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A Matter of Perspective

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, April 16, 2022
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Consider this typical fantasy story:

There was once a young handsome man who was good with the sword, excellent with everyone in the village he lived with, and loved and cherished by all. However, he was unhappy because the one girl he fell in love with did not love him. He tried to impress her several times to no avail. In his desperation, he even tried to force her to accept him by threatening her and putting pressure on her. It didn't work. Still, when she was abducted by a hideous beast hiding away in the nearby forest, he wasted no time in rushing to rescue her. Unfortunately, the beast was stronger than him and he was killed, despite managing to mortally wound the beast.

Pretty sad tale of a pretty standard hero, right?

It is, of course, the story of Gaston, from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

How about this story:

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl that was naturally coy. She was inexperienced in love matters, but romantic. One day, her paths crossed with those of a man who sought to possess women. He immediately took a liking to her. He started following her around, stalking her. He scared away all her male friends and even travelled to different cities when she went there. He showered her with gifts and demanded that she let him use her as he pleased. In the end, the girl's defenses eroded and she gave in, forever becoming his slave and possession.

A pretty sad tale of a stalker getting what he wanted, right?

It's of course, 50 Shades of Gray.

The first story looks to be that of a hero, but it really is the story of a villain. The second story looks to be that of a villain, but it really is the story of …well, someone who the author wants us to think of as heroic or good in some way :/

The point I'm making is that in both snippets, I faithfully wrote out the key plot points of both stories. I chose to write them in a ‘heroic light’ in the first one and in a ‘villainous light’ in the second one. The original movies are pretty well known to bring to mind the original ‘light’ in which the stories were written.

How is Gaston the villain in Beauty and the Beast?

Because everything he does is cast in a negative light as the audience is privy to his motivations and his strategies (which are malevolent and manipulative). There is no ‘mitigating justification’ for what he does. Everything is presented in its full ugliness.

How is Gray from 50 Shades of Gray the hero?

Because everything he does is cast in a positive light or at least a forgiving light ('he is abusive because he is a broken man, but with a heart of gold'). Everything he does is presented as amazing, heroic, good, or “understandable” and a reason to pity and empathize with him rather than reject him as a character.

Granted, some members of the audience won't put up with rationalizations of toxic behaviors (thank goodness), but a lot of them will. Hence 50 Shades of Gray's success (ok, it also promised porn to wine moms).

The perspective in which we, as creators, present our characters' behaviors is key in how these characters are ‘coded’ in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

I once took a challenge to write Harry Potter's Snape as a good character (before it was canon/cool and yes it was fanfiction, judge away!) and the only thing I needed to succeed was to write the story from his POV, delineating his motivations for everything he did, and boom! Instant Good Guy. Not just Antihero or Redeemed Villain or anything like that. He still did atrociously toxic behaviors in the beginning chapters, but they were all cast in a redeeming light because the audience could see why he did them, or what he was trying to accomplish. I did such a good job of keeping him in character while presenting him as a good guy that I won an award for it.

Being aware that we, as creators, control the perspective from which our characters will be perceived is vital: we not only create the audience's experience of these characters, but we also ‘teach’ in a way, which behaviors can be considered acceptable and which not. This can have impact in real life: consider how many people go out of their way to be acerbic and verbally abusive in their effort to sound intelligent like House MD or like Rick from Rick and Morty. That's because both of these characters are perceived as desirable by the audience.

Blackadder on the other hand, who is infinitely entertaining, clever, witty, and astoundingly glib is not an example people tend to want to follow as much (at least in my experience). That's because he is still presented as a petty villain in the show. He's just a fun petty villain with some of the best dialogue I've ever encountered.

Could your heroes be written as a villain, or vice versa, if someone else was telling the story?

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comment

anonymous?

Ozoneocean at 8:07PM, April 18, 2022

@Paul, Terry was wrong about the definition of terrorists, but it did fit in with how the media liked to differentiate between "terrorists and freedom fighters" at the time. A terrorist is a person who's part of a militia who deliberately uses acts calculated to horrify the general populace to achieve a much greater effect than would normally be possible given their lack of resources and small numbers. They literally use acts of terror as one of the primary means of their fight. A "freedom fighter" CAN be a terrorist if acts of terror are one of their main means of war.

PaulEberhardt at 4:44AM, April 18, 2022

unrelated addition that has just popped up in my memory: "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." - bonus points to those who know where that quote is from without googling (hint: it's not from Wuthering Heights, but from something much older)

PaulEberhardt at 4:40AM, April 18, 2022

One gem that probably every English literature student is made to read and that immediately comes to my mind would be Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights". I remember that once I figured out all those endless convoluted relationship issues I liked that story a great deal for the way you can read Heathcliff both as a tragic hero and a villain with the same justification. The novel largely leaves the choice of perspective up to you, which is a really cool thing to pull off. This is done by letting the reader surrogate Lockwood only witness the aftermath and having the rest told to him by an elderly housekeeper, who by definition is a bystander rather than an insider (although she is involved in some parts).

PaulEberhardt at 4:37AM, April 18, 2022

Great article! As the late Sir Terry said: "the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is whether his side wins" Or, of course, which side you're on as a reader. It's a major reason why you'll never quite find clear-cut heroes or villains in any of my own stuff. The other reason is that different perspectives on an ambiguous hero/villain are fun to play with. It reminds me of the Byronic hero from classic fiction - a deeply troubled, self-centred character whose heroic qualities are that he takes action and feels himself within his rights, even if the world around him doesn't necessarily agree.

Jason Moon at 9:15AM, April 16, 2022

LOL wine moms. Wonderful article Tantz, real eye opener.

bravo1102 at 6:09AM, April 16, 2022

Like the lady said "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way."

usedbooks at 4:13AM, April 16, 2022

Look up the musical Twisted. You won't be disappointed.

Corruption at 2:45AM, April 16, 2022

As I have said many times before: the difference between good and evil is who is passing judgement. Gaston did something else, hunt to provide food for the village (he came back into the village after getting a deer. If you look at Bambi, with BATB, you will realize there is the one common background scene soon before Bambi's mom is hunted and he returns. A hunter you see in passing in Bambi wears the same outfit as one of Gaston's fellow hunters. Yes; he killed Bambi's mom! It's ok, he was just providing food for everyone.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:23AM, April 16, 2022

Molly Lusc is intentionally setup so that she could easily be turned into a villainesse. Throughout the comic you see her dip her feet in villanous behaviour. She spies on her neighbours, she blackmails one of them, she steals, she commits adultery and when her secret lover is murdered she disposes of his dead body by feeding it to a flesh eating plant (gotta be a bit callous to do something like that). But she retains her position as the heroine by giving us peeks into her rough past and by admitting her faults, admitting her adultery, saving her husband's life and leaving him to seek a better path in her life. Ultimately I try to portray her as neither good or bad. She's just a person capable of both good actions and bad actions. Those characters who consider themselves good will always try to justify their evil actions, which is what the villain in the comic did, and those who consider themselves bad are gonna do evil for evil's sake. Those are ultimately my villains.

marcorossi at 12:46AM, April 16, 2022

When I write the bad guys of my stories I try to write characters that make sense and that from their point of view believe they are the heroes. There is a limit to this though because stories need an emotional appeal, so if the reader has to root for the protagonist there has to be a difference between the protagonist and the antagonist, so at some point the bad guy has to be bad for the good guy to be good.

marcorossi at 12:40AM, April 16, 2022

The fun thing about Gaston is that the Beast has all the same defects in spades, but gets to be the ojectified love interest of the story.

Ozoneocean at 10:22PM, April 15, 2022

My heroes are generally too bland to make good villains but my villains could easily work as heroes. This can be a very interesting to to do or it can be effing dull when it's done with characters like the wicked queen in Snow White for example- She's meant to be bad for the sake of it, but they humanise her because she's pretty, appeals to older women as a POV character and they can give her some cliche justifications for being bad. Giving villains cliche justifications for being bad (or reasons that are currently popular in the media), is the biggest crime against them... it takes away their uniqueness. The humanised, "non-evil" version of the villain should be just as cool as the original.


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