MIND MELD: Our Favorite SF/F/H Villains and Why We Love to Hate Them
Villains: We love to hate them and bad guys, and gals (and other things that fit into the baddie category), can haunt our dreams and capture our imaginations. With that in mind, I asked our panelists this:
Here’s what they had to say…
I suspect many people will have similar answers, but the ones that pop to mind immediately are Gollum and Severus Snape, both of whom were corrupted by outside influences and are—to greater and lesser degrees—involved in a constant internal struggle to escape the fate that their actions have determined for them. Snape takes the prize for me because his choices were his own, made from weakness, and it was only as he grew older that he recognized his weakness and tried to fight against it. I’d also say the vampires in Salem’s Lot, as well as the Stryker character. Strangely, some of my favorite “horror villains” are not people but edifices. The Marsten House in Salem’s Lot and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining…not to mention Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s seminal The Haunting of Hill House. Those buildings are more evil and more frightening that most writers will ever accomplish with their human antagonists.
This is a tricky one, because I tend not to be very interested in villains as such. I respond to books that have many levels of conflict, and in which the villains, too, have inner and outer conflicts. I believe the maxim that even the villain is the hero in his/her own story, and the most fascinating ones, to me, are those who are acting diligently in what they feel is the highest good–it’s just that they have a warped understanding of what that might mean for others.
So in terms of layers of conflict, one of my early loves is still a favorite: The Mirror of her Dreams, by Stephen R. Donaldson. We have major baddies, of course, in people like Master Eremis, who is a more traditional villain, but also many levels of others who end up doing harm, like Castellan Lebbick, who is pursuing his duty as the kingdom’s defender, even as the king goes mad. He’s trying his hardest to make things better–but he really doesn’t see everything that’s going around, so I can worry about what he’ll do to the protagonists, at the same time that I worry about him as an individual.
A book like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, on the other hand, places the protagonist in the position of doing things which are perceived by himself and others as evil–an excruciating place to be for him, and a fascinating place for the reader to explore.
Where would our heroes be without our villains? Storyless and unborn, that’s where. Besides, who doesn’t love a bad guy? I’ve loved villains since I was a little kid shouting at Captain Scarlet, demanding a win for Captain Black for a change. And one of these days, in my regular school event snap poll, I WILL get a win for Voldemort over Harry.
It’s hard to choose a favourite, but for sheer, sleek, evil gorgeousness I name Mrs Coulter from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A Machiavellian schemer, a charmer, and politically ruthless, she had the taste to marry a guy with a snow leopard daemon – who, in the world of Hollywood and my head, looks just like Daniel Craig.
At the other end of the looks spectrum, we have The Morrigan: witch, sorceress and best villain in Alan Garner’s Alderley Edge books. She’s the stuff of nightmares from the moment she pulls up her car next to Susan and Colin (and weren’t we all warned about strangers in cars, even when they don’t chant in Latin?). Not only is she far more ruthless than the supposed chief villain, Grimnir, she ends The Weirdstone of Brisingamen playing a magnificent, suicidal game of chicken with the whole of Ragnarok. It’s just stylish.
Villains aren’t all about black capes, twirling moustaches and enormous, architecturally impractical Towers of Doom. Every villain is a Special Snowflake, I say. That’s why I love them, for their little quirks and quaintnesses: from the gratuitous cruelty of Prince Regal in Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, to the arrogant little-boy Viking moodiness of Charlaine Harris’s Eric Northman (I know he’s more of an antihero, but he does eat an awful lot of people). And there’s Philip Reeve’s Shrike the Stalker, in Mortal Engines, who is a cross between utterly, lethally terrifying, and oh-God-I-just-want-to-give-him-a-hug.
May they go on scaring us forever, so long as they don’t do an Inkheart-style Shadow, and actually come to life.
I think it is important to distinguish between villains and other types of antagonists. I love monsters and mythical creatures as much as the next guy but the term villain conjures up something specific in my mind’s eye. A villain should be earthbound (so not, for example Cthulhu). He or she should be intelligent, cunning actually. They should have no need of super-powers to achieve their nefarious ends (sorry, Magneto). They don’t need themselves to be fine physical specimens, indeed the more puny they are, the more impressive their villainy. What they must be able to do is make others do their bidding, either through fear or charisma. No villain worth the name ever did without his minions.
Having narrowed down the field, my choice is Professor James Moriarty. Conan Doyle’s “Napoleon of crime” however just doesn’t feature in enough of the stories to justify being picked as my favourite. Apart from The Adventure of the Final Problem he is just too peripheral a figure, mentioned in passing in barely a handful of stories. My favourite villain deserves at least a whole novel to himself, and thankfully that’s what Kim Newman delivered.
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is a kind of alternate history of Sherlock Holmes in which Colonel Sebastian “Basher” Moran recounts the true successes of his boss despite the fanatical obsession of the “thin man” of Baker Street. And what a pleasure it is to read – every evil, conniving, scheming trait that my younger self imagined Moriarty to possess when I first read the Holmes’ stories confirmed and magnified ten times to great comic effect. I might not last long as one of Moriarty’s henchmen – he doesn’t suffer fools, and I might be terrified every time I was the object of his glare, but what fun it would be.
A dark fellow with excellent manners, a singular gift for hospitality, and a secret at his core that was unforgettably revealed in his crawl down the wall like a lizard: he was Dracula, I was ten, I had never met anyone like him before. And, evil as he may have been, his hunger was never harsh enough to displace for me his fascination, one I feel still.
- FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley) The murderous monster’s intelligence, eloquence, and longing to be good make him a sad and memorable menace for his creator. THE WHITE WITCH (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis) Ever since I opened this book as a kid and saw the illustration of the White Witch about to sacrifice the lion Aslan, I’ve found the White Witch, a seductive and passionate tyrant, disturbing.
- A runner-up would be the vain PRINCESS LANGWIDERE (Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum) who, with her hobby of replacing her head every now and then with those of her victims, is a thing of nightmares.
- MR. DARK (Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury) A decadent villain in small town America, the suave ringleader of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show is the very personification of the devil as he and his magical circus lure people to their ruin.
- AZHRARN (The Flat Earth series by Tanith Lee) He’s the beautiful king of the demons and his lovers are legion (and doomed). Despite creating destruction in his wake, mostly out of boredom, shapeshifting Azhrarn is the human race’s defender against the uncaring gods, and memorable because of his duality.
- BANE (God Stalk by P.C. Hodgell) would be in that same category. The savage, charismatic, and demonic half-brother of the heroine—who shares those qualities without the sadism—is the protagonist’s shadowy opposite. He tries to protect her and makes an impression in only a few pages.
- THE GAPING ONE/THE HANGED BOY (Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand) In the future, after the world has been destroyed by viral warfare, this mad spirit is a terrifying combination of the dark god Baal, Peter Pan, and Death. He’s an antagonist who lives in the minds of the hero and heroine and soon takes root there.
- BLACK JACK RANDALL (Outlander by Diana Gabaldon) He’s the only human on this list. A British Redcoat captain in 1700s Scotland, the infamous Black Jack Randall is a doppelgänger of the heroine’s husband—he’s also psychotic and apt to brutalize anyone he takes a fancy to. He’s another villain whose elegance conceals a beast and it seems to be a quality all my favorite baddies share.
What fun is fantasy (or any genre) without a memorable villain? All great stories deserve a great villain, and science fiction and fantasy are particularly ripe breeding grounds for some of the best—dragons, witches, dark overlords, renegade robots. Think about Voldemort. Or Sauron. Or any of the fairy tale witches hammered into the tender psyches of generations of children in Disney cartoons, dripping venom and pointed, blood-red nails in their cruel beauty. This is villainy on a grand scale, larger than life, playing to the balcony.
But in books, as is so often the case in real life, sometimes the worst, most egregious villainy is perpetrated not by the designated bad guys, but by more or less ordinary folks behaving very badly. Absolute evil is one thing, but these are the characters that get to me, the kind of acute, if life-sized villainy that turns this mild-mannered reader into a raving, justice-seeking Fury.
Consider Malta Haven in Ship of Magic, the first book in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. She may be a mere slip of a thing, but she’s fearfully spoiled by her absent sea captain father, a willful, covetous little brat who’s disrespectful to her (admittedly ineffectual) mother, and rebellious toward her grandmother, the formidable clan matriarch. In other words, she’s just like any other teenage girl at some time or other. But her headstrong actions will have grave consequences for her family’s honor and fortunes that she can’t begin to grasp—and the only thing worse than her heedless transgressions are the lies and conniving she resorts to cover them up. Malta is redeemed in later volumes, but in this book she’s the character readers would most like to see marooned on a desert island far, far away.
Then there’s Dolores Umbridge, from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She’s that unholiest of combinations, a tyrannical bureaucrat—imperious, racist, self-satisfied, physically abusive to Harry, and unshakably convinced of her own moral superiority. She’s also incompetent in the classroom, ensuring that her Defense Against the Dark Arts students won’t be able to defend themselves against so much as a mosquito, let alone the fearsome arsenal of Dark Arts Voldemort and his cronies are preparing for them. As her story wears on throughout this long book, her power grows (she ascends to the position of Headmistress at Hogwarts, replacing the beloved Dumbledore), and her pernicious influence spreads, readers are just aching to see her get hers. Whether or nor her fate at the hands of the Centaurs who drag her into the forest toward the end of the book is suitable to her particular crimes continues to be a matter of online debate. But the fact that she returns in later books to cause more trouble suggests she was not dealt with severely enough.
Finally, I give you Joffrey Baratheon in A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. The bastard boy-king of the Seven Kingdoms can’t even aspire to true villainy; that would require subtlety and cunning. And yet, as petty and insignificant as he is as a personality, he’s one of the most reprehensible figures in the entire George R. R. Martin universe—which is saying a lot. Ascending to the Iron Throne as a teenager, he knows nothing, and cares less about kingship, courage, statecraft, or inspiring anything but contempt and dread in his people. But if you need someone to tear the wings off a fly, Joffrey is your boy. Sadistic, vindictive, and stupid in equal proportions, he’s the kind of character who has readers lustily cheering—for a suitably horrible demise that can’t come soon enough.
As someone who writes more magical realism than fantasy, I have a complicated relationship with villains. After all, in real life villains don’t exist. I don’t really believe in people – or things – who are evil for no particular reason. Much more common (and insidious) is the character who believes herself to be just and good, but who is morally undone by her own flaws and weaknesses. I’m most interested in characters who are trapped by their own inescapable selfhood. As such, I have particular affection for Jack Torrance, the father in Stephen King’s The Shining. The literary Jack (rather than the Nicholson version from the film) is a recently fired teacher who is trying to salvage his career and family. King didn’t approve of Nicholson’s casting as Jack Torrance because Nicholson is too creepy to begin with; the literary Jack begins as a basically good man who is suffering from alcoholism, thwarted ambition, and persistent failure, whose marriage is hanging by a thread because he accidentally broke his son’s arm in a drunken rage. The ghosts in the Overlook Hotel encourage Jack to succumb to his addiction and his violent tendencies by slaughtering his family. Ultimately, though, Jack is compelling because alcoholic, violent, angry, frustrated men don’t need ghosts to push them over the edge of sanity and into the realm of the horrible. The “ghosts” in The Shining could just as easily be personifications of Jack’s own innate shortcomings, of the fact that Jack cannot undo who he essentially is. In that sense, any character – any person – has the potential to be a villain, which is the most terrifying truth of all.
I like my villains stronger, smarter, more powerful, richer, and generally a lot better off than the heroes facing them. I like them amoral, and at least slightly insane. Distant power figures. It’s always a great moment when you can see the strings pulling the hero along, ideally without an explanatory monologue. Tywin Lannister. The Beast in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. The Chandrian in Patrick Rothfuss’s books.
On the other hand, some of the villains I love most aren’t more powerful than their enemies, but characters whose desires you can identify with – Gollum. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Thalric, Seda – lots of good villains in that series. Any of the villains in Gaiman’s Sandman, especially Lucifer. Dr. Impossible in Soon I Will Be Invincible. Characters you feel should have been the heroes, characters that make you want to rewrite everything to let them win, just because they wanted whatever they wanted so much. These characters will inevitably end up becoming heroes if the series goes on long enough, simply because the author loves them too.
Wait, there’s more. The third category of villain I really enjoy reading is the all-round badass, the unstoppable monster who will enjoy nothing more than butchering the characters you love. Any David Gemmell villain. The Will in Saga. Pratchett’s werewolves and vampires. Croup and Vandemar in Neverwhere. The Nazgul.
So, essentially, plot, character and action villains, in that order. I realize that covers pretty much everything, but it’s that sort of question.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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