As you may know by now, I am (and always will be) a HUGE Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and when author Catherine Egan approached me about doing a guest post on villains, in particular one of Buffy‘s most interesting villains—Mayor Richard Wilkins III from Season Three—I couldn’t say no! Catherine’s third book in her Tian Di series, called Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, has recently been released, and she’s celebrating with a blog tour. So please welcome Catherine to Books, Bones & Buffy!
(This is one in a series of blog posts on villains; you can check out my blog for a list of villain-posts.)
Sometimes the Bad Guy just wants to be a Big Snake
The third and final book in my fantasy series The Last Days of Tian Di is in bookstores now. It’s a funny thing, finishing a series. It feels strange to be done when I’ve lived with these characters for so long. I’ve moved on to the next thing, but if I stop to think of what I’ll miss most about writing in that world, the answer is easy: the villains.
I love my villains. I love villains in general. I love writing them, reading them, watching them, thinking and talking about them. When done well, they can be such beautifully complicated characters, and the best of them are scary as hell while also being weirdly compelling or even sympathetic. As a book-writer doing a blog series on villains, I am focusing my posts on villains from books – but here is the exception, because I simply could not write about villains without including Mayor Richard Wilkins III from S3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The genius of BtVS lay at least partly in its agility – pulling off a Hunger Games-esque level of angst, terror, and high stakes, while also making fun of the very tropes it employed, and seamlessly blending in the show’s comic tone without detracting from the drama. J.K. Rowling has this agility as well, but I can’t think of many other writers who combine drama and humor quite so successfully, showing equal deftness with both. The Mayor is the show’s supreme example of this agility, and while much of the credit is due to Harry Groener’s flawless, gleeful performance, he was given first-rate material to work with.
At first, the Mayor is a spoof of the ruthless, conservative “family-values” politician. He won’t tolerate swearing, he is obsessively clean, jolly but firm, one moment giggling over the Family Circus (“That PJ, he’s getting to be quite a handful!”) and then organizing his monstrous underlings to kidnap newborn babies as payment for a demon. He could turn on a dime and be terrifying, too. Think of the scene when he confronts the Scoobies in the library, remarking to Giles that he’s done a fine job “raising” Buffy, and then baring his teeth and growling, “I’m going to eat her.” These moments when the mask drops are used sparingly, but to tremendous effect.
He starts out as a cleverer version of S1’s Vampire king, The Master, who was legitimately scary but also a hilariously hammy send-up of the kind of villain he was portraying. The Mayor is funnier, and he is scarier, but what makes him a truly great villain is his budding father-daughter relationship with slayer-gone-bad Faith. His growing love for her, and hers for him, is one of the most moving elements of the series. Making the viewer / reader feel for a villain while also putting that villain quite beyond redemption is powerful stuff. And there’s no better way to make us feel for them than to make them feel.
Faith is a heartbreaking figure – unloved, traumatized, an outsider, and going terribly, terribly wrong. She wants most of all what Buffy has: friends, parental figures, love. When the Mayor tries to cheer her up after a showdown with her ex-friends, he suggests a game of miniature golf, and our bad girl actually cracks a smile at his goofy delight. He is Faith’s undoing – turning her into a cold-blooded killer, cementing her transition to the Dark Side – but in a lovely twist, he is also exactly what she needs. He is the wrong man for a job that simply has no other applicants, and so he becomes the firm, authoritative but loving father she never had. When she puts on the pretty dress he has bought her (for his ascension to demonhood), she is awkward and pleased and uncertain: “It just isn’t me, though.” In one of the sweetest scenes the show ever devised, he tells her: “Nobody knows what you are. Not even you, little Miss Seen-It All. The ascension isn’t just my day, it’s yours too. Your day to blossom, to show the world what a powerful girl you are. I think of what you’ve done, what I know you will do… no father could be prouder.” And the ever-cynical badass Faith says, with absolute love and sincerity: “I hope I don’t let you down.”
And we have to watch these characters defeated and destroyed! There is such a cruel artistry to the set-up. When he finds her apartment wrecked and Faith missing, the Mayor is distraught and the emotional drive of the narrative flips, so that we are briefly, confusingly on his side, this man whose beloved daughter-figure is missing, who will do anything to save her, to find her. He will level the town if that’s what it takes. How can we not empathize with him completely at that moment? In later seasons, Faith’s painful journey towards atonement wins her real allies and friends (in Angel most particularly), but nobody else in the show ever loves her like the Mayor did. She doesn’t find that again.
When developing a character, the writer has to ask herself, “What does s/he want?” That’s crucial to how we understand our heroes and our villains alike. If the answer is “rule the world” or “become a big ol’ demon,” well, fine, he can still be a great character but it’s not all that interesting. In seeking to make our characters truly human (even if they aren’t), we need to ask “Who or what do they love?” For the Mayor, that’s what changes everything. That’s what raises the stakes for the final showdown, heightening the viewer’s emotions by creating an emotional conflict. We get the Mayor as goofy spoof-villain, the Mayor as doting father, and the Mayor as terrifying, invulnerable monster. This multi-layered and multi-toned character portrayal requires a tremendous amount of agility both from the actor and the writers, and the resulting villain is a near perfect piece of work.
Thanks, Catherine, for stopping by today!
About the author:
Catherine Egan grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and wrote her first novel at age 6. It was about a group of kids on a farm who ran races. Each chapter ended with “Cathy won the race again!” Since then, she has lived in Oxford, Tokyo, Kyoto, a volcanic Japanese island that erupted and sent her hurtling straight into the arms of her now-husband, Beijing, an oil rig in China’s Bohai Bay, and now Connecticut, where she is still writing books (but Cathy doesn’t win every race anymore). Her first novel, Shade & Sorceress, won a 2013 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award (Gold) and was named an Ontario Library Association Best Bet for 2012 in the Young Adult Fiction category.
About the books:
The Last Days of Tian Di book 3: Bone, Fog, Ash & Star
Eliza hoped she could start a new life and avoid the Oracle’s terrible prophecies. That hope is dashed on her sixteenth birthday, when her best friend Charlie is nearly murdered. To find out who tried to kill him and why, Eliza must return to the life she swore she’d left behind forever in the Mancer Citadel. Soon, Eliza is pushed to her very limits, struggling to protect those she loves and pursued unrelentingly by powerful enemies as she undertakes a quest to collect four ancient treasures with the power to change the world. Impossible choices and shocking truths lie in wait as Eliza and her friends band together for a final confrontation in this conclusion to the series.