Analysis

Five Falsely Vilified Characters in Speculative Fiction

Harriet Jones and her officials.
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

Captain Lorca and Michael Burnham from 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

Prince Nuada from 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

Harriet Jones and Mickey from 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

Barty Crouch from 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 main characters of 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!

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I can’t say anything about 1 + 5, but I agree on the other three.

    All of the characters make what you’d usually call ‘unpopular decisions’ or ‘hard decisions.’ Decisions they know quite some people won’t like, but are absolutely aware those need to be made.

    Prince Nuada wants for his people to survive. Since just sharing with the humans obviously doesn’t work out, he seeks a way to destroy them and thus give his people room. That is bad from a human’s point of view, of course, but from Nuada’s point of view, it’s the only viable choice. He’s not acting on a whim or simply out of injured pride. He’s trying to keep his people alive and, if possible, help them thrive again.

    Harriet Jones does her best to protect her people as well. Destroying the ship is harsh, but it will serve as a warning to others. The less harmless earth appears to be, the less likely attacks from aliens will be. Yes, those slavers are running for the moment, but they might be back. And even if they aren’t, another species might come by.

    Finally, Barty Crouch surely isn’t a nice person or one I’d personally want to spend time with, but considering the circumstances, he can hardly be faulted for what he did. During the war, he did his best to keep up with the Death Eaters. If that meant killing rather than imprisoning and imprisoning without a fair trial, that was harsh, but such things happen in war.
    And if he really believed Sirius was guilty, it’s not a surprise he strove for a strict sentence. The fault with Sirius’ imprisonment rather lies with Dumbledore, who knows he was not the secret keeper for the Potters and thus can’t have betrayed them, unlike Pettigrew.
    That Crouch was capable of even sentencing his own son, is more a proof of his dedication to protecting the wizarding world (and especially its citizens) than of anything else. He knew his son was a Death Eater (that was a definite truth there) and he acted accordingly. The existence of Askaban as a such is bad, but that he didn’t make an exception for his own family is not a sign of a bad of villainous character.

  2. JXMcKie

    Many good and valid points in this analysis. I especially liked the one on Crouch from the Potterverse. Crouch´s actions are certainly less than perfect, but at least some of them can be understood and justified, in the light of what happens later on in the series. There is of course, especially in a dramatic story setting, a very thin line between “doing what is necessary” and “going to far”. Many stories emphasize that the “end justifies the means” argument is not valid, but in reality it is only too easy to get caught in that way of thinking, especially when fighting for survival or against a great evil. Good stories does instead show how difficult it can be for the protagonist, to make that “walk down the middle of the road”, and how easily one can end up using less-than-commendable actions, not because of any inherent moral failure, but rather because the circumstances were extreme.

    A real life example could well be drawn from WW2. The allied military forces during that particular conflict, had their share of atrocities, especially the soldiers of the Red Army, which mass raped hundred of thousands of Hungarian and German women f.eks. but also occasionally even the “nice” citizen soldiers from the Western democracies, engaged in behavior in violation of the Geneva convention. None of this of course can be condoned or justified, but compared to the behavior of Nazi-German forces, or perhaps even worse, the conduct of the Imperial Japanese Army, it is still clear that the allied forces, by and large at least, were the “good guys”.

    Many Allied high level decisions made during that same conflict, were brutal or callous, and caused needless destruction, but many of those decisions were made by Allied leaders, who were keenly aware that they were up against an utter merciless and brutal enemy, and that every moment the conflict dragged on, would cost more allied lives.
    US president Harry S. Truman made the decision to use the atomic bomb on civilian Japanese target, a decision that has rightly been criticized, but he didn´t make that decision lightly, and one of the main arguments for using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were that a conventional invasion and conquest of Japan would cost hundred of thousands of US servicemen, and millions of Japanese, including many civilians, their lives. That these concerns were not the only reasons for using the atomic bombs, and that the decision made had some immensely terrible consequences, that is true yes, but it is also difficult to see what better options were open to Truman.

    It is not that “the end justifies the means”, but sometimes, in a fictional story or real life, hard decision has to made, and good story telling should emphasize how difficult it is to make these decisions, how even well meaning characters can end up making brutal decision under extreme circumstances, and the aftermath of those decisions, also on the conscience of those making them. Many of those stories in the analysis above, are a little too eager to wag an absolute moral finger at the characters, and to demand a “perfect performance” from them. But to be human is also to err, and to be haunted by those decision that you made. I personally like stories that actually recognize the difficulty of decision making, rather than a hectoring moralizing, and demands for perfection in both thoughts and deeds.

  3. Skull Bearer

    I will disagree a little on Barty Crouch. It’s not just that he authorised aurors to kill people- that’s fair, in a war. It’s that he authorised the use of the Unforgivable Curses on suspected Death Eaters. This includes torture and mind control on potentially innocent people. That’s pretty damn evil no matter who you’re fighting.

  4. SunlessNick

    Jones counters that the Doctor won’t always be around when trouble strikes, and Earth must show it can defend itself.

    The problem with Jones’s argument here is that she didn’t show that. Earth *couldn’t* defend itself, and therefore all it showed is that Earth will hide behind the Doctor until the problem is solved, and then shoot you in the back while you’re retreating.

    It’s also worth noting that when the Doctor objected, she threatened to have him killed as well. At least that’s how I interpret “What does that make you, Doctor? Another alien threat?” right on the heels of firing that weapon. (His own threat to bring down her government is made after this, so she’s not responding to him in kind).

    (The argument that you make and she doesn’t is much better).

    • Laura Ess

      But at least everyone – including the DALEKS – knew who she was!. And she also has a redemptive path, developing the ” subwave network,” which allows the Doctor and (almost all) his companions to contact each other during “The Stolen Earth”.

      The Shadow proclamation, which the Judoon operate, seems uneven at best (and changed depending on who was mentioning it) though according to Tardis Databank it was “…against Galactic Law to “reap” any part of an ecosystem on a Level 5 planet, even the clouds, and violators could be handed over to the Shadow Proclamation.” That means harvesting slaves as well I should imagine.

      • SunlessNicks

        I did love all the “Yes, we know who you are.”‘s.

    • Deana

      I always saw the Doctor’s vilification of Harriet Jones as a Doctor-as-vengeful-deity moment, not that she was a villain.

  5. Alexander Branza

    While I agree with the others, I think that you misinterpreted the problem about Barty Crouch Sr. Despite the name, the First Wizarding War wasn’t a war. At least not a conventional one. The information we get about it is basically a list of terror acts and murders, something more akin to The Troubles in Northern Ireland or the Basque Conflict in Spain. The Death Eaters were more like ETA or IRA than the Wehrmacht. At least in the way they act.

    The way I see is Couch acting like Tatcher, who was criticized for ordering the military to shoot IRA members on sight. The british army was acused of killing or torturing suposed IRA sympathizers too; or like the Spanish government, which used the GAL, avigilante group made of policemen and militarymen, in order to kill ETA members. Long story short, they basically went crazy and started killing basque nacionalist without any conection with terrorism.

    While the vigilante group is more related to the Order of Phoenix, I thing the idea is clear: Couch resorted to state terrorism, tortures and extrajudicial killlings (probably killing or torturing innocent people) in order to fight Voldemort and his Death Eaters.

    • Deana

      I hadn’t thought about Thatcher and the IRA, but that’s a good parallel. Others might include the various CIA black sites and Guantanamo following 9/11.

    • American Charioteer

      Excellent comparison.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s another way to look at it, but I don’t think the IRA or ETA are good comparisons for the Death Eaters. Whatever we think of such organizations from a moral standpoint, they were never in a position to defeat the governments they resisted. The most the IRA could ever have hoped for was to make Northern Ireland too much trouble for the British government to hold, they were never going to overthrow the British Government.

      The Death Eaters, on the other hand, can and do overthrow the Ministry of Magic. They are as powerful, if not more powerful, as the government they oppose. While wizard war is different than muggle war because wizard armies don’t need tanks and so can more easily blend into a civilian populations, that doesn’t change the power dynamics at play.

  6. Jonny Wilson

    Fantastic article Oren. Really gives me a different perspective on characters I thought I knew.

    What’s that about supers being oppressed not making sense, though? Sounds interesting.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey Jonny, glad you liked the article. As to the idea of oppressed superheros, I cover that more in Five Tips for Telling Stories of Resistance, but the short version is that in general, differences are punished unless they are exploitable, at which point they are rewarded. Super powers are, as the name implies, powers. While some people would undoubtedly fear them, the rewards for having powers would far outweigh the drawbacks. For example, just think of how much governments and farming corporations would pay someone who can control the weather? Or how much a delivery company would pay for someone who can open portals?

      This idea is explored really well in the Wild Cards comics, where people with cool powers are called “Aces,” and are treated like rockstars. On the other hand, people who don’t have any useful powers but still have unusually shaped eyes, horns, or what have you are called “jokers,” and they are marginalized because their differences are not exploitable.

      For a real life example, consider someone like Michael Jordan. Jordan faces discrimination because he’s black, but he doesn’t face discrimination because he’s really good at basket ball.

      • Jonny Wilson

        That’s a good point. I imagine that societies with super populations that don’t have too much to blame them for would probably end up as sort-of-celebrities or just as a job like My Hero Academia (depending on prevalence).
        However, I think that societies might well (unjustly) fear and suppress supers if they have some bad PR, which I think happens a fair amount in the Marvel universe (at least in the MCU). People see and point to examples of the worst that supers have to offer, like villains destroying city blocks and robbing banks, or heroes misguidedly hurting a civilian after being tricked by an illusionist. Michael Jordan’s “power” can’t be used for evil, and can’t exactly blow up the stadium he plays in.
        I suppose I see it as a pretty dark world, but one that’s possible nonetheless. It just needs some ugly inciting incidents that turn the public against them early-on in supers’ emergence in their world.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        For an example of what happens to powerful groups when they get bad PR, I would recommend looking at the ultra wealthy in the US. People hate the ultra wealthy with a fiery passion, and yet the ultra wealthy are not oppressed because they have all the power.

        • Jonny Wilson

          Another good point, but I think the analogy still doesn’t quite fit. The rich have power only in a non-physical sense. The sort of thing you’d hear about in A Game of Thrones; they can only represent a political, legal or social threat to people. It’s a lot harder to make whatever wrongdoing they’ve committed public, and to stir up fear that they are going to do it again. Who do you fear more, the guy bankrupting a bunch of businesses for her own financial gain, or the teen that blows up the aforementioned stadium?
          Not to mention, richness isn’t some inherent trait of rich people like many superpowers are. They’re much easier to see as still “us”, whereas most superpower stories have powers that can’t be taken away and mark them as a person for their whole lives. It might be difficult in a logistical sense, but you can always make the rich poor.

          • Cay Reet

            The rich also have the money to employ whatever other power they want, which is one reason why they’re usually not threatened. Also, a lot of people who are rich were born rich, so you could argue it is still an inherited trait.

            But, yes, the rich are not really compatible to superpowered individuals. However, being superpowered doesn’t necessarily have to be an inherited trait in the sense that one or two superpowered individuals will have a superpowered child. It could be a mutation (as with Marvel’s mutants) where ‘normal’ people can have superpowered children.

            Or it could be something which happened through some kind of technology. “Kid Dark against the Machine” and “Girl Reporter” are set in a world where alien machines turn normal people to superheroes on a specific schedule (6 months in Australia and the US, but 2 weeks in Japan, others aren’r mentioned so far). The teams stay the same size, for every superhero who is created, another is turned back into a normal human being, but it’s not ‘first in, first out.’ Two of the Australian cast have been superheroes for over 20 years when one was replaced by a female legacy (“Cookiecutter Superhero,” only available in an anthology, but set in the same universe). Of course, the chance to become a superhero makes it less likely people are discriminating against them.

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