There’s a reason why Disney movies like using the “evil stepmother” trope in their movies. It’s entirely relatable.
Well, okay. Maybe not the whole stepmother contracts a dude to take a child into the forest to kill her, then poisons her with a magical apple leaving her in a coma, and then tries to kill seven short miners but ultimately dies from a well-placed lightning bolt causing her to fall to her death storyline like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). But look at Cinderella (1950). You have a daughter whose dad remarries and then dies. The evil stepmother treats Cinderella basically like a slave. If you leave off the part where the fairy godmother comes along and basically helps her get noticed by a prince then you have a story that is very common to people.
Now, you might be saying “Come on Jim, those two examples are just ill-tempered stepmothers. They’re not blood related.” And you’d be right. However, and I’m using him all the time it seems, look at the 1980 Father-of-the-Year Darth Vader. In the span of mere minutes, Papa Vader offers Luke Skywalker the galaxy, chops off his hand, and watches him fall to his death. You know, typical parenthood.
There are so many examples in literature that if I listed each and every one of them, you’d be reading this rant for about…well…forever.
One of the earliest examples is Oedipus Rex. Created around 429 BC, it’s an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that follows the title character. Oedipus is the son to Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. The queen and king sacrifice their newborn because they receive a prophecy that their bouncing baby boy will one day kill Laius and marry Jocasta. That would be an awkward family reunion indeed. Well, as one might imagine, that prophecy plays out. It ends with Oedipus gouging out his eyes in utter despair. Sorry to tell you Oedipus but gouging your eyeballs out won’t get those images outta your head.
So, what’s the appeal of using family members as the villain in your story?
Like I said above, it’s totally relatable to the reader. Your readers may not relate to stepmothers who shapeshift into older ladies and feed them poisoned apples. Your readers may not relate to their father chopping their hands off. I would certainly hope that your readers don’t relate to murdering their father and marrying their mother. Please, please tell me your readers don’t relate to that last one.
However, I am sure that your readers will relate to having family members betray them in some way. Betrayal is something that happens in science fiction, drama, thrillers, general fiction, horror, romance, and just about every other genre.
Betrayal also happens in real life.
If you go onto Yahoo and search “Husband kills wife” you’ll get 2,300,000 search results. If you search “cheating spouse” you’ll find 24,800,000 results. Likewise, if you search “abusive parents” you’ll find 3,220,000 search results.
As a human being, those search result numbers are very disheartening. As an author, those numbers tell me that writing a story with a family member as a villain is going to be successful. Successful if written well, that is.
Right before writing this column, I finished reading Colleen Hoover’s “It Ends with Us” which was extremely well written. A quick summary of it: Lily is the daughter of a father who abuses her mother. Lily hates her father and hates/loves her mother (for putting up with the abuse). Lily’s internal conflict is that she never wants to be like her mother. Well, just like ole Oedipus Rex, things play out like you’d probably expected them to. That leads Lily into trying to figure out how to sort out her shattered life.
“Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” – Genesis 4:8.
Again, don’t get me started on examples of familial betrayal in the Bible. There are tons.
In this writer’s opinion, betrayal from a family member is emotionally greater than if a best friend stabbed you in your back or if a co-worker decided to talk smack about you behind your back.
Betrayal is unique because your main character will never expect it from the antagonist of the story. As the protagonist, the main character will naturally be wary of his/her foe. They’ll see the betrayal from a mile away. However, a family member can betray the hero with little difficulty because they’re right there next to the hero.
“The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies,” said an anonymous writer.
This villain is probably my favorite because, if done right, the main character won’t know the betrayal is coming. If you’re an extremely wicked writer, then you’ll let the reader know it’s coming. Frank Herbert does this in his novel “Dune” via quotes from future texts at the start of each chapter. While the reader knows it’ll happen eventually, they’ll be frantically reading in order to get to that part.
If you prefer to write the betrayal in a more subtle way, make sure to include clues to what’s going to happen. That way your reader won’t be caught with his/her literary pants down. That way, they’ll want to read the book again so that they can catch those clues and experience the betrayal in another light.
That’s it for this week. Hopefully none of my family members decide to stab me in the back. If they do, I hope you miss my weekly rants. If you don’t miss them, then at least I’ll know who paid them.
In any case, keep calm and write on!
Categories: Mastering the Craft