"Twelve Steps Writing Exercise : Day 8 - Rewrite a fairy tale from the bad guy’s point of view.”
I know – I KNOW – I'm coming across like a serious grump with an attitude problem with each and every one of these exercises but the problem I have is this : there is no context to them at all. Why?
Why would I rewrite ANYTHING, let alone a fairy tale from the bad guy's point of view? What does the writer GET from these exercises except a writing exercise? They don't tie together, and the longer I'm spending on them, the less interest I have in utilising them as they are not accumulating into any kind of sensible wisdom. More and more I feel that they're getting in the way.
Now, I know that this exercise is cheap – it comes straight from the Gregory McGuire “Wicked” novels, where he posits the world of Oz from the point of view of the witches. It's a novelty exercise. It's not a very clever or thrilling novelty ( which would account for both Wicked's popularity, and the fact that it's a billion dollar-raking musical ).
In fact, this is a trend that is currently over-taking Hollywood, who are making all kinds of reverse-flip movies, from the upcoming Malificent to the previously released Warm Bodies, which comes from the point of view of a hunky zombie. Wreck it Ralph is an amusing if overlong CGI flick told from the point of view of the not-so-villinous once you get to know him, computer game villain. The popular television programme Dexter was told from the point of view of a serial killer. But you know, one with morals. Of course a lot of YA literature comes from the point of view of traditional villains such as Vampires, Werewolves, and I don't know, Dentists and Chiropractors.
It's not a new trick. But it's one that has a very peculiar ideology, and a generally cowardly approach because, hey, we want viewers/readers/listeners etc.
Almost every single Scorcese movie, from Taxi Driver through Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, deal with villains and gangsters, from their point of view. Although to be fair to The Departed it is very clear on whose side it morally falls, that of the troubled but decent cop played by Leonardo De Caprio.
Hollywood in fact has long been fascinated by telling stories from the villain's point of view and making broad-stroke attempts to humanise them. From true classics such as Citizen Kane to the hilariously misguided attempts to humanise Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, their main narrative thrust is the destruction of humanity into evil, from good to villainous by way of character arc and justification, whilst somehow showing the humanity of the villains all the same. The hideous and hideously popular Breaking Bad chose to believe it was telling the character arc of a good man turned villain, rather than portraying the sometimes awful misdeeds of a classic – but hey, humanised - villain.
I'm not sure I WANT to humanise the villains, certainly not in drama.
The point of doing this of course is to allow an audience empathy. But by refusing to demonise villains what is left by way of antagonist? How are we supposed to will the hero on, if the villain is “only human”? Generally, comic books and comic book movies used to get away with this by pumping up the hero, and the villain, to superhuman proportions. Now, more and more, we're seeing villains, even in comic book movies being humanised and therefore often robbed of menace. What is wrong with having a villain in a piece of fiction? When did the camp and thrilling Bond villain become the morally dull and lifeless Two Face in The Dark Knight? ( Batman has a very interesting set of villains, who border on the camp yet genuinely delve into the concept of human duality - they are amongst the most psychologically interesting "villain" characters out there, but they are always presented first and foremost as VILLAINS, as antagonists ).
So what is a “villain” anyway? As classified by The Free Dictionary:
1.A wicked or evil person; a scoundrel; a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.
In real life - Hitler. Osama Bin Laden. A rapist. A child abuser. A cheater. A liar. Someone who hits and runs. A murderer. An american president ( not saying which one ). A british prime minister ( too many to name ). A home-wrecker.
In fiction – Darth Vader, The Alien, Khan, Freddy Krueger, The Big Bad Wolf.
2.A dramatic or fictional character who is typically at odds with the hero.
This one is important, and I'll come back to this throughout. But note the concept that, at it's heart in this instance, the concept of "villainy" is dramatic, or fictional.
So the purpose of a villain, certainly in dramatic terms, is to create an antagonist to the hero. To create someone or something that is at odds with the perceived protagonist of the piece. By turning convention on its head, and writing from the point of view of the “villain” you're attempting a subversion, you're creating a hero of the villain, and a villain of the hero. When done correctly, with a core moral of it's own, this can be thrilling. Wicked does not do it correctly. This is as camp as a Bond villain without and of the subversive thrills. But many, from Roald Dahl to Neil Gaiman, from Orson Welles to Paul Schaefer, have achieved it.
Shakespeare certainly knew the value of a strong and merciless villain; yes, we attribute human frailty to these characters as readers and performers but they are, nonetheless clearly villains. We like to retroactively filter some of Shakespeare's bigotry toward minorities by stating that he humanised his villains where he didn't. The Merchant of Venice for example : his views of Jewish people are pretty gobsmacking, though we now like to point at the “if you prick us do we not bleed” speech to justify his humanising this “base villain.” In fact, Shylock's is a manipulative speech, entirely in keeping with his villainous character. He loses of course, in the end and we are not meant to sympathise with him when this happens. Yet he is the most colourfully written character of the piece, which is why we tend to remember him and not whats-his- name, the protagonist. Not because Shakespeare sympathises with him, not necessarily, but because Shakespeare wanted him to be as ugly, as feral, and as villainous as possible. To be the worst kind of antagonist for his main characters. As such, he probably over thought him a little, creating someone overtly theatrical that is more than just a jewish stereotype but, it can certainly be argued, is governed by his race.
Was he right in his anti-semitic views? Of course not. But history allows him to get away with it because he is, after all, an artist – and artists necessarily buck political correctness ( even if the concept did not exist in Shakespearean times! ) in ways we normal folks are not allowed. As morally reprehensible as his views may seem, much in the way we still forgive Birth of a Nation for it's wholly unpleasant racism, we can in one breath say that Shakespeare's works are both timeless in theme, and of it's time in nature. Hypocritical?
But imagine a Wicked style re-invention of Shylock, taking out the anti-semitic overtones in favour of a morally bland, but politically correct reading. Could be interesting, right? Right? Not a chance. Get rid of Shylock's central, vile character, and all your left with is a non-sequitur, a dull, boring character designed not to alienate its audience but “reflect” it.
One of my favourite plays is Tom Stoppard's “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, which takes two minor, and often erased characters from Hamlet, and tells the story from their point of view. However, rather than imagining what's going on in between the plot holes of Hamlet, Stoppard tells an increasingly wicked, existential tale, using these two blankly written characters to hang his musings on. He can do this because these characters are non-existant, thay are only in Hamlet as plot devices and convenience. So Stoppard can essentially pour his own voice into theirs and say what he wants.
Try and do it with Shylock however, and what you're left with is a preening justification EITHER for anti-semitism ( let's face it, a true bigot can do far worse than Shakspeare when it comes to smearing Jews ) or for the ugly actions of an ugly man to make some trite point or other. Yes, of course, one can do it ironically – tell the story straight from his point of view but – with some clever writing – mock his character through satire. Yet Shakespeare already managed this feat by telling the story the way he chose to ( arguably from Shylock's point of view, but in truth it shows all characters and actions to gain a greater understanding of consequence ), so again to my original question?
Why bother rewriting something and changing the existing viewpoint?
The purpose of a villain is to be dramatically vile. To give contour to the hero and tension for the audience. Done right, or played by Gary Oldman, the villain can become a thrilling anti-hero.
That doesn't mean you want to see him win, necessarily, just that it's interesting seeing him try. The more thrilling a villain, the more obstacle he is for the hero to overcome, the more exciting and satisfying it is when he wins. Which is why the aforementioned Avengers movies – for one example – singularly fail to tell their arcs in an interesting way. They don't want to run the risk of alienating an audience, and they don't want to make their villains vile, they don't want to offend or shock or have a single dislikeable character in their stock.
The fact is, this exercise is expecting me to write a sympathetic and therefore subversive viewpoint of the villain. It's playing safe, too, to ask me to rewrite a fairytale. I can tell you the story of The Big Bad Wolf's poverty leading him to the gutter and ultimately becoming a monstrous transvestite to fend off death. But that takes away from the original's deeply sexual morals, and just makes it kind of whimsical ( or I can make it about bestiality or the evils of homosexuality if you'd prefer? )
What about someone like Rumplestiltskin? Is he also a metaphor for the Jew? Could we tell the story from his point of view, give him a sympathy missing from every version of Rapunzel ( even the Warrick Davis horror movie )? Describe what it's like to be a little person?
A fairytale, generally speaking has a moral at it's centre, a very specific metaphor at the core of it's storytelling. All I'm doing then, by rewriting it, is attempting to be clever for the sake of being clever. Attempting to be controversial. Hell, I can do that in my sleep, yo.
Now, if we wanted to shake things up, I could choose to tell the story from the point of view of a serial rapist, or go for Hollywood convention and tell the story from the point of view of a humanised pedophile. How would that be for subversive? If we REALLY want to delve into villainy for this exercise, let's go DARK! Shocking! Let's tell the story from the point of view of one of the 911 pilots! ( Incidentally, a major mistake in the otherwise sublime United 93 was to tell elements of the story from the point of view of the pilots, yet allow the passengers to cathartically – and it must be said erroneously – snap one the hijacker's necks, sending completely mixed messages as to the film-makers ultimate intentions in making this movie ).
Here's an interesting sidenote – not so long ago there was a strange Hollywood trend in creating films from the point of view of the pedophile. Films such as Happiness, L.I.E., American Beauty, The Woodsman, Leon, Kids and Bully ( more so the latter two because the filmmaker Harmony Korine seems to have a disturbing affinity for young flesh ) and to a lesser degree Hard Candy, all bizarrely sought to “humanise” as opposed to demonise the pedophile, though to what end – other than artistic shock value and subversity – it's not yet truly clear. Hollywood, in fact has a strange affinity FOR pedophiles, in particular in it's refusal to vilify child-rapist Roman Polanski, and pedophile Woody Allen, even dating back as far as its fascination with child actors such as Shirley Temple, and further back to artists who had a predaliction for children ( see also Chaplin ). Seeking to humanise people who society as a whole have chosen to demonise is a particular trick artists use ( see also strangely sympathetic Hitler pic, Downfall ) but it becomes hard to understand why anyone would want to create heroes, or anti-heros of someone society has deemed so particularly vile. It's also interesting to note that most movie pedophiles are fictional. Where are our biopics on Gary Glitter or Jonathon King?
In reality, pedophiles have been used as the tabloid uber-villain and its interesting to note just how vilified these people are by vast mobs of people. There are many stories floating around of mobs and riots of people attacking pedophiles or wrongfully alienating people whose job title starts with “pedo”. This of course is another discussion, but it does point to the fact that, like it or loathe it, people need villains, are willing to be dramatic in their desires, and to tell a story therefore from the villain's point of view smacks not of seeking to humanise the demon ( pedophiles after all are clearly human, behaviour aside, which is why we struggle to understand their actions ) but of being shocking, or controversial, for the sake of it. In fact, what it also points toward is a level of contempt that these artists have for “real” people, for common people. They would rather mock, attack, or satirise the actions of a mob, than look to the reasons behind them. Personally I don't like seeing those mobs of people act as though they are heroes on a righteous quest, but I understand their actions far more readily than those of the pedophile they are demonising.
So why, therefore, is that any better than creating a true villain as the antagonist to your hero? And who, if the pedophile is your antagonist, is your villain? Is it the mob mentality? Are we the villains because we vilify the actions of these people? In truth, generally speaking, these movies use at their heart the tension of conflict within the pedophile themselves. Will they, won't they. They are both antagonist and protagonist. If they overcome their “disease” they are heroes. If they do not, they become “the villain.” What is in it for the audience then, while we are watching this queasily whimsical sentimentality? Cake. Which we can eat.
At the end of the day, I'm not going to do this exercise because I honestly think it's stupid. I don't want to waste my time retelling a pre-existing story from the point of view of it's main antagonist. It's a child's exercise in empathy. And it doesn't achieve anything.
I think there are reasons for villains to exist, and further for people to vilify other humans. If I am to create a villain for a piece of work, I'll do so, and will do so with a particular ideal or theme in mind. Perhaps – as we have already established – it makes me less of an artist to refuse to be attracted to “the dark side” of humanity, to want to tell a story from the point of view of a villain as opposed to a hero. I don't care.
“Twelve Do's and Don'ts in blogging : Number eight, don't Limit your word count.
If you have something to say, say it. Readers (and search engines) prefer to get meatier pieces (500 words or more) to make clicking through worth their time. This doesn’t mean you can’t feature shorter pieces or that you should ramble on just to meet a word count, but don’t be afraid to break down antiquated perceptions that blogs need to be short. When the time is right, go long.”
HA!!!! To all those people who were having a go at the length of my blogs I say unto thee this : Size DOES matter!
“Twelve Steps of Addiction, step 8 : Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Um – to all those people who were having a go at the length of my blogs and to whom I may have offended with the above HA! I say unto thee this, sorry for the aforemoention HA!
Tomorrow's exercise : “Day 9: Turn on your TV. Write down the first line that you hear and write a story based on it.”