Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Best Villains of All Time?

"You look at the greatest villains in human history, the fascists, the autocrats, they all wanted people to kneel before them because they don't love themselves enough."
Tom Hiddleston

Let's talk villains!!! I'll do a series of posts on different types and classes of villains. Today, we're talking about Primary Evil Villains.
But aren't all villains evil, you ask? Well, yes. But there are different types of villains. Some are evil, some are kind of goofy/idiotic. And sometimes the rules for secondary villains aren't the same as for main ones. I'll address all this eventually, but for today I'm focusing on Primary, Evil Villains.
To define: These villains are the main antithesis to the hero/heroine. They are evil, ugly, intimidating, and always get booed by the audience.
What makes a great villain of this sort? Who are your favorites? How can we be certain our villains are popping off the page?
All right, one question at a time!
What makes a great villain? This is a loaded question, but the short of it is: the same things that make great heroes! That's right. Just as a perfect (i.e. flat), awesome, chivalrous, in-all-ways good hero will come off as cheesy, unrealistic, and forgettable, so all-bad villains will do the same. Why was Darth Vader so memorable? Because he "had good" in him, which Luke (his son, no less!) had to find, tease out, and convert. If you can make your villains every bit as rounded as your heroes, they're much more memorable.Let's talk about looks. Of course not all evil people look evil. (Pedophiles try to make themselves look pleasing in order to lure their prey, unfortunately.) Yet, even so, evil things in my experience just exude wrongness. It's hard to bring such an abstract feeling across in a story, so one great way to do it is through looks. Darth Vader's other major villain-advantage is his strange look, and (let's face it!) sound! Two breaths (hoe-puh!) and we know EXACTLY who we're supposed to be channeling. I'm sure there's something to be said about beautiful villains, and there are many examples of how well this can be done, but I'm more a fan of the intimidating villain. Looking scary is probably the best way to intimidate. Hence, my point.In Twilight, there's a child vampire named Jane. She is supposed to look very innocent, yet she can inflict massive amounts of pain and has no conscience about it. In the book, I thought she was a great villain, but I thought her big screen version lost something. Don't get me wrong: I'm a big Dakota Fanning fan, (?) but I just didn't feel the evil coming from her Jane performance. When I complained about it, my sister pointed out to me that in the book, that was why Jane was so creepy: because she seemed very innocent, but wasn't. I don't know, though. I still think there should have been something, anything, even something subtle that would make us afraid of her. For me, there wasn't. It came off as fake and pulled me right out of the story.
Maxwell Drake makes a good point about this. He says you can tell an awesome villain by how many kids go as them for Halloween. How many Darth Vader costumes get sold every year? It probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Lots of Darth Mals too. This year I'm sure we'll see plenty of Lokeys, Bains, Jokers, and various Hunger Games characters. Of course there's always Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange.What about what Drake calls, "Tolkien's stupid big red eye"? (His words, not mine.) His point is that not many kids dress up as the "stupid big red eye of Sauron." Nor do we see many of Robert Jordan's Dark One. Why? Because they aren't tangible. We can't picture them. Kids have no frame of reference for how to pretend to BE them.
Make your villains tangible. How? Give them a memorable look. Give them range and depth. How? By giving them history and a back story.
In my opinion, there was nothing at all redeeming about Voldemort. He didn't have "some good" in him anywhere. Not anymore. So why was he an awesome villain? Well, his look was definitely memorable for one. He also had a complex back story. How does this make our villain's relatable? Because it makes them human. Maybe they're nothing but big stupid red eyes now, but once they were human. Once they made the same mistakes we do. And their choices led to their fate. J.K.Rowling's decision to link Harry and Voldemort was ingenious because it made us all very aware that Harry could possibly BECOME Voldemort (Heart of Darkness-style) and in our minds that posed a great threat to our beloved boy wizard. Hence, we became very involved in the story and chanted just as hard against the villain (Rick 'em rack 'em rock 'em rake! Stick that sword into that snake!) as we did for Harry (Yea, Harry!)
One more thing before I end: anyone know what a FOIL is? No, it's not shiny aluminum food-preserver! Only the geekiest of English majors know that a foil is when the attributes of one character bring out the opposite attributes of another. So a villain's evilness can serve to emphasize a heroes goodness. If your villain and hero are both well-rounded and your conflict puts them sufficiently at odds, this happens naturally. In other words, if your villain is awesome, your hero and story as a whole will be awesome too, by default! (Score!) Go through all of your favorite stories and see if this isn't true!
Some of the most memorable villains I've seen come across (other than those listed above):
Silas, of The Davinci Code (Self-flagellating, homicidal albino monk? Yeah, definite creep factor!)
Bane, of The Dark Knight Rises (Darth Vader face apparatus? Check. Interesting back story? Check.)
Jamie & Cercei Lannister, of A Song of Fire and Ice series (beautiful, but twisted and deceitful. Human like Greek gods are human, and similarly, don't piss them off!)
Jagang, of The Sword of Truth series
This is just a few that came readily to mind. Who do you think are the best villains of all time?


  1. You've named some of the best ones.
    A unique twist on the villain theme is at the end of The Usual Suspects when you realize the villain and the hero are one and the same.
    Oh, and Hannibal Lecter was a great villain.

    1. I forgot about Hannibal! He's definitely great! I haven't seen the Usual Suspects. I'll have to check that one out! Thanks Alex! :D

  2. I think I am in love with you. Hiddleston, Darth Vader and Sauron in one post? And I was disenchanted by Jane as well, really disappointing. I do think Sauron is an amazing villain and he has a fascinating background story in 'The Silmarillion'. Darth Vader will probably always be my favourite villain because he shows how humans become villains and how there is a chance for redemption.

    I will definitely check back for your upcoming posts! :D

    1. LOL. Thanks Juli! I appreciate the support! :D

  3. Yes, clearly Darth Vader would be at the top of the list. I also liked Alex's inclusion of Hannibal Lechter -- that's a great suggestion.

    I'd throw out Bram Stoker's Count Dracula -- he's been the archetype for multiple generations of portrayals, clones, and off-shoots, from Nosfeatu to Bela Legosi to Christopher Lee to Ann Rice's Lestat to Wesley Snipe's Blade to Twilight's Edward to a million others.

    1. Good point! Dracula is definitely a classic! The thing I love most about him is that there are so many different versions, spin-offs, etc (as you point out with the many pop culture vampires) but he never gets old. You can always do something new (or classically the same) with Dracula and no one ever gets sick of him. :D Good one!

  4. Villains are very important, without them we have no hero. Disney used to have this show, well not really a show but it was a special feature where they would showcase their villains and I think they did it every Halloween late at night. Hmm my favourite villain? I love the Joker from The Dark Knight Rises, Mal from Inception she wasn't your typical villain in the standard sense but she did work against our "heroes" from time to time and mess up their plans. Moriarty from the television show Sherlock, so brilliant but also so cruel.

    Scribing Shadows

    1. All great choices! Heath Ledger got a posthumous Oscar for his performance as Joker, and rightly so. He did one of the best villains we've seen in a long time. And I LOVED Mal from Inception! I thought her villainy was such great twist. (Thought the name was a bit on the nose, but maybe that's only obvious to writers and English majors; I don't know. :D) Moriarty's great too. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Oops I mean The Dark Knight not The Dark Knight Rises. #facepalm

  5. Great post! I was totally going to say Heath Ledgers Joker, he was amazing in that role!

    I love a villian you "love to hate", I know I have villians I love to hate but since I'm trying to think of them, I can't think of them. Ohhh Erik circa season two of True Blood! Ok I never hated him, he's too damn hot to hate him, but he was such a DICK and I loved it. =)

    -Amanda P
    Paranormal Romance

    1. LOL. Yeah I know what you mean. The best villains are the ones you love to hate. I don't watch True Blood but my sisters do and I catch snatches, so I know exactly who you mean. Thanks for stopping by! :D