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.