Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 3 of 5: Villains We Can Relate to

Fantasy may be one of the few genres in which a true arch-villain is possible, someone who is purely evil and bent on the destruction of the world.  Political thrillers aside, not many other types of fiction can pull this off.  It’s one reason why I think fantasy remains popular: it’s comforting to step into a world where the bad guy is easy to identify.  There’s no grey area or nuance: Sauron is evil incarnate, and we’d better find a way to stop him.

That said, I’ve never been a fan of the “serial killer villain.”  You know the type, the villain with no motivation other than destruction and pain for its own sake.  It can be done well (Iago?), but more often than not, this kind of bad guy is just boring.  Far more interesting is the villain who wants something, whether it’s a candy bar or eternal life, and even more powerful is when that villain wants something I might want myself.  In other words, what makes a great villain is also what makes a great hero: relatability.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort is a compelling villain because even though he’s as evil as it gets, his desires are the dark side of our own.  He fears death—who doesn’t?  He wants power and control, the same thing every politician strives for.  Of course, unlike us normal folks, Voldemort has let his fears and desires control him, and he’s developed the resources to act on those desires.  He’s a rare and stunning example of a truly evil villain who maintains believable motivations.

I don’t think the series would work half so well, though, if it didn’t include such a rich array of sub-villains.  Rowling weaves in a ton of them, and not all of them want the same thing as the arch-villain.  They aren’t quite as evil, but they are more accessible.  If heroes exemplify what we most admire in ourselves, villains are reflections of the qualities we detest, and Rowling’s sub-villains do this beautifully, even going so far as to reflect the flaws of the heroes we’ve grown to love.  

For example, Dolores Umbrige’s controlling authoritarianism is Hermoine’s respect for rules gone terribly, horribly wrong.  Lockheart’s childish avarice for recognition echoes Ron’s dissatisfaction living in shadow of Harry and his brothers.  And the disrespectful Mundungus, who's not quite a villain, is a sad shadow of the rebellious Sirius Black, who's not quite a hero.  In the heroes, these character traits are mixed with courage and goodness, and so they lead to good things: Hermoine’s sense of justice, Ron’s loyalty, Sirius’s fearlessness in the face of danger.  In the villains, they become coldness, vanity, and selfishness.  Part of what makes these villains so powerful is that they reflect the ways we could go wrong, just like the heroes show us how to go right.

What do you think makes a good villain?


  1. Ugh, that last long paragraph you wrote, THAT'S WHY she's so amazing. (Rowling.) The whole hero seeing himself/herself in the villain thing. The Lawrence of Arabia staring-in-horror-at-the-gun moment. It's gold, and she does it with side characters.

    What makes a good villain, for me, is someone who wants a good thing but will do despicable things to get it.

  2. Ooh. Very interesting discussion.

    You know, for me, a villain who wants pain for pain's sake is probably one of the scariest. I don't mean in the sense that he's just poorly written, but the psychology behind somebody delighting in pain. The person with the dangerous fascination with parts of humanity -- how we physically look inside -- now they freak me out. The Ice Truck killer from Dexter is a great example. When somebody's on that other level of reasoning, and the whole point is that I can't see myself ever getting there because it's just so screwed -- that terrifies me.

    All that said, my favourite ever villain is the Goblin King from Labyrinth. Possibly because he's hot.

    [Retreats to shallow corner of shallowness]

  3. @Lucy

    Goblin King. Mmm, *hums Dance Magic Dance*

    "Pain for pain's sake" made me think of The Silence of the Lambs.

  4. @ Jaimie: I really like your definition of a villain. It emphasizes the role of choice, which I think is very important. Plus, giving them good intentions makes them much more nuanced. And YES on Rowling. The more I pick apart her work, the more I think she's a genius.

    @Lucy: I agree that the pain-for-pain's-sake villains are the freaky. (They're definitely the scariest in real life.) I've never seen Dexter (I know!), but now I'd like to check it out. Also, hot villains are awesome. I recently read an urban fantasy in which the heroine and the villain hook up even after she knows he's the villain (but it's okay, because he's the tortured type). Loved it. [Joining you in shallow corner.]

  5. Read the Dexter books. They're dark and snarky and evocative in a kind of masculine, bloodthirsty way.

    Jump the magic jump...

  6. This is a very interesting topic and good discussion. The villain that sticks out to me is one that is so hidden in doing good that their jump to the wrong side surprises everyone (Colonel Miles Quaritch.)
    Thanks for the topic. I enjoyed reading your work.

  7. @CF Thanks! Surprise villains are great, especially when you can go back and see all the little hints that you didn't pick up on at the time.

  8. I agree that complexity in a villain is paramount to making them memorable. It also makes you want to delve more into what makes them tick. I am enjoying your dissection of the Potter books; Snape's motivations make him so much more interesting, as do Dumbledore's. Neither of them have firm feet in the camps they started in.

  9. Thanks! And I completely agree about Snape...one of the best characters in the whole series. He's fascinating. So much of the story hinges on him and his choices, it's almost a story abut him.