Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome

Yesterday I was at a BBC Writersroom event for action-adventure writers, listening to Adrian Hodges speaking about the BBC’s upcoming show The Musketeers. He had a lot of interesting things to say about reinventing familiar characters, about establishing the tone and world of a story, and about creating stories from a book with surprisingly little plot.

However, the thing I found most interesting was what he called ‘Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome’ – the way some shows trot out their supposedly all-powerful and scary villain every week, only to have him roundly defeated by the hero yet again.

The way I see it, there’s an understandable tension here. For your major villain, you cast the best actor available. You want to use him as much as possible. He wants to actually have something to do – something interesting, inventive, something that stretches him. The audience think they want to see him as much as possible –

But the more often they see him, the less effective he is. Because every time your supposedly all-powerful and terrifying villain is defeated by the hero, he becomes less scary. Eventually he becomes a buffoon, a figure of figure who the hero runs rings around, as the Sheriff becomes in many Robin Hood stories. Now you’ve got a dissatisfied actor, a bored audience, and all you ever did was give the public what they said they wanted…

Is there an answer to this? I think it might lie in something I’ve alluded to before – one of the show rules on Leverage, which co-creator John Rogers calls “Sterling Never Loses”.

Recurring villain Jim Sterling is used sparingly, which helps avoid Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome – but more importantly, he’s used cleverly. Whenever he appears, he wants something specific that runs counter to what our heroes want – and he always gets it.

Our heroes don’t go to jail, and they get what they want too, or some of it – but not by defeating Sterling. Though they may start the episode in opposition to his wants and needs, they end up working alongside him, or around where he isn’t looking, not directly against him. This allows both sides to walk away with what they want, each having benefitted from the other’s involvement: honour is satisfied, and the simmering conflict between them is saved for another day.

It’s an elegant solution to a perennial problem. And not a bumbling Sheriff in sight…

The Three Kinds Of Villains

I think there are three kinds of fictional villain.

Bad villains (and by ‘bad’, I mean badly written!)  are the opposite of the hero: they are ugly, dissolute, petty and cruel, while he is square-jawed and noble, their physical and mental superior. Because they have nothing in common with the hero, there can be no moral complexity to the story: one side will win, or the other will, and its always the one you expect.

Good villains are the same as the hero in many important ways. They may have similar backgrounds, similar preoccupations, aspirations and desires. They probably want the same thing the hero wants – a job, a particular love interest, the child who knows the secret code, a lost nuclear bomb – though they want to do completely different things with it.

Their skills are probably different – an intellectual villain opposing a instinctive, fist-fighting hero, or vice versa – but that dreadful cliché of bad guy dialogue  “We’re not so different, you and I”  is basically true.

But, as demonstrated ably by the original Star Wars trilogy, the very best villains are the man we fear the hero will become…