Loving the Beast: Or What I Learned From Loving the Villain

Luke Evans as Gaston. I approve.im-such-a-bad-boy

Everyone thinks the story Beauty and the Beast is about Belle and the Beast, a cursed prince, but really it’s about Gaston’s ability to expectorate, decorate with antlers, and his slide into hell.

You can keep your pure-hearted heroines and heroes. I’ve always liked fairy tale villains best. Villains give a better example of what it means to be truly human. Villains face or ignore their own shortcomings. Villains illustrate the concept of free will. Villains demonstrate human frailty, human morality. Villains illuminate how to and how not to behave if one wants to be loved, accepted, and admired. We learn more about ourselves from the villain’s actions than we do from the heroine’s or hero’s actions.

Heroines and heroes can be kind of boring, particularly if they are all goody-goody, principled types. Why I think Cinderella is boring as dry grass is that I never learned anything from her, and I never learned anything from Sleeping Beauty, from The Little Mermaid, or Snow White either—other than if you’re pretty people hate you. But I learned plenty from the evil stepmother, nasty stepsisters, and The Evil Queens: If you do something mean it will, eventually, bite you on the ass and lead to your downfall.

Best to avoid being mean.

I love a well-fleshed out villain, but what I love even more is a character who has villainous traits. For me, what makes Mr Rochester far more interesting than Mr High Morals Darcy is that Rochester has a secret, a screaming wraith of a secret that makes him deceitful. The secret is in the attic and it very nearly ruins him. What do we learn from Rochester’s villainous behavior?

Polygamy is bad and don’t keep secrets from the woman you love.

queen2Naturally, my love for a bit o’ badness points to the usual discussion about ‘niceness,’ as in how the leads, particularly the female lead in a romance novel, must be ‘nice,’ never nasty or bitchy, which points to the double standard discussion about how women ‘ought to behave,’ and how older women have been maligned for centuries, which points to a discussion on social mores blah, blah…

I want more female leads in romance fiction to be villainous, to have villainous traits the way Scarlett O’Hara and Rochester do. While Scarlett’s behavior in Gone With The Wind would never be questioned if she had been a man, she is, like Rochester, a perfect example of how good people, men and women, do bad things to protect what they love.

Yes, that is what I learned from Scarlett O’Hara and Mr Rochester.

What I learned from fairy tales wasn’t be pretty, be tidy, kiss frogs because they may be princes. My education came from the villains. I learned to never pretend to be something I wasn’t because that would get me shut up in a cask stuck with nails and dragged through the streets. I leaned to never be wicked to others because that would get me shut up in a vat with poisonous snake and then boiled in oil. I learned to be happy and grateful for what I have because, like the materialistic fisherman’s wife, I could lose it all in a flash, and its only ‘stuff.’

In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston’s utter ruin teaches us how to be human far better than the Beast does when he is transformed by love. Gaston’s transformation from man into a real hellish beast shows us that the villains are the true teachers in fairy tales and in life.

Writing a SymPathetic Villain

villainThere’s a fine line between love and hate, between madness and sanity, between a caricature and a character. It’s easy to paint a villain with broad strokes, make her or him larger than life–like the bad guy in a Bond movie.  But how does one create a villain whose villainy is a matter of circumstance, an individual who, under normal conditions, would actually be a pretty fun guy?

How does one make a character who does awful things elicit pathos in a reader?

Alice Sebold did this in her book The Lovely Bones. If you’ve never read it (or seen the film) it’s the tale of Susie, a girl who is kidnapped, raped and murder by a neighbour. The neighbour, Mr Harvey, is an utterly abhorrent, ghastly, depraved man, a serial killer, and Sebold manages to show his desperate loneliness in how he lives alone–and builds doll houses, which is creepy…and pitifully heartbreaking.

That small thing, the man alone building doll houses, was enough of an appeal to my emotions as I read the book, and, despite all that Mr Harvey had done, I remembered the loneliness that I had once experienced in my own life–and I felt pity for the man. Granted it was a fleeting sensation, but Sebold kind of blew me away with her skill as a writer.

When I wrote Alex, the villain in Next to You, I never really thought of him as a villain. CHIN NextToYou1920_1920x3022_1024I thought of him as the redheaded actor Eric Stoltz, a good-looking good guy having a really shitty year after a family tragedy and being dumped by the love of his life.

People do all sorts of less-than-intelligent things when life goes to hell. Alex walks that fine between love and hate, between madness and sanity, between wanting to do the right thing and winding up doing the wrong thing. I know what I wanted to do with Alex when I wrote him. I wanted to pull off a Sebold and show his humanity. I wanted the reader to have a little sympathy for him–in spite of his despicable actions.

Although it’s available for pre-order and on Netgalley for reviews, with the book’s release a little over a month away, it’s too early to tell whether I managed a balance between caricature and character with Alex’s reprehensible behaviour, if he comes across as simply a villain, or if he’ll elicit pathos of any kind from readers. Perhaps readers will find his desolation pathetic rather than sympathetic. However, I am hoping that someone besides me feels, for at least a fleeting moment, pity, or recognises his frail humanity.