Character Study - Non-Villainous Villains

When writing fantasy or adventure, one of the hardest parts is writing a believable villain. I have already addressed this subject once with Captain Nemo, but with the television program Once Upon a Time having ended, I realized that I wanted to give some more contemporary examples. Some of you probably just turned up your nose at the glorified soap-opera Once Upon a Time (which Disney did some pretty shady things in order to produce and make sure theirs was the only modern fairy tales show at the time). Here's the thing - it wrote it's villains extremely well. Every villain had a backstory and some redeeming quality. Many of them you felt sorry for or could relate to in some way. And that's the way the villain should be. You don't want to constantly write the James Bond stereotype, who does evil just to be powerful. So, here are a three modern examples of well-written fantasy villains and why.

The first example is a bit of a cheat because the whole book is from the villain's point of view and is trying to make you feel regret for an established bad guy, similar to Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Still, it was well-done and I'm using it. The Fairest of All by Serena Valentino was published by Disney, yet delves into a dark, psychological path that surprises the reader. It's the story of how Snow White's step-mother became wicked. Valentino uses many of the same childhood horrors that shape people in the real world who do bad: abuse, manipulation, low self-esteem, and loneliness, to reveal the queen's motivation for her obsession with beauty. You see a little girl who is told constantly that she is ugly and worthless, then grows up to discover she is actually gorgeous and how she latches onto that concept. It also addresses how childhood trauma follows a person into adulthood, although the book does this very literally when it turns out the slave in the mirror is the queen's mentally abusive father. Lastly, Valentino uses grief and depression to break the character and turn her into the monstrous mother we recognize from the Disney film. She paints an interesting and heartbreaking journey that is not simply jealousy, but the reasons behind the madness.

Second villains to analyze are Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel from the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman. Both are cold, intelligent, and selfish. While one is power hungry and the other is more of an academic fanatic, both lay at the precipice of being purely villainous in different ways. Without giving away too much from the books, both characters have a significant effect and interest in the hero, Lyra. She serves as a different part of a goal for both and both nearly kill her several times. But it is their underlining humanity, their connection to each other and to Lyra which reveals them to be more than simply antagonists.

The last to be given props this week (and in keeping with a YA theme) is Luke Castellan from Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. Luke is one of many antagonists from the series of books, but he unique as the most conflicted of the villains. You see him from many points of view, not just as the former friend and betrayer of the main character. You find his motivations from a childhood of neglect and from his reactions to various harsh life experiences. He was a hero who was manipulated by depression and bitterness, but you have his former friends who want him to be the boy he used to be. You root for them to save him, despite every horrible way he nearly kills them.


In Defense of Snow White

Brief History: Snow White is the story most people know about the beautiful girl (who was only seven years old in the Grimm version, by the way) experiences attempted murder multiple times by the hand of family member and is rescued by miners. This story is not found as often in other cultures as Cinderella, although there are versions within Eastern European folktales. The Roman story of Chione has similarities, but is also riddled with rape and forced tongue piercings. Some say Snow White was inspired by real wealthy young women who died “mysteriously” so others could take control of their land and mines. I would also like to point out that in the earliest versions the prince does not save the young beauty with a kiss. Someone drops the glass casket and she coughs out the poisoned apple.

Analysis: As a kid, I used to wonder how Snow White could be so dumb. Her stepmother manages to trick her with different variations of the same trick three times. THREE TIMES! But at the same time, I don’t know what her life was like. Maybe she was alone every day in that dwarf house for years and was desperate for the company, even if that company might stab her scalp with a poison comb. Maybe she had lots of peddlers come by the cottage and the evil queen showing up multiple times was simply another person in a weekly routine of solicitors. I did like that her true heroes were the seven little people who probably did not know how to raise a child. So that makes them doubly heroes – once for keeping her safe and again for dealing with her through puberty. As for her marrying a man she never met just because he dropped her casket, I admit I’d do almost anything to not have to hand-wash seven pairs of underwear every day.

Blame it on the Victorians: Originally, when the Brothers Grimm wrote the story down, Snow White’s nemesis was not a jealous stepmother, but the very woman who had given birth to her. Even the Grimm boys thought that having her mom order little Snow’s lungs and liver cooked into a stew was too dark. And thus begins the myth of the evil step-mother. Victorians seemed weirdly okay with this, despite that so many children grew up with stepmoms due to the high death rate caused by childbirth. First wife dies and you don’t want to raise the kids – marry another women.  As for the Victorian’s view of little people, well… Most illustrators drew the dwarfs as ordinary men with long beards. Yet, there were a few, most notably from the Victorian era who chose to draw them more like hobgoblins or gnomes; fanciful or comical. Circuses of the day were partially to blame. It was difficult for little people to be widely accepted in Victorian society and some chose to be the stars of freak shows. P.T. Barnum’s young actor, known as General Tom Thumb, made bank allowing people to ogle him. Because, again, the Victorians were swell.

Last thoughts: An apple a day. . . is almost the set-up for the perfect crime.

*If you want know any of the places where some of my research comes from, just contact me.