Quite recently, I came across an article deciphering what it takes to be a strong antagonist. As pronounced by the list of criteria that the article presents, the quality of the negative force in a story balances the positive; therefore, a weakly written antagonist has the power to undermine the entire plot, and so it is vital that the villain is ‘worthy of a hero, colourful in their own right’.
We have all grown up reading about the good guys standing against the bad guys; however, in my opinion, characters only become truly compelling when they are not so clearly cut to fall fully into one of those sections. The world of fiction has drawn countless embodiments of villains for us, ranging from Tom Riddle – so ravenous for immortality that he consumed the light around him – to the manipulative George Wickham. While these two examples do not share much in common at first glance, they are both willful, cunning and charming. While I did not share any particular kind of fondness for either, many of the fictional characters I find the most compelling struggle to dress themselves in a purely red cape to brand themselves a hero because of shared characteristics with the formerly mentioned. The following are some examples.
At the mention of ‘anti-hero’, Shakespeare’s Othello is the first fictional character who comes to mind. The play is named after him and the plot gathers around him, implying that Othello is the protagonist of the tale. However, Othello’s demise comes out of his own doing; despite considering himself to be a brave and noble character, Othello trusts the words of his manipulative adviser who guides him to believe that his wife – whom he does not believe and who, it is very clear, loves her husband – is having an affair. Othello is driven mad by the notion and ultimately resorts to killing his wife; he then realises what he has done and takes his own life.
My initial reaction to the character was that he was torn apart by the fragility of his own ego; the ease with which he was driven to mistrusting his own wife made me narrow my eyes at the notion of him being the hero of the play at all. However, Othello – a black man in the 1600s – is a character who stood his ground in a pool of people who distrusted him because of the colour of his skin; his determination as a solider earned him the position of a General, and it was his advisor’s jealousy that began his downfall. His wife is the daughter of a senator who hardly approved of her marrying Othello, accusing him of witchcraft because of the colour of his skin. Despite his willfulness and belief in his abilities and charm, Othello could not shield himself against the racist notions that tried to engulf him everyday because of the colour of his skin. Othello is therefore an anti-hero because of the duality of his character; on one hand he is strong, but, in the plot, tragedy ultimately comes about through Othello’s own actions.
Turning to Potter, Severus Snape also proposes an interesting character. For six books he was cold and coarse, but then the seventh and final Harry Potter book (supposedly) explains why Snape was the way he was. After years of being harsh towards Harry, the narrative reveals that Snape had, in fact, been in love with Potter’s mother -Lily – and had been stricken by her death (after being left reeling at her choice to marry Harry’s father, who had been cruel to Snape – her friend – during their years at school). While questioning Lily’s choice myself, I was surprised at the speed at which Harry – who, arguably, was himself been bullied by Snape – not only forgave the professor after realising that he had been looking out for Harry the whole time in Lily Potter’s name, but also at his act of naming his own child after Snape.
Many readers argued that Snape had been a hero the entire time, lying to the main antagonist of the plot in order to ensure that the son of the woman he loved lived. My argument is that while Snape did look out for Harry’s safety, he did not do so through any kind of heroic gesture; perhaps he felt guilt that he did not stop Lily’s death, thus rendering Harry motherless, but at no point does he express affection for Harry himself. In fact, Snape himself, before his own death, states that everything he is doing is for Lily and not for Harry. Therefore, I find it difficult to brand Snape a hero when his actions are driven by something very much less than selfless; he is not exactly charming, but he is as cunning and determined as the villain that he fools in the plot in order to protect the child of the woman he loved.
George R. R. Martin’s Cersei Lannister is, again, not really a character I would define as ‘charming’. However, her character is almost artistic in the way that she is cunning, and her determination to get her way is gripping. Cersei has committed multiple atrocities that render her cold and apathetic, but her place in this list is favoured by a characteristic that is the drive behind all her actions: her love for her children. Like most antagonists, a lot of her actions seem to be persuaded by the lure of power; however, while her family pride hardly hides from attention, it becomes apparent very quickly that most of Cersei’s actions are propelled by her instinct to protect her children. She is born in a world of men battling for a place of power and she is not unwise to the fact that being a woman has been handed to her as a weakness; while she is in love with another man, she is also aware that he holds a higher place in her world just because of his gender, and that he could leave her at any given time. Her children, on the other hand, are her own and are a part of her no matter where they go; Cersei has brushed away lives with a sweep of her hand, but all to protect those she loves. It is therefore her fierceness that compels me to Cersei Lannister’s character; while she is horrifying for a large majority of the time she occupies the plot, the love she holds is her weakness, and this is what makes a villain human.