MIND MELD: Bad Guys We Love to Hate: The Best Literary Villains in SF/F/H
Everyone loves a good bad guy, so we asked this week’s panelists the following:
Read on to see the responses…
For me the best bad guy (aside from Tolkien’s Morgoth and Sauron) is Tanith Lee’s ‘Azhrarn the Beautiful, Prince of Demons, Master of Night, one of five Lords of Darkness.’ While reading Lee’s Flat Earth series you can’t help loving him and hating him simultaneously. He can be totally despicable, yet frequently you find yourself on his side. Such ambiguity is refreshingly intriguing!
The villains in Spider Robinson’s science-fictional Very Bad Deaths and Dean Koontz’s horrific Intensity come to mind, but the most memorable bad guy I’ve encountered, by far, is the killer in the horror-thriller The Face Of Death by Cody McFadyen, whose persecution of his chosen victim takes the form of killing everybody who ever tries to be friend or family to her, beginning when she’s a very small child and continuing until she’s a very traumatized teen. I note in the book’s defense something that’s also true of the others I mentioned, that it’s not just a wallow in cruelty and offers goodness every bit as powerful, every bit as mysterious (indeed, downright breathtaking), as its evil. This is key, I think. Despite the contemptible cliché, proffered by some critics, that villains are more interesting than heroes, I prefer to think that evil functions best, in a storytelling context, as the catalyst that defines what our heroes are capable of, and possesses an advantage only in that it’s usually well into its working day while good is still putting on its shoes. (That is, if they’re not different sides of the same coin, as per Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.”) The one exception would be stories where good people make a moral compromise for expedience, and then steadily damn themselves by chasing after it: the slippery slope phenomenon where there are no heroes and no villains, just imperfect people on a path of progressively worse decisions: this may have the most to say about the realities of human nature, and the best science-fictional example would likely be Frederik Pohl’s Jem, where explorers from Earth land on a new planet and in very short order commit all the same mistakes that made a hellhole out of the old one.
Ah, bad guys. Stories need bad guys, because without them who needs a good guy? (For the record, guy here is a gender-nonspecific. Heroes and villains come in both genders. Or, as our context is speculative fiction, all genders. Or none.)
The villains we love to hate are worth hating. Occasionally they’re so evil we can’t help but hate them. Think Sauron, of Lord of the Rings.
But who among us is Tolkien? It’s hard to pull off a villain who is believably pure evil. Done badly, the pure-evil villain becomes a cardboard cutout, a mere plot device. My favorite villains have noble sides or extenuating circumstances. They don’t see themselves as evil. We most care about stories when we can empathize a bit with all the protagonists.
Who is the villain in that book? The creature? Certainly he kills innocents, but consider: His creator, the “good” doctor, abandons him. When the creature – by then painfully aware all humanity finds him abhorrent – prevails on Dr. Frankenstein to make him a mate, the doctor reneges, dooming the creature to a life of loneliness. When the creature heads into the polar wastes, to isolation and eventual death, Dr. Frankenstein pursues the creature to exact vengeance. While we take note of Dr. Frankenstein’s anguish, and the deaths of Frankenstein’s innocent relatives and associates, we also pity the creature.
Now that’s writing.
My novel Fools’ Experiments arose, in part, in my quest for an SFnal monster. (The other part? A Charles Darwin quote: “I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.” The line could have been [but wasn't] written for Frankenstein.) My new monster had to be sympathetic. Neither supernatural nor a freak of nature, it’s an artificial life, bred and evolved – and too often mistreated – in a computer lab. And like all abused monsters, the AI strikes out …
Who are the best bad guys? Those we root for.
- Saruman (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)
- Horrabin (Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates)
- Randy Flagg (Stephen King, The Stand)
- Annie Wilkes (Stephen King, Misery)
Any list like this is arbitrary and random by its nature. So I’m just going to go ahead and roll with it, and divide villains via random categories.
BEST COMIC BOOK VILLAIN: Doctor Doom, hands down. I know plenty of people will disagree. I expect the Joker will be most people’s preferred villain of choice. But the Joker isn’t really a good villain at all. He’s just a nutjob, fell in some acid, decided to become a supervillain because . . . hey, that makes sense in a comic book world. But crazy characters without any clear motivation never really do much for me. I can’t relate to them. More importantly, I find they’re usually only created to give lazy writers a chance to do something “evil” without any justification. Why did the Joker blow up the orphanage? Cuz he’s a loonie!
Doctor Doom, on the other hand, is the classic evil genius. He’s smarter than you, and he expects you to acknowledge it. And if you don’t accept your position under his heel, then he’s more than happy to build an army of robots to put you in your place. The guy wears power armor with a green tunic and he makes it work! Doom is evil, but not in that eat-your-face-for-fun sort of way. He’s evil because he’s sick of your idiocy, and he knows everything would just be fine if everyone would just acknowledge him as their lord and master. And, y’know what? He just might be right. I mean, the guy builds time machines for fun. He probably has so many death rays cluttering up his attic that he’s getting ready for a two-for-one garage sale next week. And if he felt like it, he could probably take some shoelaces, some tin foil, and a can of creamed corn and make a rocket that could hurl the earth into the sun.
Haven’t we all been there, surrounded by dunces who can’t be bothered to pull their heads out of their asses long enough to know what day of the week it is? Sure, we have. And haven’t we all wished for a giant robot to disintegrate those morons who populate our universe? Sure, we have. The thing about Doom is…that’s his whole life. That’s every single person he runs into, every single day. It’s a miracle the guy hasn’t atomized us all out of sheer frustration. Doctor Doom is the man, and while I’m glad he’s not running things, I also gotta say I’d sign up with Doom in a second if I got a jetpack and raygun out of the deal.
BEST ROBOT VILLAIN: No surprises here. Megatron. There’s just no arguing this one. Megatron is Dr. Doom if Doom wasn’t troubled by the spark of a conscience. And Megatron has his own army of killer robots, except all those killer robots want to kill Megatron and take his place. We might sometimes wonder why the leader of the Decepticons puts up with so much crap from his minions. Particularly that passive-aggressive second-in-command Starscream. It’s because everybody who works for him (and I mean EVERYBODY) is a complete and total jerkwad. So The Autobots are out to get him. The Decepticons are out to get him.
But he’s still standing. Long live, Megatron.
BEST CARTOON VILLAIN: Mojo Jojo. You can’t go wrong with an evil monkey. Runner up: Lord Monkeyfist, who uses ninja monkeys as minions.
BEST FILM VILLAIN: George Lucas. For obvious reasons.
BEST KAIJU VILLAIN: Look, when we humans have a picnic, we don’t walk around the anthills, do we? When hornets have the gall to build a nest under our stoop, do we say live and let live? And if grasshoppers built little tiny tanks and started blasting you every time you went for a walk across the front lawn, you’d sure as heck begin stomping them underfoot and roasting them with your radioactive fire breath. It’s time to own up to this one. The real villain of kaiju cinema?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to train my robot ninja monkey army to fight off the endless squads of bee-piloted jet fighters that are buzzing at my windows.
- The Tanu in Julian May’s Saga of Exiles – beautiful and deadly, unhampered by anything approaching our morals they hold a dark fascination for so many humans they ensnare.
- The Hood in Thunderbirds – sorry, but he scared me crapless when I was a boy.
- Alien / Alien Queen – Oh come on, you knew that was going to be on the list.
I’m afraid I am not very disciplined as a thinker. I’m including villains who perhaps are great because of the story in which they are embedded–although of course, they contribute to these stories’ high caliber. Nor are all my picks human; or necessarily individuals. Here goes:
- I start with Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. Massively influential; perhaps the best known force of antagonism if not strictly a “bad guy.”
- Some of my favorite villains are from Stephan King: These include his brilliant renderings of possessions by evil: Jack in The Shining and;
- All the Tommyknockers of King’s book by that name. I don’t know if it’s that he is often describing *writers* that grabs me so.
- My favorite ensemble cast of bad guys in any novel: In Michale Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, there is an amazing assemblage including the rusted old dragon Melancthon, the elf lord Galiagante, the snotty delinquents and so many more. All bad to the bone, and more fun than should be legal.
- Hal in Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; perhaps just technically a book.
- The thing on the ice of Dan Simmons’s The Terror. One of the most horrifying/unexpected creatures I’ve ever read about.
- Glokta, the delightfully self-aware torturer in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series. Glokta brings us to the realm of dark protagonists and reformed villains, and I decided not to go there, except this example is just so good.
Dying to add, so I will, with the indefensible position that today it would be considered fantasy: Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost who famously said, “Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”
In my opinion, the best villains in SF literature tend not to be individuals — cackling mad scientists and dark-robed overlords work better in visual media than in print. Instead, the strongest bad guys tend to be groups, governments, or even concepts.
The mysterious Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds are the ultimate evil aliens, setting the tone for over a century’s worth of invasion stories. The Martians, those “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” are terrifying because they’re obviously intelligent, but they have not desire whatsoever to communicate with us, to share their knowledge. For whatever reason, they want to destroy us, and their anti-morality is at the core of pretty much every invasion story you can think of, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Independence Day to Mars Attacks!
Dystopian governments are particularly good at riling a reader, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents contains perhaps the worst of them– a fascist religious movement called Christian America. Andrew Steele Jarret, the demagogue that leads the movement, crushes all opposition mercilessly. Parable of the Talents starts in a peaceful religious community led by Lauren Olamina, an empath who founds a faith called Earthseed; Jarret’s troops turn this idealistic village into a concentration camp for “heathens” and “witches.” There are other great bad guys representing dystopian governments– O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984; Ferris F. Freemont in Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth– but none has ever made me as angry as Jarret.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Weston, the foil to Ransom, the not-at-all-allegorically-named hero of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. In Out of the Silent Planet he wants to wipe out the peaceful inhabitants of Mars to make room for humans; in Perelandra Lewis makes him a direct mouthpiece for Satan who tries to introduce sin to the Eden of Venus. Weston has often been seen as an embodiment of Lewis’s demonification of science– he’s introduced as a physicist– but his real sin is colonialism. (And without Weston, we probably wouldn’t have Philip Pullman’s Ms. Coulter– certainly one of the best villains in fantasy.)
And then there’s Tom Godwin’s story “The Cold Equations,” in which the laws of physics themselves are evil: mass and momentum conspire to create a moral dilemma in which an astronaut must choose between letting a colony die without medical supplies and tossing an innocent girl out of an airlock.
On the horror side of things, Thomas Ligotti does Godwin (and, more importantly, Lovecraft) one better– his stories posit that reality itself is a conspiracy against the human race. Lovecraft’s protagonists go mad because they discover evil beings lurking beyond the veil of everyday experience, but the artists and white-collar drones of Ligotti’s stories find no such evil beings. What drives them mad is the simple discovery that the darkness may be the only thing that exists– and it passively hates us. This basic concept of ontological horror underlies most of Ligotti’s stories, but it’s perhaps most clear in “The Shadow, the Darkness,” the final story in his recent collection Teatro Grottesco.
Instead of the bad guys, let’s talk about the bad gals! Strong villainesses in fantasy, horror and science fiction literature are, unfortunately, not as prevalent as their male counterparts. Often they are queens of some sort, because as every effective tyrant knows, you can’t misuse power unless you wield it in the first place.
One of my favorite evil queens is someone who commits a heinous act against our hero and then, through her guilt and regret, becomes a wonderfully strong heroine. She’s Irene, the Queen of Attolia, in Megan Whalen Turner’s novel of the same name. Young, isolated, and in a precarious position of power, Irene makes decisions that she thinks are in the best interest of her people. And if that means cutting off – well, read the book! The Turner books are often sold as young adult but they have everything an adult reader could want, and more – a daring thief, warring kingdoms, complex politics, and a Mediterranean-like setting of ancient civilizations. Totally recommended.
Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series features another strong villainess – the elegant, mysterious and dangerous Mrs. Coulter, who is no doubt a queen in her own mind. Her horrible acts against children, in the name of saving them, still make me shudder. I won’t give away spoilers about Mrs. Coulter’s fate but suffice it to say that Pullman, like Turner, is interested in writing characters whose evil nature can be turned permanently or temporarily to good, given the proper motivation.
Of course, evil is often a matter of perspective. One of the quotes hanging above my computer is from Kahlil Gibran – “For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?”
Torture is the hallmark of one of horror literature’s great villainesses – Annie Wilkes, from Stephen King’s Misery. Annie tortures the writer Paul Sheldon in memorable, horrible ways, but she herself is tortured by the enemy within. You couldn’t pay me to be in the same room with Annie but how responsible is she for her actions? Unlike Irene or Mrs. Coulter, she clearly suffers from one or more mental illnesses. In her mind, of course, Paul is the villain for killing off her favorite character. Like I said, perspective.
Also in horror literature we find Claudia, Anne Rice’s little girl vampire who can never grow up. The first Rice novel I read was Queen of the Damned but Akasha, the title character, never quite grabbed me. Claudia, however, is a vicious and haunting character. Over the course of seventy years her emotional and intellectual development go unmatched by her body, and she yearns for what she can never have – a woman’s body, with height and breasts and the power to seduce men to her side.
Sexuality is, of course, one of the things most feared about in women whether we think of them as good or bad. And that brings us back to queens, in the form of Cersei Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Cersei is just about everything “ous” that you can think of – dangerous, curvaceous, incestuous, ambitious, and of course murderous. Tortured by a prophecy and her own unquenchable thirsts, she’s a woman to be reckoned with. It’s that reckoning, and all the frights and dangers therein, that brings me back to these bad gals of literature time and time again.
Cardinal Brownpony in Miller’s Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. The best (worst) bad guys are the ones who think they are doing good.
- Mr. Teatime and Carcer: Jonathan Teatime and Carcer are the same sort of ultraviolent sociopaths as Alex from A Clockwork Orange, but in bursts. They’re frightening because unlike Alex, who is exceptional but runs with a gang of similar sociopaths, neither is just another hooligan in his own city. Ankh-Morpork is not a near-future dystopia; there isn’t anyone like Teatime on the Discworld, until Carcer, who manages to be just a little bit more psycho. Teatime really doesn’t know the difference between offering you a cup of tea and stabbing you in the eye with the teaspoon, but he really only kills people (however messily) in the natural course of his duties. Carcer is a predator who hunts and carries grudges.
- Hannibal Lecter: Hannibal Lecter fascinates people. Back when The Silence of the Lambs had just come out, and most people online were still on AOL, I studied profiles to see how many people made fictional profiles as Lecter, and how many made profiles as Clarice Starling. There were two or three times as many Lecters as Starlings.
I don’t know about everyone else-I like Starling, myself, and the appeal of the story is the conflict between them, but if Lecter has an appeal for me it’s that he’s so smart he’s almost untouchable. And part of Starling’s appeal is that she’s almost as smart. I think people wonder why someone with every advantage can be so evil, and that is why Thomas Harris was criticized for writing Hannibal Rising: by explaining Lecter’s pathology, he ruined it for many fans. It was no longer a pure story of human or, as I have occasionally supposed, post-human evil, but simply abnormal psychology in a brilliant mind. Still scary, not so absorbing.
- Victor Frankenstein: Shelley gave the genre an original in Victor Frankenstein. Many critics, of whom I am one, argue that Frankenstein is the first fully realized science fiction novel. The rationales for that vary, but starting a genre is not something you see every day. Frankenstein has remained in print since its initial publication in 1818.
There are a lot of reads on why Frankenstein is so enduring and fascinating. But many of them revolve around the conflict between Victor and his creation. While the creature becomes monstrous, it is Victor’s tragedy that he not only created a being with the potential to be good, but by his monumental and continuing failures helped make him monstrous.
- Pennywise: Stephen King has written a lot of books. He’s written books with demons, pets that return from the dead, aliens, maniacs, Lovecraftian things, obsessive fans, pyrokinetics, vampires, and dozens of other nasty customers.
But It was the book that tried to hit all the buttons at once. It wakes up every 27 years and causes an atrocity, and between times makes children disappear.
The villain is the thing each character feared most-except that its truer form is that of a sinister clown. We’re talking about literature, but Tim Curry may have helped with that. It is guaranteed to creep out anyone not scared by one of the forms that the characters find frightening. But wait, behind the clown is an interdimensional spider-thing of incomprehensible evil that originated millions of years ago in the void that surrounds the universe.
Lovecraftian child-eating spider-clown for the win.
Who are the best bad buys in science fiction, fantasy or horror?
My first nominee is a bit unorthodox: Richard III, from Shakespeare’s Richard III. Though Richard III is usually characterized a history play, I read it as full bore horror. There are ghosts, both benign and terrible; murder galore; and, oh the delicious evilness of Crookback Dick, who will stoop at nothing in his quest to gain the English throne. The scene where Richard woos the Lady Anne, over the corpse of her husband (who Richard himself killed), wins her hand, and then turns to the audience and explains how he is going to kill her, too-well, try to top that one Sauron!
Next up I offer, Mr. Robert Gray, better known as Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King’s It. The Ur-Killer Clown, all face-paint and fangs, the horror that lives in your closet-or in your drains. The evil that only kids can see coming. We’ve all had a run-in with Pennywise one time or another: he’s a very familiar face.
Lastly, I offer up a bad guy that needs no justification for inclusion here: Hannibal Lector, from Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Liver, Chianti and fava beans: yum! I just wish that Harris hadn’t succumbed to the temptation to flesh out Hannibal’s back story; sometimes evil is best left a bit mysterious.
Extra bonus bad guy, or rather bad little guy: Gage from King’s Pet Semetary. Don’t we all have nightmares about a loved one coming to us malevolent, changed-and it’s all our own fault? There’s nothing quite as evil as innocence turned.
In SF, I love horrible Gully Foyle, of The Stars My Destination because he’s a complex, driven creature. Oh, wait — maybe he’s the “hero”? Too? Well, why not? You root for him even though he’s a killer and a rapist and a completely selfish being. I like Q, Capt. Picard’s arch enemy from time to time because he is so childish, with all his power — a big, spoiled baby, like so many “evil” people.
In horror, its Hannibal Lecter, hands down, even though as a character he makes no sense whatever. He’s sure as Hell no psychiatrist, and probably only a fair-to-middling cook (fava beans? Get out!). But as an actual devil, he’s great — playful, snide, smooth — on the page and again on the screen, thanks to Sir Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant portrayal.
In Fantasy — I don’t read much of the heroic stuff, it’s just war, war, war, not interesting to me, but I do like Gollum: nasty little thing, and it’s selfishness again — but that’s pretty much always the key to villainy, isn’t it? *I* want, *I* need, and the rest of you don’t really exist (not with *my* degree of reality) so who cares what happens to you?
Tagged with: A. Lee Martinez • Adam-Troy Castro • Cecelia Dart-Thornton • Edward M. Lerner • Gabriel McKee • Kay Kenyon • Peter F. Hamilton • Sandra McDonald • Sarah Monette • Stacie Hanes • Suzy McKee Charnas • Terry Bisson • Ysabeau S. Wilce
Filed under: Mind Meld
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