Savvy Saturday – The Play’s the Thing

It’s relatively easy to write Perfect Heroes and Dastardly Villains. It’s much harder to write villains who are a bit more ambiguous, and yet clearly in the wrong. I’ve written before on why it’s important to write complex characters, even in children’s stories. But how does this play out in the “real world” of storytelling? Since it’s summer, and the perfect time to kick back and relax with a good story, this post will give you five enjoyable “research opportunities” to explore more in depth what it looks like to write a good villain. Specifically, they will all be antagonists from plays/musicals.

I know, it seems at first like a bit of a stretch. How does watching a play help you write a better novel? Three words: action and dialogue. One problem that novelists often have is telling instead of showing. “He was the sort of person you could never trust” is telling. Watching a villain tell a bold-faced lie or stab someone in the back (perhaps literally) is showing. Theater excels at the latter. Even in soliloquys or musical solos, a theatrical character is still talking in character. By watching plays, then, novelists can learn a great deal about how to show rather than tell about sympathetic (or at least ambiguous) villains.

With that introduction, let’s begin!

5. Richard II (Shakespeare)

Starting with the least evil villain on this list is the main character in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, Richard II. I first saw this play last week, as part of a DVD boxed set (“The Hollow Crown” – very much worth it!), and found myself quite unsure who I was supposed to be rooting for, and against, for about the first half of the story. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story’s plot, Richard II is the rightful king of Britain. However, the play follows one of his young lords who returns illegally from banishment and overthrows Richard, becoming Henry IV. Henry is presented as the play’s protagonist, but it is only as the play progresses that we see just why Richard is such a bad king, though not really an evil man. First, fueling an audience’s contempt for him, Richard refuses to listen to good advice, and instead threatens his dying kinsman who gives it:



Second, immediately following this clip (and showing that it is accurate), Richard steals Henry’s inheritance to fund his costly wars, since the young man is banished and “cannot” come back to reclaim it. Henry does, however, and the rest of the country follows him to overthrow the king.

As the play continues, the audience gets more and more fed up with Richard. He is very much put upon, or thinks he is, the entire time. He is spoiled, convinced of his divine right to rule, has a mercurial temperament, and (most aggravating), he truly believes that he is deep and profound. It ends up being simply melodramatic and pathetic.

To give you an idea, take a look at this clip. He has previously agreed to give up the throne to Henry, to save his life, and now must do so:

In my opinion, this clip ends too soon. Immediately afterward, Lord Northumberland tells Richard to read out loud the charges against him, so that public record will show that he was deposed for reason. Here’s his eye-roll-inducing response:





My lord,–


No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man,
Nor no man’s lord; I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But ’tis usurp’d: alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself!
O that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water-drops!
Good king, great king, and yet not greatly good,
An if my word be sterling yet in England,
Let it command a mirror hither straight,
That it may show me what a face I have,
Since it is bankrupt of his majesty.


Go some of you and fetch a looking-glass.

Exit an attendant


Read o’er this paper while the glass doth come.


Fiend, thou torment’st me ere I come to hell!


Urge it no more, my Lord Northumberland.


The commons will not then be satisfied.


They shall be satisfied: I’ll read enough,
When I do see the very book indeed
Where all my sins are writ, and that’s myself.

Re-enter Attendant, with a glass

Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine,
And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;

Dashes the glass against the ground

For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,
How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.




All together now: “FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!”

Shakespeare is the master of characterization. Even though his language is a bit archaic today, we can still see how Richard runs on (and on and on) in narcissistic self-pity. This is NOT a good king, and even though we feel bad for him, we see the need for him to be deposed.


4. The Wizard of Oz (Wicked)


Like Richard II, the Wizard of Oz in the musical Wicked is initially thought of as the good and beneficent ruler of the country. He’s the “rightful” overseer of Oz due to the powers that everyone thinks he has – and it’s only as the story progresses that we find that he’s actually a fraud. As Elphaba travels from putting her trust in the Wizard to fighting to bring him down, the audience too loses respect for this man. But even so, we see where he’s coming from. The wizard truly does care for his people, just as Richard II did. He just has a fuzzy/misguided conception of what’s right and wrong.

This ambiguous characterization is especially shown in the songs “Sentimental Man” and “Wonderful,” which are compiled here (not a great quality, but here nonetheless):

Whereas Richard II is aggravating, the Wizard of Oz is charming. He isn’t good, and in fact, he does things that are quite bad. He’s a temptation that Elphaba must face and defeat. But even so, we really don’t want to see harm come to him.


3. The Phantom (Phantom of the Opera)

The Phantom of the Opera is the Wizard of Oz taken a step further. He runs the Opera Populaire from the background, with a steel fist and an icy soul, ready to kill any who oppose him. He’s insane, brilliant, and incredibly dangerous. The Phantom is vindictive and irrationally possessive, he lies and manipulates those around him, and he openly prefers the darkness to the light – metaphorically as well as literally.

However, though he is clearly evil, the Phantom is also fascinating and pitiable. First, he is intelligent, passionate, and talented. We observe these traits in his single-minded pursuit of Christine, his setting up elaborate plots to gain revenge on those who he believes have wronged him, and his musical performances. (Showing, not telling!) Further, we see that though he has an incredible voice and talent for musical composition, he can never pursue his dreams openly because his face is horribly disfigured – causing everyone around him to react in horror whenever they see him. (Again, showing, driving the plot forward.) Third, the Phantom truly loves (or thinks he loves) Christine, which he shows through training her to sing and through seeking revenge on both her and her new fiancée when she abandons him.

The Phantom, like Richard II, is in pain for much of the second half of the play. But instead of whining about it, he outwits and kills his opponents until the end. While we don’t agree with what he does, the Phantom is a fascinating character – who we’re just glad that we’re never going to run into on a dark night down in the theater.


2. Javert (Les Miserables)

 The musical Les Miserables is an amazing piece of writing. Given different circumstances and scenarios, Javert, a policeman whose sense of duty and justice drives him to hunt down fugitive Jean Valjean no matter what, could have been the hero of a play. Instead, his actions and their repercussions show him to be the play’s antagonist – though one with whom audiences can almost sympathize. While Richard II, the Wizard of Oz, and the Phantom of the Opera are villains because they have done things that are wrong or illegal, Javert is a villain until he breaks the law. It is in keeping the law, not breaking it, that he demonstrates that he is the antagonist of the play.

We see this in him wanting to arrest Fantine rather than let her go to the hospital, despite the fact that her daughter will die if she’s arrested (“I have heard such protestations every day for twenty years – let’s have no more explanations. Save your breath, and save your tears. Honest work. Just reward. That’s the way to please the Lord!”) We see this in him “joining” the noble revolutionaries as a governmental spy to nip the rebellion in the bud. We see this in him refusing to trade his life for Valjean’s: “Shoot me now, for all I care. If you let me go, beware; you’ll still answer to Javert!”


It’s when Jean Valjean, a supposed criminal, still refuses to kill Javert, letting him go and turning his conceptions of the world upside down, that Javert for the first time breaks the law. The audience sees Javert give in to mercy, then destroy himself because he cannot reconcile his new realization that mercy triumphs over justice with the life he has lived until this point.

As the play is written, no audience member sympathizes with Javert. And yet, he is the most moral of all the five villains of this list. Thus showing that good, when twisted just ever so slightly, can be just as villainous as murder.


1. Richard III (Shakespeare)

Speaking of murder, we finally get to the most villainous of villains who still counts as an ambiguous character – Shakespeare’s Richard III. Not only is King Richard a full-out villain, he rejoices in it. But he is the play’s main character, and gets the audience on his side by judicious breaking of the fourth wall, that is, inviting the audience to come and join him. In his opening monologue, he flatly states that he is deformed and therefore “cannot” be merry as is everyone else…


“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other.”


Is this “telling” rather than “showing”? Why yes, it is – and here, it works beautifully well. The audience is stunned, beguiled, and enchanted. We know secret knowledge that none of the other characters of the play are privy to. As we then watch Richard lie and manipulate everyone around him, we are fascinated and feel complicit in his crimes.

However, this complicity wears off. By the beginning of Act 2, Richard’s crimes have grown more brutal and he begins to go insane. The audience watches him order children to be murdered, refuse to carry out his promises, try to woo his niece, and become increasingly paranoid. Through this, the audience is able to separate itself from him, and since it knows him and his thoughts, truly wish him dead. Richard alone of all five of the villains presented here leads the audience in such a 180 degree turn of opinion. It is an amazing piece of writing craftsmanship that the audience feels no sympathy for the main character, even when he is abandoned by his allies and killed in battle.

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,” Richard says as he prepares to face his foes,
“Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.”


Which of these plays and villains are your favorite? What other complex villains have you enjoyed reading about or watching in a play?



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