Five Great Kids’ Lit Villains

Villains can make or break a book. I’ve heard it said they’re especially important for sequels, when we want to see the heroes tested by something harder and from a new angle.

The ones I find most interesting are the ones who get inside protagonists, playing off an insecurity. It might be that they trigger an especially strong fear or hatred. It might be that they trigger tenderness at the same time, making the hero and reader unsure how to react.

5. Gwendolen Chant

(Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones)

from deviantart user kecky

It’s hard to list all the reasons why Gwendolen is so memorable without giving away major twists from Charmed Life. Suffice to say that she’s able to make Cat squirm in very interesting ways. She is a powerful foe, but it’s the way that she uses her power that create images and conflicts.

The picture above is kind of a spoiler already. Those who’ve read the novel will get the significance of the match. Those who haven’t read the novel, should.

4. The Other Mother

(Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

from Tabitha Raincloud on iRez

Gaiman has talked about how parents are often more creeped out by Coraline than children are. There’s just something incredibly disturbing about having the villain be a loving mother with buttons for eyes.

The Other Mother is perfectly designed to fit into what Coraline thinks she wants. She’s tempting because we all understand the want for love, and terrifying because we see there’s something off about what she’s offering.

She’s also difficult to vanquish, and even when it seems like Coraline is safe from her, she isn’t. The Other Mother breaks the usual rules of Magic Door Stories, by refusing to stay only in her world.

3. Goth

(Silverwing Trilogy by Kenneth Oppel)

image from Wikimedia Commons

Goth is a gigantic, fervently-zealous, cannibal monster who escaped from a zoo. Are you scared yet? Because that’s terrifying!

He’s a good match against Shade who is the runt of his litter, an especially small bat. Compared to humans, Goth might not be so bad, but on the scale of bats he’s a huge. There are several moments when Shade fantasizes about being as strong as the cannibal.

I’ve said before that I don’t like generic evil, and I don’t think Goth qualifies as that. He is an embodiment of fear and death, but he’s also manipulative and plays on Shade’s uncertainties, trying to rip him apart from his friends, and his hope.

2. Dolores Umbridge

(Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling)

from deviantart user *WayForge

We’ve seen this one before

so who took #1?

1. Long John Silver

(Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson)

from deviantart user vitorart

Long John Silver is not only an iconic character–the crutch, the parrot, the grin–he also gets deep inside Jim Hawkins.

Early in the novel, Silver is a father figure to Hawkins. This is a hugely important part of the relationship that isn’t always done well in adaptations. Long John Silver is cutthroat, but he’s also jovial. And Hawkins looks up to him.

A lot of Silver’s power comes from physical prowess, but it’s also from charisma. And it’s not just the other pirates that follow him. Readers do as well, to the point that we share Hawkins’s grim hope and relief that Silver escapes with money.

My personal fondness for the character is cemented by Tim Curry’s portrayal in Muppet Treasure Island. I would love to post his final scene, but that would be a spoiler, and I can’t find it on youtube anyway.

Instead, I’ll leave you with this…

Next week, I’ll tackle one of the most common questions that writers get asked: “Where do you get your ideas?”

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Five Great Harry Potter Villains

SPOILERS FOR HARRY POTTER!

I’ve seen Voldemort appear on bloggers’ lists of the greatest kids’ book villains of all time. Personally, I don’t think he’s even the best villain of the series that he’s in.

The Harry Potter series does have great villains, but Voldemort is one of the least interesting. He’s the generic evil problem I talked about in my last post. The more interesting characters are the ones with internal conflict, or the ones who make us angry because they remind us of people we’ve met.

Before I continue: a shout out to the deviant artists whose work I’m using in today’s post. I didn’t want to use movie screenshots because I was sure that fans could capture the characters in interesting ways, and help me keep this about the books. Clicking on images will take you to the artists’ pages.

5. Grindelwald

from deviant art user dreizehntredici.

I find Grindelwald a more interesting character than Voldemort for a few reasons. His motivation is similarly generic, but there’s more mystery and detail around him.

Really though, it’s because of his relationship with Dumbledore. Rowling has said that the reason Albus didn’t take a strong enough stance against Grindelwald is that he was enamoured with him. I like to take this a step further. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry asks Dumbledore what he sees in the Mirror of Erised. According to the mirror’s rules, it should be something that he longs for, but can’t have, and may actually cause him damage.

He tells Harry that he sees himself with a new pair of socks, an obvious lie. I like to think that he sees himself in a relationship with Grindelwald.*

4. Dudley Dursley

Image from deviantart user ~Gytrash01

I love the Dursleys. From the opening description of the first book, they’re hilarious and on point. The fact that Uncle Dursley works with drills is the perfect detail for his character.

Dudley is the one who makes my list because he’s the one who changes most over the course of the series. There’s a tendency in the series for the overweight characters to be lazy and stereotypically stupid (Uncle Vernon, Slughorn, Umbridge, etc.) Dudley still hits that note.

But he also gets a redeeming scene after Harry saves him from the dementors. He gets a little respect for his cousin, and actually stands up to his dad.

3. Draco Malfoy

from deviant art user Adyti

Like Dudley, Malfoy experiences internal conflict, and changes over the series. He also has to stand up to his dad. But for Malfoy, the struggle is a lot more intense. He gets dragged into a situation where he almost has to kill Dumbledore, and after he’s gone this far, it’s incredibly difficult for him to turn around.

He also works well on the level that a punk-brat villain should–he’s very easy to hate. When Hermione curses him, everybody is happy. The two-dimensional sneer isn’t that complex, but it’s highly effective.

In short: he’s a great rival when the series is acting as middle-grade, and he transitions well into a more tortured character when the series becomes young-adult.

2. Severus Snape

from deviant art user Violette-Kollontai

I don’t have Snape this high on my list for the reason that most HP fans adore him. I think his relationship with Lily is more creepy than heroic. I think it’s interesting, but I don’t think it redeems him, and I think it’s really weird that Harry names one of his kids after him.

I have him high on my list because I was never sure whether he was actually a good guy or a bad guy. I was so sure each way, and especially when he kills Dumbledore, I thought that was it.

For keeping me guessing, Snape is #2.

1. Dolores Umbridge

image from deviantart user *WayForge

I hate her so much!

And that’s great. There’s the description as toad-like and dressed in pink that makes her instantly iconic. There’s her repeated phrase, “Hem-hem”, annoying and evocative of character. There’s her meanness.

What really sells it is her restraint. The fact that she’s in such a position of power, and that she’s so stubborn, and that she dials it up slowly until we can’t stand her any more without ever tipping over the edge.

I really don’t think I’ve ever hated a character more. She made me want to throw the book across the room. In a good way.

Honorable mention to Gilderoy Lockhart. He was very, very close to stealing #5.

Next week, it’s another list of Five Great Things! I’m going to expand my focus and look at villains across all of children’s literature. Will Umbridge stay at #1?

 

*EDIT: Apparently Rowling has said what Dumbledore saw in the mirror: “He saw his family alive, whole and happy – Ariana, Percival and Kendra all returned to him, and Aberforth reconciled to him.” So I guess #5 should be Lockhart.

Breakdown: Wreck-It Ralph

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

Huge ones for Wreck-It Ralph, and some smaller ones for Tangled, Bolt, Toy Story, Up, and Brave.

You’ve been warned…

Symbols

This is were we left off last time…

Stories are often about choices. In order to make these choices more visible, symbols are often created for the ideas that a protagonist is choosing between. In Wreck-It Ralph, we have the Hero Medal and (what I’ll call) the Vanillope Medal.

The Hero Medal symbolizes respect and validation. It functions differently for Vanillope (as a coin that lets her buy a car); symbolically, however, it works the same way, since the car is her way to get validated. We could argue that the car turns out to mean more than that, but her initial urge for the medal is the same as Ralph’s.

The Vanillope Medal symbolizes friendship and compassion. When Ralph smashes Vanillope’s car, he’s wearing the Vanillope Medal, but in the scene immediately after, he’s wearing the Hero Medal. He then, in rejection of his ambition, hurls the Hero Medal away, which reveals the truth about Vanillope. In other words, the medals show us where Ralph is positioned in his arc, and then the story rewards him for giving up on validation.

Ultimately the day must be saved by using the “correct” symbol. Before punching through the Mentos roof, Ralph clutches the green heart of the Vanillope Medal in his fist.

Symbols are often consulted in place of “mentor characters” to re-affirm a decision, or to push a protagonist in the story’s required direction. The most elegant symbol in Pixar’s canon is the name ANDY written on Woody’s boot. It’s a reminder of his character’s spine “do what’s right for my child”.

The depiction of choices in Up is equally strong: when Carl has to choose between saving his house for Ellie or saving Kevin for Russell; and then the reversal when he sits in his house, between Ellie’s book and Russel’s sash of badges.

First he chooses the “wrong” thing, and then he chooses “correctly”. His choices move us from Act 2 into Act 3.

The same as Ralph’s.

Characters

The characters in Wreck-It Ralph are not simplexified in the way I discussed last post. Sure, Ralph is big and Felix is small. We could discuss Vanillope’s glitch. But the most apparent connection to make with the four leads is to their voice actors.

They’re less cartoony than Pixar’s usual work, and make more use of the actor’s known facial expressions and mannerisms. For me, the gee-shucks optimism of Jack McBrayer works the best, especially the scenes with him in jail.

I don’t have a complaint about this. I like all the actors, and I think they helped make the film more human. My problem with the characters is the characterization of the women, which is a problem I have with almost everything from Hollywood.

Why would I have a problem with Vanillope and Calhoun? Vanillope is adorable and determined. She has agency over her own plotline. Calhoun is a tough woman, showing that men aren’t the only ones capable of blasting aliens.

True, sure, but Calhoun’s main plotline is that she’s traumatized over her husband’s death. (The depiction of which I do find very funny.) She’s broken in a way that requires a new man to “fix” her. And she’s never really showing us that women are tough, she’s showing us that Calhoun is an exception, which is why we get comedy from her performance. Get it? It’s funny that a woman could be this tough. And she still wants a guy, just like every woman, right?

I’d like Vanillope if she wasn’t cute and she didn’t turn into a princess at the end.

I am so hard to please. What do I want? If I don’t want female characters who are perfect or broken or squeamish or tough, what do I want?

I want them to be real. I don’t want the problems they have to be quirks that make them cute. I want them to be allowed to have problems that are NOT attractive.

Like who?

Top: Merida from Brave. Middle: Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away. Bottom: Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

How about female animated characters who aren’t the leads?

Top: Tigress from Kung-fu Panda. Middle: Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures. Bottom: Dory from Finding Nemo.

Tigress is actually a surprisingly good character, but I’m scared they’ll mess it up and have her marrying Po before the end of Kung-Fu Panda 3. These females have strengths, but also flaws. They have individual goals, hopes, and beliefs that do not involve romance. 

Like real people.

Sorry, what? Wreck-It Ralph? Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about. 

The Villains

Wreck-It Ralph makes use of what I refer to as “villain swallowing”. Early in the plot, there are multiple villains, so it feels like danger presses in on all sides. Later, to have a more focused climax, one villain swallows the others, becoming supreme.

In Tangled‘s Act 2, we’re running from Rapunzel’s mom, Flynn’s thief buddies, and Max the horse. By Act 3, it’s resolved to just Mother Gothel, as she’s knocked out the thieves, and the horse has joined the heroes.

Wreck-It Ralph takes villain swallowing more literally.

These guys…

become this…

They seriously just fuse together.

The result is an insane, endlessly evil, soul-sucking, generic super-villain. It’s barely a person at this point. Completely unsympathetic.

I find it interesting that Pixar’s list of things to avoid when making Toy Story stated that they didn’t want a villain. I’d love to hear John Lasseter discuss how he feels about using villains now.

Also, I’m curious how he would define “a villain”.

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that he never wrote a story with a villain in it, and that it was because of something he learned in college after the war. Personally, I would classify Dwayne Hoover, Paul Lazzaro, and the Handicapper General as villains. That’s me.

The fact that they’re round characters with human motivations doesn’t change my mind. I think that just means they’re good villains.

If we only consider characters villains after they become unredeemable then I think villains become a less interesting idea. I think almost all of Pixar’s movies have villains, although in some cases (Toy Story 2, Up, Brave) they aren’t revealed until Act 3.

Some of those might have been better without the villain fight in Act 3, but it’s hard to say. Mark Andrews has said that Mar’du was a late addition to Brave, because the third act wasn’t working.

I don’t know. Monsters University is probably their movie that gets closest to not having a villain, and its third act is amazing. Bolt did pretty well without one too.

I don’t like generic super-villains and that’s what Mar’du is. That’s what King Candy becomes. In comparison, when we see Ralph identify himself as a “bad guy” in the beginning, it seems even more obvious that he’s not.

However, we probably didn’t need this contrast for a satisfying end. Characters should be challenged by their opposites, and Ralph’s opposite isn’t generic evil. It was Felix.

Final Thoughts

In talking about Wreck-It Ralph, I’ve wandered quite a bit. There’s almost as much discussion of other movies as the one under close examination.

As I’ve said, my brain likes categories and connections. This is kind of the way I think. Next time I do a close look I might jump around again, or I might tighten my lens and get into smaller details.

For next week though…

On September 6th, we’ll continue our look at villains with a countdown of five great villains from the most popular children’s series of all time: Harry Potter.