Thursday, 13 May 2010

Thoughts on Villains

I was talking about villains to Steve the other day, and I think I got rather passionate in my views on the subject. So I thought, hey, why not blog about it? After all, baddies/antagonists/villains/wicked types are essential to most stories and most novels. As readers, writers and book-lovers, aren't villains almost as important to us - if not as important - as the protagonists and heroes?

There have been millions of antagonists in the literary world, ranging from caricature blustering bad guys to the more subtle kind of evil. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and it always comes down to this question: which kind of villain is more effective/more interesting to read/watch? Outright, bone-chilling evil? Or someone more ambiguous? 

I thought I'd talk about a couple of my favourite antagonists and try and pinpoint why they work so well (for me, anyway. Feel free to disagree!) 

   Melisande Shahrizai from Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books (two trilogies)
   I hated Melisande almost from the moment we met her, and obviously, that's one of the things a writer must want her readers to do. To hate the antagonist for her cruelty, her manipulation, her ambition, her general coldness and brilliance and the pain she puts our beloved protagonists through. Jacqueline Carey could have left Melisande this way, leaving us with the impression of an awful, chilling, clever, beautiful woman.

Instead, she humanizes her. Melisande shows Phedre mercy when she didn't necessarily have to. She shows genuine shock when she finds that one of her schemes resulted in the death of a man I think she truly counted a friend. And ultimately, with the birth of her son Imriel and her surprising love for him, she is redeemed. I don't think readers ever quite forgive her, but she redeems herself for Imriel.
I loved this about her. That she was human, that there was an arc to her, that she showed more characteristics than 'coldness' and 'brilliance'. I loved that she was ambiguous, in the end, that you couldn't predict what she might or might not do.

I felt similarly about Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, because she too had an arc: she went from a cold, wicked, truly frightening woman to one who sacrifices her life for the right cause and, more importantly, for her daughter's sake. I don't think anyone didn't hate Mrs. Coulter in Northern Lights, but did anyone continue to hate her as much by the time you finished The Amber Spyglass?

   Scar from The Lion King
   I could sit and listen to Scar all day. I hated him, I detested him, but I also love him. This, I will quite frankly admit, is largely down to the incredibly way Jeremy Irons voiced him. While many could (rightly) argue that Scar is inspired by Claudius from Hamlet, I've never felt about Claudius the way I do about Scar.

There is very little ambiguity to Scar, which shows that it's possible for a villain to be effective without necessarily being ambiguous. But he has something very essential: he has charisma. His voice charms, his manner woos. I really think antagonists must have, if not ambiguity, then some kind of charisma to draw you. There's very little fun in an antagonist who whispers coldly from the shadows and does little else (*cough* Sauron *cough*)

   Mrs. Holland from Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke
   Okay, so Philip Pullman seems to be a dab hand at character. Mrs. Holland is, for most of the novel, a vicious, amoral, nasty piece of work, and if anyone's seen the BBC adaptation of the book, you'll know Julie Walters does an incredible job of bringing this character to life. There's nothing Mrs. Holland won't do, which makes her terrifying.

But in the end, we also discover that she is, quite simply, mad. Her obsession with the ruby has long since driven anything good out of her, and that makes her quite a sad character, a figure who loved and was betrayed and has been driven mad by obsession. This adds a dimension to her that might not be as frightening as her wicked incarnation, but it does make her a hundred times more interesting.

Of course, this has to be done well and done originally to work, as Mrs. Holland does. Books about psychotic killers who were abused as kids are tired, overdone, and, quite frankly, make most readers feel a lot less sympathetic. It's an awful excuse and I really hate reading about it, which is why Pullman's version is different and originally executed. When reading about the abused-kid-turned-killer, I always think, 'fine, but what about all the abused kids who have turned into lovely, good people? They don't count? It's not a blinking excuse!'

Sorry. Rant over.

So there you have it, my thoughts on villains and antagonists. What do you think about the examples I've offered? If you know these villains, do you think they work as well as I felt they did? What are your favourite antagonists and why do you think you like them/love to hate them/find them so interesting?

P.S. The least effective villain? The ones who never show up.


  1. Personally, my favorite villains are the ambiguous or partially likable ones. I like conflicted villains who have some good in them, and I also like "pure evil" villains that are highly likable--like Disney's Scar or, my all-time favorite villain, Hannibal Lecter.

  2. Goodness me, yes, I absolutely love Hannibal Lecter too! Such a great character, and SO complicated and unpredictable!

  3. I haven't read those books... Though some of them are waiting on my "shelf" (I have more books than I can ever read in my entire lifetime, even if I did nothing but read. It's great!)

    Hmm... Clearly many stories are set in dichotomic worlds and many of them work wonderfully. Undeniably, Good versus Evil makes for good stories...

    But I tend to prefer when things are awash with gay and black. That's one of the things I like about a good chunk of Japanese fiction. It has things that are dangerous, lethal, but not necessarily malevolent or evil. If you haven't seen Mushishi, I highly recommend it. It illustrates my point perfectly.

    Sorry, tangent set aside... I'm looking for a villain that made a mark on me... Scraping my mind and coming up with zilch.

    Miss Ratchet? From one flew over a Cuckoo's Nest. Yeah. That's a good villain. Masked in white and good intentions, hiding a rotten core.
    Professor M also comes to mind, not as a villain, but as an antagonist. In my mind he's not that different from Holmes except that a different set of moral values and goals makes their confrontation inevitable... And fortunately for him, he is up to the task. It's through M's superior intelligence that Holmes gets to go beyond his usual levels of genius and really shine. And we get treated to the dueling minds of two geniuses. That makes an awesome antagonist.

    Hmm... Well that was a rambling opinionated comment. I'll try to think more clearly next time. : p

  4. I agree completely - I've read all the books you've mentioned and you're absolutely right. No villain is ever purely evil unless we're talking comic books (and even those are complex in most cases).

    I find this one of the infernally difficult things about writing - never mind the MC, the "hero". It's the villain who troubles me. Either they turn out to be charicatures of what they are meant to be like, or I end up liking them better than my good guys, because let's face it, bad guys are sexy. ; P

  5. This was a very timely post for me to read as one of the big things I need to do in my re-write of one of my manuscripts is make my villian more three dimensional. I suck at writing villians. lol. Thanks for a great post.

  6. I prefer bad guys who have a little more depth to them. But traditional, black and white villains can be fun in the right context. Mentioning Disney made me think of Ursula from the Little Mermaid. She was awesome. I tend to prefer female antagonists. Women want more than blood; they want your soul.

  7. (Harping on about Ender's Game once again) The buggers are a really good bad guy - pure evil until someone takes the time and effort to get to know them, and understand them, and show them to be much greyer.

    Hollywood has got a bit boring with all the bad guys with long backstories that explain why they're bad - they aren't bad per se, just morally different... it would be nice to have a genuine bad guy.

    And hey, the daleks are pure black... they make brilliant villains...

  8. Ah, of course, Moriarty. I agree with you on that one, Alesa, though I often think we saw too little of him to be fully made aware of how interesting/morally questionable he could be. Still, he was a brilliant foil for Holmes!

    Tessa: bad guys are definitely sexy! I often have that problem too, where I just end up more interested in them and their motives than in my 'good' main character. The antagonists are always more interesting to write, I think!

    You're welcome, Mary, and good luck with the re-writes!

    Amy: I always preferred Scar to Ursula, though I did find her very creepy and charismatic. But I think you're totally right about women 'villains' wanting everything from their victims, body and soul.

    Oooh, that's a brilliant point about the buggers and why they were effective, Steve! Have to say, though, I don't find the Daleks all that interesting. Scary, maybe, but I guess it depends on what you measure your villains by.

  9. You have a cute blog! I love the background.

    Villians for me really are based on the story itself, I could go either way and I know what I'm hoping for while reading the book as the story moves along.

    There were tons of good one's named but I want to choose two from the same novel, Professor Snape and Voldemort. I think these are both villians in the story, obviously one is worse than the other, I find Snape likeable in a evil witty sort of way. He's intriguing and it's hard not to like and hate him all at noce. Voldemort on the other hand isn't necessarily likeable but he's someone to feel sorry for, either way you're getting more of an emotion than pure disgusting hatred. Those are the kind of villians I prefer... but hey I'm not against the down right evil either!

  10. I've found I like heroes that have a twinge of villian in them (or sometimes more than a twinge) like Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter. It reinforces my view that good and evil are sometimes a matter of perspective.

  11. Just found a post you might like, all about character debth... ; )
    (Blog belongs to author Lynn Viehl)