Monday, January 20, 2014

Character Study: Rumpelstiltskin


My family recently finished watching the first season of the TV show Once Upon a Time, the premise of which is that the Evil Queen has banished all the fairytale characters to a world where there are supposedly no happy endings: our world.

My very favorite character arc is that of Rumpelstiltskin, one of the villains. Now, I'm not a girl that loves villains. I know there are people out there who just love Loki and Moriarty, but I am not one of them. Rumpel was the first villain (in recent memory) that I really, really liked. For this post, I'm going to try and explain what I think caused me to like him so much, and what makes him such a compelling character and villain. I've thought of two big reasons.

1. His back story. Actually, I just looked at his page on the OUAT Wiki, and there's a lot about him that I don't know yet, so I'm not sure I can accurately speak on this subject. The point I had in mind was that before he got his powers, he was very weak. He walked with a limp, he was scared of losing his son, and he was a bit of a coward. After he got his powers, though, that all changed. He went and single-handedly stopped a war, he had powers that let him do pretty much whatever he wanted, and people were scared of him. He wasn't the weak man people picked on any more. After a lifetime of being a weak coward, I imagine the confidence and powers he gained were addictive, and fed something in him that relished being the powerful one people feared. Therefore he loved his powers, and never wanted to go back to the way things were before.

We sympathize with that. We feel for the underdog and like to see him rise to greatness... it's just that Rumpelstiltskin's form of greatness was also a form of evil.

2. There are things that he loves, and they come into conflict. I've heard the advice before that giving your villain something he loves makes him more interesting, and Rumpel really drove that home. There are three big things he loves: his son, Belle, and his power. Twice during this season, he has to choose between a person he loves and his power. Both times, he chooses his power. And he regrets it.

I think part of what makes this work is that we also love the people he loves. We want to see him pick them. Because the people he loves are good, and they have just a little bit of power over him, there's always a shred of hope that they'll turn him to the good side. And that doesn't fade when he chooses his power over those he loves, because he regrets those choices, and we hope that he will learn from his regret and become good.

And despite the fact that he's freaky and scary, we feel sympathetic toward him, because he lost someone he loved (and we loved), and that's sad. 

If what he loved was a really nasty cat that bit and clawed everyone but him, we wouldn't care. He's evil, and he loves and evil cat. So what? That's not as interesting as an evil person loving someone good, and seeing the conflict between their goodness and evil. In the cat example, we'd just want to see the cat die. Now, if the cat DID die, and we saw him suffer for it, that might be interesting, but I don't think it would have the emotional impact that Rumpelstiltskin losing his son had.

In my opinion, the things Rumpel loves and the fact that they conflict with each other are the main reasons why he's such and interesting and complex character. The back story just informs this and makes it all the more powerful.

And just for fun, what if cat in the cat example were actually a person? Say, and evil wife or brother or best friend, but who was just as evil as the villain. If he lost that person, the audience wouldn't care as much. Actually, depending on the context of the story, it could still be interesting, but my point is that if the audience as well as the villain cares for this brother/best friend/wife/whatever, then we will mourn their loss with the villain, instead of just understanding why he's upset and waiting for the heroes to shoot him.

What do you think of my analysis? Have you come to other conclusions? I'd love to hear what you think, even if you've never seen Once Upon a Time and want to use another character as an example.

And a lovely day/afternoon/morning/whatever to you. 


  1. Those are some really cool insights into Rumple's character. Hmm. I'll be thinking for the rest of the day....
    And I hope you enjoy Once Upon a Time! My family started watching it a few months ago, and suffice it to say that we love it way too much. :D

    1. Thanks! We really enjoyed the first season, and look forward to the second.

  2. Hooray! You started Once Upon a Time! It's a great show.

    Rumpel is also one of my favorite characters from the show. You hate him but you love him at the same time, and it's perfect.

    Things start getting really crazy in Season 2, so watch out! ;)

    1. It's been really fun to watch. We've rewatched several of the episodes.

      Perfect indeed.

      Ooh, can't wait!