How can you make your villain resonate without stereotyping
The best of villains, the worst of villains
Yesterday I went to see the film of Matilda the Musical. I’ve seen the stage version twice and loved it and this version didn’t disappoint. The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are genius, capturing the spirit of Roald Dahl’s book. The more I listen to them, the more I hear.
The villain in the piece is Miss Trunchbull.
Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was something else altogether. She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster, who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike.
— Roald Dahl, Matilda
As I’m working on a children’s book and thinking about creating a villain, I am intrigued by this character. She is one of the best and worst villains in children’s literature. In both appearance and actions, she goes against societal norms and challenges us to consider our prejudices.
The ugliness of evil
Dahl does not hold back in how he describes Miss Trunchbull. To pick out a few key phrases:
Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy for ever… She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes… She looked, in short, more like a rather eccentric and bloodthirsty follower of the stag-bounds than the headmistress of a nice school for children.
As an ex-olympian hammer thrower, she has a very muscular physique and wears breaches and stockings which emphasise her thighs and calf muscles.
Dahl has been criticised for characterising evil with an ugly appearance, and Miss Trunchbull plays into that. She is contrasted with the sweet Miss Honey.
She had a lovely pale oval madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light-brown. Her body was so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces, like a porcelain figure
I think it is a fair criticism to say that Dahl conflates ugliness with evil, and avoiding this stereotype is wise.
Casting Emma Thompson in the role of Miss Trunchbull has invited criticism. I think she did an excellent job in the role. But should she have been chosen?
In both stage productions of this musical that I’ve seen, the role has been played as a man in drag. It is easy to see how this came about as the character exhibits a traditionally male physique and engages in hammer throwing at the 1972 Olympics. This despite the women’s hammer throwing only making its Olympic debut in 2000.
Emma Thompson wears a ‘fat suit’ for the role in the film. Except this doesn’t really adequately describe the prosthetics and padding that are required for her transformation. Miss Trunchbull is not fat, she is muscular. Nowhere does Dahl describe her character as fat.
I don’t think Dahl can be criticised in this instance of being fatphobic.
So if not fatphobic, then maybe transphobic.
With a spoonful of sugar comes a transphobic message about the dangers of straying from traditional gender roles, a conservative parable about the “right” and the “wrong” kinds of women.
I think if you look at the character of Miss Trunchbull in isolation, then you could make an argument here. She is definitely going against the traditional gender norms; unmarried, ugly, muscular, aggressive, bullying. And she goes against the norms of motherhood. She hates children and is violent towards them; she swings one round by her pigtails and throws her like a hammer and she forces another to eat an entire cake and then locks him in a torture chamber called a chokey.
But Miss Trunchbull is not the only female character who goes against gender norms. Matilda’s mother sees her as a scab and can’t wait to pick her off and be rid of her. Miss Honey is unmarried. Matilda herself refuses to be submissive and stands up to her father and Miss Trunchbull. Matilda is subversive and revolutionary, eventually ridding the school of the tyrant. She is intelligent and not afraid to show it.
All of this suggests to me that Dahl is showing that it is not straying from traditional gender roles that leads to Miss Trunchbull being evil, but ho she uses her physical strength to bully others.
The Dark Tetrad
Miss Trunchbull is definitely a memorable villain. Where does she come on The Dark Tetrad?
- Machiavellian — Trunchbull is fairly straightforward, not manipulative. Her methods are direct and violent. She is self-serving but not particularly devious.
- Narcissism — Trunchbull thinks herself special. She says she was never a baby. She expects everyone to pay attention to her.
- Psychopathy — Trunchbull appears to be unstable and vengeful, ready to get her own back on anyone who challenges her. She does not appear to enjoy dangerous situations — she has situated herself in a school where there is little to challenge her.
- Sadism — she knows how to hurt others, particularly physically but also verbally and psychologically. She believes that children deserve to suffer.
Creating a villain
My takeaways from Miss Trunchbull are:
- making your villain ugly plays into an ugly stereotype
- whatever characteristics your villain has, make sure that they are not the only character who has them
- villains in children’s fiction can be exaggerated — by making them more fantastical it allows children to distance themselves from the evil whilst still acknowledging it exists
- that the more atrocious the villain, the more we enjoy seeing them brought down