Monday, November 7, 2016

Embracing the Bad: Or We Need Diverse Villains

No matter a person's race, religion, or sex, everyone has the potential to become a villain. Yet, how often are children literature's villains diverse?
Fighting Ninja

As I think through the children's stories I've read over the years I can't off the top of my head think of one diverse villain. I'm sure they are out there, but they are few and far between. Voldemort, Ms. Trunchbull, President Snow, and Count Olaf are all portrayed as Caucasian.

Why is that? Why have children book writers turned a blind eye to the diversity of evil?

I don't have an answer, but I do have my own feelings on the subject.

First, a bit of background. I lived in Detroit during my childhood and while living their I saw both the good and bad of the African-American race. Two images drive these realities home for me.

The good I saw can be summed up by my memory of singing African-American songs with other children in my elementary and middle schools. All our voices lifted up together in melody, harmony, and sometimes in off-key. It did not matter what our race, religion, or sex was when we sung together and the beautiful songs expressed the desire for freedom, unity, and love of country and neighbors.

However, there is also the bad I saw. The way a minority of African-Americans treated the minorities in their schools. As a Caucasian, I was called cracker, honky, and other names by my fellow classmates. Thankfully, I knew many more good and kind African-Americans than the bad, but it still left a lasting impression on me and gave me a very small taste of what it feels like to be discriminated against.

Why do I bring this up? It is because we often talk about the need to write books for those who are discriminated against. We call for diversity, but we forget that diversity should include the good and bad. We can't trade one stereotype for another. We shouldn't trade Pollyanna's for Polly's (see Disney movie). We should be showing the full spectrum of good and bad for our diverse characters.

The Wave vs. Mob

I know I would have appreciated a book about African-American racial bullying when I was growing up. Reading such a book and seeing how the bullying against a Caucasian student was resolved by African-American students might have helped me immensely. Perhaps it would've helped other students, too, who might not have spoken up when I was bullied because they didn't read about others taking such a stand.

So, in closing, I believe it is important that we, as children book writers and illustrators, are willing to portray the good and the bad of each race, religion, and sex. We are imperfect beings after all and when we only give the good, we distort reality and do a disservice to our young readers who see the truth that people can be loving and kind, but cruel as well.


  1. There is a concern about making already vilified minority characters into out-and-out villains in stories, because of our species legacy with such over thousands of years. But I do think we know "we've arrived" at a healthier place when not only the hero-- but the villain also-- can be of any race or creed. I don't know if we're there yet.

    1. Mirka, I totally agree. I just felt the need to point out that we can't stop at diverse heroes if we want to be true to the depth of character of every race, religion, and sex. I'm with you on the "we've arrived" statement... and we probably aren't there yet, but we can look toward the future and hope we get there.

  2. Sounds like you need to write the book about the white kid being bullied by the black kid.

    Though I think bad guys in many movies have been of all races.

    Speaking of movies, Save the Last Dance is about a white girl in a mostly black school. Take the Lead also shows prejudice against a white girl. Don't know why movies are popping into my head.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sue! And you make a good point about movies doing a better job of having diverse villains than children's books do.

      I actually have thought about writing a book on this topic and maybe one day I'll figure out the right story to go with the idea.

  3. Brave topic, Joseph. It's the central conflict in my historical novel. We shall see if it sells ;)