Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Oftentimes Misunderstood Villain-Heroes?

It is rare that an author successfully pulls off a character who remains ambiguous until the very end. I was discussing the character Severus Snape, from the Harry Potter series, with a friend, and I began to think about the art behind his design.
Hopefully you've read the final book in the series, or this will ruin it for you. (so stop reading)
Snape was ambiguous throughout all seven books, convincingly corrupt, misunderstood, or innately good at various times. How does Rowling pull this off? There was hardly a moment that I felt I could predict Snape's actions or explain his often odd behaviors. I want to know how Rowling accomplished this literary feat. It's impressive, don't you agree? So I thought about other questionable characters in YA literature.

JRR Tolkien's character, Golem, is in the same boat. You want to trust him, but at the same time, want the hobbits to be on their guard around him. The reader is hoping for his redemption and turn over, but knows deep down, that both are impossible as long as the ring exists. He gives into temptation in the end, but arguably plays the most crucial role. He is unintentionally the destroyer of the ring.

What about Roscuro from Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux? He only wants to live in the light, despite his role as a rat to stay confined in the dark, hopeless dungeons. Due to an unlucky accident, he is banished from the light, forcing him into the life that he had always avoided. This incident causes him to become resentful of everything associated with the world of light and give into his bitterness and rat-stereotype. Yet, his desire for truth, purity, and most of all light must still be lurking in that rotting mind somewhere. You never know quite what to expect from him.
These rare characters share a common bond. They all found themselves in the midst of the worst evil they could imagine, and they had to face the difficult task of escaping it. Some succeeded, others did not. While they do horrible things and cause immeasurable grief, the reader still has a faint hope that they will return to the light in the end. To me, these are the most believable villains.
All of them played the supposed villain at some point in the novels, and I think their threats are the most convincing. They know exactly the cost of suffering and still choose to allow it. Or they know the cost of their redemption and are always tempted by it.
They are obviously torn characters, and this is why the reader is torn when making an assessment. Life is not an easy recipe to sort out, so why should novels make it easy on us to organize into simple categories of good and evil? We need an occasional ambiguous character to throw us off of our prideful "reader thrones" and make us struggle a little.
I believe that Rowling knew exactly how Snape would turn out, and designed the books to lead to the very appropriate ending. Unike Golem, Snape died a hero. Not many stories would follow the path of a seemingly weak, oftentimes cruel outcast all the way to his victory over the worst evil. Yet, that was the perfect ending for Severus Snape. I am still in awe of her craftiness to surprise me with Snape at the very end, but that is ehy we love these characters.
You never know what to expect from these unlikely villain(?)-heroes(?).

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