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Bad Guys—Creepy Cartoon Caricatures

Monday, September 14, 2009

Boris & NatashaMaybe 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:Captain Hook 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.

CruellaAs 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.

Dastardly and MuttleyIn 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.

JafarProbably 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.

Wile E CoyoteIn 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).

For Discussion:
Who are some of your favorite Creepy Cartoon Caricatures—the bad guys/villains you remember from childhood that have stuck with you as the embodiment of what defines a bad guy/villain? Who are some of the bad guys you’ve encountered in books/movies/TV as an adult that creep you out because you actually start feeling sympathy for them?

  1. Monday, September 14, 2009 4:56 pm

    Oooh. Dare I admit that I still love animated films by listing off all my favorite villians? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Ok, I’d have to say my three fave villians are

    Ursula-LOVE her. Love her facial expressions, (“Zip!”) her laugh, and “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. In my childhood imagination, she hid out under my bed, waiting to snatch me up with one of her tentacles. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Cruella-love her coat. And hair. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I could never understand why she would want to kill all those sweet puppies.

    The Siamese Cats-one of my worst nightmares, they were just bad because they destroyed everything and wanted to steal milk from the poor baby. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And the creepy voices, complete with the Chinese cymbals.


    • Tuesday, September 15, 2009 11:12 am

      The Little Mermaid came out when I was in college (yes, now I’m REALLY aging myself). I didn’t mind the fact that the villain was female—what I minded was that she was fat. I guess because I was already starting to struggle with self-image issues because of my own size (about a size 18 at that time), it really bothered me that the only overweight character in the film happened to be the baddie.


      • Tuesday, September 15, 2009 1:12 pm

        Carlotta is overweight. She’s Eric’s housekeeper.


  2. Monday, September 14, 2009 7:53 pm

    The first two villains from my childhood that come to mind are the hag from Snow White (Disney film) and the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. They TERRIFIED me as a kid. Though I can watch both films now (and have been able to for years & years, just to clarify – LOL), I never got to the point where I “loved” them as I know a lot of people do.


    • Tuesday, September 15, 2009 11:10 am

      It was the whale in Pinocchio that did it to me. I was probably only around three years old when we went to see it (I know it was while we lived in Alaska). I’ve hated that movie ever since!

      I’ve heard that when Steven Spielberg was little, the evil queen from Snow White gave him nightmares—and that’s what made him what he is today!


  3. Tuesday, September 15, 2009 11:07 am

    You’ve pretty much covered all the childhood bad guys.

    As an adult, any bad guy played by John Malkovich or Jeremy Irons will invariably evoke sympathy somewhere during the story.


  4. Tuesday, September 15, 2009 12:09 pm

    Cruella de Vil is one of the most evil cartoon characters that I can think of! I even mentioned her in my comments on some of your earlier posts! She kills puppies for coats that’s REALLY bad!

    Also Sharkhan from the Jungle book, he was one scary tiger! That deep, kinda lazy voice is beyond creepy!

    And finally Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty! Once again the name says it all! Plus she has horns and a scary crow!

    From movies, I would have to say I just love the Phantom even though he did kill some people, kidnap Christine and burn down the opera house! Even after all this I love him…probably because he’s played by Gerard Butler but still…why do I sympathize, probably because of all the torturing he went through as a child I can’t help but to feel a bit sorry for him.


  5. Tuesday, September 15, 2009 1:21 pm

    The Phantom is one of my favorites too. Both versions of him! He’s even creepier in the book.

    Some of my favorite villains are also Disney villains. Ursula/Vanessa, Maleficent, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Jafar. Ursula was my ultimate definition of bad guy for a very long time. She was power-hungry and demonstrated beautifully what happens when you cease to care about those around you and get so focused on one goal that you’ll do anything to get it. It’s not well known, but according to Disney Ursula is Ariel’s aunt. Which makes the betrayal and manipulation that much more evil IMO.

    I’m also now looking forward to Disney’s next animated villain–Dr. Facilier in The Princess and the Frog. He’s deliciously scary looking and has a deep voice that would command respect even from Jafar! I’m pretty sure he’s a witch doctor too, which from my POV is a very appropriate thing to have as a bad guy in 1920’s New Orleans.

    I developed sympathy for Hannibal Lecter after Hannibal Rising came out. He had multiple opportunities to make choices that would not turn him into what he is, but at each point he chose the anger and hatred over forgiveness. To me, it showed just how easy it is to make the wrong choice and destroy your life.


    • Tuesday, September 15, 2009 8:35 pm

      I love the idea of dissecting these characters…my family hates it, though. “I wonder why so-and-so did it. Oooh, he must have been abandoned early on in life, which made him this and this”…to which my dad will reply, “Maybe he did it just because he was a bad guy. Now please be quiet and watch the movie.” ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I found out via the musical that Ursula was her aunt. Puts a whole new twist there. I wonder what happened to Cruella in her childhood? Maybe the Siamese cats were pound kitties…

      For a prime example of a serious case of analyzing a bad guy, what about Wicked, the story of the backstory of everyone’s love-to-hate witch?


  6. Wednesday, September 16, 2009 10:53 pm

    Finally made it here. Shep Smith on FOX news tonight showed a bit on Wiley Cyote and Roadrunner ~ 60th anniversary. Essentially he was saying how Wiley is one villian that becomes a victim and your pulling for him. I was all excited. That’s great, Kaye would love this!!

    I’m thinking maybe Witchypoo on HR Puffin Stuff. Probably before your time. I wanted to see what antics she was going to come up with and then be foiled.

    Feeling sympathy for the often misunderstood Edward Scissorhands and Capt. Jack Sparrow of Pirates. And what about Louis de Pointe du Lac of Interview with a Vampire (my son made me watch it – never thought I’d feel sympathy for the guy!)


  7. Stephanie permalink
    Saturday, June 4, 2011 3:17 pm

    When I think of caricatures, I get a delicious chill from anybody who likes to strip away the hero or heroine’s dignity. Think Miss Minchin, Cinderella’s stepmom, or anyone whose goal is to get at the protagonists, not physically, but emotionally. I’ve written stories since I was 6, and all my villains were rich, evil “bad girl” types who made heroes or heroines into starving, shivering servants. Since then, they have evolved into kidnappers or those who want to destroy reputations or make sure the hero is locked in an institution or jail for the rest of his/her natural life.


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