It’s easy to chock it up to a good vs. evil conrast, but it seems that the more complex and realistic the characters are, the less purely good or bad they are.
Last week we talked about how good writing in the TV series The Last Kingdom avoids typecasting characters as one-dimensional reflections of ideologies. Lady Aelswith and the nun Hild are both devout Christians, yet one of them serves as an antagonist and the other as a support to the lead protagonist—the pagan Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Although the two women hold firmly to their faith, their dispositions and roles in the story are nearly polar opposites, making their characters foils to each other.
We first meet Aethelwold as the profligate son of King Aethelred, Alfred’s brother, in the second episode of the first season. We quickly learn that, although the son of the king, Aethelwold has approximately zero chance of inheriting the throne upon his father’s death because of the consistently irresponsible life he leads. Even when he protests the legitimacy of Alfred’s kingship and promises to reform his own ways, it’s obvious that he has no intention of doing so—as he repeatedly winds up hung-over in a haystack.
Essentially, his behavior undermines his claim to the throne so that we understand perfectly why no one listens to him. As a result, he begins to look for support beyond Wessex’s borders where his wayward reputation is unknown, while using his knowledge of the kingdom’s internal politics to subvert Alfred’s military efforts.
Uhtred, having grown up as a Dane, had to earn his keep from a young age—whereas Aethelwold has used his protection as the king’s son as a safeguard for his licentious behavior. But as I looked at the two characters more closely over time, I realized they had some notable points of overlap:
A strong sense of pride.
Irreverence toward the Christian religion.
Difficulty (deserved or undeserved) overcoming others’ suspicions against them.
I could go into more depth explaining these, but I think there’s one commonality that deserves special attention because of its implications for the entire narrative: the fact that both of them have been denied their “rightful” titles.
This may seem like a superficial trait—it’s definitely a circumstantial one—but it sets the stage for every other contrast drawn between Uhtred and Aethelwold. Looking at their position as disinherited lords, we might initially expect them to see some of the same behavior as they go about trying to secure their rights.
The fact is, even though they overlap in the other areas I mentioned (pride, irreverence, etc.), the way they handle these issues and govern themselves is almost always opposite.
Aethelwold’s pride leads enables him to betray others when expedient, whereas Uhtred’s pride forces him to remain loyal.
Aetheulwold feigns piety, while Uhtred can’t even pretend to be Christian.
Aethelwold has to trick people into trusting him, while Uhtred lets his integrity speak for itself.
At one point, Aethelwold attempts to lure Uhtred into a joint scheme to recover their claims, arguing that their similar status binds them together as equals. Uhtred responds that no equality of external circumstance can make up for such an enormous discrepancy of internal character.
Although the two do not clash swords until the end of the third season, I think the development of their characters as foils throughout the series drives home this very point. Uhtred’s courage and Aethelwold’s cowardice, Uhtred’s loyalty and Aethelwold’s treachery, Uhtred’s integrity and Aethelwold’s deceit—all of these contrasts consistently prove that no man’s conduct can be dismissed as an inevitable result of the hand he was dealt.
In a sense, Aethelwold is right: he and Uhtred were dealt the same hand. But it is how they play their cards that makes one of them a villain and the other a hero.
Do you find this way of juxtaposing a hero against a villain to be compelling?
What are some other ways you’ve seen writers develop meaningful contrasts between heroes and villains?