Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Villain Tropes and Character Conception: EZEKIEL BLAKE

I was either a junior or senior in high school when I first created my main character Ezekiel Blake. I decided to draw a vampire in art class one day, and as I drew him, I incorporated every visual trope I could think of for a villain, such as a pointed beard, curled mustache, aquiline nose, and wealthy clothes. He even wears a black hat on occasion, which is the visual signifier for bad guys in old school cowboy movies. In my head, I imagined this character speaking with a British accent, as the villain stereotype goes in American cinema. All the while, I was planning for this dastardly looking fellow to be the hero of the novel, trying to fool around with expectations.

Ironically, when I showed the sketch to my friends and family, many of them didn't think the character looked like a villain. Some of them even said Ezekiel looked like Jesus Christ in a suit. Yeah . . . I didn't really know how to react to that. I suppose it was a fail in what I was trying to convey visually, but I rolled with it. I lost the original drawing, but the cover illustration for the first novel is spot on with how I visualized the character. What do you all think? Does Ezekiel look saintly or nefarious?

Illustration by Chandra Pandhita.
Commissioned by Leo Featherstone © 2013.

Impeccable wardrobe and fashion, meticulously trimmed facial hair, a pretentious comportment; you see these visual indicators for villains many times. This correlates with a derisive archetypal figure known as the fop, dating back to England in the 1600s. As a trope, the fop is an embodiment of vanity, characterized as a dislikable man obsessed with appearance, luxury, and flamboyance. Using foppish characteristics is a way to quickly cue audiences to who the villains are.

The fact that the fop stereotype originated in England may have influenced the tradition of giving villainous characters British accents in American films, though I don't really know why it persists in American cinema today. Fairly recently, Jaguar Cars released a commercial called Good to be Bad: Rendezvous, which features British actors Ben Kingsley, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Strong playfully acknowledging and embracing this cinematic tradition, providing their own answers to why, as Ben Kingsley puts it, "all the villains are played by Brits."

While the fop stereotype is used to create a detestable villain, this archetype's characteristics can be toned down and finessed to create a more attractive character. The word fop is used pejoratively, but the term dandy has a more neutral connotation, despite having a near identical definition. They're essentially the same archetype, except the dandy is treated as refined while the fop is portrayed as ridiculous and over the top. Pair a villain's refined speech, attire, and bearing with dignity and power, and you end up with the likes of Ra's al Ghul from the Batman comics, Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, and Count Dracula in nearly every serious adaptation he's appeared in. TVTropes.org refers to this as the "Wicked Cultured" trope. Paired with the right amount of charisma, traits that make one character look vain and foolish will make another character look powerful and magnetic, capable of seducing not just other characters but the audience as well.

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