The Rule of the Bigger Douche
I was watching through the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender again, and noticed an effective plot element that impressed me the first time I saw that show. I’ve found it in other stories since and, yes, used it myself. I’m dubbing it the rule of the bigger douche.
In the first two episodes of Avatar Season One, Zuko proves himself a villain. He’s set against the main character and determined to capture him. He terrorizes a village of old people and children, yells at his uncle who is only trying to help, and is in general an awful person.
Well, he’s clearly a douche.
Then episode three rolls along and we meet Commander Zhao, who has a whole bunch of big Fire Nation ships, compared to Zuko’s one lousy little ship. Zhao has people interrogated and stabs them in the back when they’re not watching. He’s also power-hungry and patronizing and rude.
Oh look, he’s an even bigger douche.
As the series goes along we meet Zuko’s dad the Fire Lord who is waging war against a whole bunch of innocent people and wants to burn the world down and maimed and exiled his own son just for asking a question. He has a gigantic fleet of ships and fancy royal robes and doesn’t care about anyone.
Wow, he’s the biggest douche of all.
And suddenly Zuko’s not looking so bad. Sure, he’s still a jerk, and he has a long character arc to go before he counts as a good guy. But since he starts out as a sort of underdog, under the thumb of bigger jerks, we as the viewers are set up to have a certain amount of sympathy for him, which we wouldn’t have if those bigger jerks hadn’t been introduced.
The same rule is at play in all sorts of other books and films. Darth Vader is a redeemable villain because he’s not the ultimate villain—the bigger douche is the Emperor, who is willing to set son against father. I imagine that any villain who ends up on the side of the heroes (what my anime friends refer to as the season 1 villain) or who is redeemed in any way probably is not the big bad, but is at most a middle management villain.
I think the trick here may be the sympathy we naturally have for anyone getting bossed around by a jerk. Plenty of us who’ve worked in corporate culture, customer service, or even academia may have had a lawful evil boss who demands the impossible and takes credit for the accomplishments but not the failures of their underlings. And so we understand what that’s like, and sympathize with any poor schmuck who has to put up with that sort of thing. (Evil bosses may be a topic for a future post.)
If you have a not-quite-evil character with a lousy attitude who needs a sympathy bump, consider adding a bigger douche to persecute him. But bear in mind that this tactic will only get your lightweight jerk a second glance and a passing touch of empathy. He’s going to need to do at least a couple decent actions on his own in order to cement his place in your readers’ hearts.
Written by Jessica.