for it?”

The result? I lost interest.

I’d love to hear some feedback about this problem in narrative writing. Do you have any examples of characters who break the illusion of genius? And, if you write yourself, have you had any problems building up such an illusion? Finally, what are your thoughts on “The Lure of the Villain”? Again, do you have any examples of villains that have really won your heart? Or even just feedback with a list of your all time favourite villains/anti heroes; FYI, one of my all time favourites has to be Steerpike from Gormenghast! What a character!

Thanks for reading,

Cheers,

James

Final Note: I’ve since watched the third season of House of Cards and I have to say that they do a good job of raising the bar of Frank Underwood’s competition – people are generally not fooled so easily in this series and Underwood is challenged a lot more. Still, I feel that by this point the ambiguous morality of Spacey’s character, which was so absorbing in season 1 has diluted into a man with fairly one-dimensional motivations. Again, I just wasn’t sold.

All this being said, if you haven’t checked out House of Cards already, I would definitely urge you to do so because it still makes for some excellent viewing and it’s a great example of the sort of quality story writing which is becoming (more and more) such a big part of modern day television. Just a shame about Hollywood, eh!

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