Throwback Thursday Post of the Week:
Bad Guys—Creepy Cartoon Caricatures
Originally posted: September 14, 2009
Maybe I’m aging myself here, but surely most of you can easily recall the ZZ Top song “Bad to the Bone.” All throughout this series, that’s the song that’s been running through my head as I’ve written about how to create Bad Guy characters. But there are two ways to go about this. There’s creating “Bad to the Bone” villains (like those pictured on this page today)—the creepy cartoon caricatures; and then there’s creating Bad Guys (antagonists, dark heroes, villains) who have just a little something about them that makes them sympathetic to the reader. Those are the two qualities I’d like to focus on for this, the second to last formal entry in the Bad Guys series. (We’ll end with a bang by talking about Bad Girls.)
For most of us growing up, our first exposure to Bad Guy characters came from cartoons, whether on TV or in the movies. When we start naming villains, it’s usually easiest to start with the Disney movies: the evil queen in Snow White; the wicked stepmother in Cinderella; the hunters in Bambi; Cruella de Vil; Jafar; Ursula; Captain Hook; Gaston (Beauty & the Beast); Aunt Sarah, the Siamese cats, and the rat (Lady & the Tramp); Prince John, Sir Hiss, and the Sheriff of Nottingham; Scar and the Hyenas; and so on. And there were those we saw on TV: Boris & Natasha; Dastardly and Muttley; and Wile E. Coyote. What makes it so easy to name these characters as Bad Guys/villains? Because they’re presented very simply: they do bad things, they have to face the consequences for doing bad things, and we’re told through the “moral” of the story that doing bad things is, well, bad. Therefore, these characters are bad for doing bad things. We’re never given their backstory in such a way as to become aware of why they became bad. They’re just bad because they’re in juxtaposition to the heroes/heroines of these stories.
As we grow older, though, and we begin to experience life—an abusive adult, the schoolyard bully, the first romantic interest to break our heart—we begin to realize that being “bad” isn’t as black-and-white as it’s portrayed in those cartoons. People who do bad things aren’t bad all the time. In fact, they can be quite nice and charming sometimes. In real life, it’s hard to pick out the “bad guys” around us—mostly because they don’t come with names like Cruella or Dastardly or Snidely Whiplash, or with pencil mustaches with curlicues on the ends for them to twirl while chuckling menacingly. They don’t tie the Nell Fenwicks of life to the railroad tracks. (Though there are some real-life creepy cartoon caricatures who do commit heinous acts like that; and even when we do learn their entire backstory, we find nothing that makes us sympathize with them.) Cartoon bad guys are over-the-top—in appearance, in costume, in personality, in sheer evilness. They are, in other words, “Bad to the Bone.”
If you are creating stories for very young children, these types of bad-guy characters are fine—in fact, these are the best type of bad guys for children’s stories. Because at that age, they are thinking in terms of black-and-white, right and wrong. They haven’t started to experience the gray areas of life.
In the first (original, 1977) Star Wars movie, Darth Vader was one of these caricaturish bad guys. He had the black body-armor, the swirling black cape, the creepy breathing machine, the ability to choke someone from across the room just by pointing at him, the intimidation factor, and served as the “evil henchman” for a dastardly leader in Grand Moff Tarkin. When Tarkin decided to destroy Alderaan, Vader didn’t speak up for the peace-loving people who’d long-since given up all of their weapons. When Tarkin gave the orders to “terminate her, immediately,” Vader didn’t stick up for Leia. Without a second thought, he killed Obi-Wan Kenobi. And then he went after our heroes. In the second film (Empire Strikes Back), Vader did even more dastardly deeds. But then we found out something very interesting about his backstory: he is Luke’s father. (Sorry if I just spoiled that for anyone ;-).) It is through Luke’s character that we begin to feel sympathy for Vader as Luke, in the third film, sets out to redeem Vader. And his sympathy is justified. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader/Anakin chooses to save his son and destroy the evil emperor who’d turned him into that creepy cartoon caricature embodiment of villainy.
Probably one of the best-known literary villains of the 21st Century is Voldemort from the Harry Potter books. Because the first few books are written for younger readers, Voldemort is portrayed as one of these creepy cartoon caricatures: he’s the embodiment of evil because he has it out for our young hero. But the series is a wonderful example of how we come to know what evil truly means—how a person develops emotionally to understand that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters” (Sirius Black from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). As the series progresses, as Harry Potter ages and starts to understand that there are many more gray areas of life than there are black-and-white, more of Voldemort’s backstory is revealed. Then, once we get to the sixth book, we are treated to his entire backstory: the miserable family he came from; his early life in an orphanage; the tragedies that led him to fall into vengeance and darkness. At one point, Harry compares his own life with Voldemort’s: how his (Harry’s) mother loved him so much she sacrificed her life to save Harry, and how Voldemort’s mother didn’t love her son enough to go on living after her muggle husband abandoned her when she stopped giving him the love potion she’d snared him with—she abandoned her own baby and then went off and died of her broken heart. We also learn there is one way for Voldemort to save himself in the end: to feel regret for everything he’s done. It’s the exact same decision that Darth Vader must make at the end of Return of the Jedi. Except Voldemort makes the opposite choice. In both stories, it’s through the eyes of the hero (Luke and Harry) that we as the viewer/reader begin to feel something akin to sympathy for the bad guy. And it makes both characters—the hero and the villain—resonate all the more for it.
In Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, Jessica Page Morrell sums up creating sympathy for Bad Guys this way:
- “The forces that shape villains in fiction and in real life can rarely be undone. Thus, when you’re creating sympathy for a villain, you’re doing so because of his situation and backstory. Not only do readers want to walk along in your protagonist’s clothes, they want a close-up meeting with the villain, a meeting so physical and fully wrought that the character’s smell, posture, and menacing or seemingly benign presence will take over their senses. Readers want a glimpse or, better yet, a tour of the inner workings of someone drastically different from them” (p. 214).