Saturday, November 6, 2010


I love villains. I always have. I blame Disney.
As a child, I was always much more compelled by the Disney baddies than the insipid trilling protagonists. The villains always had the wittiest lines, the best costumes: the most fun. Remember when the queen from Snow White discovers the skeleton she’d left in the dungeon, forever stretching for a water pitcher just out of reach – and she laughs, asks, “Thirsty?” and kicks the pitcher at the skeleton, breaking the bones into pieces? “Have a drink!” she cackles. Ah, yes. Horrifying sadism, even after the poor soul is dead, plus killer bon mots. Meanwhile, Snow White is ululating about singing bees and wedding bells, and praying that her prince will come.

Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty was my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, she scared the crap out of me too, but man she cast an impressive figure in her sweeping purple robes and giant horns. Plus – pet crow. Plus – demon minions. Plus – can turn into a dragon. Let’s face it, those evil broads also had all the power, all the confidence, and in the case of Ursula the Sea Witch, a great rack.
I think my love of villains has also been supported by the fact that, most of my life, I’ve rather looked like one – when I was acting I’d always be cast as the murderer, the vampire, or at least the man-stealing bitch. An excellent ‘curse’ – not only are villains more fun to watch, they’re more fun to play.

I was pondering how one would categorize baddies, and came up with three general types, at least in the realm of sci fi/fantasy.
  1. Villain as monster/ mindless horde. Arachnophobia. Alien. Jaws. The Reavers from Firefly. And as fellow blogger Jon Hansen would tell you, best of all: zombies. These villains don’t think, have no ethical considerations, really no motivation, they just want to kill, kill, kill. They are unstoppable because of their supernatural powers and/or their sheer numbers.
  2. Villain as nigh on invincible, devil-like symbol of pure evil. Sauron from Lord of the Rings. Voldemort from Harry Potter. The Emperor from Star Wars. I think I’d also include Big Brother from 1984, and other governments/corporations. There usually is only one very specific, very difficult way to kill these nasties, and they often loom over the book or books, more as a feeling of dread than an actual person. Co-blogger Mark has created one of these devilish (in his book, quite literally) villains, but also many demons who fit into category #1.
  3. Villain as complex human. Saruman from Lord of the Rings. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Our own Lisa’s villains in her book fall into this category (a bully of a schoolgirl, a power-hungry, censoring schoolmaster), although you could argue that the real villain is the human race, in which case: category #2. Some of Shawn’s villains are deliciously human, but Shawn also has the horde of beasties AND the insurmountable lurking evil. All three evils! Well done Shawn! This is doubtless one of the reasons his story is going to take 3 books to tell.
In mulling this over, this villain classification, I realized that the only kind of villain I get emotional about is #3. Don’t get me wrong, I love the first two types, but…as a reader, for instance, I don’t hate Voldemort. I don’t hate Sauron, and I don’t hate zombies. You know who I hate? Dolores Umbridge. The more relatable a villain is, the more human they are, the more detestable they are. Voldemort, as mentioned earlier, is an inhuman, super powered, looming super villain. (Okay, for the most part. The more we learn about his humanity as the books go on, the more relatable he becomes, and therefore the more loathsome, and serial-killer like – but also, we start to see him as someone who could actually be defeated.) Dolores Umbridge, for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter books, is a petty bureaucrat, a censoring, controlling, power-hungry, child-abusing sadist. Oh, man, do you end up hating her. I mean, really hating her.

So then, it’s interesting, as a writer, to ponder the use of the different kinds of villains, and how the different types can affect the psyche of your reader in different ways. The horde and the godlike villain – it’s hard to envision ever surmounting the odds, or the sheer numbers, to obtain victory over them. The human villain, we can picture them going down, but more than that, we really, really can’t wait for it.
Since my book is a murder mystery, it’s tricky. My readers don’t know whodunit until near the end (unless, of course, they suss it out for themselves). My baddie definitely falls into the #3, Villain-as-Complex-Human category, but their villain-ocity is not revealed until long after all character development has occurred. They’re hiding their true nature… and it’s a tricky balancing act. Because once they are unveiled, and their true evilness is revealed, I really want my audience to say “OH! That’s a surprise, but it also makes sense.” It’s up to me to plant little clues to the person’s snaky nature throughout the book, without giving the goods away.
I think, next book, I’m going to create a less complex villain. Perhaps a giant blob, or fog, or herd of rabid bunnies. But then again, blobs rarely have delicious one-liners.*
So then: Who are your favorite villains?

*Although the occasionally have awesome theme songs.


Mark Teats said...

Hi Claudia. Wonderful post as usual. I love a good villain, too. At my son's school this year (helped at the class party) there were 14 Darth Vader's--yes, 14--but only a couple of Jedi. Vader and his Sith friend Maul remain a couple of my favorites. Maul lacked the great dialogue, but a good villain knows how to kick some serious butt--and should look good in black--which he does.

Jon said...

Great post!

A short list of my favorite villians:

Roy Batty
Hans Gruber
Darth Vader
Nurse Ratched
Noah Cross from Chinatown
Norman Stansfield from Leon

Qlaudie said...

That's hilarious, Mark, about all the teeny Vaders. And I'd say that Darth Maul rocks because he's essentially a monster... a silent martial arts robot of a killing machine.
Jon! Hans Gruber, Roy Batty (definitely a 'complex human,' even though he's not human at all) and Nurse Ratched! Fabulous.

Here's some more of mine:
Reverend Harry Powell from Night of the Hunter
Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca
From Buffy - The Mayor and Spike
The Borg

Okay, that's just off the top of my head. There are so many great ones!

Jon said...

The Mayor and Spike! Good ones.

Surprised by Witches said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Surprised by Witches said...

Hi Claudia,

Loved it! You're right, Voldemort is too over-the-top to be an object of hate, but Umbridge . . . I find her so horrible I have a hard time listening to the parts about her on the audio tapes my daughter listens to ad nauseum. She's just so, well, evil, and all the more so because she could easily choose not to be. Voldie's already round the bend by the time Harry meets him. Not that that excuses it, just makes him more of a dark shadow than anything else.

My faves? Well, of course Spike and the Mayor, you know me. And, ooh, Hans Gruber for sure. Good one, Jon. One that wasn't mentioned, and in my mind one of the best ever was Inspector Javert.

When I write I tend to redeem most of my villains, eventually. They always start out bad, but the more I explore their reasons, the more they do the same, until they're not so bad anymore. What does that say about me, I wonder?

Shawn Enderlin said...

Here's a few of my faces: Darth Vader, the Borg, the Shadows (B5), Khan, Gollum

But I'm really drawn to the complex ones, kinda like in your book. Snape definitely falls into that category as does Londo Molari (Babylon 5 again )

And - surprise! - I thought of a fourth type but that's too much to type in with my phone.

I see a Hump Day Surprise on the horizon...

Jon said...

"Hump day surprise" sounds like something you don't want to turn your back on...

Dawn Kunda said...

Hi Claudia,

Your mom sent me an email to check out your blog. I like your classifications of villains and I also prefer the more human type. I randomly read some of the others, but I can't imagine being able to write them so I personally stick with the "humans."
Have fun with your next villain!