Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Bad Boys with Depth
This week, I'm going with the topic from The Broke and the Bookish Top Ten Tuesday. It's all about villains.
I'm glad of this opportunity to talk about some of the deep and complex 'bad boy' characters in film and literature. You'll find no cardboard, one-dimensional villains who simply enjoy causing pain on this list. They all have good reasons for the paths they chose to walk, which make perfect sense in their own minds at least. They stretch our ability to feel empathy for mean characters to the limit, and I can't help liking every one of them (except perhaps for Heathcliff. That's stretching it a bit far.)
I'm going to focus on male characters in this blog post, simply because I've written a couple of posts about mean and wicked female characters, so it's time to balance the scales. And since I'm going to talk about my choices at some length, I thought I'd better half the list, to stop the blog post growing out of hand. Here goes.
1) Edmund Pevensie
C.S. Lewis didn't have to spell it out for us to get this boy. Edmund wants to crank up his image and be in the ranks of the big, cool kids like Peter and Susan, rather than finding himself forever relegated with the little kids like Lucy. His position as third born was unfortunate for him, and he'd do anything to elbow his way up, even teasing and lying. Although it appears personal, his put-down behaviour at the start of their adventures is not about Lucy at all. It's about him and his impression management.
Once you're bewitched by the deliciousness of enchanted Turkish Delight, your responsibility for your own actions is arguably out of your control, to a certain extent. It is easy enough to talk yourself into anything when a persistent voice in your mind tells you that rebelling may be in your own best interest. I believe his niggling resentment of the others, combined with the lies the White Witch told him, convinced Edmund that betrayal wasn't really betrayal. It was more like sound common sense in his deluded reasoning. In the broad scope of the Narnian world, Edmund represents us all, so we're being sort of hypocritical if we come down too hard on him.
One thing you have to concede by the end of his story is that he didn't stomp around making people's lives hell just for the fun of it. His only targets were people he believed stuffed his own life up, and their offspring. And he only did it to prove to them that he could, and to restore what he believed was justice, and the way things should have been all along. His enemies had pushed him aside as a contemptuous write-off. In his mind, he owed it to himself to make them sorry.
His horrid surrogate brother Hindley degraded Heathcliff and made sure his sister Catherine would regard him as a contemptible marriage prospect. The effeminate Edgar Linton actually did win Catherine's hand. So Hindley and Edgar became the main targets on Heathcliff's hit list. To Heathcliff's way of thinking, making a thorough job of it simply extended into the next generation, and continued after those two had passed away. He almost thwarted himself with warm feelings for Hindley's son, Hareton, Then he reminded himself that since Hindley's son wasn't a born fool like his own, keeping him in his place would be all the sweeter. And off he went on his destructive path again. You can't say that someone that calculating, conniving, and clever doesn't have depth.
3) Severus Snape
Whoa, wondering exactly what he conceals beneath that hooked-nosed, oily-haired exterior becomes part of the crux of the whole story. We're set up to hold him in contempt from the outset. He treats Harry and his friends horribly, and holds a deep grudge against Harry, for reasons we have to discover. He is known to have a dark mark on his arm. He's dabbled in the dark arts from his youth, and still professes to belong among the Death Eaters, to their faces at least. He kills Albus Dumbledore with no hesitation, before Harry's very eyes. And he knows how to think of the most sadistic punishments for his students, and certainly never presents a warm front.
Our feelings about him swing like a pendulum all through the series. 'Is he good? No, he's bad! No, he's a good guy. No, it looks as if he's on the wrong side after all.' JKR played on her readers not knowing what to think about the potions master. By the end of the seventh book, you have to admire the complex and dangerous game he played as a double agent, It becomes clear that many key characters, including Harry himself, had their necks saved by Snape. His motivation for loyalty to Dumbledore extends way back to his lonely childhood. And at last we find out about the action which drove him with horrible remorse for the rest of his life.
I read that while the Harry Potter series was being filmed, JKR let Alan Rickman in on the secret motivations of Severus Snape's heart before they were revealed to anyone else, just so he'd have the background details to enable him to play this complex character. You may also like my post, Is Severus Snape a good person?
4) Draco Malfoy
He's introduced as the typecast, nasty little bully, but becomes so much more as he grows up during the series. Early on, we get glimpses of what really drives him. 'Oh, I get it, you're just trying to impress your father. Well, you'll find out that's an impossible task.' In the meantime, you find yourself wishing he'd figure it out for himself. 'If only you'd use that wit and intelligence for good.' In time, you see it dawn on him that he doesn't have a heart for evil and cruelty at all. Draco is good at talking the talk, but walking the walk is a completely different story. But at this stage, it seems too late. He's certain that deviating from the path Voldemort and his family have set for him will cost him their lives.
In so many other stories, characters choose to live the lie that they are good, when it isn't true. Draco's story is a refreshing reversal. He finds himself forced to live the lie that he's bad, because to his twisted, Death Eater family, bad is good. I love the scenes when we see his facade begin to crack. He breaks down and cries under the intense pressure, he can't bring himself to fulfill his mission to murder Dumbledore (and Dumbledore understands him just as we do). Looking Voldemort in the eye is impossible for him, and he refuses to identify Harry, Ron and Hermione to the Death Eaters under his own roof. Even though he bullied them at school, seeing them tortured and killed is much further than he's willing to go. In fledgling steps, he's becoming his own man.
Draco fans like me will love the way his character is written in 'The Cursed Child' play. Out of the shadow of his parents at last, and living with a loving wife and son instead, he's free to become the man he might have been all along, if he hadn't been brought up all wrong. A real sheep in wolves clothing this boy turns out to be, and surely any psycho-analyst's dream. I remember at one stage, JKR expressed her concern that Draco seemed as popular with young fans as Harry, and wondered how to curb their enthusiasm. I could have told her not to bother. That ship had already sailed.
5) Darth Vader
The first Star Wars trilogy presented a 'more machine than man' type of character who'd been entrenched in the dark side for so many years, you'd think there was no hope for him. He has the black and menacing dress sense to match his personality. He's the despicable Emperor Palpatine's right hand man. He tries to bring down the good Rebel Alliance whenever possible, and does his best to convince his son, Luke Skywalker, to join the dark side too. He's somebody you'd want to keep well away from. But then he makes the impromptu decision to kill the emperor to save Luke, mortally wounding himself in the process. And we have Luke's own conviction that there's still some good in his father, however deep it may be buried, and we've got to trust Luke, because he's the hero.
Years later, the second trilogy explores the depth of Darth Vader's character. It takes three prequels to thresh out the complex person who was once Anakin Skywalker. It takes us way back to his childhood, when he was the young Jedi prophesied to bring balance to the Force. We see his love for Padme, his rage and grief over his mother's death, and the torturous visions which he's determined won't come to pass. Intense love and passion influence his fall to the dark side, but the good was always flickering. (I don't know if it's only me, but Obi-Wan seemed a bit quick to give up on Anakin in those final, tense moments. It was pretty sad.)
I've had a go at writing several complex bad boy characters of my own, because I love the challenge of getting readers to despise a person on face value, and then decide they understand, and even love him, after all. That's good exercise for the emotion muscle. This was a great fun post to write. If you agree with my choices, please go ahead and add your thoughts in the comments. And if you can suggest any of your own favourite bad boy characters, feel free to mention them too.
You may also enjoy my lists of Wicked Women and Mean Girls. The last ones in particular are abundant.