There is something really seductive about watching a character turn from good to evil. Watching someone struggle to make the right choices for all the wrong reasons and finally succumbing to evil and being unapologetically maniacal in their hatred, their greed, their lust for power, blood or vengeance. A good epic always has such a character- one I can sympathize with at one level because I can see why they are damaged goods. I want to see them defeated, surely I want good to triumph- but I are interested in how it unfolds.
In the past week, I have watched the entire first 4 series of Merlin and all the episodes released thus far in season 5. The one character I was immediately attracted to was Morgana Pendragon. Now, I will admit this was largely due to katie McGrath’s performance. Her portrayal of the loving ward of King Uther, who secretly wishes for his downfall is mesmerizing. Her smirks and her scheming are clearly the highlight of the show. This show is all about magic… there are spells and dragons and swords and Arthurian legends. Yet, the real magic is in the writing. The plot arcs which have been planned out well in advance allowed for each character to really grow into their final self. And Morgana takes the prize for being one of the finest.
(artists illustration of Morgana with her evil smirks and Katie McGrath as Morgana from Merlin)
This reminded me of Professor Snape from Harry Potter. Why? Well- all good fiction has one character who is misunderstood and Snape and Morgana share that. Right from the start when Harry met Snape in the philosopher’s stone, there was mistrust. Snape wasn’t evil- we knew he wasn’t ‘really’ evil… but Harry was wary of him. As the series progressed and Snape’s character became better defined, we saw the similar pattern. A character who has been wronged and who has a reason for what he does. Even if that reason is twisted… Gollum from Lord of the Rings is no different.
Characters that are evil have a depth that just makes them special. They tend to be the best written. The dilemma the author faces is really on how much to reveal. if too much is revealed, then the readers would lose interest- but if too little is revealed, the character may end up being only hated and never loved. Another aspect making them so great is their willingness to do evil. I wouldn’t do such acts- but a part of me does enjoy fictionalized tyranny.
(A sample dialogue from Merlin)
Morgana: Have the people of Camelot accepted me as their queen? No? Burn their crops. We will see how they behave when their children begin to starve.
Consider… Anna Wintour- oh no. I didn’t really mean Anna the editor of Vogue! I meant Meryl Streep’s character from ‘The Devil wears Prada’ Meryl’s cold persona is likable because we just want to know what she will do next. Even if she sets impossible tasks for pretty Anne Hathaway (who has her own special evil personality as Catwoman) we still root for Meryl. Here the writers were smart to reveal slowly a past, an unhappy marriage in the case of devil wears prada just as it was an impoverished origins story for Catwoman.
It pains me that Merlin will end soon. But as I keep watching this show and read or create new fantasy worlds in my head… I will continue to be enthralled by the motives of my Villains. And I will certainly appreciate a little corruption and a little evil even in my heroes.