Saturday, November 8, 2014

5 (And a Half) Reasons why Hugo's Villains are Superb

We all know that Victor Hugo's characters in general are just masterpieces of writing. But today - I'd like to focus on his villains, and why they especially are so spectacular.
(Note: there may be some slight spoilers, but nothing big and climax-ruining.)

Frollo (HoND)
Victor Hugo himself
Javert (Les Miz)

    I just finished The Hunchback of Notre Dame a few weeks ago, so it got me thinking how Frollo and Javert were similar in their characterizations.

People writing NaNo: take note of this for your own villains! I certainly am. Look at this scribble in my character-profile notebook:

Now then. What should similarities we take note of with these two Characters?

1. They both have EPIC HATS. Duh.
Haha no just kidding. But seriously - look at those fancy chapeaus. 

A quick disclaimer: I am, of course, talking about the characters from the books, not the characters from visual media representations. I have seen the above version of Les Miz (you can read about my struggles with That Particular Javert here), but I have not seen the Disney HoND. I hear it's extremely different in that Phoebus is not the Jerkiest Jerky-Jerk (as well as in other things). I will see it soonish, just so I can overanalyze it and compare a children's animated film to an adult classic novel. Because that's always fun.

On to some real reasons.

2. They are decent people (at least sometimes).

This is especially evident in Frollo, for whom we get quite a detailed backstory. He was a devoted student in every area imaginable, raised his younger brother with such tender love, and actually adopted the neglected and deformed child left at the church. He was a revered church leader, always looked up to for his learned teachings. When I was reading this part of the story, I wondered, because I knew that Frollo is considered a Disney villain. I was so utterly confused...because he sounds like a somewhat stiff, yet sincerely nice guy. 

Javert doesn't get such a detailed backstory (as I remember - I haven't read it in a while) but he does have a good side to him. He's not evil, that's for sure. He's a cop - he's doing his duty.

That leads us to:

3. They are understandable. 

We totally get why they became the antagonists, instead of the protagonists. If we were in a similar situation, we might have gone down the same path. They aren't the "bad guys" just because they are evil, or because they've had a troubled past. They are "bad guys" because they've made some bad decisions in life, been thrust into some conflicting scenarios, and got overwhelmed by their issues. Here's the thing: they could have been protagonists. Protagonists also make bad decisions and get thrust into conflicting scenarios - if they didn't, there wouldn't be a story. But the difference is that, when faced with the major decision, the protagonist chooses the path towards success, or the path towards goodness, or the path towards The Right. And the antagonist chooses the other path, whatever that may be, depending on the story.

Frollo fell in love with the wrong person. Javert was doing his duty. These are reasonable motives - human ones. People fall in love every day, and saying "I was simply doing my duty," is not out of the ordinary. These struggles are struggles that any protagonist might face, so why are Frollo and Javert not the protagonists? Let's save that question for later.

4. They have one major flaw.

For Javert - it's a mentality that justice is everything. Mercy is not even in his vocabulary. He lives a simple life, bringing the guilty to justice.

For Frollo, it's a bit more complicated, but he also has a relatively simple mentality at the beginning of the book. He's strictly a man of science. That's it. He clearly has some compassion in his heart - he cares for his brother, he takes in Quasimodo - but he himself ignores it, and the world does too. His flaw, I suppose, is desire, or greed. He wants knowledge. He wants to probe the depths of Alchemy and its mysteries. And - the most important desire of all - he wants Esmeralda. But he has no idea how to deal with this kind of desire.

5. They think they are doing the right thing. 

Valjean is an escaped convict. He must be caught and returned to prison. Because why would he be in prison if he does not deserve it? Javert cannot see why his search for Valjean is anything other than commendable. In his own eyes, he is a good citizen under the State and a righteous man under God.

Frollo, on the other hand, knows something is off. He's not sure quite where he's failed, but he knows it has to do with Esmeralda. And he's pretty positive that God isn't happy with whatever he's done wrong. So he goes about attempting to clear himself in the eyes of Heaven, and in his own eyes. He is doing what he can to save himself - his body, and his soul.

6. Their inner conflict destroys them.

Gosh, Hugo loves his inner conflict, doesn't he? He loads it on for practically all his major characters.

Frollo was starting out to be a decent guy. He began dabbling in alchemy, which was the first bad decision, but alchemy isn't a terrible thing. (We know it to be stupid science now, but at that time, it was just a sort of suspicious activity.) And then - he falls in love with Esmeralda. That's the big blow. He's so used to being a man of science, a man of strict celibacy - and suddenly, his world - his entire mentality is shaken. He doesn't know how to deal with this. In his mind, he cannot fall in love. That's one reason why he became a priest. But here he is, head over heals in love - and with a gypsy street performer, of all people! 

Javert, after being the pursuer and judge for so long, is suddenly at someone else's mercy - literally. And that mercy is given to him, multiple times. His simple order of thought - justice for the wicked - is utterly destroyed, and a whole new mentality is opened to him. 

At this point, if Frollo and Javert were protagonists, they would grasp this opportunity to change their mentality. They would use it to change, to become better people, and by the end, we would nod in satisfaction at their superb character arcs. In fact, Javert's inner conflict is extremely similar to one that Valjean had near the beginning of the book - and Valjean, like a true protagonist, uses it to change for the better. It is practically the starting point of Valjean's journey through the story. 

The difference is that, with Frollo and Javert, instead of making them better individuals, the inner conflict destroys them. It's so contrary to everything they have ever believed, that they just snap - they can't handle it. Their brain won't wrap around the new concept. So they either have to ignore it, and deal with it within the confines of their own restricted mindset - like Frollo does - or, like Javert, they accept the new mindset, but decide they just can't manage such a world where everything is so different from what they first thought.

Phew! That's some deep stuff, but it's definitely playing a part in my character design of da Vale (the villain for my NaNovel). Up in that picture of my notes, it says: Frollo and Javert - and a bit of Edmond Dantes. I won't go into great detail here - this post is long enough already - but Edmond Dantes has all the characteristics I outlined above, except one. He has his flaw (desire for personal revenge), is totally certain that he's justified in that revenge, and has his inner conflict. He could totally be an epic villain. But - here's the defining characteristic of a protagonist - he does not break down. He sees his flaws and learns from them. 
I want da Vale to be a good bit like an Edmond who breaks down. I think it'll be interesting to play with.

What do you think of my list? Have you read  HoND or Les Miz (or consumed them in any way, literary or otherwise)? What other awesome villains/antagonists can you think of? And - how's the first week of NaNo going?



  1. Good thoughts! I just finished Hunchback the other day and I've read Les Mis in the past. Frollo really just creeped me out... I feel like for me Javert is more relatable but it probably depends on the person. Even then, I think (I hope) I'm not like Javert... just more so than Frollo. :)

    1. I think that's because Javert's justice is a better, more moral, more acceptable overwhelming mindset then Frollo's desire. Pure justice can be justified. Pure desire cannot.

      Frollo has the creepy thing going for him as a villain, too. *shivers* Javert's justice doesn't let him creep.


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