Villains and Heroes

I’m a simple schoolteacher. I’m not qualified to speak publicly about war or terrorism. I spend the majority of my waking hours selling reading and writing to teenagers within the same four walls, day after day. My world often shrinks to that classroom. I tell my students to write what they know, and I don’t know anything more about war or terrorism than what I read in the news.

But I know about villains. My kids are writing fairy tales, and we needed to understand the villain’s character before we could create convincing antagonists. They agreed the villain is depicted as evil, but has arrived there through some tragic event in his or her past. The villain wants control or power and will stop at nothing to get it. A villain is typically overtaken by the hero in a fairy tale, resulting in the unveiling of its moral or lesson.

We began this Fun Fairy Fiction project with six students in each class designing a setting for a tale and the rest designing original characters. The students presented their settings and characters and formed teams based on which ones had story potential. Now, there are six fairy tales in progress, with three-to-four fully developed characters meeting in their stories to inspire the plot.

Each character, given his or her set of circumstances, has the potential to be a hero or a villain in those tales. I asked the students to give the characters a back-story with past issues, family life, interests, and hot buttons. Suddenly, a girl whose father squandered the family’s wealth tricks a prince into marrying her to restore her status. She could just as easily have been pulled out of squalor by a knight in shining armor, but no one created that character. Empathy made our villains realistic. They were neutral sketches on a page until interacting with setting, plot, and other characters set them in opposition to our heroes.

In a fairy tale, a happy ending is often synonymous with good triumphing over evil. Cinderella rises from the ashes into the arms of a prince, Rapunzel escapes with an assist from a gentleman, the evil queen or witch or imposter king is taken down. We delight in the careful execution of justice. Centuries before Netflix, adults entertained themselves with fairy tales, like the ones where birds peck out Cinderella’s step-sisters’ eyes to punish them for their falsehood. The revealed moral is positive, optimistic, encouraging.

I can’t entertain myself with the news. My heart sank as I learned of today’s ISIS attack in Brussels, where thirty-one lives were terminated prematurely. After a day wandering through my students’ imaginations in Fun Fairy Fiction, reality seemed something of a cruel joke. The villain isn’t one man or woman. It’s a faceless multitude, stereotyped by design. The villain fits our criteria for evil on a quest for control or power, but he has no back-story.

We can’t empathize with this villain that kills parts of itself in its mission to secure a global caliphate. He does not have a personality or a past so that we can understand him and hope to save him. Redemption stories are just as powerful as those overcoming evil, but we have no hope for one here. We search for the moral or lesson, but we can’t make sense of it.   Thirty-one deaths voids optimistic intentions.

In Madrid in 2004, 192 people were killed in commuter train explosions during an al-Quada terrorist attack. A little over a year later, I walked those cobblestone streets during a study abroad experience. We took a train to Toledo, called The City of Three Cultures because Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexisted within its walls for centuries. I remember being fascinated by the way the architecture reflected a blending of those three cultures.


Gazing into the courtyard of a 15th century gothic monastery, I felt a bit like I was in a fairy tale. There was no presence of war or terrorism, no cloud of death. Even in Madrid, spirits were high as they fought to host the next Olympics. They had survived this tragedy. They rallied. They returned to normalcy. That, in itself, is a means of resisting the villain. There, in The City of Three Cultures, I tried to understand this villain.

I couldn’t then, and I can’t now. The massacres continue, the story develops, but the setting remains a stormy, gloomy night after thousands of dawns. I remind my students of the impact of setting on mood, plot, and theme. The dark night breed tales of isolation and struggle. We’ve been there so long, it’s hard to remember what life was like before 9-11.

I was in the Smith-Traber dorm lobby at Wheaton College when I first learned about the Twin Towers. Charming was somewhere across campus. Later, we’d gather with thousands of other reeling students and the faculty at chapel and try to make sense of 2, 996 deaths. Why did this happen? How can we stop it from happening again? In what form would a hero come?

Charming’s story would carry him on to two tours in Afghanistan, mine to wave after wave of hundreds of inquiring minds. He’s far more qualified to speak about war and terrorism, and he’s been a patient tutor for me. I know literature and I know adolescents. Each of my students is a fully developed character with unique past issues, family life, interests, and hot buttons. He or she has the potential to be a villain or a hero, just like their characters in their Fun Fairy Fiction projects.

I don’t understand the villain in this war. I cannot empathize with him to be able to strategize how to sway him or defeat him. In a fairy tale, the villain is usually overtaken by our hero. Like villains, we needed to identify the characteristics of a hero in order to create believable ones in class.

My kids agreed that the hero is brave and has to overcome challenges. He is inherently good, though not without his own flaws that make him relatable. The hero defeats the villain or becomes a savior, but he typically faces a series of challenges to get there. A hero, too, is made not born.

I will never put on a uniform, but many of my students will. I may never inform law, reform, or policy, but they will. I will never command a post, but each year I have the opportunity to set hundreds of minds on courses of heroism. Under the blanket of literature and writing, my kids learn character, develop citizenship, and build perception.

Within the four walls of my classroom, I get to create the setting, and I choose to emulate Toledo, The City of Three Cultures, where we cross barriers to unite in writing stories. The Christmas lights and throw rugs make the mood hopeful and expectant. If we’re ever going to escape the gloom and doom of our current reality, we’re going to have to change the setting.

I don’t understand the villain. After 9-11, Madrid, Brussels and so many others, I know the villain only as a faceless multitude. To reveal the moral humanity longs for of good triumphing over evil, every villain needs a hero counterpart.

Tomorrow’s heroes are writing fairy tales in my classroom. To achieve our happy ending, we’re going to need a lot of heroes.

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