I posted an informal poll on Facebook asking readers whether they rooted for the Phantom or Raoul to end up with Christine at the end of The Phantom of the Opera movie.
One commenter asked, “Why would you choose the controlling, reclusive psychopath?” In the real world, I most definitely wouldn’t. The character of the phantom was a controlling murderer. I would never encourage anyone to be in a relationship like this. His control over her and his surroundings and disregard for life were apparent. He is blatant in his tactics and you can easily avoid them, unless, apparently, you are Christine.
Raoul is also manipulative and controlling. He’s simply more understated with it. He tells Christine her fears are unfounded. He encourages her that all she needs is him in her life to be protected. If she will walk away from the bad, the life he gives her will be practically perfect. He downplays her feelings for the phantom as not real. She could never actually have any positive feelings for such a monster unless brainwashed. That being the case, what she feels for him is unimportant and should be dismissed.
Christine is better off on her own. She needs to figure herself out before committing to a man. Her trauma started with losing her father, continued as she mistakenly associated the phantom with a promised otherworldly guide sent by her father, and then was rounded out with the fear inducing events of the movie. She’s been through a lot emotionally, and it would be best for her mental and emotional health to process these things before pursuing a committed relationship.
But that’s not the point. Focusing on character, I want to look at the phantom again. He is clearly the antagonist. He is an obsessive, controlling murderer. Yet there are people that struggle with his loss at the end of the movie. Why? Why would intelligent, emotionally balanced individuals who would NEVER condone such relationships in real life be left feeling less than satisfied at the end of the movie?
The answer is a key to making our own antagonists better. Without background information, the phantom is only evil bent on the destruction of everything to get what he wants. In this one sided world he is completely selfish and there is nothing about him to garner anyone’s sympathy. We would actively cheer for his demise as good triumphs over what is so clearly evil.
But we are given the phantom’s history. Tortured and unloved, his first memories of life are horrific. His own mother didn’t want him and thought him a monster. She’s probably the one who sent him to his childhood tormentor. To escape abuse and constant public humiliation, he has to kill the man who has caged him for financial gain. To stay safe, he lives apart from everyone in the network of tunnels running under the theater. He’s learned there is little to no compassion for one like himself. Though he’s around people, he is on the outside, a feral child looking in at what he cannot be part of.
Through Christine he finds a way to interact with the world. He helps her improve her singing. Her voice becomes his voice to the public. He is obsessed but believes it’s love. All he knows of love is the messed up version he’s seen lived out on stage. When his “love” is threatened, the phantom reacts, escalating in his protection of that relationship. As she chooses Raoul, he lashes out in retaliation against those who would take not only his voice but also his love from him.
When Christine reaches out to him in the end, the truth begins shine through. Love doesn’t despise based on the flesh. Even he can be treated with compassion. To make sure the one they love has what is best for them, a person will give up their own wants. For the first time, the phantom begins to understand love and responds with his first action of real love in allowing Raoul and Christine to go free. It breaks his heart and he hopes she will choose him, but he lets her leave. Then, he leaves the only life he’s known taking nothing with him except her ring. He loves her throughout her life, letting her live in peace with Raoul. We see it in the rose and ring left on her grave. He loved her by letting her choose and going on without her.
Because the one who created the phantom’s character gave us insight into his past, we get to see him as more than evil. He is broken. The tormented became tormentor to protect the life he knows. And because he is not evil for evil’s sake, because he shows signs of growth in the end, we are left with the hope that he does become more than what he’s been. His pain brings our compassion, and that compassion coupled with the promise of change leaves some wishing it could be different for him.
As a writer I want to remember this when writing antagonists. Unless I’m writing a purely evil character, I need to give them motivation. I need to give them hurts and triumphs and losses. The only thing that separates the antagonists from the protagonists is what they do with those events.
It’s been said that an antagonist is the protagonist in his own mind. As a writer I must remember to show this to the reader. I must leave my antagonists vulnerable and redeemable. In doing so, I create a character who is more relatable and realistic. I give permission to the reader to feel compassion for the way the antagonist’s hurts have shaped his life while still holding him accountable and avoid writing into my story a cartoon villain whose sole purpose is causing trouble or inflicting pain.