So You Want To / Write a Magnificent Bastard
You all know the character: he's the Magnificent Bastard
. That character you Love to Hate
. The one who baffles the heroes at every turn with his clever schemes, fights them to a draw with his sheer badassery, and generally speaking makes everyone else in the show, including The Smart Guy
on the Five-Man Band
, look like a total idiot. He's awesome. He's stylish. He's about as great as villainy can get.
And now you want to write one. And not the kind that gets a brief entry on the page
and a confused look from everyone else who reads it. You want to write a genuine Magnificent Bastard, the kind that viewers will remember for years to come. They're not just some kind of Jerkass
when it comes to acts of well-calculated evil, they're astonishingly good at putting the squeeze on the heroes. Well have no fear. TV Tropes is here to help you. This guide will provide you with a list of tropes to include (and exclude) in your creation of this type of character, as well as a few examples of the very best of this amazing lot. After that, it's All Up To You
These are the must-haves, the tropes without which a Magnificent Bastard cannot survive, let alone impress anyone. We’ll let the page description do the talking: "The Magnificent Bastard is what happens when you combine the Chessmaster, the Trickster, and the Manipulative Bastard (Large Ham is optional): bold, charismatic, independent, and audacious."
So why these tropes? Let's take a look:
- The Chessmaster: the Magnificent Bastard is, first and foremost, a planner. He (or she, but the rest of this article will assume the masculine) has to be able to manipulate events with supreme skill. Characters like Lex Luthor may not be the physical match of the heroes they go up against, but their ability to plan things out beforehand ensures that they obtain victory more often than not. Bonus points if they actually play chess or any variation of the game.
- Manipulative Bastard: Because sometimes controlling events just isn't enough. The Magnificent Bastard needs to be able to manipulate people, by reaching inside them and hitting them where it emotionally hurts. The best Magnificent Bastards have an intuitive grasp of a character's basic psyche and will use it against them at every opportunity.
- The Trickster: The line separating the Magnificent Bastard from a really good Manipulative Bastard or Chessmaster is his ability to think on the fly, adapting to new situations and altering plans with ease. Without this factor, even the greatest Bastards won't last long.
- Large Ham: It says optional, and many Bastards aren't this everyday, but the truly magnificent have at least a small dose of this in them somewhere. The Magnificent Bastard has to be a magnetic character, drawing both other characters and the audience to him. There is something almost Shakespearian about this character, a sense of the grandiose, of the larger than life, and this trope can help to bring that out. Note that he doesn't always need to be going over the top, but a few Chewing the Scenery moments can definitely be helpful if carried off right, showing just how impressive the character is. All villains are ultimately, on some level failures, (most of the time), but the Magnificent Bastard is a failure on a grand scale, the kind of person you simply cannot look away from.
- Affably Evil: One of the fun things about the Magnificent Bastard, is that no matter how bad he may be, the audience loves to watch him. Making him Affably Evil, or even downright friendly can help to win him further audience sympathy. You shouldn't let it go too far of course, (unless you want him to get a set of leather pants), but making your bastard likeable is definitely a good idea. It can be even better if the hero likes him too, as it adds a whole new dimension to the relationship that you can play with.
- Badass: This is a key trope that can help to establish the Magnificent part of Magnificent Bastard firmly in the audience’s mind. Yes, he's a brilliant manipulator. Yes, he can plan things out months in advance and still alter plans on the go. But when the chips are down, the Magnificent Bastard is his own best chess piece. This is particularly important in sci-fi, fantasy, or Shonen story-lines, where at some point it's virtually guaranteed that this character, whether villainous or anti-heroic, will get into a fight with some fairly powerful adversaries. Even if he's only a Corrupt Corporate Executive type, giving this character some major combat training can, and does, raise his status in the audience's eyes. And it makes sense that a person who expects to make a lot of enemies would train to be able to fight them at least competently if caught without guards. Also note that "Badass" does not necessarily mean "fighter": even a Non-Action Guy can earn massive audience approval by simply staying cool under fire and calmly outsmarting enemies way beyond his own weight class.
- Clasp Your Hands If You Deceive: This is a common pose for the Magnificent Bastard. It's a great way to portray him as deceptive and confident. It's especially effective when combined with Psychotic Smirk, Kubrick Stare, or ominous lighting.
- Consummate Liar: This is another trope that your bastard not only can use, but should, since he's a master of trickery and deceit. Using lies to hide his real intentions, your bastard can be sure that no one suspects a thing about his hidden agenda. Of course, don't make the lies too blatant. If the lies are too obvious, it runs the risk of making the ones the bastard is lying to look like they're carrying the Idiot Ball instead of making the bastard look magnificent... Unless, of course, the whole point is for them to know he's lying so he can play mind games while they try to figure out his next move, but this kind of layered deception can be very hard to pull off well.)
Or, as an alternative to lying, you could try making it so your bastard doesn't even bother to lie in the first place. While somewhat difficult to do from a writing standpoint, when done right this, can up your bastard's magnificent and bastard levels several fold. Expect any bastard that engages in this to be a master of False Reassurance, From a Certain Point of View, You Didn't Ask, Exact Words, and Half Truth.
The two are not mutually exclusive; a villain with a keen grasp of when to lie, how to lie, and how much to lie can be very slippery indeed.
- The Corrupter: As it says on the page, sometimes a character doesn't need to manipulate others into doing something. Perhaps they can make a character do something of their own will, and point out their had no hand in making them do so. It's a very hard ask - they've just made a person do something, without any obvious influence from another, and made them look it out of their own will. A character that can do this can be quite magnificent indeed, and it may not be too hard to suggest some of the most magnificent do not need to manipulate, only suggest. Never have a direct hand, but only guide. Do be careful with this one, though - don't make it seem too 'off-hand', and make a point to show what they've done. When it hits the one corrupted, show what happened and the bastard's magnificence can be shown.
- Deadpan Snarker: It isn't essential, but the ability to dish out the snark goes a long way towards helping establish a Magnificent Bastard's magnificence, especially if it's used to get under the hero's skin and cause them to lose their cool. Then, when he takes advantage of their distraction, it will all look like part of the plan even if it wasn't.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Though it will undoubtedly take much more effort to properly pull off, having your magnificent bastard as a product of his environment and upbringing can work wonders against him/her becoming a Mary Sue, and grant amazing sympathy from the audience on his/her actions and opinions. After all, both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan conquered very large parts of the world, but had different ways of going about it due to their differing upbringings (Disputed Heir of Greece vs. Unwanted Steppe Child) challenges faced, and opportunities presented. If you're trying to make him more aggressive than the standard MB, perhaps he grew up in a harsh warrior society; if he seems unreasonably accepting of others, perhaps he was a member of an outcast group himself. Differing cultures between the hero and the villain can also help create a more morally grey setting, and set the magnificent bastard up for a defeat without some deus ex machina harming his/her intelligence because he/she didn't fully understand the rallying/disheartening/otherwise unexpected reaction of their opponent's allies and/or peoples simply because such reactions wouldn't happen in theirs.
- Even Evil Has Standards: It's not necessary, but establishing that your bastard has standards can go a long way towards earning them audience sympathy and respect. Just remember to make those standards constant: if he's opposed to something, but later reveals himself to be a Hypocrite that hard earned respect will go down the drain.
- Evil Is Cool/Evil Is Sexy: This can definitely help you earn points with the audience. It can also help your character in universe. Someone who looks like The Hunchback of Notre Dame is going to have trouble getting people to trust him. Someone who looks like Brad Pitt in a nice suit on the other hand, will have a much easier time of it.
- Evil Virtues: These are a good source of sympathy and depth. A Magnificent Bastard will have many of these, or sometimes all of them in some rare cases. In other words, inserting these into a Bastard makes him a much more three-dimensional character and could cement his Worthy Opponent status with his enemies.
- Graceful Loser: Since the Magnificent Bastard is usually motivated by romance, tragedy, and most importantly honor, whenever he loses to the heroes, having him face defeat with dignity is a very good idea. Rather than throw a hissy fit or respond in shock and disbelief, a character of his type can compliment them whether it be for their skill, their strength, their honor, or something else they may have in mind (I.E. The Power of Friendship). If his defeat equals death, having him Face Death with Dignity wouldn't be such a bad idea either.
- Hero Killer: As the Magnificent Bastard always has a backup strategy just in case so that he wins every time, making him this is another good idea as well. You can tell anyway that whenever a bastard who happens to be a Hero Killer shows up, the good guys are sure not to stand a chance, especially with the backup plans your bastard has in store for them. Just make sure not to make them too powerful, even if it's to the point of making them overpowered to the point of being nearly impossible to defeat, as it may just have a chance of landing them in Villain Sue territory.
- Hidden Agenda Villain: Generally speaking, this is another great trope for your Magnificent Bastard. Whether he be a Deceptive Disciple, a Treacherous Advisor, Bastard Understudy, or even a Big Bad Friend and it be being Faux Affably Evil or using Blatant Lies, you can make your bastard really good at hiding his true plans from everyone else. Just don't take too long in drawing out the reveal, or your audience's interest may give way to frustration.
- Knight of Cerebus: Nothing illustrates a Magnificent Bastard better than having him played perfectly straight as opposed to the bumbling Harmless Villains that the good guys have faced before. Having a character that gives your goody-goody two-shoes a hard time and takes the show on a turn for the darker and more dramatic is a great way to show how your bastard means business. Just be sure not to make him head towards being an unsympathetic Complete Monster or even shove him across the Moral Event Horizon himself, as you most definitely still want to have your bastard's story using some sympathy from his audience, after all.
- Laughably Evil: Even though there's not really any necessary need for this trope, a great way for your bastard to attract the respect of the audience is to make them laugh. Your bastard can throw in random funny scenes and even chew the scenery to provide laughs for the audience. Just be sure to pick his funny moments wisely; having him chew the scenery too much may result in a Villainous Breakdown, but as long as he doesn't break down too often, the audience won't mind.
- Noble Demon: Making your bastard one is a good idea, since he is rarely, if ever, pointlessly cruel. It's always interesting to note that your bastard should speak in a polite and sophisticated manner quite often. Just make sure he's not too polite, unless you really want to make out of your bastard a Draco in Leather Pants, which, of course, is quite fun once you get used to it.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: This isn't required, but the Magnificent Bastard can really fool the hero and his team especially if he's The Mole. Once the Magnificent Bastard pulls this off, no one will ever suspect that he/she has done a horrendous deed.
- Pet the Dog: This trope fits really well with any Magnificent Bastard who has followers. As such, your bastard should act like a gentleman to his minions, and treat them with respect, even letting them live even if they don't succeed. Yeah, petting the dog is a fitting trope for bastards who have those doing as he tells them.
- Another way your bastard can Pet the Dog is to show kindness to others... and look magnificent while doing so. For example, he can return something that was lost to its owner and that's what gives your bastard the respect he deserves from those he performed his Pet the Dog moment for, especially if he's Affably Evil.
- The Plan: Proficiency in all types of plans should be a part of every Magnificent Bastard's repertoire.
- Batman Gambit: As stated in Manipulative Bastard, he knows what those around him are likely to do and explot it
- Xanatos Gambit: Named for David Xanatos, a perfect example of a Magnificent Bastard. He benefits even when his plans fail or someone thwarts them
- Xanatos Speed Chess: As mentioned under The Trickster, a good Magnificent Bastard not only can adapt to new situations, but should. The heroes' counter moves are just met with yet another brilliant plan.
- Just be careful to avoid Gambit Pileups, which even the most careful of planners can fall victim to.
- Pragmatic Villainy: A good idea is to have your Bastard's evil, whenever possible, be practical. If he starts kicking dogs For the Evulz too often, there's a risk of both Motive Decay, Villain Decay, or, conversely, it might be a sign that your Magnificent Bastard is heading toward complete monsterhood. And no, since you're making him look dumber on the way down, he won't still be magnificent when he hits the Moral Event Horizon.
- That One Boss: Not really applicable outside of video games, but a useful trope for any villain whom you want to be especially memorable, whether they're a Magnificent Bastard, a Complete Monster, or just an especially vile Smug Snake. Getting defeated again and again while in-play, will drive home to your audience just how badass your villain is in-story and reinforce the prowess he displayed in the cutscenes. Just make sure to avoid Fake Difficulty, and preferrably, One-Winged Angel. A good MB can defeat the player using only his own strengths. Making him a Duel Boss isn't necessarily a bad idea either.
- Übermensch: Living by one's own visions, philosophy and moral code can be quite a help: see also Even Evil Has Standards, Evil Virtues and Visionary Villain.
- Villain with Good Publicity: This is often linked to Affably Evil and Hidden Agenda Villain. Giving your bastard good publicity isn't such a bad idea, either, as he can attract the respect of civilizations with his sophisticated manners. Making him act overall kindly and friendly with others is also supplementary, as well. Just be careful to avoid making others care for him too much, as it may make him too magnificent and even run him the risk of becoming a Villain Sue. Nevertheless, making him more friendly than expected can place him into Draco in Leather Pants territory, if that's what you want.
- Villainous Fashion Sense/Badass in a Nice Suit: How the character dresses is very important. Dressing poorly, can and does detract from the audience’s ability to take the character seriously. No matter how brilliant your bastard is, if he comes out in a tutu and a gorilla mask, the audience is going to laugh. That isn't to say that the character cannot wear a ridiculous costume on occasion (such as when moving around in disguise), but generally speaking the better dressed he is, the better the vibe he's going to give off, and the more the audience is going to be intimidated by his presence. In real life, this is one of the signs of a deceiver.
- Visionary Villain: Like the main page says; "He has a goal, he's not going to stop until he's completed it. To that end he will do almost anything. He'll move heaven and hell, and we want to see him succeed." Having the bastard explain his vision may also give him an opportunity to chew the scenery.
- Wicked Cultured: Culture and sophistication can make the Magnificent Bastard look classy and intelligent by having him quote William Shakespeare frequently or as part of a Hannibal Lecture. It could even make him look like a Cultured Badass by having him kick ass to Mozart without spilling a drop of his fine wine.
- Worthy Opponent: This is another way that you can make your Magnificent Bastard appeal to the audience: if he considers the hero a worthy adversary, or is viewed as one by the hero. Also, one the bastard's strengths is that he rarely, if ever, underestimates his opponents, so keep this trope firmly in mind when you write his plans. He knows that the hero (or villain if he’s playing on the heroic side) is bright, and plans accordingly.
Tropes to Avoid or Be Careful With
- Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: It's true that we all respect our bastards in many ways possible. Of course, being arrogant is one thing that our bastards want to avoid or be careful with. Sure, they're badass, all-knowing and cool, and make other people look like idiots, but you just don't want to make them too arrogant about their badass, awesomeness, high intellect and immense power, because chances are, their arrogance might just be their fatal flaw.
- Bad Boss: It's true that some characters tend to kill their minions either for failing them or just because they no longer have a need for them as a reminder that the character is truly a bastard - there's just a good reason why your bastard wants to be careful around this. Nothing damages or destroys the respect of the audience like killing the character's mooks too constantly. Remember, a good Magnificent Bastard is extremely careful when it comes to telling his mooks what to do, so using this trope at your discretion is a very smart idea.
- Berserk Button: Another trope to be careful around is the Berserk Button. Naturally, nothing causes respect for your bastard to fall than doing something to make him suddenly fly into a rage over and over and over again. As long as your bastard's Berserk Button isn't hit too many times, the audience won't mind. In fact, having a specific Berserk Button that's only pushed once or twice can show a Bastard lose control, giving a good scare to both other characters and the audience, while still letting him keep his cool most of the time. Pushing the button far too often, though, may result in your bastard's Villainous Breakdown.
- Complete Monster: Although some of the characters on the page cross the line into this, generally speaking this is a trope you want to avoid. The Magnificent Bastard evokes awe in the audience, and grudging respect from the hero (for example: even Superman has acknowledged Luthor's intelligence). The Complete Monster evokes fear and loathing, and a certain level of disgust from both. This isn't to say that the Magnificent Bastard doesn't frighten the hero, but it's in a "I'm not sure I can defeat him" way, not a "Oh my God, I have to stop him before he starts raping nuns in the street" way. There's a difference there, and it's very important. If you manage to write your Magnificent Bastard correctly, the audience will (on some level at least) want him to stick around. All they want a Complete Monster to do is die, as horribly as possible.
- Designated Villain: All these suggestions about ambiguous morality and avoiding typical villainous behavior can be overdone. Remember, if you want him to be a villain, your Magnificent Bastard is still a bastard. If he loses his bastard...ness, then he ends up being simply magnificent. This can leave the heroes with Motive Decay, cause, why are they fighting such a magnificent guy? This can be useful, though, if you want a work with Gray and Gray Morality.
- Evil Gloating: This is a trope that can be done well, but is somewhat dangerous when writing a Magnificent Bastard. Sometimes, you may feel the need to have the villain unleash his appetite on the setting around him, preferably at a time when he has the hero at his knees. A well-placed Hannibal Lecture or "The Reason You Suck" Speech, done right, can show that your Bastard is, at least for the moment, superior to his hapless opponent. However, too much Evil Gloating can make this character lose his original flair, as the audience begins to stop admiring the character's competence and begins being annoyed by his arrogance. Losing your character's charisma in this manner means that you will likely create a Smug Snake out of a Magnificent Bastard.
- Hate Sink: Similarly to the Complete Monster, this is obviously one trope you want to avoid using. The Magnificent Bastard is known for attracting admiration from the audience and respect from the hero. The Hate Sink, on the other hand, has a role clearly designed to be so evil that the audience wants to see him fail as much as they want to see the hero take him down. Also, a Hate Sink is often defined by arrogance, selfishness, bigotedness, jerkassery and cowardice, making it even more obvious that we're supposed to hate someone labeled as one. Since the Hate Sink is often labeled as a Smug Snake, it's already obvious that people who want to write their own Magnificent Bastard will want to stay away from this trope as often as possible, as they want to see their bastard succeed. All they want the Hate Sink to do is fail as miserably as possible. If you feel that your character is headed towards Hate Sinkery, it's time to think things through and re-evaluate your character.
- Kick the Dog: As stated in the Moral Event Horizon section, the Magnificent Bastard should never do anything so horrible that he loses the Magnificent part of his status. That said, there's a reason why Bastard is also a part of the title. A few well-placed kicks can remind the audience that yes, he is the villain of the piece. Too many though, may well cost him any audience sympathy. Use actions like this carefully, and make sure he never goes so far as to Rape The Dog.
- Which brings us to... Rape: Big "NO!"!!! While we’re on the subject of costing yourself audience sympathy, this is the big one. It's a line that no character can cross without also crossing the Moral Event Horizon. Any character who commits this crime, will automatically be hated by every sane member of the audience. No matter how dark your story is, you can't do this and still be writing a Magnificent Bastard. The buck stops here. Besides, between his manipulation skills, natural appeal, and "bad" reputation, a real Magnificent Bastard should have no trouble bedding any woman (or man) he wants, without doing something as un-magnificent as forcing himself on them. And that's assuming, of course, that he's even interested in the first place.
- Memory Gambit: Not everyone is cut out to beat a Lie Detector or Living Lie Detector, this can extend even to magnificent bastards. Utilizing this trope can be a great way to overcome this obstacle. But it should be used with caution, not remembering plans can be quite an obstacle, especially if that includes not remembering you had plans in the first place. As such this plan should be treated as high risk on the Magnificent Bastard's part. In order to minimize risk the Magnificent Bastard must try to set up circumstances so that after the gambit is set in place, it does its job, and following that the return of his memories. This is really tricky to pull off with his magnificence intact if circumstances prevent him from being able to reduce the risk.
- Moral Event Horizon: This is linked to Kick the Dog. There are lines that the Magnificent Bastard should not cross. To be effective, he must always remain at least somewhat sympathetic to audience. After crossing this line, all sympathy vanishes. The Magnificent Bastard should of course do terrible things. That's part of the job. But they should never be so terrible that he or she loses their audience appeal. If this happens, it's a decent sign that you’re doing something wrong. Unless of course, you want the character to lose sympathy as the story goes along (which is a perfectly legitimate plot idea). If so, this is how you do it.
- If you do cross the Horizon with your character, remember that this is not something you can back out of later on. The character will be altered permanently by the event, probably becoming a Complete Monster. Any attempt to turn the character back into a Magnificent Bastard after crossing the Moral Event Horizon will reek of Karma Houdini.
- Obviously Evil: How your Magnificent Bastard appears is important - you obviously want to use this trope at your discretion. Whether it's a character with Too Many Skulls, Hellish Pupils, or Spikes of Villainy, you just wouldn't want him looking way too freaky to truly be a Magnificent Bastard. Now if that sort of appearance fits the setting, it can be all right. But be careful.
- Oh, Crap!: Generally speaking, your bastard should remain calm and collected at all times, since he's magnificent himself. To be fair enough, we don't want our Bastards ending up in predicaments where no strategies of theirs can help them out of situations where they end up completely and totally screwed. And just to give you a heads-up, we wouldn't want them freaking out even if they're in such a situation, would we? Because if they did, then the audience's respect towards the Bastard would end up falling.
- But with that being said, if you do work your Bastard into a situation which you can't salvage them from, letting them surrender, hold up their hands and knowing their fate is sealed can work well. A dignified ending for a dignified character which isn't panicked, knowing it may happen and preparing for it anyway. They may well be dead, but their plans don't need to be.
- Pride: Giving your Bastard a healthy dose of confidence is necessary, since he is, after all, magnificent. However, this needs to be handled with caution; if his natural confidence and belief in himself devolves into unwarranted arrogance, the character is in very real danger of losing his polish and flair, and this can devolve your charismatic, threatening, Magnificent Bastard into an insufferable Smug Snake. Remember, a Magnificent Bastard's confidence must stay within reason; his assumptions about his own competence should be more or less the same as the audience's own perception of him. Pride also tends to define the Magnificent Bastard's primary Fatal Flaw, especially in tragedies.
- Smug Snake: This trope is the culmination of numerous other tropes that one should be careful with. A character who is overconfident, overly arrogant, and utterly convinced of his own superiority will not earn the audience's respect, no matter how much of a Chessmaster, Manipulative Bastard, or Trickster they may be. This isn't to say that a Smug Snake cannot be a great villain and a serious threat, but if you really want your character to be an MB, stay away from this. If you feel you are approaching Smug Snakery, it's time to seriously reevaluate your character.
- Villain Sue/Mary Tzu: The one thing you probably want to avoid more than anything else is making your Magnificent Bastard too magnificent. Yes, this character is typically built up as a "perfect villain", but more than anything a Magnificent Bastard is human, which means they have flaws. A character whose plans always succeed, who always correctly predicts how everyone will react, and who curb-stomps everyone they fight will quickly become an object of fan hatred, and drive the story into Only the Author Can Save Them Now territory. Of course, as mentioned several times, one of the defining traits of the Magnificent Bastard is that the audience likes them, despite their Bastard-ery; it is therefore only natural that you, the writer, might like them quite a bit too. But you mustn't show that. If the universe is too kind to the Magnificent Bastard, or they're too perfect, then they'll automatically lose the audience's respect; so, give them their victories here and there to show their magnificence, but make them work for it and suffer set-backs too.
- Villainous Breakdown: In addition to having the audience's sympathy, the Magnificent Bastard must also maintain a certain level of audience respect. We know he's brilliant, and that's why he frightens us. Nothing will destroy that respect like watching him Freak-Out because things didn't go his way. A badly done breakdown can reduce the character to a pitiable ruin in the eyes of your audience. As a general note, a Magnificent Bastard who has been foiled will either shrug it off, or attack the hero, finishing things with grace. Now, this is obviously subjective, and a Villainous Breakdown for a Magnificent Bastard, can be and has been, done well. A lot depends on how long your story is. If it's a one hundred episode show, he has a breakdown in the middle, and then recovers from it with panache, the audience probably won't mind. In fact, such a breakdown can add depth to the character and keep him out of Villain Sue territory. On the other hand, if it's one movie or book, and the last part before his battle with the hero is just one long breakdown, that may be all the audience remembers. Use this one wisely, and at your discretion.
- As above, that doesn't mean that you can't have your character have a Villainous Breakdown, you just have to bear in mind that once it happens the character will have been fundamentally, and unless you're a genius writer, permanently changed. It's an opportunity for character development, for sure, maybe he'll go on to become a Harmless Villain, or maybe he could even start on the road to redemption afterwards. Just don't try to have a character have a villainous breakdown and then expect him to retain his magnificent bastard status. A good Bastard knows when to fold 'em
So, now that we've looked at some of the tropes you might employ, let's get down to the meat of the matter: story-telling. How exactly do you want to use your Magnificent Bastard? A favorite will always be as the Big Bad
. Even then, though, there are questions you need to ask yourself: What kind of Big Bad is he? A Corrupt Corporate Executive
, out to make a buck no matter who gets hurt? An Evil Overlord
, who’s read the list
and is thus far more confident (and competent) than he should be? An army general, who gives Napoleon a run for his money in the brilliancy department? Who is he?
One of the nice things about this character type, of course, is that he doesn't have to be the Big Bad. He can be The Dragon
, the leader of the Quirky Mini Boss Squad
, or an outsider with his own agenda (maybe even The Starscream
). He can even be an Anti-Hero
, who assists the main cast for his own reasons. A warning (see Treat With Caution below): using this guy as your main character is not recommended, at least not on a first try. What makes a Magnificent Bastard scary is that he never appears to lose his cool, or even be defeatable before the end. What makes them cool is their ability to counterbalance their evil with sheer audacity. Main characters are different. We're with them when they succeed, and when they fail. We want to see them struggle, and we want to like them. A Magnificent Bastard who fails a lot, is no longer a Magnificent Bastard. He's just a Jerkass Anti-Hero
with too many Kick The Dog moments, and will probably receive little empathy from viewers. On the other end of the scale, a hero who never fails…well there's a name for that: it's Mary Sue
. That's not to say it's not doable, but its hard to get right.
Assuming that this character is a villain, his defeat needs to be a major part of the plot. Initial attempts at defeating him should likely result in a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown
, or the heroes being mobbed by his henchmen while he himself escapes. As the story goes along his plans may start to unravel, forcing him to improvise constantly, before ultimately being stopped at the end. If he's an anti-hero, he will likely be even harder to deal with, manipulating every member of the cast, hero or villain to his own ends. It wouldn't be unusual for an anti-heroic Magnificent Bastard to force The Hero
and the Big Bad into a confrontation with one another, ensuring the latter's defeat while he himself watches from a safe distance. Below are some other possible plot threads, and subversions.
- Death: Let's face it, this character, whether hero or villain, is probably going to die (otherwise you've got a Karma Houdini on your hands, and that screams Villain Sue). If so, some possibilities are a Death Equals Redemption plotline following a last minute Heel–Face Turn (for villainous Bastards) or a Taking the Bullet moment for the anti-hero. However the Magnificent Bastard dies, he should do so with grace and/or style. Having him Go Out with a Smile is a good idea, as is It Has Been an Honor, and/or a successful Taking You with Me. Heck even just a plain Graceful Loser moment can show just how far above other characters your Bastard really was.
- Romance: More than any villain (save perhaps the Noble Demon), the Magnificent Bastard is likely to possess some genuine human qualities, of which the capacity for love is one of them. It can make an interesting subplot, and help to humanise the character. The classic villain/villainess-falls-for-hero/heroine thing can be a lot of fun. So too though, can setting them up with another villain. Imagine what the marriage of Magnificent Bastard and a Manipulative Bitch could produce. Or, if you want to go for opposites attracting, how about a Magnificent Bastard Big Bad and his Blood Knight Hero Killer Dragon (because who says those roles can’t be female?) or even a Dark Chick Evil Genius Motherly Scientist? There are a lot of possibilities.
- Speaking of opposites, how about partnering this guy up with someone? Like a genuine Complete Monster. This would be a nice way of showing how great your character is in comparison to others, and would provide a lot of potential for black humor. You know the scene: the monster is in the village, torturing children, the bastard waits on the sidelines, rolling his eyes in disgust and saying "Could you hurry up? We do have a schedule you know."
- Potential subversions: Typically this character (when villainous) is the Big Bad or The Dragon. Why not make him appear to be The Brute, using simple, straight-forward, unsubtle tactics against the heroes as a distraction while his real plans come to fruition? Better yet, maybe he's relying on these kinds of tactics because they actually work against the untrained (and currently insignificant) heroes. Then, when they Take A Few Levels In Badass he reveals what he's really capable of doing. Or hey, how about a female Bastard, preferably one who doesn't overlap with Broken Bird, Femme Fatale, or The Vamp? Far too many female villains derive all of their popularity from either a sympathetic backstory or a good dose of Evil Is Sexy. Why not create a Dark Action Girl who is popular for the same reasons as the male examples on this list: because she's manipulative, tricky, plans ahead, and is a lot of fun to watch? And oh yeah, is immune to the hero's wiles?
Note: Please don't put a character here because you like him, or because he happens to be on the Magnificent Bastard trope page. The purpose of this section is to provide inspiration to would-be writers of this character type. Only put a character here if a) they are more or less universally agreed upon, and b)-the show itself is considered very good. Also, please refrain from entering Complete Monsters (such as the Joker and Johan) as well. It just gets confusing.
- Lionel Luthor, in Smallville: A Trope Codifier and one of the very best (before Villain Decay set in at least), he begins as the Big Bad, becomes a major supporting character, and never stops being magnificent. An Abusive Dad who loves his son, a crooked businessman who will not cross certain lines, a mentor figure who will compulsively lie to his charges, Lionel is everything this trope is supposed to be, absolutely dominating every scene he's in. You’re never sure just what to make of him, and that's the point. Props to John Glover for his superb performance.
- Lex Luthor, in many, but not all, versions of Superman: Like father like son. Lex has been one of these in most of his incarnations since the eighties, remaining the one man who even Superman cannot imprison. His comic book and DCAU versions are probably the best examples of this (the Smallville one is a little too whiny and unimpressive to successfully escape Manipulative Bastard territory), with the DCAU version running the full gamut from Big Bad to Anti-Villain, ultimately saving the world at the very end. His team-ups with The Joker also provide an excellent demonstration of the difference between this character, and an Faux Affably Evil Complete Monster. DCAU Darkseid is also rather magnificent on occasion.
- David Xanatos, in Gargoyles: Full stop. This is the man the Xanatos Gambit and Xanatos Speed Chess tropes are named for. Throughout the entire show he remains one step ahead of the main cast, outsmarting them at every turn, and controlling his events so that no matter what they do, it turns out in his favor. He manages to get away with it most of the time, all without ever feeling like a Villain Sue.
- J.R. Ewing, of Dallas: Before Lionel Luthor's fans truly brought the term into the public consciousness, J.R. was the undisputed Trope Codifier for the character type that would later gain the title "Magnificent Bastard"—and to be honest, he still may be: as befits only the most Magnificent of Bastards, he became the show's Breakout Character, overshadowing the intended protagonists. (Take note: J.R. is the prime example of a true Magnificent Bastard actually succeeding as the main character! As the "Treat With Caution" section below indicates, that is really hard to pull off....) The quintessential "villain you Love to Hate". A Corrupt Corporate Executive who delights in the manipulation of others to secure his power base. The Chessmaster, and isn't afraid to revel in it. He anticipates business associates double-crossing him: "I'd have been disappointed if that thought hadn't crossed your mind, already!" His actions have constantly enraged the more "moral" characters in the show, often making their lives so much harder—to the point where, when we got to the immortal "Who Shot J.R.?" storyline...part of the thrill was that anyone could have had a viable motive! And yet, he's charming as heck, always classy, quite the Gentleman Snarker, and in his own way, rather likable. He also has his share of Pet the Dog moments, too: he does stick up for his more moral brother, Bobby—and he loves his son, John Ross...mentoring him in the TNT relaunch in how to be a true Magnificent Bastard, repeatedly expressing his pride in John taking the lessons to heart: "Now that's my son...from tip to tail." He even molded his own death before-the-fact into part of an intricate plan that he predicted would be his "masterpiece"—and it arguably is, achieving a final, permanent defeat of his greatest nemesis.
- House Of Cards—both versions: Full stop. House Of Cards is perhaps the quintessential example of a series created specifically for the express purpose of showing how a Magnificent Bastard does "his thing". Frank Underwood (Urquhart in the original UK series) is a truly classic example of a Bastard, continuously arranging things so that every outcome has an opportunity he can exploit for his benefit—equipped with a keen sense of human nature, which powers some truly impressive Batman Gambits. It gets to the point when intense pressure and conflict becomes an inevitable lead-in to some truly impressive Xanatos Speed Chess on his part by each season's end. What most makes the show(s) a particularly good "primer", though—more than anything else—is Frank's characteristic tendency to lay out for the audience each important step in his plans, so we can follow along with his thought process. In the US series, his Worthy Opponent Raymond Tusk and on-again/off-again ally Zoe Barnes are also quite Magnificent at times—as are his hand-picked assistants, although Doug Stamper pretty much loses his magnificence over the course of Season Two. Frank Underwood's wife, Claire, is a high-functioning Manipulative Bitch, herself—albeit too focused on short-term emotional gains to achieve true Magnificence.
- Inside Man: "My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself. I've told you my name: that's the "who". The "where" could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there's a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison. The "what" is easy: Recently I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery. That's also the "when". As for the "why": Beyond the obvious financial motivation, it's exceedingly simple... because I can. Which leaves us only with the "how"; and therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub." So opens the film Inside Man. This movie is what happens when a Magnificent Bastard (Clive Owen), a Manipulative Bitch (Jodie Foster), and a Guile Hero (Denzel Washington) go head to head. Manipulation abounds, and nothing is what it seems. Clive Owen's character is a truly great example of a criminal Bastard.
- Toranaga from Shogun (the book, not the miniseries, which regrettably gave him much less screentime,) is an absolutely quintessential Magnificent Bastard. He is so patient when it comes to setting up events for the long-term game that he plans generations ahead (and a sequel set hundreds of years later shows he was right about everything except the Outside-Context Problem of the Westerners' technological advances). In-universe, other characters who are excellent puppeteers in their own right say that he specialises in getting people to think they've come up with an idea on their own when they're actually doing exactly what he wants, and he plays everyone for fools, whether they're his allies or enemies, treats his own family and friends as expendable, and does so with regret for the necessity of doing so, but no actual remorse. He avoids becoming a Villain Sue because he does actually make mistakes, but always thinks of a way to stay on top, sometimes improvising on a second-by-second basis. Even his final internal monologue, which suggests that to some extent, he's been Evil All Along only makes the reader root for him more, and many people who have read the book set him as the standard by which all other Magnificent Bastards are judged.
- Grand Admiral Thrawn from The Thrawn Trilogy: A brilliant tactician who eschews fancy superweapons in favor of precise timing, gambits, and clever uses of more mundane technology. He's Affably Evil and also managed to weaponize the Wicked Cultured trope by combing it with Awesomeness by Analysis to create a unique way of deciphering a species's strengths and weaknesses by studying their art. He averts We Have Reserves and You Have Failed Me as he doesn't waste the lives of his men recklessly and is even willing to withdraw if further combat won't benefit him. However, Thrawn also avoids being a Villain Sue as he does make mistakes that are minor on their own, but all these miscalculations ultimately add up to cause his downfall in the endgame.
Treat With Caution
Please note: A character's being listed here is not an insult or a jab at the show they appeared in. If it was, it would be labeled Epic Fail as on the writing pages. Characters here are those who are generally regarded as Magnificent Bastards, but don't quite meet the archetype, or who alternately may not make the grade, but provide excellent inspiration for what a true Magnificent Bastard might be capable of. Don't add shows or characters at random; this is a How To page, not the Magnificent Bastard home page.
- Lelouch Lamperouge/vi Britannia of Code Geass: There are many, many fans of this show who will hold Lelouch up as the ultimate example of what the heroic version of this should look like. To a degree, they're right. Lelouch is doubtlessly intended to be the heroic version of this, and outsmarts most of the cast with commendable brilliance. Unfortunately, he also demonstrates many of the problems with making this guy the hero. His relentless dog-kicking, temporary freak outs and Heroic BSODs, combined with his childish personality can, and do, cost him a lot of audience sympathy, with some regarding him as just a Jerkass Anti-Hero. His ability to hypnotize people, and the fact that they turned his Large Ham tendencies up to eleven in a serious show does not help. That said, the show can and does remain a good source of inspiration, with the Xanatos Speed Chess between Lelouch and his brother Schneizel being intricate and fascinating to watch.
- Schneizel himself, for that matter, has his own problems. There's no doubt he was a Magnificent Bastard, but he was so Affably Evil that at least half of the audience (and most of the characters) was fully convinced he was a legitimately good and principled Anti-Villain variation of the trope. Throughout the show he showed concern for the common man, had no personal ambitions of power, wished to limit bloodshed as much as possible, and viewed diplomacy as a far more valuable and effective tool than war. At one point he rescinded a potential political alliance because the leaders of the other nation involved were recorded saying their citizens amounted to nothing more than parasites to be exploited. He consistently espoused the belief that the job of a ruler was to ensure the welfare of his people, and his younger sister Cornelia believed he would be "the perfect king" because of these traits. So what was the problem? When he was finally outed as the Big Bad with three episodes left in the entire show, his goals were so completely opposite of his "mask" that the audience wasn't able to really reconcile the two, and the sudden switch was a drastic Mood Whiplash from who we thought he was to who he actually was. It seemed like two different characters, and he lost quite a bit of audience sympathy and admiration as a result.
- Light Yagami in Death Note: Light is another attempt at making this guy the main character. He avoids many of Lelouch’s pitfalls, in that he is a straight-up Villain Protagonist, out to Take Over the World. He still however, demonstrates the inherent difficulty of making the Magnificent Bastard work as the main character. Light is undoubtedly incredibly smart, talented, and able to improvise. However, like Lelouch the plot works in his favor for most of the show, with both his magic notebook, and the presence of its owner, Shinigami Ryuk, giving him an edge the heroes cannot easily overcome. Moreover, his steadily increasing levels of arrogance, self-righteousness, God-complex, sociopathy, infantile Freak Outs ("He got me!"), and tendency to underestimate his opponents, combined with his truly pathetic exit (talk about your Villainous Breakdown) cause half the fanbase to see him as just an extremely high-functioning Smug Snake. Once again though, the character does showcase what a clever, motivated villain is capable of, while heroes like Mello, Near and L provide shades of what the heroic version of this character might look like. The Xanatos Speed Chess between Light and L in particular, is a thing of beauty.
- Gendo Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion: Gendos problem is different from the above. There’s no doubt that he’s one of these. The issue is that he’s in a show that’s half horror and half Mind Screw, making it very hard to tell what he actually did, what he didn’t do, or even what the hell is going on half the time. His personality, motivations, and relationship with son are all excellent fodder for aspiring writers, even if the show itself ultimately leaves everything about him in a state of ambiguity.
- Iago from Othello: He uses his influence to get his pieces into place, effortlessly manipulates the titular character's "green-eyed monster", all while carrying the nickname "honest Iago". Unfortunately, he overlaps with Complete Monster. He's been described as a "motiveless malignity" and his true motives ultimately remain unclear with his Famous Last Words essentially being a Take That! to anyone trying to decipher his ultimate goal. He takes the concept of Villains Act, Heroes React to an extreme by essentially being the only character who "acts" while everyone else in the play is merely "reacting" to his actions, making it a case of Surrounded by Idiots. It's easy to derive inspiration from him, but your Magnificent Bastard should probably have more sympathetic traits and the pawns he's manipulating shouldn't be so gullible.