Poor Persecuted Villains

Every story needs a villain. There needs to be conflict to drive a story, and that conflict can best be generated by someone who opposes the hero. In fact, that opposition can be carefully constructed to be the driving force behind your story. Consider the following advice from writer and editor Sol Stein, in his book, “Stein on Writing” (p. 82-83):

We are driven through life by our needs and wants. So must the characters we create be motivated by what they want. The driving force of characters is their desire.

. . .

Which brings us to the essence of plotting: putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict. . . . One way to plan is to think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want, then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist. And be certain there is a two-way urgency: your protagonist wants a particular, important desire fulfilled as soon as possible, and the antagonist wants to wreck the chance of that happening, also as soon as possible.

This kind of conflict, created by having a hero and a villain butting heads because of incompatible goals, is common in many books. Sometimes it can be something grand: Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring, and Sauron wants to get his hands on the same ring. Other times it can be something simpler, but still of critical importance to the characters: In Misery, writer Paul Sheldon just wants to go home, while his “number one fan” Annie wants him to stay and write his next novel. Despite the book only having two characters throughout the majority of the story, it works because of their conflicting desires.

But here’s the problem: who gets to decide which of the characters in conflict is the hero, and which one is the villain? Can you always just tell who is the villain by who has the curlier mustache?

Image Credit: Princess Red via Flicker.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mogus/57114273/
Image Credit: Princess Red via Flicker.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mogus/57114273/

That’s hardly fair, and it tends to lead to a lot of biases and stereotypes. Sometimes villains can be very badly persecuted just because of who and what they are. It leads to all kinds of assumptions. Everyone assumes that someone with a goatee is automatically going to try to summon the dark forces of Hades to his command, and that someone with a mustache will be tying you to the railroad tracks to distract the hero while he runs off and completes his bank heist.

Stop the persecution of mustached individuals.
Stop the persecution of mustached individuals.

Why must these poor, misunderstood individuals be seen as the “villains”? Just because their goals and desires happen to conflict with the desires of the people we label as “heroes”?

I say we stand up right now, and fight against the unjust labeling of characters as either hero or villain, protagonist or antagonist. Do you know the root of the word “antagonist”? It’s the same as antagonizing. Would you like it if someone always called you antagonizing, just because you happen to use explosives and/or dark magic whenever you are trying to accomplish your–

SQUIRREL!
SQUIRREL!

. . . *ahem* Sorry, where was I?

The point is, we shouldn’t be so quick to label someone as the “villain” just because their goals are in conflict with someone else’s. Some villains are, in fact, quite misunderstood.

Consider this fellow, for instance:

Every last inch of him is covered in hair.
Every last inch of him is covered in hair.

Gaston is one of the most misunderstood Disney villains ever. Sure, he’s a bit smug. He’s kind of rude. He doesn’t wipe his feet. He killed Bambi’s mom. But is he that bad, really?

He isn’t trying to kill innocent little puppies. He isn’t tricking princesses into giving away their voice in a mad attempt to grab power. He isn’t plotting regicide.

Gaston doesn’t do anything like that. Up until the end of Beauty and the Beast, what does Gaston ever do? Let’s review:

1. He takes an interest in Belle, the smartest and most misunderstood girl in town. He could have any other girl he wanted, and there’s plenty of brainless girls swooning over him. But no, he doesn’t go for one of the three blondes in the low-cut dresses. He goes for the simple girl who everyone else considers odd. In fact, Gaston is the only person in town to show Belle any kindness or attention, except maybe the bookstore owner. Sure, his approach is a bit too smug and condescending, but he doesn’t realize that. He’s grown up in a society that praises men for strength and expects a woman to raise babies. Maybe, if Belle had told him she wanted a different kind of life, he would have respected her wishes and tried to be the kind of man she wanted. If you watch the proposal scene, you’ll see that Belle never bothers to correct Gaston on his chauvinistic behavior or give him a chance to change his ways. Instead, she knocks him into the mud! No wonder he was so mad after!

2. When Maurice, Belle’s father, comes in raving about her being captured by a beast, no one believes him. Who would? I mean, put yourself in Gaston’s shoes. Would you really believe a monster like that existed? Everyone in town had good reason to believe Maurice was just a crazy old man.

3. When they DO find out there’s a beast out there, Gaston and the others react in the way any person would. They seek to defend themselves against the perceived threat. Sure, Belle tries to say the beast is gentle, but she’s clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after being held hostage for months. During that time the beast locked her up, refused to feed her if she didn’t follow his orders, went on multiple volatile rages (and frankly, Belle is lucky she didn’t get hurt when he was throwing furniture around in his blind fury), and he never told her that he was holding her there to trick her into falling in love with him in order to break the spell.

Gaston is clearly misunderstood. And hey, every guy in town would love to be him. He’s admired, he’s everyone’s favorite guy. So, sure, he’s a bit full of himself. Wouldn’t you be, if the entire town was singing your praises like that? Maybe Gaston isn’t as bad as we think. After all, it’s not Gaston who starts off singing about how awesome he is. His little friend, Lefou, starts off singing his praises. Can we blame Gaston for getting swept up in it?

Okay, so there’s that one little part where he schemes to have her father locked up unless Belle agrees to marry him. But I’m willing to chalk that up to a desperate man who’s gone down a slippery slope. He didn’t start off as a villain. He started off as a charming (if pompous) guy who became a villain because that’s the way he was treated.

This is what happens to our poor, persecuted villains. They get treated like criminals, and the societal pressures we put on them force them to take drastic measures. I think it’s time that we, as a society, stopped blaming these antagonists for the extreme things they’re forced to do in this Hero vs Villain world. I think we need to take responsibility and realize that we created these villains. They deserve a second chance.

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