In the months since the release of ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, I’ve heard from a lot of readers about loving Persis, loving Princess Isla, Persis and Isla’s relationship, general gender-flippery, and even wanting a star cove of their very own. And I agree on all these things.
But today, while reading an article about stereotypical female characters you never see as males, I started thinking about another of my favorite characters from that book: the villain, Vania Aldred.
I love Vania. I named her after my friend, the talented photographer Vania Stoyanova, because that name is awesome and so is she. When I asked the real Vania if I could name my villain after her, she said, “Hell yes!” When I added that the villain was clever and evil and marvelous and liked to wear capes made of black feathers she was like, “Honey, when you’ve made the sale, stop selling.”
But Vania is awesome. She wouldn’t be a good villain unless she was a match for my heroine Persis. She’s just as clever and ambitious and resourceful… not to mention just as conflicted and damaged by the society she grew up in. In another world, Vania and Persis might have been friends. After all, she was lifelong friends with my hero, Justen.
Why is Vania the villain? All characters have flaws, but in storytelling, the villain is the one who has a fatal flaw — one that they cannot overcome or mitigate in order to find redemption. (We’re not talking about tragedies or anti-heroes here.) It’s a lot more fun when the villain is a real person who you, on some level, sympathize with, rather than a blankly evil, evil-to-be-evil capital E-Evil (see also: boring “First Evil” from Buffy versus Glory, who Just Wants to Go Home). In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, there’s a one-two punch with villain Gaston, who actually has the same vain, egotistical flaw that caused the Beast’s own downfall. The Beast learns his lesson (hero); Gaston (villain) does not.
I read an article that said the original concept for Frozen was much more in keeping with the actual Snow Queen story, with the Queen as a villain, but when they presented the song “Let it Go” to the Powers that Be, they realized that a song about empowerment and self-acceptance is not a song for a villain. This is not a song about a fatal flaw (see: “Gaston” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” etc.).
I had fun writing the scenes from Vania’s point of view and exploring the way her father twisted Vania’s beliefs, the same way he twisted the beliefs of the other Galatean revolutionaries. Vania is strong (positive), ambitious (positive), caring of her family and foster siblings (positive), respectful of history (positive), and interested in liberating her people from a cruel overlord (positive). She’s also petty (negative), superior (negative), casually cruel (negative), bigoted (negative), and, worst of all, she’s unable to see the error of her ways. There are other instances of pettiness, superiority, and bigotry in the book from the “good guys” — because people aren’t perfect. Two other Galatean revolutionary characters, Remy and Justen, spend the book overcoming their learned bigotry. Vania doubles down. That’s what makes her the villain.
Maybe I’m thinking about this a lot right now because I’m writing a story ABOUT a villain: about the evil fairy from Sleeping Beauty. She’s in my head. Is she good? Is she bad? Is she redeemable? What makes her tick? How’s it all going to end?
I’ll tell you one thing: she’s fascinating.