Having recently come down off a Punisher Season Two high and looking for a bit of a Jon Bernthal fix, I thought, hey – why not re-start The Walking Dead? I watched it as a tender 15-year-old back when it first aired, although I never saw it all the way through. I remembered being more of a Daryl fan than a Shane fan – in fact, I remember disliking Shane quite a lot. But hey, Jon Bernthal is Jon Bernthal, and I am writing a post-apocalypse novel.
I started watching, fully expecting to appreciate Shane’s beauty and dislike his character thoroughly. That’s what I remembered doing back in the day – so I was taken aback to find that Shane was by far my favorite character by episode two. He had a rough start there in the first episode, but as the show picked up, so did his character. And I thought, hmm. I’m generally quite good at being objective, even if my feelings are involved, but maybe I’m too biased. Maybe Frank Castle is skewing me toward Shane Walsh. So, to keep track, I began a list, simply titled ‘Things Shane Does,’ where I listed everything of significance Shane did during the two seasons he starred in.
And the more things I listed, the more infuriated I became. Shane Walsh is literally listed in the Villain Wikipedia.
I’m an empathetic, diplomatic kind of person. And I was agreeing with almost every decision Shane made.
Now here’s the thing: Shane is not a perfect character. As far as I’m aware, nobody likes perfect characters. They’re boring. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of people adoring characters who are genuinely abusive, like Rhys from A Court of Thorns and Roses, for reasons I can’t fathom. Shane is neither perfect nor a horrible person. He’s a pragmatic one. He knows what needs to happen for people to survive, and he doesn’t need everyone to love him for it. And yet he’s not without empathy, or care – and in fact, he cares a lot.
Not only does he care, but he consistently puts his life on the line to care for others, is the first to jump into action when things go south, and consistently attempts to do the right thing no matter the personal cost. He’s constantly dissed for a few major mistakes, the only legitimate two of which I find is the time he gets dead drunk and comes onto Lori (although nothing happens and he leaves as soon as he comes to his senses) and leaving Otis for the zombies (which was a h a r s h thing to do, but also in all probability necessary for the most people to survive). People say he left Rick for dead – but we clearly see in flashback that he did everything he could. People say he tried to kill Rick – which he did. And while I don’t condone that, I stand by his reasoning for doing it.
But everything in-between those points is generally disregarded, not only by viewers but the Walking Dead fandom in general. People tend to come away with one of two views: Shane was a badass, or Shane was a villain. And while I agree, Shane was a badass, that’s doing him a disservice. He was more than some guy running around killing zombies. He was making difficult decisions with efficiency. He was carrying out the actions that needed to happen. He was living in the present, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world and trying to keep everyone safe while they were attempting to live in a vague blend of the old world and the new.
More than that, Shane is framed more and more frequently in opposition to Rick, the main character and the character the show most wants us to root for. But FRAMING a character in opposition to the protagonist does not a villain make. Disagreeing with the main character, even on important life-or-death situations, does not mean you’re wrong.
And in fact, the majority of the time Shane disagrees with Rick – it turns out he was correct. The show frequently presents us with a situation like the following:
- Sophia, Carol’s twelve-year-old daughter, goes missing. The group sets out to go find her. After days, that turn into more than a week, they still haven’t found her.
- Shane points out that even before the apocalypse, after 72 two hours of searching for a child, you were searching for a body. It’s been well over a week, the rest of the group is in constant danger from attempting to search for Sophia, and by every logical conclusion, Sophia is dead.
- Shane is vilainized for pointing this out, despite the fact he does not do it out of some gleeful desire to hurt everyone or abandon Sophia.
- They find Sophia, who has apparently been a zombie for quite some time. Shane was correct.
- Shane is still villainized.
This touches on a large problem I see this frequently in fiction.
Any character who behaves in opposition to the main character is labeled an automatic antagonist. A character points out the truth and other characters don’t want to hear it because the truth isn’t kind, or nice, or pretty. Would I expect that to happen in the real world? Yes, I would. But that wouldn’t make it any less frustrating. Books, movies, and TV shows love to label a character ‘antagonist’ because that character is practical and willing to do the hard thing. The character often opposes the main character, and the writers assume that because somebody opposes said protagonist, the opposition is now ‘a bad guy.’
There’s a scene where Shane decides to kill the walkers being kept in a barn near their camp before the walkers can harm anyone. Dale – an excellent man, but whose views tend to rely on the world revolving like it used to – threatens to shoot Shane if Shane tries to take the guns. In response, Shane walks up against the barrel of the gun and tells Dale he’ll have to shoot him. Dale, unable to shoot anyone, relinquishes the guns but delivers this line – “This is where you belong, Shane. This world, the way it is now. This is where you belong.”
He says that line as if it’s an insult, something Shane should be ashamed of. One can see where Dale is coming from – but in the end, ‘this world’ is the only one they have. Shane didn’t make it what it is, but he’s the only one willing to accept it for how it is, and act accordingly.
I don’t know about you, but during a zombie apocalypse, I wouldn’t want the man ignoring reality to lead my team. I would want the man who acknowledges what’s happening and does his best.
Does Shane always make the best decisions? Not always. He can seem cold-hearted, but he is never without sympathy or empathy. The decisions he makes are never about keeping himself alive. They’re about keeping others alive. Shane has very little regard for himself, and there’s the irony – people often come away from The Walking Dead with the concept that Shane is a terrible person. A selfish person, because he always angles to get what he wants.
They tend to disregard that what Shane wants is to keep everyone alive.
My fury with the general concept of Shane as a terrible person (including my own past belief that he was) was the culmination of years of frustration with ‘that character.’ The one unfairly framed as a villain for trying to do the right thing – and for not doing it ‘nicely’ enough.
(And if I may go off on a brief tangent, Shane actually does even the most pragmatic things with as much obvious care and empathy as possible. It takes a lot to push him to a place of harsh behavior, and it’s clear that every time he would rather go the path of least-resistance and keep everyone happy as well as safe.)
So this is my plea – please don’t unfairly frame your characters. Don’t treat your characters like The Walking Dead treated Shane, unless you have an intentional reason for doing so. Allow characters to do the hard thing, to disagree with the main character, to act on what they believe is right, without being automatically viewed as some kind of monster for doing so.
Because if the apocalypse happens, apparently you may not like me very much. Yikes.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN – who is your favorite widely-misunderstood character, and why?