How do you like your villains?

Over on Jenny Fallon’s blog the other day, she had a link to this article on villains at io9, a bit tongue in the cheek, which postulates that one of the reasons movies like The Dark Knight have done so well over the summer season (in the northern hemisphere) is because they have decently wicked villains.

The writer, Charlie Jane Anders, then gives a comprehensive list, with comments, of how good villains are ruined by script writers:
1) They get redeemed.
2) Too much information.
3) They become analogs of real-life nasties.
4) We see too much of their world.
5) Too many defeats …
6) …or victories
7) The villain that’s a reflection of the hero.

I can’t really comment because I am not much of a movie goer. What I really liked about the article were two comments towards the end:

  • Good villains make great stories. A truly chilling villain makes the hero seem more important because the stakes are important, and the hero’s actions matter.
  • A good villain has some kind of political message, but it’s subtler and woven into the storyline’s subtext.

I actually don’t feel that it is possible to extrapolate much of what Anders says into a comment on the written medium. Book villains, I feel, are much better fleshed out. In a film it’s OK to be thoroughly villainous; in a book the reader often wants more – why is the villain like that? Where is he coming from? How does she see herself? Readers want more subtlety than film goers. Am I right?

I do agree that too obvious an allegorical portrayal of a real life villain can be a real turn off, as can a miraculous redemption. If you don’t agree with me on this last point, try watching Hindi movies. Omigod. The utter rotter who has done despicable things to hero and heroine throughout a cinematographic marathon, suddenly turns good at the end? Or says, oops, sorry? Yuk. Or rather yuk unless done by a truly great writer.

I just looked back through my reading list for the year (on the bottom left sidebar of the this blog), and one villain stood out as the bloodiest I have read in a long time: Karen Miller’s Hekat from her Godspeaker trilogy. Not for the faint-hearted, the first book details the origins of Hekat’s villainy very well indeed. In fact, Hekat’s descent from sympathetic to hateful is brilliantly done.

More subtle by far, and perhaps even more chilling as a result, are the trio of villains of Marcus Herniman’s Arrandin Trilogy: Emperor Rhydden, his sycophantic and conscienceless henchman and the Archmage. In a way I wish they’d had more scene time and a bit more background detail.

So how do you like your book villains? Who are your great villains of fantasy and why?


How do you like your villains? — 14 Comments

  1. The best thing about Marcus’ writing is that the more you read, the more their subtle shadings become apparent.

    He steers a fine line between the polarised worlds that some writers portray (with everyone either being good or evil) without descending into the morass of “oh, well, they’re not evil, they’re just misunderstood and no-one’s to blame” psycho-babble.

    I think that one of the best things about fantasy is that it can depict worlds where, even though absolute good and evil exist, most people still tend to fall somewhere between the two.

    In Marcus’ books, Rhydden isn’t a pantomime villain or despot – he has to rule with the implied consent of the other nobles and knows exactly what he can get away with.

    He doesn’t blab his plans to his opponents before attaching them to his goldbergian contraption and wander off to make a cup of tea – he has them killed by competent underlings.

    And his heroes aren’t farmers with secret destinies – they’re well educated people who are protecting those things they consider precious, using skills honed over years.

    That’s what makes his books so real – he doesn’t really do “swords and sorcery” – it’s pseudo-medieval, pseudo-renaissance political intrigue.

  2. Just picked up my latest SFX magazine and there’s a great 4 star review of Song of the Shiver Barrens!! And a mention of your next book too. Those Karen Miller books were fabulous. Hekat’s descent was so beautifully conceived. Loved all the characters.

  3. I like to know how the villain became villainous. A good 3 dimensional villain adds colour to the story and sometimes a bit of empathy from the reader (as I found in the character Hekat from the Godspeaker trilogy).

    I find that the usual ‘power and wealth’ type villain is a bit overdone and I appreciate more complex reasons for their behaviour.

    Some of my favourite book villains..

    Jagang – from the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind.

    Voldermort – from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

    Captain Kennit – from the Liveship Trader series by Robin Hobb.

  4. You had a couple of superb villains in the Isles of Glory books, Glenda. Of course, if your tastes run to the classic melodrama villain – you know, the guy in black cloak who shrieks “Hahahahahaha – mine, all mine!”, you can’t go past Fiona McIntosh. And I loved the crazy prince in K.E.Mills’s The Accidental Sorcerer – we were never quite sure of his madness or badness until well into the book. He kept us guessing, as I think a good villain ought.

    The scariest villain I’ve read recently was Fenris the Feared in Jo Abercrombie’s recent trilogy. Actually he’s not so much a villain as a psychotic killing machine. I was dead scared of him. However, most of Abercrombie’s characters, like those of George R.R. Martin, are three dimensional. We see their good points as well as their faults, and any one of them can turn villain, given the right circumstances. Very realistic.

    I think I might be onto copies of the Arrandin books and I’m looking forward to reading them:-)

  5. I don’t Know yet for the Isles of Glory, i’m only ending the Gilfeather ^^

    Som of my favourites Vilain in fantasy Books is Severus Rogue in harry Potter, and many characters in Lotro as they walk on the line i believe. I like them because they are not obviously vilains, that is part of the story suspense.

  6. What interests (and slightly disturbs) me is the way so many people seem to have more of a fascination with movie or book villains than with the good guys; the way the baddies seem to be idolised as totally cool and kick-ass – evil is the new chic.

    I suppose it kind of begs the question of where you draw the line between the villain being a suitably formidable and complex adversary (the antagonist) and when she/he just hogs centre-stage and effectively becomes the protagonist?

    Having said that, one of the many things I like about Ligea Gayed in the Mirage Makers books is the way she starts out with the apparent outward trappings of a potential villain – the ruthless professional efficiency and cynicism of an imperial assassin – and then we get to see her metamorphosis into a complex heroine who doesn’t just kick the old habits out but transforms them into positive action (um, if that makes any sense!).

  7. As someone to hate, I do agree that Hekat fills the bill. I actually felt very sorry for her at the beginning.

    I haven’t yet read the Marcus Herniman books, I ordered one from the UK, it got lost in transit. I have ordered another from the States and after three weeks I still haven’t got it. Maybe the books just don’t want to come to me? Or maybe someone in Customs has taken a fancy to the book. I am told I should wait til the end of the month, so only 5 more days to possess my soul in patience and then I can start howling.

    I’m damned if I can remember Captain Kennit – looks like I will have to re-read.

    I find that with villains all I am waiting for is for them to get their comeuppance. Whatever kind of villain they are.

  8. Khaldan, you are absolutely right. Herniman is a very nuanced read – unfortunately that is not everyone’s cup of tea, but those of us who love that kind of book, it is like being privileged to peek into a real place for a time, and marvel at the complexity of a society and a world both like and unlike ours.

    2paw – gotta love SFX!

    Peter: I don’t remember much about the Goodkind books except that I skipped a lot of speeches, but Kennit is a character that has stayed with me. I was really really hoping he was going to come down on the side of good. Actually of the Hobb books, the Liveship trio were my favourites. There were such a lot of great characters there.

    Gynie: Gollum – what a great character balanced between evil and what he could have been…

    I have the first Abercrombie book, Satima, but have not read it yet. BTW, did you know you and I are chatting in French over here:

    Thanks Ru – I enjoyed writing Ligea. I love writing firstperson and yet revealing things to the reader that the point of view character doesn’t get…

    YOu know who I think is writing the best villains in fantasy at the moment? GRR Martin. Tyrion – is he good or bad? And can there be a worse pair of villains than his rotten-to-the-core siblings? And what about the other pair of brothers (Can’t remember the names – Sandor maybe? The ones that Sansha is having to deal with) who waver between good and evil…

  9. I mentioned recently on the Purple Zone that I’m halfway through Empress of Mijak and finding Hekat completely appalling. She is just so completely a sociopath that you lose all the early sympathy for her.

    Can’t think of any villains that have scared the bejesus out of me…

  10. Rats, I can’t find our chat among all the rest of the Frenchness on the Elbakin site. I guess it reads better in English, anyway, but it’s great that you are popular enough with French readers for someone to bother translating it!

  11. In my previous post I forgot to mention another great villain – the smirking, sly and ruthless Firgan from the Mirage Makers.

    btw, in GRRM’s story I think the brothers you are referring to are Sandor and Gregor Clegane. The latter has the nickname of the ‘Man Mountain’.

  12. I had forgotten the Cleganes. Doesn’t Sandor have some redeeming features though? Long time since I read these books.

    I was thinking today, aren’t most of you considering villains from a writer’s perspective? I of course only consider them as a reader and basically, don’t consider them other than to hate them, or not, in the story.

  13. Jo, a writer feels that too as a reader, but we go one step further and ask ourselves, “How did the writer achieve that state in the reader?” It’s the logical progression.

    Every now and then I read a book which is so brilliantly written that I forget to ask myself. Now that is the greatest of all writing.

  14. You see I don’t analyse the books I read, I either enjoy the story and the way its written or I don’t. If its really badly written I might chuck it out, but if the story is good enough that can hold me. Witness the stories I am reading now by Katherine Kerr. Her first books were very stilted, but I liked the story. I have just finished book 6 which was much better. But I don’t concern myself with whether the villains are well written I am just convinced or not as the case may be.

    Maybe I am too naive about it all. I just read to read.

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