First, let’s take a moment to define “villain”: for me, it’s an individual character antagonist, as opposed to faceless implacable threats like viruses, mega-corporations, zombie plagues, etc. While stories about man vs. mindless monsters can be gripping, powerful reads, my favorite stories tend to have individuals as antagonists.
In Liane Merciel’s excellent guest post yesterday, she defined a villain as someone who makes a conscious choice to do evil. My own definition might leave out the “conscious choice of evil” part – I think one of the most unsettling of villains is the character who commits atrocities while wholeheartedly believing s/he serves the cause of good. But I would agree that when I think “villain,” I think of a character who is perpetrating evil in some way, not merely someone who’s preventing our protagonist from achieving a goal.
So what makes a great villain? When I think of my favorite bad guys, two characteristics come to mind:
1) Intelligence. The smarter they are, the more difficult it is for a protagonist to outwit and defeat them – which always makes for great tension in a book. (Assuming the author plays fair. Nothing will sour me on an otherwise great story faster than the Evil Overlord syndrome, in which a supposedly super-smart villain inexplicably does something idiotic just so our hero can defeat them.)
Since I love smart characters in general, I have a deep fondness for “devious chess match” stories in which a brilliant protagonist faces off against an equally brilliant antagonist. My favorite example? Lymond’s struggle with his antagonist in the 3rd and 4th books of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. (Can’t give the bad guy’s name, or else it’s a spoiler.) Yes, yes, I know, I’m always talking about Dunnett on this blog – but darn it, that’s because she was such an extraordinary writer. It’s hard to write a character as frighteningly smart as Lymond and make him believable – and harder yet to write an antagonist that can reasonably outmaneuver such a clever guy, without once resorting to authorial cheats.
2) Complexity of character. Sure, I’ve read and enjoyed many a book containing Dark Lord personification-of-evil villains, but honestly, when a villain has more to their character than “evil with a capital E,” I find them both more interesting and more disturbing.
We’ve a tendency to want to demonize people in history who’ve done terrible things. To believe that someone who slaughters innocents is incapable of feeling love and sympathy. It makes us feel safer, I suspect, to put them safely in the category of the alien other. After all, if only people so damaged and twisted as to be inhuman can do true evil, then we – who feel love and pity and concern – surely, we could never do such things. And yet I think of the concentration camp officers who were said to be devoted family men, and doubt that it’s so simple. It’s pretty unsettling to think we all contain the capacity to be monsters.
I’m always interested when an author deals in those shades of grey, as Guy Gavriel Kay did with the character of Brandin in Tigana. Though I must say my favorite of Kay’s villains is probably Galbert de Garsenc in A Song For Arbonne. I’m a sucker for villains with seriously cunning plans.
It’s pretty hard to talk about the villains in my own novel The Whitefire Crossing without spoiling the story. Suffice it to say that I aimed for both the “villain with the cunning plan” territory, and the idea that even the most sadistic and ruthless of characters may have more to them than simple self-interest.
What about you, blog readers? Anybody want to share their favorite villains? (I’m always on the lookout for cool books I might’ve missed.)