Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 21, 2014

Why Disney’s Captain Hook is a Great Villain–and how yours can be, too

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.

    1. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) – revenge
    2. Stepmother (Cinderella) – greed
    3. Evil Queen (Snow White) – jealousy
    4. Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) – vanity
    5. 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?

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Responses

  1. Love these comparisons. I too, feel a bit of sympathy for Hook. I especially like the way he was portrayed in the live action version with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. Did you see Maleficant? They did a brilliant job of giving her a back story and making us realize the WHY some people seem evil.

    Nice post and great food for thought!

    ~ Tam Francis ~
    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

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    • I have not seen Maleficent, although I had heard it was great. My perspective here was for someone just watching the original films, where no backstory is given. But it’s always such fun figuring out the backstory, isn’t it? 🙂

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  2. Interesting observations. I agree that a story is richer if the villain is complex and nuanced. The same is true of heroes; if we see their vulnerability it’s easier to identify with them.

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    • Getting readers to connect with my characters has been my most recent craft struggle, so trying to figure out why I connect with characters is helpful. Thanks for the tip!

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  3. I like to show my villain in a weak moment of kindness. Laurel, a prime villain in Steel Rose, kills and cannibalizes, but there’s a childhood scene depicting the way her parents abuse her horribly, and another scene showing her fondness for dogs. So….have your villain kill and plunder, but at the same time, let just a streak of kind show through. Even Hitler was kind to his wife. Barbara of the Balloons

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    • Very true, Popple. Sometimes I get so caught up in creating the bad side, I forget to find the good.

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  4. One thing you can do is give him a goal that seems admirable from his POV, then make him fear he might not have what it takes to achieve that, and put the protagonist in his way while she is seeking her own intersecting goal. It’s like making hi the protagonist in his own story. Something cartoonish like “World Domination” wouldn’t work, but how about desiring to be the top-selling purveyor of energy products in the world? Many could relate to this goal, especially if he has the right backstory, but its pursuit could twist his ethics a bit.

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    • Yes, remembering that the villain is the hero in his own mind is a great tip! The part I struggle with is how to get those nuances across to the reader, especially when writing in first person. When you are never in the villain’s head, it can be hard to convey their motivations without it feeling forced or clunky.

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  5. […] Why Disney’s Captain Hook is a Great Villain – and how yours can be, too […]

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  6. […] 7.   Why Disney’s Captain Hook is a Great Villain—and how yours can be, too […]

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  7. Hi Goose’s Quill! Yes, I’ve always been intrigued by the villain’s perspective, as well as making them three-dimensional characters. After all, every character has to be a “real person.” This is what prompted me to write CAPTAIN, as luck would have it – an origin story of Captain Hook (www.inkshares.com/projects/captain). Check it out if you have the time. I’ve tried to give concrete explanations as to why Hook ended up the way he did (almost more a victim of circumstance than anything else). Cheers!

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