Looking at Character: Punchclock Villains a.k.a It’s Just a Job, Nothing Personal

I thought it was time once again to get back to Looking at Character and correct a deficiency in these articles so far:  lack of antagonist analysis.  We’ve talked about heroes of various permutations, but not one look at the other side of the conflict fence.  For today, then, I decided to bring up one of the most relatable villain archetypes, the Punchclock Villain.

For the Punchclock Villain, whatever morally questionable actions they perform are just part of their job.  They aren’t into crime, murder, theft, smuggling, or whatever other activities they do for personal reasons, political motivation, or mental imbalance … the Punchclock Villain is just collecting a paycheck.  Outside of work, even inside it, the Villain might be polite, professional, and seemingly a decent sort, but that won’t usually prevent him/her from completing the dirty deeds that his/her job requires.

It’s this basic dichotomy of ‘decent person’ vs. ‘villainous scum’ that makes the Punchclock Villain both refreshing and relatable as an antagonist (or even a protagonist, depending on the tale).  After all, we all have to work to make our livings and often we are forced to take jobs we don’t want to make ends meet.  We may even find we have a real talent for a line of work in which we absolutely hate.  Still, we swallow our pride and do what we must to keep a rough over our families’ heads and food in the pantry.

The Punchclock Villain takes those normal, natural actions and feelings and simply pushes them a bit further for the sake of drama.  Instead of making some small compromises to make ends meet, the Villain makes more substantial ones, but their motivations and actions still remain understandable.  The reader may even be able to sympathize to the point where he/she questions what to do if he/she were in the Villain’s place.  This can especially be driven home if the author includes situations where the Villain has to make increasingly harder choices and compromises as the conflicts in the novel escalate.

What can make a Punchclock Villain dramatically interesting, beyond the potential for interesting internal conflicts as I mentioned above, is the ability to contrast them versus more traditional types of villains.  The Punchclock Villain isn’t necessarily traditionally ‘evil’ or ‘crazy’ or the like; he/she has as much in common with the protagonists as with a archetypical megalomaniac supervillain.  That uniqueness can make for a whole new web of drama and plot points, spurred on as much by the Villain’s similarities to the protagonists as their conflicts.  It’s certainly a time-tested set-up to have a traditional ‘evil’ master villain with a Punchclock Villain serving as his/her second-in-command, letting the author explore the relationships and dramatic impact of both traditional ‘hero vs. villain’ conflicts, but the more nuanced ones between all three parties.

The potential stumbling block, of course, is balancing the sympathetic points of the Punchclock Villain versus the conflicts with the protagonist.  If you make the Villain too sympathetic and too ‘good’, you begin to stretch the suspension of disbelief of the reader.  If this guy/gal is so morally good, how can he/she continue to make such drastic compromises?  Likewise, if you make them too unsympathetic, you begin to loose the differentiation between the Punchclock Villain and a more traditional antagonist, leading to a loss of the dramatic tension you introduced that kind of villain to produce in the first place.

Have you ever used such a character in your writing?  Did you find them an interesting element to add to shake up the usual conflicts in a piece?  Do you have any advice, questions, or criticisms?  Put it in the comments below!

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