I started this post as a “Top 10” list of my favourite fantasy villains. I wanted a quick sum up of my favourites, something to try to explain what I like in a good villain. I wanted a quick post that would generate some hits, and maybe even some senseless ire from people whose favourite bad guys didn’t make the cut.
But I don’t work that way, I don’t write that way, and soon I had a mess of a list that made no sense.
I guess, really, I don’t read enough fantasy to really make such a broad statement. I don’t have enough fantasy villains to fill a top 10 list. (Seriously, I had Garack from DS9 and Lost’s Benjamin Linus on my list…) Strange thing to say for someone who writes fantasy? Yeah, probably… I’m working on it, but I read a lot more than just fantasy, and villains can be found everywhere. The problem I find with the fantasy genre in general is the length of some series. The big baddies (the ones like Sauron, Voldemort, or Shai’tan from the Wheel of Time) can only sustain their constant villainy by being faceless representations of evil. Sure, we hear their stories, the legends of how these bad guys came to be forces of destruction and malice, but as characters they don’t grow. They can’t. To keep on being the antagonists for our tireless heroes to fight against, they must remain faceless, changeless representations and not become actual characters.
The ones I do like are generally the lesser villains. The secondary antagonists. Severus Snape. Jamie Lannister. Asmodean. These are the villains I like, the ones I’m drawn to. The problem is, I feel, is as the story unfolds most of these villains cease to be villains. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. To misquote Harvey Dent, either you die a villain, or you live long enough to see yourself become the hero.
Think of Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. He’s set up to be absolutely hated by the reader, but when we see his side of the story, we begin to understand him. Then we cheer for him, and he’s no longer a villain. Wasn’t it Orson Scott Card who wrote “When you really know somebody you can’t hate them”? Snape is the same. And so sets up a fine line between hating a villain and understanding a villain. We’ve all heard that villains should be deep, fully fleshed out characters that have reason for their depravity. But fleshing out a villain, really getting into why they’re the way they are, can often lead to liking the villain too much. I want a villain I understand, but one still disagree with. These shades of grey are great for anti-heroes, but honestly…they kind of deflate the bad guys.
For me, a good villain isn’t a character who is the biggest bad ass. Being a killer, being a sadistic, torturous, bloodthirsty psycho monster doesn’t make you a long lasting villain. Villains, for me, are different from monsters. The Joker wavers back and forth across this line for me. Others, like Freddy Krueger, the xenomorph from Alien, or the shark from Jaws fall well over this line.
They’re monsters, and they’re good at it. They scare you and they drive the plot along. But I’m not sure if they’re really villains.
I get it, the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe wants power, but she’s just there because the Pevensie kids need an adversary to make the story. Same with Sauron. Even with all the extra mythology surrounding Lords of the Rings, Sauron is pretty much just a faceless source of malice for heroes big and small to rally against. Sure, both Sauron and the White Witch are great at being terrifying bad guys for little kids…but as I’ve gotten older they just don’t stand up.
In fantasy, I’ve thought a lot about both Dancer and Mallick Rel from Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, or for that matter, Skinner from Esslemont’s Malazan books. They provide general villainy (well, not Dancer, he’s a good guy), they keep things rolling, but are they big bads to weave epic tales around on their own? Not so much. They do well in the grand tapestry of those stories, but nothing (good or bad) stands alone in Malazan.
Some of you will mention Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy and say Glokta or another certain character (not gonna say his or her name because…well… spoilers) are great villains. Glokta is far to likeable, and really is a hero. The other one…well, yeah, you might be right there. Others will point to Mark Lawrence’s Jorg Ancrath. Meh. While he does some messed up crap, come on, he’s the hero.
There are lots of other villains who are awesome. Who are top notch. Especially in movies, but this is usually due to the actor, maybe not so much the ‘character’. Think, like, Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs, Annie Wilkes from Misery, or Brick Top from Snatch. Of course these are great villains. (Yes, I know they’re not fantasy villains.) But they don’t last as long as for me. They don’t linger. And there, I guess, I my problem.
I want a villain I can hate, someone that gets under my skin and makes me want to join the fight.
My favourite villain, in any fantasy tale, is the Gmork from The Neverending Story. He scared the absolute crap out of me as a kid, in the movie and in the book, and as I’ve gotten older and reread (and re-watched) the story, I’d argue that he still holds up. He’s a beast yes, but he’s aware of his actions on the larger scale, not just hungry or defending his alien queen. He’s not a monster. The part is relatively small, but that character is an evil that has stuck with me for years after. And, like the others, I can understand his motivations. I get it. The Nothing (the very definition of faceless evil, which does make the Gmork the lesser, secondary villain) is…in a way…desirable. As I’ve gotten older, and all that ennui and hopelessness and apathy that piles up on our shoulders as life just starts to lose meaning…well, there are days when I really get why the Gmork is the way he is.
BUT – in this case, the understanding doesn’t go any farther than that. This is a villain I can understand, but one that I can still fight. One that will never win me over completely. One I can still hate for his decisions, even though I understand why he made them.