Books, Culture

‘The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’, Redemption Arcs, and Villains

This post contains spoilers for the A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the original The Hunger Games trilogy

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

When Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Prince Zuko angsted, brooded, fought, self-destructed, learned and grew his way from the obsessive pursuit of Avatar Aang to a spot right in the heart of the ‘Gaang’ willing to risk his life for his new friends, he cemented his spot as the prodigal son of redeemed villains ever since then. Fans of characters from Sharpay Evans to Kylo Ren, from Jenny Humphrey to Draco Malfoy, of any character on the spectrum from “considered annoying by the general audience” to “has murdered several people but looked really good while doing it” have compared their faves to the seminal bad-guy-turned-good, and it’s easy to see why. The redemption arc and the sympathetic antagonist are narrative tropes that have been popular as long as literature has been around. Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s journey from enemies to friends (??) / blood-brothers (??) / lovers (??) would give most modern angsty fanfiction writers a run for their money. Milton’s Satan, with his radical spirit and unholy charisma, is the baddest of bad-boys, and the spate of Byronic heroes that populate literature from Lord Ruthven to Claude Frollo to Heathcliff have had wildly passionate fan bases since long before the internet was around to facilitate general fandom culture. 

And with the enduring popularity of these characters, it’s no small wonder that we so often find ourselves rooting for them to become good. Zuko’s story is so ultimately satisfying because we see him struggle and face choices and decisions over the years; we grow to know and care about him so that we want to see him join our heroes because we want the best for him. The sheer number of fix-it fanfictions and “character X turns good” headcanons attest to our desire to see our favourite bad guys redeemed. But perhaps the biggest reason for the appeal of redemption arcs is that they simply make for more compelling characterisation and storytelling. An effective redemption arc necessitates a character dealing with genuine moral conflict and having to face difficult choices. Zuko’s story is all the more gripping because it isn’t a straight line where he moves one space closer to ‘Good’ every day — he deliberates and struggles, moves back and forth, does good things while working for an ultimately evil cause. We feel his struggle and his choices, we see him as a whole character.

The issue that arises, however, from the ability of a well-executed redemption arc to layer moral complexity into characterisation is that a poorly-executed redemption arc can do just the opposite. There’s an ever-increasing trend, for example, to substitute character development with the exposition dump of a Tragic Backstory™. Look, I get it, I do. Fundamentally, it is appealing to see the softer, more vulnerable side to characters who’ve been introduced as Big Bads. Learning backstory forces us to humanise, even sympathise with characters who’ve served solely as antagonists thus far. But the reason the phrase “he’s not bad, he’s just misunderstood” has become so overused it’s essentially a meme now is because the reveal of backstory has become a lazy story trope to excuse actions rather than to provide an opportunity for a character to develop from them. 

Take, for example, Rhysand from Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy. Before anyone starts waving pitchforks, let me say I enjoyed these books immensely. Book 2, A Court of Mist and Fury, got five stars from me on GoodReads because it’s soapy and dramatic and thoroughly entertaining and I loved reading it. But if I pause to think about Rhysand’s ‘arc’ too much, it crumbles pretty quickly, mostly because it doesn’t exist. He’s introduced in Book 1 as the charming, flirty, but powerful and intimidating lover of the main antagonist. He’s repeatedly creepy and threatening towards protagonist Feyre, yet seems, for some reason, to help her when she needs it most. Her love interest, Tamlin, hates him and he seems justified. 

And then Book 2 happens, and Sarah J. Maas essentially goes ‘SIIIIIKE!!!’ for 700 pages. Because it turns out, Rhysand did nothing wrong ever in his life. As his relationship with Feyre deepens and grows closer, we see a softer side to him emerge, but rather than watching him repent and make different choices, Maas reveals that actually, there was a perfectly logical explanation to every transgression Rhysand committed in Book 1. He was Amarantha’s lover? Yes, but she was forcing him and he was trying to protect his city. He tortured and killed an innocent human girl? Well actually, he dulled her pain while other people tortured her and then put her down out of mercy. He drugged Feyre, forced her to dress in revealing outfits, and covered her in body paint while he paraded her round in front of everyone? I’ll have you know he drugged her so she wouldn’t consciously suffer, he dressed her up and paraded her to throw off suspicion about his love for her, and he covered her in body paint so she’d see he never touched her below the waist because he’s not an animal. In case you weren’t already convinced, Book 2 will also reveal that, by the way, Tamlin was an abusive misogynist the whole time and he was the baddy all along. So there.

I’m joking a bit, and I reiterate, I had enormous fun with these books, but I’m not exaggerating when I say most of this exposition was revealed in a single chapter as the prelude to Rhys and Feyre finally making sweet, sweet love and causing an avalanche (SJM’s sex scenes are a whole separate issue). Rhys is charming and he and Feyre are all madly in love for the rest of the books, but what Maas gave him was not a redemption arc, it was a retcon. His actions were explained away, and honestly, this disappointed me. It wasn’t really very rewarding because there wasn’t any real choice he’d made to do better over time, it was we the audience that were informed that actually, Rhys was right the whole time. And this was frustrating, because I felt like he’d lost his teeth as a character. ACOTAR Rhys had been a genuinely intimidating figure, easily more powerful than Feyre or Tamlin, and it was tense watching his interactions with Feyre because you never knew which way he’d go. But that image was not so much deconstructed and rebuilt into a developed character as it was pulled away like a magic trick — think the unmasking of the monsters at the end of Scooby-Doo, except the reveal here is that Rhys was a goody all along.

As a character beat, it’s nowhere near as compelling as Zuko’s journey, because whether or not Zuko will choose good is always a conflict. His siding with Aang in one fight is no guarantee he won’t try to kill him in the next — his choices are a struggle for him, and thus a tense narrative detail for us. And whilst Zuko has no shortage of tragic backstory, it’s not used to treat his characterisation like an Etch-A-Sketch, to be wiped clean in one go. His past is used to offer us insight into who he is, to explain his most active motivations. But it’s only a part of his journey. His choices, his pride, the relationships he forms, his dynamic with his uncle — all of these are just as instrumental in helping us understand who Zuko is and how he thinks. The trouble with pinning the entire explanation for why a character behaves the way they do on ‘backstory’ is that it opens a massive gulf between them and the audience. The character became who they were before we ever got to meet them — we’ve reached a destination rather than a journey.

And on a simpler level, sometimes moral complexity doesn’t actually make for a more compelling character. Lindsay Ellis’s video essay on the extinction of Disney Villains is an excellent discussion of this, but the point essentially is that characters like Maleficent aren’t memorable for their ‘depth’, but for their drama. Her name means evil, she has no discernible motivation for her vendetta against Princess Aurora beyond the fact that she wasn’t invited to a party and she likes doing evil things. She can turn into a massive dragon, wield green fire, and wears a ludicrous ensemble, and laughs evilly while doing evil things. And she’s an icon. She’s one of the best remembered and loved Disney villains in history, certainly the most memorable and entertaining character from Sleeping Beauty. When Disney then produced Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie, they ended up undermining what made the character so beloved, to begin with. I didn’t even dislike this film, but it’s a relentlessly Epic and Dark and Deep watch. Jolie gives a great performance but watching a woodland fairy seek revenge after undergoing a betrayal and trauma before learning to love again by quasi-adopting a child is a very different story to “You poor, simple fools. Thinking you could defeat me. Me, the mistress of all evil!” The latter is certainly more fun and scarier, and sometimes ingredients as simple as that are what make a good classic.

This has all been a very long-winded way say that while the enduring appeal of redemption arcs lies in their ability to carve out three-dimensional and endlessly compelling characters, when mishandled they can flatten characters entirely, leaving them rather dull or without a sense of real agency and conflict; they can defang a perfectly good villain, and sometimes, stories do just work better when a villain is a villain. 

All this in mind, it’s little wonder that the response when Suzanne Collins announced that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, her long-awaited prequel to The Hunger Games, would focus on none other than the early life of Katniss’ nemesis, President Snow, the response was opinionated, to say the least. Beyond the simple anxiety that seems to plague any dormant but might fandom when the creator threatens to resurrect a beloved work — after all, no one wants a repeat of The Cursed Child — a very vocal faction of THG were demonstrably upset to learn that Coriolanus Snow would be the focus of the prequel. Snow was, after all, the bad guy. With his ‘snake-like’ eyes and his cloying rose scent, the appearance of Panem’s president in any scene had been a signifier that an already bad situation was sure to get worse. He was the symbol of a corrupt and oppressive government, the emblem of the target of Collins’ commentary in the original trilogy — surely we couldn’t be expected to root for him now?

Ordinarily, I’d dismiss all this criticism entirely as yet another example of Twitter’s favourite hobby: jumping to conclusions. There’s always been a sizable portion of people who recoil at the idea of villains being liked or redeemed for fear that not to do so would lend legitimacy to the fictional actions of these fictional characters. It doesn’t require much explanation to see the flaws in this article. But in the case of President Snow, these concerns perhaps had a grain of credibility. Snow’s function in the original trilogy had never really been as a fleshed out character per se, he didn’t have an arc or even an especially personal connection with the protagonist to create more of that sweet, sweet angst in the way that so many of YA’s favourite so-bad-they’re-good characters do. The Hunger Games has, compared to many of the dystopian series that appeared in its aftermath, held up really well over time because the commentary and critique of government and society it offers is complex and rich. I can understand the fear that if Snow was to suddenly be made sympathetic and lovable, the message and commentary of the original trilogy would be undermined. However, I would gently remind people with this concern that, by nature of this being a prequel, we know where Snow ends up. He is the cold, ruthless President of Panem. He is Katniss’ nemesis, and he dies as he finally loses his power. All this is inevitable. In making Coriolanus the focus of the prequel, Collins promises us the story of how and why he got there. And so the question stands — does she make him a sympathetic character? I suppose that’s a matter of opinion and taste. Personally, I don’t think so, but perhaps a more forgiving soul than mine might disagree. What she does do, however, is write him with a great deal of empathy, and that is a good deal more interesting.

The synopsis tells us pretty much exactly what the opening chapters of the novel establish — that Coriolanus Snow is trying to navigate his attempts to carve success for himself in Capitol after his well-respected family has, secretly, gone completely broke since the war. He is selected as a mentor for the 10th Hunger Games — the first year mentors have been used — and is assigned the female tribute from District 12. The way Collins frames Coriolanus’ situation is immediately interesting — he, his grandmother, and his cousin Tigris (who we remember from the original trilogy) still live in their penthouse apartment, although it is decrepit inside, keeping up the pretense of wealth while struggling to make ends meet. They are living in the near-aftermath of the war that had become history in Katniss’ time, and we see that the Capitol, too, has suffered. It’s also a more uncomfortable view of Panem perhaps than Katniss’ was — her disdain for the Capitol citizens was always easy to understand; it was the animosity of the oppressed towards the oppressors. In Snow’s case, a general bigotry towards the Districts is suffused throughout his outlook. It’s not framed as the outward disgust his grandmother has for example, but then it lacks the compassion of some of his classmates, particularly Sejanus, a boy whose family are from District 2 but who have more or less bought their way into the Capitol. This being said, Coriolanus’ judgement is not reserved to the Districts. We learn he is judgemental and dismissive of many of his classmates — especially District-born Sejanus — and the legacy of the Snow family gives him an intense sense of pride. But in spite of his obvious prejudices, he still feels inordinately human. He feels pity more often than disgust, but he is genuinely fond of some of his friends, of Tigris, and he is sentimental about his late mother. Even his desperation to keep up appearances while his family struggles to stay afloat is understanding.

It is when the tributes themselves reach the Capitol that things become more complicated. Coriolanus is quickly taken by Lucy Gray, the tribute he will be mentoring — she is charismatic, colourful, and has a mesmerising singing voice to boot (the music and song in this book is something that will definitely catch the eye of readers looking for connections to the original series). The relationship that forms between them feels genuine, and we see genuine compassion and vulnerability from Snow. But this is uncomfortably contrasted with the treatment of the tributes by the Capitol overall. These games are, on the face of it at least, more brutal the ones in the original trilogy. Rather than the luxurious Capitol accommodation and extravagant costumes that Katniss is thrust into, these tributes are kept in a cage — and yes, the image of children cages is as timely and chillingly resonant as you might imagine — at the zoo. The mentors, in most cases, act more like trainers, parading their charges around like animals, and it is disconcerting. I caught myself feeling nostalgic for the comparatively more exciting and palatable environment around the original games, because watching starving children fight over bread that spectators show them isn’t exactly uplifting reading — and then I caught myself, because I was glamourising a child-killing tournament? Because of fancy costumes and nice rooms? Collins has, once more, pulled off the same trick she did when we were all caught up in the love triangle fervour of the original series (I’m staunchly Team Peeta, for the record) — in losing ourselves in the trappings and perceived glamour, we fall for the propaganda and lose sight of the horror that we are consuming for entertainment. We are the Capitol, Collins reminds us, we are the ones so easily able to lose sight of human life in the face of showmanship. 

The book is in this sense, just as much an origin story for the Games as it is for show, and with the future of both the event and the character in our minds we read, there is an intense and inexorable tension running throughout the book as the story unfolds. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘bomb under the table’ lesson in building suspense, because that is the principle that essentially forms the structure of Collins’ novel. Neither the Games nor Snow appear as refined or as complete as we know they will be, but watching their journeys to this inevitable destination is among the most genuinely stressful reading experiences I’ve had. What is perhaps the most effective trick of all is that Collins, in utilising this suspense, kept me waiting for ‘the moment’. From the moment the book started, I was waiting for whichever big twist or shocker, which tragedy or calamity would “make” Snow or create the Games as we know them. But the fact of the matter is, had such a moment come, it would have been far too easy and simplistic and unsatisfying an explanation. That’s not to imply this book doesn’t deliver big time on the twists and shockers — it’s as gripping and unputdownable as you’d expect a THG book to be — but Collins does not succumb to the temptation to efface or explain away the reality of Snow’s character with backstory, she does not allow us the relief of blaming the Games on a single villain or moment that our consciences can scapegoat. 

Evil, Collins demonstrates, isn’t something magically dropped into existence by a bogeyman. It’s the product of a series of choices — choices that some of us, sometimes, might identify with — made by characters who, more than utterly monstrous or tragically misunderstood, are painfully and constantly human. And that, perhaps, is the most terrifying thing to be.

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