This week, I’ve been blogging about the principal characters in my new novella, Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale. On Wednesday, I looked at the Beauty character, Rory Bellin. Thursday, I examined the Beast, Caleb Johnson. Today, I’ll look at the true villain of the story, Mr. Nickleby.
The Real Villain
In the Disney version of Beauty & the Beast, the story’s real villain is handsome hunter Gaston. Conceited and arrogant, he bullies the rest of the town and believes he should have anything he wants. He is the opposite of the Beast — beautiful on the outside, hideous within.
When I sat down to modernize the tale, I wanted to take a similar approach in that I wanted there to be a third figure who is the true villain of the story. Given that I set my version at a modern high school, the selection of a fiend seemed pretty obvious to me — a teacher.
Adults, particularly school authority figures, have a unique opportunity to influence young people. Thus, in a story about temptation and obsession, an important teacher is the ideal figure to push the novella’s two teenaged protagonists towards the things that can undo them.
Rory is the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. So I made Mr. Nickleby the paper’s faculty advisor. That puts him in a position to be extremely influential over Rory, and, because Caleb becomes obsessed with dating her, Nickleby is perfectly placed to manipulate him too.
“So when are you going to ask Miss Bellin out on a date,” Mr. Nickleby asked when everyone else had gone.
Caleb looked as dumbfounded as when he’d been called on a few minutes ago. How had he known?
“Oh, please,” Mr. Nickleby said as though he had read Caleb’s mind. “It’s ridiculously obvious. You weren’t paying attention to my lecture this morning because you were staring at the back of her head. Just like you’ve been doing every morning for the past two weeks.”
“Of course I saw,” he said. “You’d have to be blind not to see.”
Caleb thought about that. How is it that everyone else could see, but Rory couldn’t?
“She doesn’t see,” he said.
“Because she’s blind,” Mr. Nickleby said.
“She’s blind to your interest,” he said, softening his tone. “She can’t see what everyone else can, because she is busy obsessing on other things.”
Caleb nodded. Holly was right. Rory only cared about the newspaper and college.
“I don’t know what to do about that,” he confessed.
“There’s nothing you can do,” Mr. Nickleby said.
Caleb looked at him for the first time. He wore his usual outfit – a black dress shirt and slacks with a red tie. Caleb thought it was cool he wore school colors, but it was strange he wore the same thing every day, and the tie looked weird against the shirt. Longish, black hair fell on either side of his head, framing his face in a strange sort of darkness. His brown eyes were penetrating. They seemed to be looking into the depths of Caleb’s soul. It made him nervous.
“You can’t stop her from obsessing on the things that matter to her,” Mr. Nickleby said.
“So it’s hopeless.”
Mr. Nickleby laughed gently. Caleb looked at him in surprise. He was used to his friends laughing at his romantic misadventures, but it made him angry to hear from a teacher.
But Mr. Nickleby didn’t appear to be mocking him. He smiled sympathetically. Then he looked wolfishly at Caleb.
“Nothing is ever hopeless, Caleb,” he said. “You just have to know the right solution to the problem.”
Nickleby knows just how to get to Caleb. He manipulates him expertly, setting him up for his eventual fall from grace.
That in itself is what makes him a villainous character. Students are supposed to be able to trust their teachers. But Mr. Nickleby deceives them and tempts them to disaster.
Writers take their influence from all sorts of places, and I admit to being influenced by ABC’s Once Upon A Time. In particular, Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin colored my shaping of Mr. Nickleby. My villain isn’t as over-the-top as Carlyle’s portrayal of the sinister deal-maker, but the idea of a manipulative magic man who can offer a person their heart’s desire definitely appealed to me.
When he first tempts Rory, Mr. Nickleby knows just how to get to her. He sympathizes with her anger of football star Mike and his girlfriend Holly getting elected homecoming king and queen instead of people who have non-sports achievements. Then, when he’s broken down her defenses, he offers her a chance to do something about what she considers an injustice.
Rory chewed her lower lip. She felt completely depressed.
“I wish there was some way to do that,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?” Mr. Nickleby said.
Suddenly, he looked different. He looked . . . hopeful.
“I said, ‘I wish there was some way to do that.’”
He pushed off the doorframe and took a step forward. The wolfish grin was back on his face.
“Maybe there is,” he said.
She cocked her head. What was he up to?
“What do you mean,” she asked.
He withdrew his left hand from his pocket, turned it over, and opened it. There was a silver ring in his hand.
“Maybe this could help,” he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
“A ring?” she said. Was he serious?
“Not just any ring, Rory,” he said. “A ring of three wishes.”
This could not be happening. The new teacher at the school, the advisor to The Budget could not be offering her a ring and claiming it was magical. What kind of fantasy story had she just fallen into?
“Oh, I know,” he said. He walked towards her slowly, his hand extended. “It sounds ludicrous. It sounds insane. But what if it’s real?”
There was a wild light in his eyes. His black hair fell across his face, and, this time, he made no effort to sweep it aside.
“What if it really is a ring of three wishes?” he continued. “What if you could use it to get whatever you desired?”
He’s playing on Rory’s deepest desires here. He knows what she wants. He’s been watching her — something he confesses to a few paragraphs later to help seal the deal. He knows she wants to change the social structure at Lawrence High so it favors her. He also knows he can manipulate her into making poor choices, so that she doesn’t really get what she wants. Like Rumpelstiltskin on Once Upon a Time, his deals are designed to sound really good but are actually set up to favor him.
Throughout our lives, we wish for things to be different or better. We wish we could be better than we imagine we are. High school intensifies these feelings. Everything seems so very important in our teenage years. That makes it an ideal time for temptation.
Mr. Nickleby plays on that. He is a tempter, and he has magic to make one’s dreams come true. That makes him the perfect villain for a fairy tale set in a high school.
And he is the most dangerous kind of fiend. He makes people think they can have anything they want, and that the consequences will be minimal. He makes people believe he is their friend, when he is nothing more than a con artist.
Rory and Caleb make their own choices in my novella. They suffer the consequences of things they choose to do. But they are manipulated into believing they are doing something better than they are. They are tricked into thinking the consequences won’t be bad.
That makes Mr. Nickleby a sinister villain. He’s supposed to be their friend, but he’s the worst enemy they have.