Movies and television programs for children and adults alike have discovered sympathy for the villain. Next summer, kids will get to see the story of "Sleeping Beauty" from the perspective of the evil queen in the movie “Maleficent.”
And it seems as though recent years have seen older viewers, of the stage and of the screen, continually being drawn into absorbing narratives from the perspective of the bad guy.
It’s been more than a decade since Broadway premiered “Wicked,” told from the perspective of the wicked witch of the West. The past several years have seen AMC’s mastery of this concept through ad executive Don Draper in “Mad Men,” or by way of meth dealer Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” which just concluded its run this fall.
These anti-heroic characters, while not new concept, seem to have been embraced more and more fully. Older audiences relish the complexity of heroes who aren't necessarily “good guys.” But media experts and psychologists caution that kids are better off seeing the world in black and white.
Not bad, but ‘misguided’
For very young children, says Linda Simensky, vice president of children’s programming at PBS, stories in popular entertainment rarely contain a villain. It’s more of a nemesis. For old children, often the “villain” is there to give them the perspective of the antagonist, and to get a sense of what motivates them.
“If the bad guy has any redeeming traits it starts to get confusing for the younger viewers,” said Simensky, who works with producers to develop shows appropriate for preschool and grade school children.
“By the time kids are in kindergarten, they understand that not everyone in the world is good,” she said. Story lines can become a matter of “how to deal with” bad guys and bullies.
Villains are reserved for action shows, and tend to be more humorous, she said. Viewers root for the good guys, but still enjoy it when the bad guy is on screen: they’re so fun to watch, she said. Such villains usually aren’t nefarious.
And villains “at PBS are frequently not bad so much as they are misguided,” she said, “because if someone just had a conversation with them, they'd clean up their act.”
“We're oriented towards the good guy always winning and winning pretty quickly, and not too much time being spent on the bad guy,” Simensky said.
More complicated narratives are natural as children mature in grade school and beyond.
Josh Samson teaches teenagers from 13 to 19 how to create fiction for film through the Sundance Institute-sponsored SpyHop Productions in Salt Lake City, Utah. His year-long class in screenwriting, cinematography, editing and writing allows students to take a short film from pitch to premiere. Getting a sense of one’s self is a common journey in their character development, Samson said. It is a journey that his students are experiencing as they grow up.
Students usually arrive with ideas for addressing the confusing and darker topics that teens think about as they attempt to find their place in the world. Having a purely “good” character makes it difficult for a story to possess a message.
“A one-dimensional character is, quite simply, bad writing,” Samson said. “Nobody is one-dimensional. If your protagonist is one-dimensional then you're really not delving into anything.”
For this audience, introducing a character with no discernible character flaws leads audiences to expect the playwright or screenwriter to expose their hubris, he said. Just as everyone is aware of their own imperfections, they enjoy seeing imperfect characters, too.
“The Greek gods were very flawed people and that's what made them interesting,” Samson said. “By simplifying [characters] too much and making heroes all cuddly and perfect, you kind of take the humanity out of them.”
Good characters breaking bad?
Screenwriter Sam Zalutsky encourages his students not to think in terms of hero and villain, but as protagonist and antagonist. He lives in New York and teaches a writing class twice a year at Spalding University in Kentucky.
Zalutsky urges his students to consider the needs of their fictional characters: “What is it that they want? What is it that they can't live without? What are their hopes and fears?” Once emerging writers consider these questions, their stories will flow as their protagonists pursue their dreams.
He defines an antihero based upon such a character’s capacity for action and change. Fitting the bill would be characters like Carrie Matheson on “Homeland,” who works for the CIA and tracks down terrorists but battles her own inner demons; or Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” who went from downtrodden chemistry teacher to powerful drug lord in a quest for money and security after he is diagnosed with cancer.
Although by no means perfect people, they are “larger than life in a certain way,” he said. “They have all of these sorts of faults and foibles; and that, we can identify with.”
These screenwriters say that a major motivation for a storyteller to get into the backstory of a villain or create a main character with villainous tendencies is to see if they can get back on their feet, or in the good graces of the audience.
And seeing a character’s journey despite their flaws is cathartic, added Samson. That, in turn, can help mature and maturing viewers work through some of their own real-life trials.