The other day, I was watching Beauty and the Beast. It's hands down my favorite Disney movie, without question. I love Gaston as a villain. I love The Beast. I love Belle, who is equal parts nerdy and stubbornly independent. The only problem is, while Belle is the lens through which we see the story, the leading lady, if you will, there is no real evolution of her character. The focus of change stays with Beast. He's the one who starts out horrible and slowly morphs into something more civilized. He's the one who ultimately becomes so changed that out of love for Belle, he releases her, in spite of the fact that he faces his own ruin by doing so. He evolves from a selfish being, to a selfless one, unable and unwilling to even defend his own life when Belle leaves him. He has nothing left to live for, right?
But what about Gaston? How did he become the villain he is? We have such a complete character arc for Beast, but ultimately Gaston is left as a relatively fixed character, not unlike Belle, though she at least does have the benefit of travel and engagement with new places/characters. Gaston though begins and ends in the same place. Selfish, self-satisfied, and arrogant, which of course results in his implied death as he plummets from the castle. He wants Belle, whether she wants him or not, but he clearly doesn't have any understanding of love or any interest in anything but his own desires. Does he even, truly, realize that Belle doesn't want him? Or is that such an impossible idea that he rejects it outright-- she just doesn't KNOW she wants him yet, perhaps? Certainly it seems like something he's capable of, that kind of trick of the ego. Even going after Beast doesn't really strike me as anything all that changed. Gaston is established from the opening of the movie as a premiere hunter. What better game is there than this Beast in the forest? Even if Belle weren't involved, I think he would have gone after the prize of hanging Beast's head on his wall.
But even as a sketch of what Gaston could be, he's still a compelling villain. Maybe because of how much isn't there. This is exactly the same thought process that occurs when I'm reading about gods in mythology. So often we're given this one dimensional sketch, this account of what a god has done or what a hero has gone through, and we're left to wonder what brought them there, what were their motivations in getting involved to begin with? Did the encounter alter them at all? What made Theseus agree with Pirithous that they both should have wives who were daughters of Zeus? What made Pirithous think he had the right to steal Persephone from Hades? What did Helen think about everything that happened because of her? Did she regret that ultimately she was torn from Theseus's hands, given the outcome? Did she wish she hadn't ever been returned to Sparta? What possessed Aphrodite to promise a married woman to another man? And what made Zeus decide he was sick of having so many heroes running around the earth? Did he in fact stage manage the entire Trojan War for the purpose of wiping out huge numbers of his own people, or is that just a vain hope of man to find meaning in the chaos that resulted?
When faced with these bare accounts, I can't stop myself from exploring the characters of the players, delving into further reading about their lives in order to find meaning in the fragments that are in front of me. When reading fails me, that's when I know it's time to write. But I wonder-- what makes what I do, exploring these established characters, heroes, villains, gods, histories, anything other than fanfiction? What is fanfiction, besides the compulsion to explore created characters in greater depth? Or is that the definition of writing and storytelling? The other thing I wonder, in all this talk about having characters which are fully formed and fully developed no matter how small their roles are, is are we taking away from the reader? Not to excuse bad characterization, but is it really a flaw to give the reader something to imagine and wonder about? Something which might drive them to create a story of their own?
I think what it comes down to is that writing and storytelling are just synthesis. A way to understand and process everything from our own personal emotions, to social issues, to the entirety of the human condition. So when we see a character like Gaston, half-explained or static, the compulsion to synthesize the information we're given into something we can understand is what drives fanfiction. But when that character is in the public domain, or a part of our cultural heritage and development as a people (as opposed to pop-culture of the times) it becomes more acceptable to reach for that understanding through storytelling.
What are your thoughts, fellow writers?
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