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Antagonists: Let ‘Em Be Bad

So, by now you probably have heard Voltron ended with the enigmatic (read: very difficult to understand) resolution that painted Lotor as a hero all along.


There is a lot to unpack with that so-called twist, but this complete mis-characterization and mishandling of such an obviously evil character has to come with some sort of analytical response.

I have no doctorate to speak of, but that’s never stopped me before. So, let’s prescribe a diagnosis for the writer(s) responsible for such a disservice to a show’s major character. But while we’re at it, let’s not just stop at Voltron. Villains have received the short end of the stick for so long, and I think I know why. So, we’re just gonna dive headfirst into what I believe is a closer examination of this literary and medical disease that causes authors to bastardize their own creations. And we’re going to use two big disappointments to do it.

No matter how many people advocate for villains – both their existence as a contrast to a protagonist’s purpose in a story, and the charismatic pull they have on an audience – the popular thing in most media is to either condemn or rectify their existence. It’s not a decision they have to make, but it’s one they almost always make. Unless the main character is the villain, there are far fewer examples of the villain getting what they want and the ending ripping you apart, as it should with someone truly vile.

Writers bring compelling evil or “grey area” antagonists with thoughtful depth, purpose, internal conflict, ambitions of power, and great hair to stories. But once the initial conflict has ended, they so often seem to take a look back at who they have created in the flurry of plot resolution and find they are just as rightfully horrified as their audience.

Some villains are true to their intent from the beginning, making it clear they are not the hero from the moment they enter stage left. Other villains take their time to creep under your skin and shake loose all inhibitions before extorting the protagonist for everything they’re worth.

As writers, we have a way of tapping into this primal side of ourselves and pulling out villains who are truly evil. But once some authors get the chance to see the wreckage these creations have caused, they get scared, and that’s when (what I call) the Farcical Redemption Arc begins by Act 2.

I should clarify while I’m ahead, I’m not wholly against a story in which a villain turns out to be a hero, or at least gets some appreciation in the end. Some redemption arcs work harmoniously with the overall plot of a story. An example of this executed well can be found with Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars. Say what you will about the series and the direction of its many sagas all you wish, but Anakin was a demonstrably better example than most of a character who was misguided by trauma and anguish, and through that vulnerability was manipulated into going down a darker path.

Properly summarized in this article, the author points to why Anakin was so easily persuaded:

The dark side offers the power to prevent death, or so Palpatine tells him. Palpatine seems to know Anakin’s fears intimately, even his dreams of Padme dying in childbirth. Palpatine plays off these fears to convince Anakin to follow him. At the same time, Anakin is mistrusted by the Jedi Council for already being too close to Palpatine and too emotional. “Anakin’s Suffering Throughout The Prequel Trilogy”, Katarina Schultz

Anakin’s entire motivation, which catapulted him into the hands of a prehistoric master manipulator with lightning fingers, was to protect and hold close that which he loved. For a character always rooted in his attempts at caring for those around him, and a Jedi Order who consistently restricted his ability to express himself and handle things autonomously, the Sith was a relief. However, when the love from a long-lost son determined to see the good in him finally reaches him, Anakin realizes he can rest in peace knowing someone out there can forgive him for his transgressions. He simply lost himself trying to be more for others and lost the battle against his own demons in the process.

Star Wars, particularly in the cinematic universe, clings to an idea of hope. Thus, it seems apropos for this type of story that the main villain would find hope and salvation once all is said and done.

Feel-goods and unicorns aside, what happens when a writer is so afraid of their villain they can’t even face them head on? I’ll save you the trouble of trying to seek the answer from within yourself. The word you’re looking for is called “retcon”.

retcon – (noun) – a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events, typically used to facilitate a dramatic plot shift or account for an inconsistency. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Retroactive continuity has become a popularized phrase (shorthanded to “retcon”), in which an author attempts to right a wrong. The act of this can reveal a lot. Namely:

  1. It requires the admission – either knowing or unconsciously – that the work of art in some way was heavily flawed and requires correction.

  2. When we retcon, rather than employ an actual plot twist, we are discrediting the intelligence of an audience that can see through this lazy shift in tone and story – as if they don’t also know your characters and plot intimately and wish for consistency of voice and clarity of purpose.

  3. Forcing a twist onto a character who could have received a consistent story-line through to the end unwittingly proves to the audience that that character was never fully thought out before written in. Characters can be devices, but they should also be people.

As touched on before, it’s one thing to lay the groundwork for a story laden in happiness and provide a happy ending. I can be a sucker for a heroes win story, as well. But it’s another to be terrified to end a story with the message that sometimes things are just bad, and so in a panic you shift the tone to mask your own insecurities. But “sometimes things are just bad” is fair and true and should be told in stories, as well.

I’m sure by now you’re curious, however, where I stand on villains in feel-good stories and their happy endings. Well, let’s double-back. If we consider the overarching message of Anakin’s fall from grace and redemption, he was someone deserving of that chance at peace because he started in a source of good. Flipping back to the Voltron universe, as established in this retelling by Dreamworks, Lotor’s story is shaped quite differently.

From the very first scene with Lotor, he presents himself as an unknown gladiator in the ring. Identity masked by his armor, he appears as nothing more than a slender fighter taking on other Galran for the amusement of others. His establishment into the series lies in his deceit from the get-go. Then, much like most villains, Lotor reveals himself and dumps a little bit of exposition on us about what makes for a true Galra and indicates his purpose is to take his place on the throne. This means eventually undermining or overthrowing his own father Zarkon. Easy setup, easy understanding. Does it all with a smirk and shimmy. No confusion whatsoever about who Lotor is. This is the mark of a good setup and good writing. Dreamworks: thank you. For this, at least.

With the introduction of Lotor, the entirety of the show took on a new shape and tone. While the series was fine for a fun Y7 show for a while, it was clear they needed the conflict of a determined ruler (a.k.a. not a flat character like his father, who he murders by the way) to push the conflict in a direction that forces Team Voltron into actual turmoil and struggle. And he does this well. And on multiple occasions. And still with great hair.

Something, something, something, dark side… Through a myriad of crazy antics, he is eventually captured by Team Voltron and makes it his mission to assuage the heroic squad of his presence and seduce Princess Allura through the common interest of their desire to see the Galrans and Alteans free and united – a farce of a dream Lotor convinces Allura of once it is revealed his mother is a zombified and unfortunately articulate decrepit Altean. He feeds Allura a story of his dream to save the Alteans once he saw what the Galran Empire had done to their home. A fun flashback sequence therein reveals Lotor saving an entire colony desperately seeking asylum.

Once an Altean from that colony arrives, however, we get the rest of the story: Lotor was actually committing mass genocide on that colony he “saved” so he could harness their quintessence.

After Lotor is exposed to too much raw quintessence, it fuels his desires, strangulates his sanity, and thrusts him to his eventual doom. We don’t see Lotor again the rest of the show, and he is presumed dead. That is, until, the writers resurrect the memory of our Galran prince for just the ending to say he was always pure of intention and heart, but Zarkon’s banishment and negligence were the reasons he was a person of “good intentions but who made bad decisions sometimes”.

Why is this particular portrayal so problematic (a word that used to mean something before the internet got hold of it)? This idea that Lotor was always someone who wanted to “do good” completely contradicts his introduction by deceit and continuation of that pattern of behavior – with no prior room for misinterpretation from the audience. It undermines the cunning, the calculation and the desire for famous rule by which Lotor built his entire purpose. Someone as intelligent as Lotor – even if he had been mistreated as a child – would not be foolish enough to think the only way to harness quintessence was by genocide. That’s not even close to an obvious answer, and Lotor is someone who does not lack oversight.

This isn’t a case of nature vs. nurture – which the writers do claim was their motivation. Relegating Lotor to someone who was now the neglected child trope, bent to the abuse of his parents and driven only by this psychosis, strips him of all autonomy and accountability. Or at least, they try by giving him a weak excuse for shitty behavior and poor decision-making.

Lotor never lived a life priding himself on being pure of heart, from what we knew of him until this point. He was resentful of his family, knew he could rule the Galrans better, committed mass genocide of a colony of people who share half his blood, and it wasn’t until over-exposure to quintessence that he went mad just before constructing an amazing replica of Voltron to engage them in battle. I mean sure, he shot off into space like Team Rocket never to be seen from again, but if it wasn’t until the very last bit of his life that he set his own doom, then how can the writers justify this “plot twist” as if this wasn’t symptomatic of their own issues with him?

It’s possible the writers were too afraid to leave the story there, so they attempted to water him down and make him digestible for a Y7 audience. This, of course, underestimates what that audience prefers and can handle in storytelling, but more so it says these writers hated Lotor. They were so afraid to have a character with intrigue and consequence they gave him laughable impunity so people could “feel better” about either liking him or not liking him. I mean, hey, at least in the end they could say they told the happier story.

(And who knows, maybe this is on the producers of Dreamworks for forcing their hand, but in that respect they could have just let him stay dead instead of ever mentioning him again.)

Source: Jo Painter

Another meaty character who was tenderized and cooked until abominably well-done was Rhysand from the series A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. I want to go on record as to have said – because the Maas cronies are bound to come in troves after this post for me even breathing any of these characters’ names – I really adored A Court of Thorns and Roses.

That one.

That specific, first, book. I loved it.

I’m a sucker for Beauty and the Beast re-tellings. I did multiple papers on the topic in college; I read everything I could get my hands on that was classified, in a literary sense, as a BatB story. And when I found out Maas provided that for me, I was head-over-heels in love. But…

I loathed A Court of Mist and Fury, and I have not even bothered with the rest of the series, if I ever will. I’m not much for sadomasochism as a practice, unless you count the horrific reality television shows I watch when I’m in an incredibly bad mood. Maybe one day I’ll work up the nerve to read the rest; but Maas’ stories are a lot of pages of self-loathing, and I am just far too greedy with my time. The point is ACOMAF is where Maas lost me, and she did it so quickly through her strange backtracking with both Tamlin and Rhysand.

Since this is about antagonists, though, let’s focus on Rhys.

Rhys is a low-hanging fruit bad boy trope. We all know it. I’m not going to sit here and act as though he wasn’t that, because he was the antithesis of everything Feyre recognized in Tamlin. He’s the Jess in this strange arc of Gilmore Girls. (Sorry Dean.) Rhysand does everything a YA borderline-smut fantasy book would do with a character like that. He’s the dream of every teen and young woman pretending like they don’t have a bad boy phase, and for some older women he is the hot, young snacc of their cougar dreams. Maybe even Maas’.

Somewhere between the mouth noises Feyre wouldn’t stop making in ACOMAF, and the strange tantrums Tamlin kept throwing, there were cut-scenes of Rhys in his element. He was no longer held down by Amarantha, and he was free to continue to cockblock Tamlin and Feyre every chance he got. However, what started off as sexual innuendo, and the indication his ventures with Feyre would include adultery, quickly turned into elementary reading lessons and brooding in gothic guest rooms. In fact, once she paused to chew between inner monologues, and we got to the point of ACOMAF – a mere 20 chapters in – I just couldn’t be bothered to care.

What happened to the Rhys who promised us danger and intrigue?

If we’re being absolutely honest with ourselves, his entire “bargain” with Feyre was laden in what could easily turn into sexual abuse and – as mentioned – adultery. (This with the caveat that at some point she’d probably be into it – or she would have to admit to herself she’d always considered him and enjoys it from the start – but still. The fact that we’re supposed to trust her, and she regularly told audiences how much she hated him for getting between she and Tamlin in the first book, should tell you more about what their initial encounter would realistically be.) This abuse isn’t exactly excusable, and I’m not saying I would prefer it to have happened in the books. But it’s a little odd this is what he leaned into only to… Waste our time and just “save” Feyre whenever she was complaining about her fiance…

I recognize that Rhysand’s imprisonment affected his facade in ACOTAR. So much of who he was included ploys devised by Amarantha, and the general loathsome life he had with her. We even see glimpses where he seemed to feel a little bad for Feyre as she struggled through her trials towards the ends of the book. He had layers, I’ll give him that. But every single scene with Rhysand in ACOMAF, up until they finally start to make plans to take action – again 20+ chapters in – was so dull. Occasionally he might smirk between caustic words towards those who should be his allies. And like Tamlin he seemed so regularly unhinged and on the verge of throwing a fit it made every man in this book seem overbearingly juvenile.

Post-traumatic stress is a real thing, and while I do commend Maas for trying to tackle the looming nature of it, Rhys suffered from the same inconsistencies as Lotor and so many before them.

Similarly to the way E.L. James’ eventually castrates an already bland Christian Grey – with no offense meant towards the Spider or other lovable eunuchs out there – Rhysand had to be watered down into a loving partner in order to be palatable for the one who wrote him and the people afraid to just fall for the “wrong” character. It’s not chic and Pinterest-cute to lust after the reprehensible villain. But it’s as if he suddenly became a lovesick puppy – clipped and lobotomized. Nothing says true love like all the aesthetic and none of the substance, am I right, women?

As writers, we will make mistakes. Sometimes it’s about what the audience won’t like, sometimes it’s just poor execution of prose that we’ll embarrassingly find later on. These mistakes can be rectified by moving forward and accepting them as mistakes without trying to cover them up like a bad 90s back tattoo. Evil and conflict are sometimes just too essential to a story to warrant paring it down. And let’s face it: Only someone hedging towards complete psychopathy would consider such blatant, prudish retcon-ing a viable solution to not facing their own fears.

The world is not a rosy place, and our characters can and should reflect that in some way – at least once in a while. Whether that evil character is running their own political play, or they serve as a literary device that says something more, not everyone needs a Farcical Redemption Arc.

Some villains can just be bad all by themselves, thank you very much.

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