[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Every reader holds out for a hero, but be it movies or novels, its the antagonists, the villains, that often bring the heat, spice and power to a piece of work and make it sing.
So we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
.I’ve always had a great admiration for the Lady, from Glen Cook’s Black Company series, with an honorable mention for all of the Ten Who Were Taken that serve her. She’s ruthless but multifaceted, a romantic and tragic figure as well as a provisioner of all the dark arts and fell deeds a reader could desire. As for the Ten, they’re just so fun and iconic, sort of more extroverted Nazgul.
If you’ll allow historical fiction as a cousin to fantasy, I’d also vote for Livia, from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Subtle, pitiless, and patient, the deadliest woman (hell, the deadliest person) in a deadly milieu.
Last but not least I’d bring up O’Brien, from George Orwell’s 1984, the chillingly contented ordinary man who patiently explains to Winston what it’s all about… that all the chanting and ideology is a fog, that the politics of Oceania are meaningless, the nature of its wars completely unimportant. The whole point of the crushing pyramid of human misery is to keep a tiny elite with their boots on the throats of the rest of humanity, forever and ever, amen. To conceive that sort of thing, to accept it, to rise and sleep as a happy part of such a brutal mechanism… now that’s villainy.
For those of you who haven’t read the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov (and why haven’t you?), the Mule is the human mutant who has the ability to adjust the emotions of others and essentially force them to follow him. Already the power of a villain like that is frightening, especially since he can not only control your mind but make you lose your power to resist and enjoy it. But there was something more about the Mule’s story and his attempt to conquer the galaxy that I found even more chilling.
The Foundation stories are about how a psychohistorian named Hari Seldon recorded messages to the people of the future to help them deal with their crises. Every few decades or so, the leaders of the Foundation enter a vault where Seldon’s holographic image describes the events they have just lived through and gives them hints to what comes next. I will never forget the scene where the Foundation leaders eagerly await a message from Seldon to tell them how to fight the Mule, only to have Seldon describe some other crisis entirely. The horror of discovering that Seldon’s Plan had gone awry because of the actions of one unpredictable mutant gave me a chill when I first read it. For anyone relying on the knowledge that the future will unfold as it should, this is a frightening thing.
By the way, in his autobiography Asimov notes how it was his editor, John W. Campbell, Jr, who insisted that Asimov introduce an element to derail the Seldon Plan. Asimov resisted, but the truth is that the Foundation stories are far greater for this addition than they would have been without it. Never underestimate the power of a good editor.
Let’s admit one thing — it’s impossible to talk about film villains without providing at least one iconic SF example: Darth Vader. I wanted to be Darth Vader when I was a kid; in retrospect, I suppose that’s because he’s the greatest asthmatic in the history of film, let alone in the universe. But the truth is that Darth Vader had many, if not all, of the best lines, he had the coolest costume, and he was complicated. Sure, he seemed super evil at first, but then you got to know him and you realized well before he threw aside the chains of the Emperor that, really, he was a pitiable man.
The same could be said about the Cylons from the new Battlestar Galactica series, though you’d have to admit that they have enormously more complicated, and better represented, motivations for the things they do. Some of them throw aside villainy, too, which makes them some of the most compelling villains in SF film history. It’s hard to hate people you understand, but yet they never cease to be the people responsible for incredible levels of genocide. I loved them for that (and for all the factions that sprang up throughout the series).
But complicated villains aren’t the end-all-be-all. Sometimes, it’s good to have an antagonist you want dead at the end. In come the Xenomorphs, the aliens behind Alien, Aliens, and all the crappier sequels and spinoffs. I still get chills when I see the first film, with all that water running down over those glistening black heads, over silver teeth poised to attack…And they’re dangerous even when you kill them, what with their acidic blood and all. They’re the ultimate movie monster!
Of course, since I said I was going to talk about one video game, it seems smart to note how much the Zerg from Starcraft take from the Aliens universe. Who didn’t get a kick out of throwing infested Terrans at enemy troops? Or burying zerglings under the earth to be drawn up like a morbid Jack-in-the-box? Well, unless you’re me. I played Terran more often than Zerg, and those spiny bastards (lurkers!) mess with my mojo something fierce…
Now let’s turn to literature:
One of my favorite literary villains is actually a family — the Lannisters. George R.R. Martin created one of the most loathsome bunch of blonde-haired bastards I have ever read. Every time I watch the series or look at the books, I think about how much I hate them…and yet can’t get enough. If I were a psychologist, I’d probably be concerned about how quickly mentioning the Lannisters can put me into a rage. But I’m not…
None of my other selections come with such hatred, though. Rather, they have more to do with personal fascination than anything else.
Take, for example, how frequently nature plays the part of antagonist in many post-apocalyptic novels. In Cormac McCarty’s The Road, or example, the utter destitution of the landscape hinders the man and the boy in more ways than any group of cannibals ever could. A more introspective example, however, is Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Last Survivors series, which contains three epistolary novels told primarily from the perspective of a teenage girl surviving with her brother and mother after the moon is struck by an enormous asteroid and moved into a closer orbit, thereby screwing up the Earth’s climate. Nature is such a fascinating enemy in these books that it can fill in for a human villain easily enough. Why write about humans eating one another or rounding one another up for death when nature can destroy mankind well enough on its own.
The last villains for this list are an academic interest of mine: The Satrapy from Tobias S. Buckell’s Xenowealth Saga. They start as your semi-standard dictator villains, putting humanity in the chains of slavery because they’re just pesky little monkey people. But as the series progresses, you start to understand why they are the way they are. I still don’t want them in power, but their ability to wipe and control minds, thereby turning people into virtual zombies, is pretty badass in my book.
And that’s what I’ve got. What about you?
So many villains over so many amazing books and films over the years, that it’s hard to just pick one or two that have really imprinted themselves as the most successful. That said, Darth Vader, from George Lucas’s Star Wars, is one of those villains who is hard to ignore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people who answered this question came up with the same thing. Though the Emperor was the one pulling the strings, Darth Vader was the face of the Empire and that’s part of what makes many villains so terrifying. The villains that are the most memorable to me are those that are seemingly invincible, unwavering, malevolent forces of nature with boundless resources, their defeat seem absolutely impossible. In juxtaposition, the heroes of the stories, so weak in comparison despite their heroic credentials, when faced with these villains are still able to, eventually, find the villain’s weakness and their victories are all the more inspirational because of that imbalance of power. Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings is a great example of this on a grand scale, but these traits can be successfully scaled down for simpler adventures.
Who doesn’t love a great villain? Reading one, writing one, watching one—it’s all fun. My list of favorite villains is too long for one post, so I’ve narrowed it down to a few that I like for different reasons. These aren’t necessarily my favorite villains in fantasy fiction, but I find that they are memorable. Here is how I went about making my choices: Two characters on the list aren’t necessarily considered ‘the main villain of their story'; I’ve chosen them because I consider them villains, and it intrigues me that they aren’t necessarily framed as such (see Oz and Asriel). In addition, I’ve tried to highlight two villains who I feel are incredibly influential as types (John Milton’s Satan as the sympathetic villain and Haggard’s Ayesha as ‘the female villain’). Lastly, I’ve highlighted one villain purely because I like his name: General Woundwort.
- The Wizard of Oz. I am referring to both the character from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and the corresponding character in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. In the original novel, the Witch is not nearly the central villain that the movie makes her out to be, so if you asked me to name the villain of the piece, I would answer that it’s Oz himself. He is a charlatan. A fool. A politician. Is it a good thing for the land to be rid of the Witch of the West? Perhaps, but he doesn’t actually expect Dorothy and her friends to succeed, and when they do, he doesn’t quite know how to help them. And then when he finally figures something out (the balloon to Kansas) he fails to follow through. In this way, Oz is a brilliant villain because he represents The System—the one we hope has been put in place to help the little guy, but actually doesn’t help anyone or anything but itself. Maguire’s retelling recognizes that Oz is more than just a sweet old fool and elevates him to the status of true villain. He takes what I always felt was implicit in Baum’s Oz and pushes it front and center. It works.
- Satan from Paradise Lost. In many ways, John Milton’s epic poem is one of the great works of high fantasy. For one thing, the battle in heaven (if depicted justly in the upcoming film adaptation) rivals any Lord of the Rings skirmish. More than anything, however, what makes it stand out is the villain. Everyone loves a sympathetic villain—the type we cannot help but understand as they conduct their villainy—and Milton’s Satan is the earliest and most influential example I can identify. This is a character who knows he has fallen, understands why he has fallen, and wishes he hadn’t fallen—but he just cannot stop himself from continuing to rebel and fight. My favorite line of his comes when he realizes that Hell is not a place he can ever escape. It has become a state of mind: “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell; /And in the lowest deep a lower deep, /Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide, /To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” He’s as psychologically real to me as any character or villain I’ve read, and that makes him both sympathetic and threatening.
- Lord Asriel from His Dark Materials. One reason I’ve chosen Asriel is because he is based upon Milton’s Satan. When creating Asriel, Philip Pullman chose to work off of William Blake’s interpretation of Paradise Lost, where he famously argued that Satan was really the tragic hero of the epic and not the villain. Pullman went ahead and made Asriel a seemingly heroic rebel against the powers of Heaven and “The Authority.” To be sure, there are eviler villains in the trilogy, but I find Asriel more compelling than any of them because I was never sure if I was to be rooting for him or rooting against him—even after he viciously murdered an innocent schoolboy. In a story full of religious zealots in the trilogy, Asriel proves himself to be a different kind of zealot: one so passionate about his own destiny and goals that he doesn’t seem to have any idea what the good and the right really are. Like Oz, Asriel is the kind of villain we expect to be good, but ends up being more complicated.
- She or “Ayesha” from H. Rider Haggard’s She. In Haggard’s famous adventure book, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed (a kind of female precursor to He Who Must Not Be Named) is an exceptional female villain. She is an ancient woman who regularly bathes in a pillar of flame in order to maintain her youth and beauty, all the while waiting in perpetual hope that her dead lover will be reincarnated. She epitomizes how we view female villains: vain, driven by desire, emotionally unpredictable. In other words, she’s memorable precisely because I find her to be the ultimate stereotype and the precursor to many modern female fantasy villains (see all female Disney villains). Whenever I see a villainous queen, my mind automatically returns to She, and I feel like I’m seeing a reincarnation of Ayesha. I’d wager that the characterization in She is as influential to modern fantasy as that of any witches and queens in fairy tales.
- General Woundwort from Watership Down. As I said, I’m choosing this guy because I love his name. I love all the names in Watership Down, like Bigwig, Hazel, Fiver, and Hyzenthlay. Woundwort is no exception. He’s no Dark Lord or Evil Queen, just a fascist little bunny who wants to dominate our heroes in their quest for freedom. But having a chilling name counts for something. I honestly believe that a key qualification for having a memorable villain is that he/she must have a memorable name. Names must have power. Voldemort means power. Sauron means power. Maleficent means power. Woundwort means power. Galbatorix? That’s not a chilling name. That’s what happens when your cat walks across the keyboard while your typing. On a side notes, it is sad to me that devoted segments of fandom speak Klingon and Elvish, but I don’t see as much love for Lapine, Richard Adams’s great bunny language. Where are the Lapine speakers of the fan world?
As soon as I read the topic I thought: “Stormbringer!” Elric of Melniboné’s sword, in Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels, is almost the quintessential antagonist—an elemental force for evil, yes, but also an aware one, which allows for the sort of sadistic cruelty that is best sated by devouring those most dear to its wielder. But Stormbringer also plays a more subtle role in the novels. Moorcock’s Elric may epitomise the “tortured” antihero (with Stormbringer providing much of the said torture) but it is the constant presence of outright evil, in the form of the companion sword, that helps define his persona and sustain interest in him as a character positioned between the “good” and “evil” forces in his universe.
Stormbringer may be aware, but remains an elemental power—whereas Galadan, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar trilogy, has made a deliberate choice to embrace evil in order to destroy the world that has caused him pain. Galadan is also second-in-command to Rakoth Maugrim, the novel’s “ultimate evil.” But Rakoth, like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, is relatively remote to the story, whereas Galadan plays an active part. Most importantly, as readers we feel both his resolute commitment to destructive evil, but also the rage, bitter pride, and underlying pain that fuels it. And it is the combination of all these factors, in juxtaposition with the trilogy’s many heroes, that provide much of the story’s dramatic tension.
But what of defining female antagonists? In many ways, Idaan Machi from Daniel Abraham’s A Betrayal in Winter is a similar style of antagonist to Galadan. But although Idaan has also embarked upon a deliberate course of murder and destruction, and remains equally committed to it, this path is far from consequence free for her. The destructive effects upon her close relationships, but also her own character, are clear. And although she is driven by ambition, Idaan is also rebelling against the conventions that constrain women in her society. Understanding of this is so well conveyed that the reader fully “gets”—even if it is impossible to completely share—her sense of betrayal when her machinations are finally undone. I personally feel that Idaan Machi’s combination of ruthless intelligence and undoubtedly evil deeds, while still allowing for emotional understanding and even sympathy, make her one of the most interesting women I’ve encountered in FSF for some time.
A more longstanding favourite is Arienrhod, Joan Vingt’s antagonist in The Snow Queen. Arienrhod is corrupt, cruel and despotic—but she is also seeking to thwart the domination of her world by exploitative extra-terrestrial interests. Not that Arienrhod is a misunderstood heroine, or even anti-heroine—she is fighting to maintain her personal political power as well, and is perfectly willing to sacrifice both humans and other species on her world to achieve that goal. To my mind, she is undoubtedly the dominant force in the story, with the combination of her fighting spirit, cleverness and ruthless self-interest shaping both its action and the other characters—in fact, take Arienrhod away and you really don’t have a story. I believe she is one of very few antagonists of whom this can truly be said.
I’m going to end by moving away from the thesis slightly, to those stories where the tension derives less from an external antagonist, than from the conflict between the central protagonist’s better and worse natures. One of my favourite examples of this is CJ Cherryh’s Shoka in The Paladin, who has been seen as a hero in the past, and maybe even was one, but really doesn’t want to be anymore—and whose personality throughout is characterised by his sidekick’s final summation: “same conniving scoundrel.”
Villains. What’s awesome about them? When it comes to the antagonist, I am far more into the Bad Girl than the Bad Boy, albeit not in a sexual sense so much as an “I would totally do that if I were a pirate, too” sense. As for their being “bad,” I have a hard time remembering that they were supposed to be the antagonists, because I was rooting for them to win, or at least get away to fight another day. In the immortal words of Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
Way up there for me is Dark Phoenix. The Dark Phoenix saga came out when “rape and revenge” was just about the only origin story available to a swashbuckling sword&sorcery heroine, Wonder Woman still tripped over her own lasso, nobody thought Red Sonja’s “armor” looked ridiculous, and rational people still took Dave Sim seriously.
Phoenix had an amazing story to my teen self. A self-effacing young woman, the weakest of the X-Men, Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) abruptly rocketed to cosmic power through an act of self-sacrifice worthy of a Valkyrie. For a while, she explored her still-growing powers, saving the universe at least once and bonding with her friend Storm (who was pretty powerful herself). Eventually, a man with overweening ambition decided to corrupt her. In the process, he accidentally drove her insane. She rebelled, blew his brains all over a wall, and exploded into Dark Phoenix. Then she became about ten times more awesome than before. Before, she was still “nice,” though a hero. Now, she got to cut loose and do all those dark things men got to do when they attained cosmic power. I was saddened by her “death.” Though she did come back later, the writers never seemed to know quite what to do with her.
On the flip side with cosmic-powered, non-human villains, don’t diminish the ones who start that way by giving them human backstories to make them sympathetic. I don’t read those kinds of villains to empathize with them. Sure, Alfred Bester’s nutty narrator and his killer android in “Fondly Fahrenheit” are made more interesting because of their mutual history of violence. That doesn’t mean I need to hear about Cthulhu’s messy childhood in seas beyond time or Nyarlathotep’s tragic lost love that motivated him to destroy men’s minds across fifty universes. The bacilli of the Black Death didn’t fuss about the number of human hosts they killed in their Darwinian quest to spread across the earth. Supernovae will roast your planet, no matter how many old-fashioned love songs you sing them. And Hal worked far better in “2001,” when he was remorseless and near-omnipotent, than as the woobie victim of “2010.” So, when you write a story about catastrophic forces beyond human comprehension, the last thing I want to hear is villain angst. There are times when I like to see antagonists as the heroes of their own, unusual, rules-breaking story…and then there are times when I just want to watch them blow stuff up. From a safe distance.
Rome didn’t just defeat Carthage in the 3rd Punic war, they destroyed it, selling its few survivors into slavery, razing the city, and sewing the farmlands with salt. Much of this vindictive brutality has to do with Rome’s lingering upset with the greatest enemy they ever faced, Hannibal, no matter that he had perished several generations earlier. Oddly enough, we chiefly know about Hannibal’s tactical genius because the Romans themselves kept record of his triumphs. It was to Rome’s greater glory that they defeated so brilliant a general (so long as you ignored certain other salient facts). They saw themselves as the heroes and Hannibal as the villain, one so dreaded he was used by Roman parents centuries later as a kind of bogeyman.
When I was a child, in the 1970s I didn’t know anything about Hannibal, and gave very little thought to villains or fantasy fiction. I did, however, grow up watching the original Star Trek in reruns, and the original Star Wars on movie screens. As a result, the first villains who fascinated me came from science fiction. Darth Vader, at least in the first two movies, was powerful, mysterious, and frightening, but Grand Moff Tarkin was even more interesting. He was efficient, intelligent, ruthless, and self-confident, and actually commanded Vader and expected to be obeyed. No other villain in the first trilogy ever seemed as dangerous, even the emperor, who, when he finally showed his face, was more like a caricature.
Still, Tarkin wasn’t given much chance for depth due to limited screen time. The original Star Trek series had any number of villains, and because the best of Trek was about ideas, we got to see their viewpoint and were even allowed to feel sympathy for them. Inevitably, they thought THEY were the good guys, from the android in the guise of Dr. Roger Korby who thinks he’s going to save humanity by replacing it (Robert Bloch’s “What Are Little Girl’s Made of”) to the haunted Commodore Decker, risking the Enterprise crew to avenge the loss of his own ship in my very favorite episode, Norman Spinrad’s “The Doomsday Machine.” In the latter the script is so finely wrought and Decker so vividly rendered by William Windom that even though we fear Decker will destroy the Enterprise, we can’t help but relate to him. We understand he’s motivated both by vengeance and enormous guilt for not dying with his crew. In his devotion, and competency, he reminds us of Kirk.
And that darker parallel, a hero gone wrong, is what gives us the best villain in the entire run of Indiana Jones movies, René Belloq. The movie’s Nazis are a great source of thugs, henchmen, secondary villains, and an omnipresent threat, but it’s Belloq we really remember because he’s so much like Jones himself. He has similar skills, knowledge, and intelligence, but has taken a darker road. He retains a sense of humor, style, and sophistication, and even has a few lingering shreds of the gentleman left him – he appears sincerely angered when the Nazis toss Marion into the tomb with Jones, though there is not enough fire left within him to do more than offer a farewell before she is sealed in forever. In his twisted way, he’s as fascinated as Jones with history and the power of the Ark itself, which he may intend to use to communicate with God. There’s no other Indiana Jones villain who is as fully realized, relatable, or, as a result, memorable.
When it comes to fantasy literature, there are others better suited to discussing famous villains like Saruman than I, though I’ll say I find him much more interesting than Sauron, probably because he was a hero once himself, and is a dark version of Gandalf. In a similar way, I find Dolores Umbridge much more interesting, and evil, than Voldemort. She was probably never good, but her evil is much more human than Voldemort’s, just as Saruman is more understandable than Sauron. She’s petty, vindictive, mean-spirited, and power-hungry, but she’s dangerously clever, extremely capable, and organized. She’s the epitome of the worst kind of character to be found in a modern bureaucracy, and, apart from her magic, entirely believable.
For all that, my very favorite villain in fantasy literature is probably the traitor prince from The Chronicles of Amber. For those of you who’ve never read the cycle, I shall hold back his name. Sure, he’s a little mad in the end, but he’s brilliant, charming, and utterly remorseless. He’s a casual psychopath who once held off murdering the book’s narrator because he didn’t want to get blood on his favorite rug. He launched a quest to destroy a universe, planning to betray not just his family, but his enemies, so that he might remake everything in his own image. And he was so competent he came within a hairs breadth of succeeding.
I suppose that my very favorite villain of all, though, is Hannibal of Carthage, in the end so very understandable in his struggle to halt an expanding Rome that through another lens he emerges as a bold hero. Perhaps that’s the secret to the best villains. Not only must they be a match for the heroes, they usually see themselves as the good guys. And, occasionally, perhaps they are.
For me, a few simple rules define the best villains. They should be as complex and rounded as the protagonist, and should reflect a lot of the hero’s traits and capabilities; a black mirror version. What defines the villain, then, comes down to the moral choices he or she makes to gain the thing that they most want. The best villains would never think of themselves as such, in the same way that no one in the real world really considers themselves a bad guy. That rules out, say, Sauron, who is not a villain, just a big, amorphous mass of bad. He’s not a character, he’s a symbol. And the best villains have to be scary – not always in physical terms; sometimes it’s just the knowledge of how far they will go…
Those rules are best defined in the graphic novel (or film) Watchmen. Big spoiler alert if you’ve not read this yet, as the entire story is about the very nature of heroes and villains in a complex world where heroes and villains don’t really exist. Watchmen is really about the lengths you will go to in order to achieve your aims, and if the end justifies the means. Ozymandias was a great hero, perhaps the greatest in that world, and he has set himself a hero’s task: to save the world. He is self-sacrificing, like any good hero, and relentless in his pursuit of the ultimate good. Unfortunately, that ultimate good can’t be achieved without doing things that are morally reprehensible. Even at the end, he still thinks he’s the good guy. And maybe he is. Watchmen, and Ozymandias, makes you ask yourself difficult questions in a genre that is often free from any difficult moral conundrums or real politik. As an aside, Watchmen is a novel; self-contained, with characters designed to tell this particular story and these themes. Only a corporate drone would think you can take these characters and make them run and run like Superman and Batman, right? If not, I’ve got The Further Adventures of Holden Caulfield to sell you.
On TV, the Cylons certainly meet the complexity rule. Not villains by any means, through their own eyes, they allowed the story to delve into the murkily moral corners of religion and politics. Plus, they were scary. One aspect was just a killing machine; the other could breathe their corrupting moral viewpoint into your ear without you ever knowing. And yet by the end you could sympathise with them. That’s a difficult goal to achieve.
Honorary mention goes to fiction’s Borgias, the Lannisters, of George R R Martin’s novels. A family defined by their cruelty, they become frightening once you realize there is no limit to how far they will go to achieve their ends.
Science fiction has typically presented good and evil in very broad brush strokes. In Raymond F Jones’ This Island Earth, for example, the Guarra are so evil their minds emanate overpowering waves of evil thought. And they smell bad too. It might be said such simplicity is entirely suitable, given the archetypal nature of many science fiction stories. However, things have changed since sf’s beginnings, though not by much. In last year’s Leviathan Wakes, the authors created a regressive society like the worst inner-city estate and so in order to have a villain for the story have to resort to a black-and-white morality that fails to suspend disbelief. It’s simply not credible that a corporate executive would deliberately infect one and half million people with a fatal alien virus as an experiment. That is a perfect example of the dramatic needs of a story overwhelming plausible psychology. The same is equally true in epic fantasy, with its dark lords and evil lieutenants. No attempt is made at credible psychological portraits of the cast — the baddies are evil, because they need to stand in opposition to the hero of the story. If there is any characterisation beyond stereotypes, it’s usually Characterisation By Quirks™ — this character has a funny accent, that one keeps on pulling on her braid, that other one is always drunk…
Which is why when rounded and well-drawn villains or antagonists do appear in genre fiction, they should be lauded.
Among the more memorable is Boss Tweed from John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline. A power-hungry conservative, he’s perhaps not the best-drawn villain in 1970s science fiction – though his escape route once his conspiracy has been uncovered is certainly original. Staying in the same decade, Thea Cadence in DG Compton’s Synthajoy is not a villain per se. She’s the novel’s central character and she is being “treated” after having murdered her husband, the inventor of the titular brain-washing technique. She might even be considered a heroine by some, though her motives were far from heroic. The same could also be said of Cheradenine Zakalwe in Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons from 1990. As a member of the Culture’s Special Circumstances, he could be considered a hero; but the actions he takes in his role, and his background, suggest otherwise. The Culture has always felt a little too morally expedient, but perhaps that’s an intended artefact of the Minds being in charge.
Something similar is the case with Elizabeth Weatherall in L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle. She starts the quintet as the personal assistant of the male villain, Robert Sedgewick, who is head of the US Security Services. As the series progresses, she becomes a far more important and three-dimensional character, whose actions sometimes make her the villain and sometimes do not — yet her motives are complex, credible and human.
Baroness Ceaucescu in Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania and its sequels is very definitely the villain of the piece. It is her machinations which first brings Miranda from our world to the world of the story, and it is against her that Miranda must fight to save the world. And yet the baroness considers herself, in part, a victim of circumstance and a champion in the fight to save Greater Roumania. She is also complex, credible and human.
Other villains which stick in the memory tend to be aliens. Perhaps because I find it hard to suspend disbelief over one-dimensional human villains — typically male — who are usually nothing more than comic-book evil. At least with aliens, sf writers try to put a little more into the mix. The “Demon” in Paul Park’s Coelestis is a case in point. The lone survivor of a race which subjugated its sister species on the world on which the novel takes place, it quite clearly operates according to a moral compass and a psychology which is far from human. I say that, and then there’s the Eddorians in EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series, who were pure evil — and we know that because they are repulsive too. While its true an alien villain’s motives should not necessarily be understandable, too much science fiction seems to dispense all together with their motivation. The alien villains are evil, they do evil things. Because they are alien.
It’s not as if genre stories need villains. Many of the best ones don’t have them. Even in stories with two opposing sides battling it out for survival or supremacy, it feels cheap to simply label one side “evil” and the other “good”. One-note characterisation is never good, and no matter what else is successful in a story, a cardboard cut-out villain can spoil the reading experience just as effectively as a cardboard cut-out protagonist.
Because I’m attracted to murky realism rather than the more exaggerated genres — superhero comics, epic fantasy, horror, pulpy spy novels — I haven’t had much first-hand experience with black and white worlds; and though Merriam-Webster defines a villain as someone who is “deliberately criminal,” the characters who are most memorable to me don’t fit the definition of villainy. Often you have a good guy with ethical fissures and a bad guy always on the verge of redemption. It’s this moral ambiguity that confuses things.
But I was determined. Before digging through my three-row-deep book shelves to go over what I’d recently read, I made it easy on myself and asked, what makes someone truly loathsome? I came up with something pretty fast: cruelty to children. Unlike the uber-fit men in comic books, their 6-packs wrapped in spandex, children are powerless: the ultimate victims.
Then I remembered, I’d just read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
On the first page of Dahl’s surrealist classic, James, a four-year-old boy living in England, is orphaned when his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros. Up until that point he’s happy; he’s had a good life. But then everything changes; he’s sent to live with his two cruel aunts. They beat him, force him into hard labor, isolate him, and, on occasion, refuse to feed him. The first few chapters are so unsettling, I was actually angry. I saw the abuse in my head, even as it was shown through language meant for kids. With every page I wished that James would take revenge, preferably with deadly consequences.
When the two aunts were finally run over by the giant peach, I cheered. It was a satisfying demise. Those two were true villains.
I think SF has generally produced better villains than fantasy – it’s not enough that a baddy is just a repository of evil; to be really effective they have to fill you with dread. For this reason I’d nominate Big Brother from 1984. I think the idea of a villain who isn’t even a person, simply a representation of an oppressive system is truly chilling. The complete removal of free thought, choice or individuality is more frightening than a bogie man destroying the world or whatever they normally do.
A Clockwork Orange deals with similar themes – the interaction between an individual and the forces of social order. In some ways, however, this book raises more interesting points than 1984. How much freedom can we allow someone? Is it right to compromise someone’s individuality even when that person is a sociopath? How much are the darker sides of our nature linked to art, beauty and creativity? Alex might more properly be called an anti-hero than a villain, although I think he pushes the idea of an anti-hero to its very limits – he’s a rapist and a murderer and I wouldn’t say we identify with him at all. He stays a long time in the mind but he hasn’t quite entered our collective imagination in the same way as Big Brother.
In fantasy it’s more difficult. One of the reasons I write fantasy is that I think that much of it exists within quite narrow parameters and it’s time they got shaken up a little. Fantasy has become quite a conservative medium, though there are signs that some people are challenging that. I’d nominate the faerie from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is a convincing villain because he has his own distinct way of thinking. He’s not evil but basically a monstrously powerful child, selfish as a toddler but with the ability to utterly warp people’s lives. He’s also consistent with faeries from mythology as, at first, he seems to be offering Stephen and Emma something truly desirable and liberating. But a dance isn’t delightful if you have to dance forever!
I’ll give 3 examples: Jardir from Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle series, Jaimie Lannister from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Inquisitor Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.
In all three cases, the characters are initially dramatically repulsive. Their crimes are so great that there’s just no way we could ever imagine ourselves rooting for them. Jardir betrays, attempts to murder, then robs his best friend. Jaimie boinks his sister and pushes a kid out a window. Glokta is a cynical torturer, twisted, repulsive and perennially shitting himself.
And I think lesser writers would have left it at that, honestly. But the fact is that people are rarely simply evil. People do evil things, even develop evil habits usually as a kind of coping mechanism. People act out of weakness, or fear, or desperation. Simple evil, evil for its own sake, so the sheer joy of harming others is a really rare thing. Most villains are screw ups that we perceive as dark lords.
And the critical component of great writing (*any* great writing, not just great genre writing), is characters that resonate and feel real to the reader. We talk a lot about making characters 3 dimensional, but few writers actually get that part right.
Brett, Martin and Abercrombie are among those few.
Because Jardir, you find, betrays Arlen in defense of an important cultural relic, and under pressure from a massive religio-political machine that he must master, and as part of his ongoing efforts to save the human race. Because Jamie, you find, has been so damaged by the depredations of his father, and the political intriguings of court life, and the times in which he has come up, that his love for his sister is genuine and moving. It makes his decision to harm a child not . . . condonable, but understandable. And Glokta was a victim of torture himself, his own career a kind of twisted coping mechanism for the incredible PTSD he faces every day.
It’s in the villains, not the heroes, that those books really sing. And I love that. I love villains that resonate, that identify.
I love villains that look like me.
Like all reasonably moral people, I’m fascinated by the idea of what it must be like to let go, not give a fuck about anyone else, and trample everyone around me so I can get exactly what I want. So I’m a sucker for a good movie or TV villain. They let me into that fantasy, and then deposit me safely back into my own moral skin when the show’s over. But they need to meet certain criteria for me to root for them. They either need to:
- Look like they’re having the time of their lives as they ignore the needs of others in pursuit of their own goals, or,
- Have a dramatic fall that leaves me hoping against all hope that they’ll pull out of. It helps if, once they fail, they then go on to look like they’re having the time of their lives.
For some reason, this doesn’t work so well for me with novel or story villains. I have a much harder time rooting for Team Evil if I can’t look in its eyes and try to imagine what’s going behind them.
Here’s a few of my favorites:
- Darth Sidious and Darth Maul: These two were the only things that made the Star Wars prequels bearable. Sidious/Palpatine is a master of manipulation. By god, you can practically see the kindly Senator handing out lollipops at the petting zoo to apple-cheeked future voters. And yet, he’s the most evil man in the universe, sneering and cackling his way through a takeover of a galaxy far, far away. And Maul is his chillingly effective attack dog who brings a fluid artistry to fight scenes for the first time in Star Wars‘ history. Watching him wield a lightsaber was a thing of beauty. These were two men who loved their jobs, and it showed. Surprised I didn’t say Vader? He’s awesome in the original trilogy, don’t get me wrong, but the only time I actively rooted for him was when I was begging Anakin to hurry up and fall in the lava pit so he’d finally stop whining.
- Loki, from the latest Thor movie: He’s the other side of the coin — a tortured man with a secret past who only wants to please his father, but has been so twisted by being kept in second place all his life that his brilliant idea for winning his father’s respect and affection is to put together an elaborate Rube Goldberg plan of evil. All the boy needed was a hug. I could have given it to him. Okay, it didn’t hurt that he was exactly my physical type. I’m shallow that way.
- Servalan and the Rani: Let’s hear it for the 80s ladies. They were both cool, elegant, brilliant, ruthless, and far more competent than the men around them. They knew what they wanted, and they went for it, regardless of who or what was standing in their way. And they did it all without smudging their lipstick. I so wanted to be them when I was growing up, and not just because I envied their cheekbones. It didn’t hurt that we first met the Rani when the Doctor’s companion was Peri. Peri could have made a bowl of cottage cheese in a bra look like a strong female character.
- Six: We can argue over whether the Sixes were actually evil, but I think their unflinching certainty of the rightness of their own beliefs and the lengths they were willing to go to impose them on the unwilling qualifies them for this category. Like the 80s ladies above, the platinum-haired model was sleek and elegant, but she also came in a sandy-haired model who had a more down-to-earth vulnerability about her. And Succubus Six, who existed only in Baltar’s head, well, she was a gods-damned demon of chaos. And yet, they were all the same person. Sort of. You couldn’t help but root for them…er, her. Well, except for when one of them was in a fight against Starbuck, because Starbuck is awesome.
In trying to answer this question I had trouble not just identifying my favorite antagonist, but any fantasy antagonists at all. The only authentic ones I hit on was Harry Potter‘s Voldermort, The Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch of the West, and Star Wars‘ Darth Vader. Even Tolkien’s Sauron I disqualified as he wasn’t a character in the books, but rather more of an idea. And that’s the problem. In the novels I’ve enjoyed most, the antagonist was more of a situation, a host of various enemies, society in general, an ethereal or shadow organization, or the protagonist themselves. Extremely few had definitive antagonists.
Who for example, is the antagonist in Hunger Games, the other kids in the arena, or the society that put them there? And in Ender’s Game, was it the other children, the teachers, the aliens? In Game of Thrones is it Joffrey, Cersie, Jamie, Viserys, Tywin, Littlefinger? In the Earthsea Trilogy it’s Ged himself. In Onyx and Crake, is it Crake? Man’s arrogance or science in general? In most science fiction the conflict arises not so much out of personality conflicts, or “evildoers” but situations developed from advancements in technology. Who was the antagonist in Forever War? The war? Is Big Brother an antagonist? Certainly, but upon analysis Big Brother is also society. In Frankenstien is it the monster, the doctor, or again, society? Due to their complexity of story and theme, novels for the most part appear to avoid single identifiable antagonists that might limit a book to a flat, simplistic, two-dimensional landscape.
Thrillers, mysteries, and horror genres are far more given to pinpointing a singular, flesh and blood adversary, with the likes of Hannibal Lecter, Dracula, Moriarty, etc. Animated films are perfect for this, with evil stepmothers, vizers, witches, and lions, but I’ve noticed that recently with more modern animated movies this too is changing. There is no central antagonist to Finding Nemo, Bolt, or How to Train your Dragon and in Megamind and Despicable Me, the antagonist is also the hero.
I found it significant that in the trying to solve this puzzle it revealed to me that the more sophisticated, and current a work is, the less identifiable the antagonist. In modern times with a push for more believable “bad guys” the adversary is rarely an “evil” character and more often abstract: prejudice, fear, ignorance, jealousy, insecurity, or a sheer accidental situation.
Fantasy and science fiction’s role has long been to reveal something of ourselves to ourselves by shifting the direction of the light to cast longer shadows. In this vein, the best adversaries are often some aspect of us that is sprinkled deftly through the pages of events. Seeing our own face cast as a villain is therefore the ultimate antagonist, as what could be a more frightening discovery.