Thursday, May 27, 2010

FTA: What makes a great fictional Villian?

In response to a series over at Magical Words, today I'd like to chat with you about bad guys, particularly in epic fantasy.

I'm not talking about "antagonists", per se, though often these are one and the same.

Let me organize my thoughts for a moment. Undoubtedly this has been bounced around a bazillion times on the internet, so we can skip the redundant.


1) The GREAT EVIL. Taking our cues from Sauron in LoTR, what we have is someone bent on world domination, through the most destructive means possible. Non-sympathetic. Never in the story, do we get the impression that Sauron is misunderstood. (Notably, in Silmarillion, he at least has an interesting backstory, but he was always hungry for power.)

Thoughts: Necessary evil. Generic, in a sense. However, I think they can be written right, given some intelligence, some interesting vulnerabilities (drop the ring in some lava and it's all over!)

Overall, I don't mind reading about an overpowered megalomaniac, but I am not inclined to write about them.

2) The OTHER ONES. They are not us, therefore they are evil and must be destroyed. The Canids in Jim Butcher's Codex Alera, (evil) Saxons in Roman Britain, Spartans vs . (evil) Persians, etc.

Thoughts: This is far more common. The villians are sympathetic, they have followers, people who believe in their philosophies. This becomes a conflict based on economy, on religion, on geography - in short, the history of the world was built on this sort of conflict.

This villian is always in the telling. In my own writing, I prefer to make them understandable, to the point where the conflict lies between a fence as thin as a single strand of diplomacy. The cultural divide between warring nations often - if not predictably - falls upon the head of one despotic character (which again, history confirms). Kingdom of Heaven comes to mind as a movie which shows both sides of the conflict.

3) MAN vs NATURE. Nature as an external force, not internal urges. Even if you believe in creationism, Darwinism has a solid view in that the natural world will seek its own sense of balance. Hurricanes will come, Volcanoes will erupt, and predators will protect their hunting territory.

If you're considering mythological semi-intelligent creatures who follow the laws of nature, this makes for what? Understandably sympathetic aspect? Training, domestication, the fencing in of the natural world - the conflict is built right in to the perceived "correct" actions of the humanoid biological imperatives to thrive and survive.

Where this gets fun, in fantasy, is the usage of semi-intelligent "natural" creatures, who are capable of a degree of civilization - but are still bound by the very balancing laws of nature - versus the more Human nature of taking what is needed. Going back to LoTR, we have Ents.


Ah, there's more. I'll go on all day.

In my current WIP, there is an "evil", but they are not the antagonist of the main story arcs. The fact that there is any major conflict in what is an established paradise, is the issue.

In reading about villians, though, it occurs to me that I will have to go back and make them more sympathetic (More "other" and less "great evil"). The WIP is slightly a bit of a prequel, so the goal is to portray the possible lines of future changes.

My goal, as a writer, is to make all characters sympathetic (eventually). Some will be more interesting than others, and others that are doing the "right" thing will be easy to dislike.

We don't live in a moral vacuum, you know. That's the thing to remember. How wrong is the man who kills to protect his family, or who steals in order to not starve?

A Great Villian heightens the reader's moral compass, teaches a lesson about the portrayed path of actions and consequences, provides fuel for thought and introspection and self awareness - above and beyond the action/adventure the story portends.

Tell me about your favorite fictional villians, and why you remember them so.


  1. Uh am I allowed to say Spike in Buffy cause he's hot? hehe.

    Hmm. I always prefer villains who are sympathetic, I like to see their motives and what makes them tick, other than being simply super evil a la Sauron.

    It is always interesting to me to see a movie for example where the line between 'hero' and 'villain' is not really clear, two non fantasy ones that come to mind here are Heat and American Gangster.

    In terms of fantasy fiction, I really love Melisandre in the Kushiel Series her character is quite mesmerising, and in GRR Martin's series I am currently reading I have to say Tyrion is one of my favourites, even though I suppose technically he is a 'baddie'.

    I'm sure more will come to mind, but for me a great villain is someone who you can indentify with, even like in some way, or at least have an appreciation for their evil-ness.



    Villains are often my favorite characters, in any plot. I can't pick just one, as per my usual. ;)

    I've not thought of Nature as a villain...more a circumstance, I guess.

  3. Raine: Yes, American Gangster was a brilliant portrayal. Spike? I didn't watch Buffy, but in Angel, he was more "anti-hero" than villian.

    I'm looking forward to more Melisandre.

    Tyrion is a great choice, because his lines get increasingly grey as the story progresses. Likewise, I daresay, for Jaime Lannister. I say only, "you'll see what I mean." ;-)

    Luna: As I'm writing in the context of an Elemental world, and balances, 'natural' villians are a consideration. But, what I mean is Nature's responses to humanoid tendencies.

    Oddly, many ancient myths explore what Tolkien did more famously with Ents. Off the cuff, I want to cite Dryads as a nature biased, semi-intelligent creature. Or perhaps mermaids/sirens in a more regimented view.

    Assuming a force can control natural events, and a collective society will enforce their world view (i.e., dryads protect their forests at all costs, mermaids protect their waters the same), if it is against the protagonists want/need in the tale, that becomes a conflict.

    Actually, speaking of Carey, her first book had an elemental sort of villian towards the end, who had to be negotiated with to earn passage, and that came with cost.

  4. I have to admit I'm far more interested in "antagonists" than "evil." I like conflict but I'm not as interested in themes like the "battle between good and evil" where there is an evil force or character opposing the protagonist, so I'm not sure I have any real favourites in that sense.


Thank you for your comment.