My daughter has been obsessively watching Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) the past few weeks. And it struck me suddenly that I like Captain Hook, in spite of his villainy. I’ve seen my share of Disney movies, and he’s the only bad guy I empathize with. As a writer, I started to wonder why.
First, I compared Hook to other Disney villains and their main emotional drives. Showing my age, my examples are ones from my childhood. Some modern Disney villains may also employ the techniques that make Hook a great villain, but the lessons I gleaned from Hook still hold true.
- Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) – revenge
- Stepmother (Cinderella) – greed
- Evil Queen (Snow White) – jealousy
- Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) – vanity
- Hook (Peter Pan) – revenge
On the surface, Hook seems much like the others, driven purely by some dark emotion. But although I enjoyed the other villains, I never empathized with them on any level. I identified 2 things that set him apart.
1) Motivation backstory – for most Disney villains, we never know why they are driven by these dark urges. Did Maleficent snap over a lack of invitation because she was a nerd in high school? Did the Stepmother grow up dirt poor and swear “never again”? Was the Evil Queen so insecure about her looks because her mother always told her she was ugly? Did Cruella De Vil want to stand out so much because she had always been overlooked as a child? We never know the backstory—we only see the results.
With Hook, we do know why he is driven—and it is a nuanced why. He’s not seeking vengeance for Peter cutting off his hand—no, he wants revenge because Peter threw the hand to a crocodile, causing the beast to stalk Hook constantly.
2) Vulnerability – The other Disney villains are pure evil. Chilling. The stuff of nightmares. And they have no human weaknesses.
Hook, though, has a glaring weakness—he is terrified of the crocodile. Not just nervous, but scream-like-a-child, jump-into-Smee’s-arms hysterical whenever he hears that clock. Such blatant vulnerability in a man who casually shoots his own crew when they annoy him opens up a very human side we can access.
These 2 techniques (combined with a touch of comedy) give Hook accessibility that many Disney villains lack—and therefore allow us to empathize with him.
I’m going to keep that in mind for my villains. While I have always known they need to be 3-dimensional, I have focused more on making them strong enough to push the hero than on making them accessible to the reader. By giving them nuanced motives that I allow my readers to see and by adding a vulnerability the reader can relate to (who wants to be eaten by a crocodile, after all?), I can make my villains stronger, deeper, and more memorable.
Do you have any tricks for making your villains relatable to the reader?