*WARNING! Some of the villains discussed in this post might give away essential spoilers if you haven’t read the corresponding book. I’ve marked these with spoiler warnings that indicate you should skip from there to the next paragraph. There is also a graphic passage quoted here that I’ve marked with a viewer discretion warning. Watch out!*
I’m going to start out by saying that I know I’m picky. It’s an unfortunate trait, and I’m surprised elementary classmates never paired it with my name to make a catchy chant.
One thing I can’t seem to help being picky about is the villain in a story. Anybody else have this particular quirk? I’ll be reading a book where I love the writing and just about everything else, and then suddenly a villain shows up and ruins the whole novel for me. It’s actually happened twice in the past month, and that’s what made me want to write about it.
First, I wanted to think of what makes a GREAT villain in my opinion. Some of the scariest ones that came to mind right away were Baba Yaga from Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment, or the gentleman with the thistle-down hair in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the Blackbringer in Laini Taylor’s first book in the Dreamdark series.
Take this terror-inducing passage, for example [viewer discretion advised!]:
Crucifixion would look merciful compared to what Baba Yaga did to those who opposed her. Hadn’t they seen it when, newly widowed, she had the leading men of the Drevlianians impaled or flayed alive as her way of answering their king’s marriage proposal? The one survivor, blinded and castrated, was sent back to report what his eyes had last seen, and to give his own genitals to King Mal in a little box as her answer to his words of love.
Similarly, the man with the thistle-down hair is made menacing by the fact that he also has zero scruples and zero regard for human life, despite his gentlemanly appearance. The Blackbringer has no regard for life at all, and its lack of ANY conscience makes it terrifying, sort of like Dane in The Adoration of Jenna Fox.
Maybe even these overly villainous villains would bug some readers, though. After all, do people that sinister really exist? I guess what does it for me is that they are believable.
Take King Leck in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. [Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read it!] I read one review that argued he wasn’t believable because he was all “nature” and no “nurture” — simply BORN bad — but actually I could see how his behavior had been reinforced by those around him all his life, and if you get used to getting your own way, if you can have whatever you want, and if no one ever taught you any morals (which we see in Fire was exactly the case), I think your harmful selfish actions become very believable.
Or think of Gar-Face in Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath. His background made him a 100% believable villain. Or Grandmother Mocassin in the same book, whose fault was loving her daughter too much and whose bitterness drove her to her crimes.
Or Queen Attolia. [Another spolier alert!] I can’t think of a better example of a terror-inducing villain who becomes so real that we fall in love with her along with Eugenides. She might be my favorite antagonist of all time, and how often could the antagonist turn into the true love? It’s genius.
What kind of villains bug me then? The sort who become cliches. The sort that Pixar’s The Incredibles satirizes when the bad guy, Syndrome, says, “I can’t believe it! You got me monologuing!”
In Juliet Marillier’s Cybele’s Secret, for example, the villain spends PAGES describing motivations and trying to convince the main character to join the dark side. If I were Marillier’s editor, I would have suggested cutting every scrap of that speech. It does nothing for believability and everything for reinforcing cliches and making me hear Darth Vader as I’m reading.
“Join me, Luke, and together we will rule the galaxy as father and son.”
I don’t really WANT to hear Darth Vader as I read. Or picture the villain rubbing his hands together and saying, “Mwah-ha-ha!” as I did when I read Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter and got to the chapter with the conspiring politicians. Those are bad signs, I think.
(By the way, this is where my pickiness should be taken into consideration. I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone does or should feel that way about the villains in these two books. I hope others read and love the books, because I think they are otherwise fantastic!)
One other thing I can’t buy into is when the villain’s sole purpose is to thwart the hero. I want a villain who has his or her own agenda. Even better, I want a villain who actually considers him- or herself the hero.
I had a conversation recently (that was bordering on gossip, I admit), where two of us were saying, “How could this guy DO that to his family?” We weren’t talking about a book; we were talking about somebody we knew. And the person I was pseudo-gossiping with said, “I just wonder what story he tells himself. How does he justify his own actions?”
It’s true, right? We are each the center of our own story.
Take Ian McEwan’s Atonement this time. [Spoiler!] Briony is the main character, and yet she is also the villain. She thinks she is doing the right thing, but her actions end up ruining at least two lives. She spends the entire second half of the book trying to right her wrong, trying to contact her sister and explain her side of the story.
That’s what it is, really. It’s the other side of the story. A villain should be so three-dimensional, so believable, that a good writer could tell the story from the villain’s POV and have us be sympathetic to him or her in some small way. Think of Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Or Queen Attolia or Grandmother Mocassin, again. You have to be able to reverse the roles to make it real.
Paul Gallico, who was a sports writer during the time of Babe Ruth and later wrote novels such as Love of Seven Dolls (another great example of falling in love with the villain), made this wise statement about Ruth and all his faults:
You learn eventually that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either. And until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something.
What do you think? How do you like your villains? Angtsy with a sinister bent? Immoral with a touch of nonchalance? Dangerously misguided with a heartbreaking hint of goodness? One-hundred-percent human and realistic, as Gallico suggests, or metaphors for pure evil?
Who are your favorite literary villains of all time?