It’s been a week since Maleficent released on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming services everywhere. Five minutes after turning it on, I had decided it was brilliant. Fifteen minutes in, I loved the character of Maleficent. Thirty minutes later, I was thinking about how much Maleficent could teach me about writing other characters. The film was too good to distract myself from, though, so I turned off the writer part of my brain as best I could and simply absorbed each scene.
Watching the entire film once was not enough, so the next night, I did it again. This time, I took notes.
For good measure, I watched it a third time a couple of days later and added a few more notes.
Before I share my take on Maleficent, let me explain one thing: I’ve never seen the original Disney animated Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent scared me as a child, and then I never got around to watching the movie in later years. So I went into the retelling of Maleficent with no comparisons or biases. Thus, I can only analyze her character as it was portrayed in the Angelina Jolie version.
Oh, one more aside: If you haven’t watched Maleficent yet, I urge you to go no farther. The sections below contain spoilers, and I certainly don’t want to be guilty of ruining your experience. So if you’re planning to watch it but haven’t yet, just come back here later. I promise, the post isn’t going anywhere.
All right, now that I have all the disclaimers out of the way, let’s discuss Maleficent and what her character taught me about writing characters with depth.
- Maleficent wasn’t truly a villain in this version, but she does have a darker side. However, she wasn’t born with it. Her younger self was all lightness and kindness. Bits of her childhood still show through later, even as her darker side develops over it. Whether hero, anti-hero, sidekick or villain, I think it’s important to learn a character’s history and how their present traits developed. Back story is so essential for well-rounded characters!
- She was a dynamic character. This follows along with point #1: Maleficent changes over the film. Things don’t just happen to her; they shape her. Her reactions make her real and relatable, and I found myself wondering what I would do in her situations. A well-written character doesn’t simply move through scenarios; they respond to them and make us consider how we would react, too. Like real people, characters change as their lives do.
- Maleficent longed for love. In some way, I think we all do. People (and apparently faeries) were created to love and be loved. Even after Maleficent was betrayed and no longer believed in true love, she couldn’t stop her heart from being touched again, this time by her adopted god-daughter. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe that even the coldest of characters has a heart in need of love.
- Even after she was broken and bitter, Maleficent had a soft spot. She rescues a crow, watches over little Aurora, and later tries to spare her enemy’s life. Granted, the most villainous characters are often devoid of all mercy; but for the rest, I find it highly important to infuse compassion into even the damaged ones. It gives us something to cheer for, and it also shows the character’s true strength.
- Loners need friends, too. Despite isolating herself in the Moors, Maleficent still needed companionship. Diaval is her faithful sidekick and servant, standing by Maleficent and growing to become her friend. Aurora also finds a place in Maleficent’s heart and life, so much that Maleficent is willing to go to any lengths to save her. Although Maleficent is undoubtedly independent, she needs help at times, too. Characters can be strong, even lone wolves, but just as we all desire love, on some level, we desire acceptance and understanding. There can be exceptions, but generally, I like to give characters at least one confidante.
- Brokenness isn’t weakness. Maleficent has her share of grief and heartbreak, and she doesn’t always deal with it in a healthy way. However, being damaged doesn’t turn her into a weak character. If anything, her trials eventually make her stronger than ever. I’m all for protagonists having flaws and sorrows, and for falling under their weight at times. In the end, though, I love seeing those characters rise above their hardships and come back stronger than ever.
- Her actions matter. Each choice Maleficent makes comes with consequences. To some extent, she decides her destiny. On the other had, her control only reaches so far. Maleficent cannot manage everything, and in some cases, her decisions don’t amount to as much as she would like. This is something I can fully relate to, and so it’s another important element for other characters. Their actions need to carry weight but no one can manipulate every outcome.
- Maleficent is intelligent. She plans her moves, considers her course, and acts based on what she knows. Never once did she seem slow-witted. Side characters don’t all need to be the brightest bulbs, but main characters should generally be smart enough to outshine them. After a while, cluelessness can become tiresome in protagonists.
- She’s unique. No one else, faerie or human, has the same look, powers or backstory as Maleficent. Just as we are in real life, she is one of a kind. It sounds like an impossible task, but each character should be individual in their own way.
- Maleficent was never beyond hope. This is perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the story. In spite of all that went wrong, all she did wrong, and all that was lost, Maleficent had a chance to be restored. She took responsibility for her actions and did her best to amend them, and ultimately, she was redeemed. Regardless of my characters’ deeds, I believe they should have a chance to be redeemed. God lovingly teaches us that no one is too far gone to be forgiven. I try to extend this mercy to each character I write, even if they don’t all accept it.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you enjoyed my take on the depth of Maleficent’s character! Maybe it will be helpful for you in creating your own deep characters. Is there anything you would add to the list, either about Maleficent or characters in general? What did you think of the film?
All Maleficent images are from Disney’s Official Maleficent Movie Site. I do not own them.