Character trope day! Hooray!
Made popular by the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song “Red Right Hand,” its first reference came long, long, long before in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but we don’t have to go back that far to talk about what it means today as a trope in literature. This is one of those tropes that is so pervasive that it doesn’t even really bother me. It’s just there, and you can’t get away from it.
Before I talk about the Red Right Hand trope, I want to point everyone to this post by Margo at Urban Psychpomp on the subject of “Otherness” (her O is for post) because it plays into what I’m about to talk about.
Boiled down to a sentence, the basis for Red Right Hand lives by the fact that our society sees those with physical deformities as less than human. This is sobering and awful, but it is true. I like to think of that great scene in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves after the birth of John Little’s new baby when the little girl asks Azeem, the Moorish stranger, if God painted him. Being the only black man in the movie and probably the only one the girl has ever seen, her wonder is sweet and her curiosity is endearing. It is ok to wonder about people who are different than us because by wondering and asking the questions we come to understand them and their “otherness.” That’s cool. But unfortunately, the world is run by adults who do not have childlike wonder and curiosity and otherness often leads to fear, disgust, hate, anger and mistrust.
We are a society governed by what we believe to be beautiful and we place such importance on physical appearance. Maybe evolution is at play, that our genes want us to breed with the best possible match for a better chance at survival. I can believe that and I even understand it. But because of this importance we place on physical beauty, physical deformities, mutations, and abnormalities are shunned and hated.
So, getting back to the character trope, Red Right Hand refers to the physical deformity, mutation, or abnormality that villains are often saddled with so that the audience knows immediately that there is taint and corruption within this individual by way of his scars, hump back, bulbous head, limp, peg leg, lisp, glass eye, self-mutilation, physical weakness, whatever. The Red Right Hand. The signifier that this person is not whole, is less than human, and is therefore capable of terrible things.
Sometimes stories are even built around the villain’s Red Right Hand, that the teasing and bullying he/she endured as a child created the bitter, vengeful villain within. Comic books THRIVE on this version of the trope. Think of the scrawny, hunched over, pale faced, pale haired, weak nerd-kid picked on by the stronger, happier, more fulfilled “popular kids” who inevitably become the superheroes. Their bullying will define him.
This trope is so ingrained in storytelling and in audiences that we can pick out the bad guy the minute he comes on screen. He’s got two different colored eyes, needs a cane to walk, has deathly pale hair (Hello, Draco Malfoy, I’m looking at you!) his fingers vaguely look like claws…you get the idea.
I’m reading Holly Black’s Red Glove right now and the criminals who work for this particular crime family have all had their throats cut and scared over so everyone knows who they belong to. Back to Robin Hood, Robin scars the Sheriff’s face early on so we never forget. Dr. Evil from Austin Powers is pale, bald, and has a giant scar. The Joker from Batman is all mutilated and painted.
Dr. Doom wears a metal mask. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mr. Glass, from Unbreakable is crippled and has a serious disease that makes his bones brittle. All the villains in Star Wars, when they turned to the Dark Side, ended up all deformed and crazy looking. Voldemort had the weird snake nose thing. Count Rugen in The Princess Bride had six fingers while Vizzini was short and overweight. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series made this a big deal in his series, most notably in Specials. The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland is almost universally portrayed and described as overweight. Paranormal stories often have the werewolf character look more dog than person even not transformed, the vampires have pale skin and fangs and if they go with the whole Nosferatu thing they are monstrous. Or they sparkle! A weird Hello, Kitty deformity, but still, a deformity.
Pop culture has taught us that anyone wearing an eye patch is almost assuredly evil.
Villains who don’t give their evilness away are scary, absolutely, but most stories don’t try to hide who the bad guy is, so giving them a telltale Red Right Hand doesn’t exactly detract from the badness. It is still awful when they kick puppies for fun whether they have a glass eye or not.
What do you think? Have you given your villain a Red Right Hand? Did you even realize you were doing it? What is your villain’s Red Right Hand?
Do you think a hero with a physical deformity would work for audiences knowing society’s tendency to want their heroes to be attractive? Do you think Edward Cullen would have become everyone’s super-favorite-fictional-boyfriend if he’d been scarred, hunchback, or given a lisp? What if he’d looked more like a Nosferatu but kept his personality?