SHOW YOUR VILLAIN BEING VILLANOUS, or IN DEFENCE OF RAMSAY BOLTON (SORT OF)

If you aren’t fully caught up with HBO’s Game of Thrones, be aware that this post contains spoilers.

 

In an interview with WalesOnline, Game of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon is quoted as wanting his character Ramsay Bolton “to die an epic, horrible death.”

“Of all the terrible things Ramsey’s done—and there have been loads—that was by far the hardest to shoot,” said Rheon, referring to the shocking moment a few weeks ago when his character brutally raped his new wife Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner).

“It was a horrible, horrendous thing to do, and I remember having a little moment in my trailer beforehand.

“I was like, ‘I’m not sure I can do this; actually, I really don’t want to do this’—I was struggling, to be honest.

“But, in the end, I just had to pick myself up and get on with the job at hand—we both did, me and Sophie.

“After all, this sort of thing goes on in the world all the time—it’s our duty as actors to try and portray such things as truthfully as possible.”

Still, that “truthful” scene made an awful lot of people angry. I’m not interested in stirring up political controversy, myself, but there’s a valuable lesson—a series of valuable lessons, in fact—for authors of any genre in all of this.

He’s a bastard all right.

He’s a bastard all right.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I defined a villain as someone who’s motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent.

It was the first part that I was really focusing on there, the importance of a strongly motivated villain. This is absolutely essential, and I’ve belabored the point before, but haven’t really gotten to the second part of that equation: the abhorrent methods.

In her article for Vogue, “Game of Thrones’s Most Controversial Season Yet: A Retrospective,” Monica Kim wrote:

A few weeks ago, the rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsay Bolton led viewers like Senator Claire McCaskill to publicly quit the series, while The Mary Sue, a feminist pop culture site, decided to stop all active coverage of Game of Thrones. Others defended the scene as a logical one, given Ramsay’s modus operandi. Last week’s burning of Shireen Baratheon was equally divisive. To some, it was a new low. For others, it was business as usual—on this show, what was particularly bad about burning a little girl?

Well, let me stop you there, Ms. Kim. It was absolutely unforgivably awful, the burning of that little girl, and a grotesque act that the show’s creators never asked us to be okay with. Almost immediately after, Shirene’s mother kills herself and her father is killed by one of the show’s stand-out heroes (who also happens to be a woman). The Red Witch behind that horrifying act (abhorrent method) is at the very least knocked back on her heals at the loss of her patron and the seeming betrayal of her own god. These characters had been going too far for a while before that scene and this was the final way, way, way too far they had to go to finally unravel entirely. No one in the world of the show got out of that unscathed, and no one in the audience was ever asked to shrug it off.

The sheer horror of the act is what lined us up, finally and without equivocation, against Stannis and the Red Witch. We understand their motivations—he’s absolutely convinced that he is the rightful king, she is a power mad fanatic intent on using this would-be king to force her religion onto all of Westeros—but their methods, up to and including filicide, are abhorrent.

Not exactly what you’d call “innocent,” but still…

Not exactly what you’d call “innocent,” but still…

More controversy at the so-called “Penance Walk” of Cersei Lannister. The High Septon, a man, was forced into the same naked walk of shame a few episodes before, with no detectible outcry from the media. Only Cersei—clearly a villain who has been personally responsible for how many deaths, betrayals, acts of incest, and so on—being subjected to the same treatment draws controversy. No one seemed to mind the gruesome systematic torture and castration of Theon Greyjoy, but the rape of Sana Stark by the same villain has people fleeing the show in disgust? I know better than to identify double standards on this point, so I’ll leave that for each of you to come to grips with on your own.

Ramsay Bolton, née Snow, is the worst (in regards to his abhorrent methods) villain the series has yet put forward, and Game of Thrones is a series that sets the villain bar particularly high.

We understand Ramsay’s motivations. He’s a bastard, desperate to gain the affirmation of his stoic father and the legitimacy of his name. And he was raised under the banner of the Flayed Man, for goodness’s sake. We can imagine the systematic abuse that might have made Ramsay the demented young psychopath he’s become. Motivation complete. In fact, he’s essentially the same guy as Jon Snow, arguably the show’s most inviolate hero. In the same book I described a hero as someone who’s motivations we understand and who’s methods we find inspirational. And we get to see Jon Snow being a hero, even if it doesn’t always work out for him. We see him actively working to do the right thing.

So then why can’t we see Ramsay actively working to do the wrong thing?

Torture is never okay, and that’s precisely the point.

Torture is never okay, and that’s precisely the point.

If we’re asked to simply imagine that he’s really mean to people, if we don’t actually see him being villainous, how scary can he really be?

Game of Thrones, more so even than premium cable series like The Sopranos and Dexter before it, has overturned everyone’s expectations of how a TV series is supposed to function. I guess it isn’t too surprising that some critics and viewers are seeing it as having gone way too far.

And for certain people I’m quite sure it has. No one is being forced to watch this show, nor should they be. Each episode begins with the requisite trigger warnings, and by now, frankly, you’d have to have just emerged from a sealed bunker to not know that if you watch Game of Thrones you will see acts of violence and boobies—lots of boobies—and sometimes both acts of violence and boobies at the same time, which really gets Americans up in arms.

And now that it’s clear that I’ve dismissed people who might be offended by the show, let me walk that back a little, at least. Not everyone’s going to be okay with the content of Game of Thrones, and that’s perfectly fine. You have your comfort zone, I have mine, and as adults we can find our own way through things. I do understand that women will be more sensitive to images of violence directed at women than men are, and that doesn’t mean that all men are inherently violent rapists. I assure you, I have never cheered on Ramsay Bolton. I have cheered on all those who’ve come up against him, though, because I’ve seen the depths to which this guy gleefully sinks and I want, like the actor who plays him, to see Ramsay get his. Acts of violence like this aren’t aspirational in the sense that we’re watching that thinking, Gee, looks like fun, but just the opposite: I want to be the guy who cuts Ramsay’s sick head off. We aspire to be the hero that defeats guys like that.

As writers we all have to find our own comfort zones as well. Please don’t think this post is somehow demanding that you force a rape scene into your work in progress. That is absolutely never a requirement of anything. But what I am saying is that if your villain seems like he might be kind of a dick, that might not be as effective as a villain who we know, without question, murders, tortures, rapes, commits acts of genocide . . . whatever it is that adds the abhorrent method to his (or her) otherwise identifiable motivation.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to SHOW YOUR VILLAIN BEING VILLANOUS, or IN DEFENCE OF RAMSAY BOLTON (SORT OF)

  1. Scot Hanson says:

    The problem is “villainy inflation”. After enough Ramsay’s have been portrayed (and just how much of an act of villainy needs to be portrayed in order for the audience to understand the guy is evil?), then Ramsay is just a run-of-the-mill bad guy and we have to show something worse. :/

    • Philip Athans says:

      That would be scary, and though I think we can expect to see some of that (“This is the show that out-Game of Throneses Game of Thrones!) but remember, we are all still responsible for our own comfort zones and our own ideas. GoT’s level of explicit violence isn’t appropriate for every book, every TV series, etc. There is an intention behind GoT that, I think, says: This world SUCKS but here are a handful of people who are at least trying to make it better, and off they go, stressing the awful to show just how far the heroes have to go. At the same time, a similar series in terms of its cultural context and premium cable “we’re showing you this cuz we can” element, shows us a world of lots of heroes a huge population of normal people, and punctuates that with a few serial killers and a hero serial killer. That gets the villainy down to a much smaller scale. And of course you can have a completely non-violent villain who’s “villainy” shows up in how s/he manipulates people, steals, betrays, etc. and you can show that behavior without ever spilling a drop of blood and still tell an effective story.

  2. James says:

    Wait, what? Too simple.

    Must you leave me with no other choice than to suspect that my protagonist, Fiona is actually the villain? Indeed, we do understand her goals. They are the same as those of the victim (not in competition, mind you; her deplorable behavior exists solely to benefit him.)

    Granted, in Labyrinth, when Jareth makes the same claim, we know with absolute certainty that he is bad.

    Yet again I am left with certain evidence that my mindset was biased in favor of women.

    Then I remember: /Tragic hero./ That’s the ticket! She’s a tragic hero; she gets her happy-ever-after on house arrest, forced to give up her job as a police officer and live on his gas-station wages. Hopefully, she learns that sometimes, you have to let them find help elsewhere… even if the authorities don’t always know enough to help.

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