Monday, June 7, 2010

Must You Punish Your Villain?


Yesterday, my nine year-olds and I listened to "Hansel and Gretel," by the Brothers Grimm. In the version of the tale we heard, the mother (in some versions it's a step-mother) convinces the father they should leave their two children in the forest because the family is too poor to feed the four of them.

They do so, though the father feels guilty. The children are nearly killed and eaten by an evil witch. The children trick the witch and bake her in her own oven. They find a treasure and bring it back to their parents. They all live happily ever after.

My little girls were surprised the parents, especially the mother, were not punished.

But who really was the worst villain?

The witch?

The mother?

The father even though he felt guilty? Aww...... :( (That's sarcasm. I think he's the worst because he was the only one with a conscience and did the evil act anyway. But that's a post for another time.)

I poked around the net about the prevailing thoughts about H & G and the consensus seems to be that the witch and the mother are symbolically the same person, so you see, the mother was punished after all. (I haven't run that by my kids yet.)

But my question is, in your writing, do you usually punish your villains, whether they are Nazis, evil magicians, or rival schoolgirl bitches? Or do you ever let them get off perfectly unscathed or even allow them to be rewarded?

17 comments:

SAMUEL PARK said...

Great post. Some really good food for thought. In the case of Hansel & Gretel, maybe the mother doesn't get punished because it's not her fault they're so poor? If I were writing a version of it, I'd make a point of her being "punished" by feeling guilty, or changing her mind, or something. She'd have to acknowlege her mistake--or someone would have to do it for her. Anyway, that is such a fantastic question. Wonderful.

karabu said...

Now you have me thinking. . . I don't usually have 'villains' in my stories. Interesting. In thinking about some of my favorite stories, they aren't really heavy on 'villains' either.
I think I generally like stories where the situation is the problem - not some evil person so much. I think my favorites are stories where the 'villian' isn't bad, just misguided. Like in 'Serenity'. His punishment is simply being shown the truth, and he changes his ways. Love stuff like that.
Now as soon as I hit post, I'll think of 5 stories I love with an evil villain in them.

Missantrhopics said...

I'm sort of with Karabu with the villain thing. I have villains and love them but I like to make sure they're not evil just for the sake of it. Good and bad is just a matter of perception; it's whatever side of the fence you're on. Now that I think about it I don't think I've punished a villain yet.

Mohamed Mughal said...

Like missantrhopics above, I'm with Karabu on this one. Before Vonnegut's father passed away, he asked his son why he never had a villain in any of his stories. Vonnegut (the writer) responded that he didn't believe in villains. I tend to the same; my characters are faulted humans awash in a sea of existential circumstance.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

@Samuel~ Thanks! :) Yeah, you could even have the mother flippantly yell to the lazy husband, "If you can't be bothered to catch anything to eat for dinner, just send the kids into the woods to starve!" and the father does so. Then later, the mother says, "Of course I didn't mean that." Hmm, my brain wheels are turning.

@Kara~ I bet you do have villains. They aren't always obvious. What did we all learn in school- man against man, man against nature, man against himself. So, sometimes the main character is his own villain. Nature as the villain? Well, can't do nothin' with that! LOL

But you mentioned misguided. Isn't that often the case? I mean, many villains don't think of themselves as villains.

It's a different mindset depending on if they're insane or not. I think it's interesting to hear interviews with former convicts. They don't all have the same opinions on their behaviors and mindset.

Good point Missanthropics. I think most are not pure evil. And every hero has one or more flaws. Do we punish our hero for his flaws? Let him stumbled because of them or let them become an asset?

I love complex characters I guess because people are complex. But I also want to coax out the best in my hero (main character). I guess, reading to my kids each day brings out the instinct to teach lessons too. I don't want bad guys to get away with murder.

@Mohamed~ I adore Vonnegut. But I do believe in villains in real life. I think each choice we make is a villainous choice or a heroic choice. I think maybe the preponderance of one over the other marks us as one thing or another and we have the power to change it by our behavior.

But you can always create a funky scenario- a man's child is dying. He needs money for medical help, so he robs a bank, kills a lady, takes her car, runs over three people to get away. But his original motive was to save his kid. Is he a hero or a villian?

Amanda Borenstadt said...

I forgot to mention the more subtle heroic/villainous choices like helping the elderly neighbor with her groceries or not.

Or

Stopping to let the family of ducks cross the road or not.

G.~ said...

I don't think I've read that story as an adult. I never read it to my children, but when it was read to me as a child, I can honestly say I never noticed anything strange about what the mother did. It never occurred to me that what she did was quite warped. But reading it now, i can't believe it! Hmmm...

Amanda Borenstadt said...

@G~ I wonder if some versions don't go into why the kids are in the woods because, when I was a child, I don't remember knowing why they were wandering alone.

My girls were shocked. They said, "Mommy, you would never leave us alone in the woods, would you?"

Kate Jonez said...

The villain question is a hard one to answer. Our perception of who the villain is is molded by our place in the world and in history. To us the mother's actions seem horrible. In Medieval Europe it was socially acceptable to get rid of extra children (especially for step mothers). Parents didn't always drop their kids off in the woods to starve, sometimes they took them to brothels or work houses. At the time of this story the parents wouldn't have been seen as villains. The children who stole most likely would have. Hansel and Gretel brings up a whole lot of other questions for me as well. What kind of girl can push a grown woman into the fire and watch her burn? Why did Hansel eat the candy from the house when his sister knew something strange was going on? Why was that witch out there all alone? Where was the rest of her consorts?

Great post. It gave me lots to think about

Kate Jonez said...

Oops - where 'were' the rest of her consorts?

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Oh wow, Kate. You flip the whole thing over and force me to rethink the whole story. So many layers to examine! Way cool! :D

Medeia Sharif said...

I've treated villains differently depending on the story. Sometimes I have them learn from their mistakes, other times I have them experience a loss to humble them, and at other times there's good old revenge meted out by the MC's against the villains.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Very good, Medeia. Yes, I think different villains need different treatment. I had one turn around and become the hero of a story.

bard said...

For the most part, my writing doesn't address the question you propose. But I do have a reaction to it.

My inner nature requires punishment for evil, but philosophically I find it interesting to explore the reality that sometimes bad people get away with things and good people are punished for no reason.

And isn't it interesting to see how mature those old-fashioned fairy tales are, in comparison to children's literature today?

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Hi Bard. Yeah, real life sure doesn't seem fair. In literature, I kind of enjoy seeing justice, though some would say that's not realistic or sophisticated.

Yeah, the old tales have layers to them. Some of the retellings are dumbed down, unfortunately.

Al said...

I guess I punish some of my villains and let others off scot-free.
I must say I am of the opinion that deciding on who is a villain is a matter of perspective.
My grandfather was a British police officer in India. His perspective was that he was doing was duty. Others would have seen him as a colonial oppressor.
Both perspectives have merit.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Well put, Al. It's a rare villain who sees himself as a villain.

You've got my brain whirring. I have a character - power hungry, full of ego, but not exactly evil. I think the worst thing I do to him is portray him as an idiot just by the tone and words I chose to characterize him. Hmm. In a way, that's a punishment- making him look bad in front of the reader.

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