Sometimes, stories have to make it clear that a character is bad or at least that they did a bad thing. This vilification has numerous uses, from making us hate a villain to showing us why a hero must seek redemption. Why do we cheer when Tarkin gets blown up in Star Wars? Because the story showed us what a bad dude he was! Similarly, we know that Smeagol must seek redemption in Lord of The Rings* because we saw him murder his friend for the Ring of Power.
That’s all well and good, except when stories vilify a character who doesn’t deserve it. This can happen because the storyteller didn’t think through what actually happens in the story or because the storyteller’s values and worldview don’t ring true for the audience. Either way, the story suffers. Enjoy these examples, so that false vilification may never blight your work.
1. Michael Burnham, Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek’s newest main character falls squarely into the redemption category, and she has a lot to be redeemed for. According to other characters and Burnham herself, the war with the Klingons is her fault. Perhaps worse, it’s also her fault that the Klingons killed her best friend, Captain Philippa Georgiou. But are either of these things really her fault? Let’s look at what happened.
First, the Klingons entered Federation space with the specific intention of provoking a war. Ignorant of this, Burnham is sent out to investigate a weird Klingon space artifact. She lands on the artifact without orders and is attacked by a Klingon, whom she accidentally kills in self-defense. The Klingons call in more ships. Burnham is sure they’re going to attack, and she attempts a mutiny so she can fire first, but her mutiny fails. When Starfleet doesn’t attack, the Klingons open fire on their own, starting the war.
How is Burnham responsible for that? Her mutiny failed, and it was the Klingons who fired first. She did land on the Klingon artifact without permission, but the Klingons specifically placed it there to lure in Starfleet, and even in that situation, they were the ones to attack first. What we actually have here is the Klingons clumsily trying to provoke Starfleet and, when that fails, attacking anyway.
Blaming Burnham for Georgiou’s death is just as nonsensical. The two of them beam over to the Klingon flagship in a desperate gambit to capture the Klingon leader. They fail. Georgiou is killed, and Burnham kills the Klingon leader when capturing him becomes impossible.
It’s understandable that Burnham would blame herself for Georgiou’s death, but any outside observer should recognize that there was nothing she could have done. It makes even less sense that anyone would blame Burnham for starting the war. In fact, it’s unlikely most people would even have heard of her, except maybe that she killed the Klingon who launched the unprovoked attack.
2. Nuada Silverlance, Hellboy II
The first Hellboy was about fighting apocalyptic Nazis, so it’s understandable the filmmakers would want a more sympathetic villain for the sequel. Unfortunately, the villain might be a little too sympathetic.
On the surface, Prince Nuada looks like an evil elf who wants to kill all humans by raising a magical army. He even kills his own father to get one of the MacGuffins he needs. What a monster!
But once you put Nuada in context, things change. Through flashbacks, we learn that at some point in the distant past, elves and humans fought a war. The elves won, and as part of the peace treaty, they agreed to share the world with humans. Fast-forward to the present, and humans have been violating the treaty left and right, to the point where elves are in danger of extinction because they have nowhere left to live.
The elves are victims of conquest and colonization on a global scale. The elven king seems fine with this. Humans don’t even know elves exist because the king has never objected to blatant treaty violations. His complete inaction leaves Nuada little choice. The prince is literally fighting for the survival of his species. He kills his father and takes the throne because someone has to do something.
Nuada’s quest for the magic army also makes perfect sense given his situation. By the time he takes over, humans are at such an overwhelming advantage that they’d have no reason to listen to peaceful requests. Assuming he’ll need to fight is a little cynical of Nuada, but it’s also reasonable, considering how humans often treat each other.
Certainly none of the humans in Hellboy II give Nuada any reason to change his mind. The good guys aren’t concerned at all with the elves’ plight, even though an elven princess* is actively helping them. They treat Nuada as just another bad guy to be stopped, and they’re happy to wash their hands of the matter afterward.
3. Harriet Jones, Doctor Who
When first introduced, Harriet Jones is a minor politician who plays an out-of-her-depth ally to the Doctor. After most of the British government is revealed to be evil aliens in disguise,* Jones becomes prime minister of the UK. Since Earth is constantly under alien attack, and Jones has direct experience dealing with such threats, this sounds great. But when she appears again in the next season, the power has gone to her head!
In the tenth Doctor’s inaugural outing, Earth is under attack by a band of alien slavers. Prime Minister Jones is doing her best to organize a counterattack, but things are taking too long, and she needs the Doctor’s help. Fortunately, our favorite Time Lord is up to the task, and it’s not long before he’s sent the slavers packing.
That’s when Jones makes her fateful decision: she orders the slaver ship destroyed by Earth’s new defense system. The Doctor rails against her for this, condemning her for murdering the aliens when they were already running away. Jones counters that the Doctor won’t always be around when trouble strikes, and Earth must show it can defend itself. The Doctor isn’t satisfied, and in retaliation, he brings down Jones’s government with a few well-placed words.*
Unlike other characters on this list, Jones is allowed to speak in her own defense. She makes a fairly good point. A week doesn’t pass in the Whoiverse without some alien threatening Earth, and eventually a threat will arrive when the Doctor is off doing something else. For that matter, a number of threats to Earth are actually caused by the Doctor’s wacky adventures.
But Jones doesn’t touch on a much more important reason to destroy the aliens: they’re slavers. Their business model depends on flying over a defenseless planet and enslaving its population. They failed at Earth, but they’ll almost certainly try again somewhere else. The Doctor has no plan to stop them, and there aren’t any space police to put them in space jail.* Killing the slavers may have been harsh, but it was literally the only way to prevent further atrocities.
4. Barty Crouch Sr., Harry Potter
We meet Barty Crouch Sr. in the fourth Harry Potter book, when the threat of Death Eaters still seems distant and Harry’s biggest problem is a weird sporting competition. When he first appears, Crouch is a moderately influential official in the Ministry of Magic, but we soon find out he used to be a really big deal. During the First Wizarding War,* Crouch was head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and he took to the job with gusto. Perhaps too much gusto. While he did bring in a boatload of Death Eaters and dark wizards, the other characters make it clear he went too far. He gave Aurors permission to kill suspects instead of bringing them in, sentenced Sirius Black without a trial, and even sent his own son to Azkaban.
Sounds pretty bad, right? Everyone in the book thinks so, including Harry. They’ve got nothing but contempt for Crouch and his overzealous ways. The only problem is that everything else we see suggests he wasn’t actually overzealous.
The First Wizarding War was, as the name implies, a war. The Death Eaters weren’t some criminal gang; they were a powerful insurgency, more powerful than the government in many respects. For a real-world equivalent, imagine if the KKK launched an open rebellion in the United States. Imagine they had tanks, jets, and cruise missiles. It would be nonsense for the military to waste time with nonlethal methods. In that context, Crouch allowing his Aurors to kill makes perfect sense. Despite the name of his department, he wasn’t engaged in law enforcement; he was fighting a war against wizard Nazis.
Condemning Crouch for sending his son to prison is even weirder, because his son was a Death Eater. Sirius claims the evidence was slim, but it’s not clear how he knows this, and we never get an objective breakdown of the case. Whatever the case, it was enough to convince the Wizengamot,* and Crouch Jr. did turn out to be guilty. Of course, Azkaban is a terrible torture prison that no one should ever be sent to, but that’s the accepted punishment in the wizarding world. From the way the other characters talk about this, it sounds like they expected Crouch Sr. to make an exception for nepotism.
This brings us to the final charge against Crouch: sentencing Sirius without a trial. That’s a legitimate black* mark against him, and a little confusing since the war was already over, so there wasn’t any rush to put Sirius away.
But let’s compare Crouch to the other powerful ministry figures in the books. As Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge ignores the Death Eater problem until it’s too late, and he sends Dolores Umbridge to torture students. Not great. When Rufus Scrimgeour takes over, he at least cares about the Death Eaters, but he’s unable to find any. Worse, Scrimgeour is happy to imprison people he knows aren’t Death Eaters just for the PR boost. At least Crouch legitimately thought Black was a Voldemort supporter. Scrimgeour sends innocent people to prison on purpose and can’t catch real Death Eaters at all.
You might think that in later books the characters would look on Crouch more favorably, but of course that doesn’t happen. Instead, when Harry hears that Scrimgeour is falsely imprisoning innocents, he accuses Scrimgeour of being just like Crouch. If only, Harry, if only. With Crouch in charge, the Death Eaters would actually have had something to worry about.
5. Half the Cast, The Gifted
The Gifted is Fox’s latest adaptation of the X-Men franchise, but this time without the X-Men! Instead, the show focuses on the Mutant Underground, a ragtag group just trying to survive. They’ve certainly got their work cut out for them. In this setting, the government is one step away from a kill-on-sight policy for anyone with an X-gene. Mutants are routinely rounded up and imprisoned for life on the mere suspicion of a crime, and those are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are put through tortuous experiments or killed by trigger-happy soldiers.
That’s a dark premise indeed, so you might be surprised to learn how obsessed the Mutant Underground is with the upright moral character of its members. Over and over again, characters are lambasted for minor misdeeds. One character is raked over the coals because he called on a favor from his crime-boss ex and in return was asked to help destroy some drugs of a rival gang. The other characters act like this was an ultimate betrayal, but in the same episode, they were perfectly happy to attack a government convoy to free mutant prisoners.
Another character is taken to task when it’s revealed that she once did some low-level jobs for the Mutant Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has more extreme methods than the Underground, but they have the same goal. It’s really hard to believe this character would be condemned because she once worked for a group that’s slightly more violent than the group she currently works for, not when when the government is raining bullets down on mutant heads.
By far the most absurd example is when it’s revealed that a potential romantic interest once stole some jewelry. I’m not kidding. This is seen as a major problem. In a world that’s hard to distinguish from 1938 Germany, the characters are worried that one of their number once committed nonviolent theft. Their concerns are so out of step with what’s happening around them that it’s comical. This is a world where mutants can’t walk down the street without being attacked, let alone hold down a job.* Stealing to survive just doesn’t feel like a big deal. Heck, it doesn’t feel like a big deal to me in real life, and my idea of criminal adventure is crossing the street in the middle of the block because the crosswalks are too far away.
The main consequence of false vilification is contrived conflict. The story says a character is bad, but that assertion isn’t supported, and audiences wonder what all the fuss is about. In minor conflicts, this is annoying. In a major conflict, it can ruin the story. So when you portray a character doing something wrong, make sure it’s actually wrong!
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