Evil isn’t born, it’s made; and so is good.
-Regina Mills, Once Upon A Time
This has been one of my favorite quotes since the beginning of the first season of ABC’s hit series Once Upon A Time (OUAT) back in 2011. For those who are unfamiliar with show, the basic premise is that the Evil Queen from Snow White cast a curse on all of Fairy Tale Land that would cause them all to lose their memories-and thereby lose their happy endings as well. They would be banished to our world and the fictional town of Storybrooke, Maine. In Storybrooke, time was frozen and because no one could remember their true identity all of the happily ever afters were lost. Only Snow White and Prince Charming’s long-lost daughter, who was sent to our world before the curse as a means of protection, and therefore had spent the last 28 years living as a normal human being, could break the curse.
Regina Mills, whom I quoted above, is the resident Evil Queen that sets this all in motion. Her quote speaks to me on so many levels, but, as this is a writing blog, today I like to look at it from the perspective of a writer. The remarkable thing about OUAT is that they are able to take what most of us consider only cartoon, flat characters and turn them into living, breathing human beings that we can root for, relate to, and occasionally, love to hate. The show is ultimately promoted to be about encouraging hope, but it also is frequently stated that the creators don’t want to shy away from emphasizing the fact that not everything is black-and-white, good or evil. In short, life is not as simple as we were always lead to believe in the traditional Disney fairytale. This is the aspect on which I want to focus.
When creating a character, most of us have some vague idea of what role they’re going to play in the story. A hero, a villain, a sidekick, a minor character, a main character, etc. But something extremely important to remember, is that just because a character is a villain it doesn’t make them bad, or mean we have to hate them. Likewise, just because a character is a hero, doesn’t mean they have to be good, or even likable.
For a villainous example, the obvious choice would be Snape from Harry Potter, but being the big Broadway nerd that I am, I’m going to use The Wicked Witch of the West/Elphaba. Now, based on the Wizard of Oz, both Frank L. Baum’s classic novel and the movie, I’m going to take a guess that most of our knee-jerk reactions to the Wicked Witch were not all that pleasant. After all, she’s green, covered in warts, and she terrorizes an innocent little Kansas girl simply because she won’t give up the the Witch of the East’s shoes– which, I’d like to point out, she didn’t even take in first place; the Good Witch gave them to her with instructions not to remove them. Who was she going believe between the two of them? In my mind, these were the qualities that made her a classic villain. In fact,I despised her so much that the first time I saw Wicked back in 2006, I had to be forced to go. I was convinced the show was going to be scary, and I am the definition of a scaredy cat.
But then Elphaba came on stage, and my opinion completely changed. Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch, on which the musical is based, along with Stephan Schwartz and the rest of the creative team, managed to take this woman that I had once perceived as a character who would be impossible to redeem, into a girl that millions of people around the world can relate to, by giving her a backstory and more dynamic personality. She wasn’t a villain at all, but actually severely misunderstood anti-hero.
On to the unlikable hero. This time, I chose to take a look at Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black. Some people might disagree with me on this, but personally I can’t stand Piper. At first, I liked her. She was a relatively simple girl who had only done one criminal act in her life: flying a suitcase of money across the ocean on behalf of a drug ring for her college girlfriend Alex. And she was convicted just before her statute of limitations expired. She managed to get on the wrong side of almost everyone in Litchfield Prison within the first few episodes of the series, and was just generally not doing well. I felt bad for her, and wanted things to improve. But as the episodes and seasons went on, she became deceitful and cunning in order to survive in prison. Though I understand her reasoning, I still cannot bring myself to like her as much as I did at the beginning of the series.
Now, bare in mind that not every villain needs to be inherently misunderstood, and not every hero needs to be unlikable, but everyone needs to be human. How do we do this? We focus on the things that made them the way they are. If your villain simply wants to take over the world because he/she is evil, that is crappy character development. Like the quote says, no one is born as one thing or another– it all depends on how life shapes them and who they become.
Marissa Meyer, author of The Lunar Chronicles series, does a wonderful job of creating an incredibly evil character in her main antagonist Queen Levana, without forgetting to establish a legit reason for her malicious nature. For most of the series, we don’t know much about her, except that Earth has been afraid of her and the other Lunars– those who populate the Moon, called Luna– for many years. Lunars have a special ability that allows them control other people’s thoughts and emotions, which makes them an incredible threat. We know that Levana plotted to kill her sister Channary, as well as her niece, Princess Selene. Over the course of four books, she routinely manipulates the people of Earth and Luna, threatening to wage war against them if they don’t bow to her will. She also always glamors herself, hiding her true appearance and wearing a thick, black veil. She’s an easy villain to love to hate. Since that is her role in the book series, she doesn’t need a lot of extra motivation. We already know that she was second in line to the throne and wanted it for herself. In other series, this alone has been enough motivation. But Meyer goes the extra distance in the end of the last book, as well as her novella Fairest, to explain Levana’s cruel nature by revealing that her first love was killed brutally, and Channary used to force her to burn herself as punishment, leaving her with a paralyzed face and a body of grotesque scars. This explains why she is so desperate for people to love her, because she did not feel loved in her earlier years. For most readers, myself included, this backstory did not excuse her horrendous actions in the rest of the books, but it did give her more depth and make her seem like an actual human rather than a caricature of a villain.