I’ve been thinking a lot lately about villains, and what makes a great one. And although I put a picture of good ol’ Voldy up here, I actually am of the opinion that if the Harry Potter series has a shortcoming (GASP!), it is in the characterization of Voldemort (don’t worry, I will still take Harry Potter’s shortcomings over most other series’ strengths any day). And this is because he spends over half the series as just Super Evil Supervillain Who is Evil for the Sake of Being Evil.
Later on, he got some back story, but it was never really enough to make me feel him as a character. He was simply a foil for Harry (and, you know, the rest of humanity), because having a mega-evil über-wizard as Harry’s nemesis made for some awesome story lines.
So. If Voldemort is not the epitome of all villains, who is?
I’m pretty sure you are not going to be able to predict my answer here. Please bear with me.
Yup, my favorite villain of all time is Inspector Javert from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.
Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, seen the movies, or heard the music. Because the reason I love him can translate to something you are familiar with.
Basically, Javert is a police officer who spends the entire story attempting to hunt down an escaped convict and return him to prison. He also tries to serve his country by infiltrating a renegade group of students who are fanning the flames of rebellion among the citizens of France.
And he’s the bad guy.
The reason he’s my favorite is because he’s so well developed, that if Victor Hugo had decided to write a Les Misérables companion novel from Javert’s POV, he could have easily become the protagonist. His motivations are solid, and he honestly believes he is doing the right thing throughout the entirety of the story by thwarting our heroes at every turn. He is the hero in his own story.
Switching from the book to the musical for a minute (which is absolutely not completely accurate to the book, but which I love and have seen live five times, and am immensely excited for the movie), Javert also sings my favorite song in the show. If you didn’t know anything about the story and just heard this song, you could believe that this is a hero’s anthem.
So stepping away from 19th century French literature for a moment, how does this apply to modern villains? To Voldemort and Umbridge, President Snow and Cato, Victoria and the Volturi?
I think there’s a few things that set a great villain apart from a decent villain.
Decent: Has a well-developed origin/back story.
Great: Has a well-developed, somewhat sympathetic (not necessarily entirely, but at least partially sympathetic) origin/back story.
Decent: Has his/her own reasons for wanting to thwart the hero other than because they are supposed to.
Great: Has his/her own compelling and understandable reasons for wanting to thwart the hero. Note: These do not have to be sane reasons. Some of the best villains are complete loons with no moral center. But even with the craziest villains, we should be able to follow their reasoning, even if we don’t agree with it.
Decent: Is dark and scary and kind of a caricature.
Great: Is dark and scary and real.
Decent: Thinks he/she is the hero of his/her own story.
Great: If the story was told through his/her eyes, we could easily be convinced that he/she is the hero of the story, and that the hero is the villain.
So who are some great villains? Well, none of the ones I listed above, sadly. But here are some I do think are great, taken from movies, TV, and books.
Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.
This would be a great example of the character being completely crazy. I don’t think he could ever convince any of us that his disturbing cannibalistic fashion statements were based on sane brain function. But even though he is certifiably nuts, he has a way of always making twisted, shiver-inducing sense. And that, to me, is the scariest part of his story.
Detective Jimmy Shaker, Ransom.
This isn’t the greatest movie ever, by any means, but I always thought Gary Sinise’s Detective Shaker was an amazingly nuanced and well-developed villain. If you haven’t seen this 1996 flick, I’d recommend it for Shaker alone.
Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He was never a pure villain or a pure hero. Even when his mission in life was to kill our favorite sassy slayer, it was hard not to root for him. And even when he was trying to turn it around, you could sense the darkness just beneath the surface. Spike is one of my favorite characters of all time, in any medium, because of all these layers.
Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring.
I have now officially seen the movie so many times that I can’t view Boromir objectively anymore — I can’t see any part of his slow succumbing to the ring without thinking of everything that follows — but I remember hating Boromir the first time I read Fellowship. But at the same time, it was so believable watching this gradual descent from a celebrated hero into a bitter man under the ring’s control. Speaking of which…
Gollum, The Return of the King.
Granted, Gollum spends the entire Hobbit/Lord of the Rings series being villainous, but he reaches his most evil — and most sympathetic — in Return of the King. No matter how many times he deceived and sabotaged Frodo, I couldn’t help but feel my heart break for him just a little.
Severus Snape, Harry Potter.
Yes, I know that Snape’s status as a villain is up for serious debate, but I would argue that anyone who makes our hero that miserable for that long can be considered a villain, at least during the time the misery is occurring. But the fact that whether or not he even is a villain, despite the misery, is a testament to how well-developed his character is. Voldemort and Umbridge may not be on my list, but J.K. more than made up for it with Snape.
Darth Vader, Star Wars.
I almost forgot one of my favorite nuanced villains, Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader. Ignoring for a second how terrible the prequels were (I used to think their one saving grace was the fight sequences, then I saw this, and now…), he totally embodies my theory that the best villains could actually be the hero if the story was told from their point of view. Anakin is the protagonist of the (awful) Episodes I-III and the villain of the (awesome) Episodes IV-VI. And that is kind of amazing.
Note: A story does not have to have an awesome villain to be successful. Lots of stories aren’t about a sentient antagonist, but are instead about heroes overcoming some other sort of conflict, and those stories can be just as good, if not better, than stories featuring intelligent, nuanced villains.
But if the foil to the hero is The Bad Guy, then I’d certainly hope the bad guy has a good reason for doing what he’s doing.
What do you think? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why do you love to hate them (or hate to love them)?
Okay, first of all, there’s Gary Sinise movie I haven’t seen? I must remedy this immediately.
I’ll admit, I kinda have a soft spot for the villain and I blame that completely on Spike. He was the first villain that I really, truly adored and found myself rooting for. So, he’ll always be the best ever. Also, James Marsters is quite the good looking man.
Snape. Snape would probably be my very favorite book villain. (I think Umbridge is a million times worse and evil and therefore she’s technically a better villain, but I can’t stand her. The vile, evil, wrench.) I just love the arc that Snape’s character takes, he’s not wholly evil, but he’s not good either. He makes Harry and Neville’s lives a living hell for 6 years, and then he allows the students to be tortured under his reign as headmaster. I don’t care if he was “keeping up appearances” for the sake of Voldemort believing he was on his side, HE LET STUDENTS BE TORTURED AND BEATEN. Yes, he does redeem himself in the eyes of Harry, but what of Neville? Seamus? Ginny? The students that were there while he was letting all of this go on. I don’t think I’d ever forgive him and I’d always consider him to be an evil man. Most of these students never saw Voldemort up close, so in their eyes Snape was far more evil than he ever could be.
And now that I’ve gone on that little ramble, I should get back to work. Or writing up my own blog posts for the week :-/
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Given your love of crime dramas, you would probably love Ransom. I personally think it’s a great movie, from back when Mel Gibson was in his heyday and making films like Braveheart. Also, Donnie Wahlberg.
And I would put Snape over Umbridge. She is definitely the villain that made me maddest in HP (even more than Voldemort), but I don’t think she was the best. You never really figure out why she is so sadistic and evil — she just is. I think knowing why a villain chooses to be evil — if in fact they even are evil (which Umbridge totally is) — and seeing how their logic works in their minds is so much better than villains that are just categorically evil, “just because.”
And so yes, as you pointed out with Snape, we understand by the end of the series why he is doing what he’s doing, but he still does it. That’s the thing that gets kind of glossed over. Regardless of his motivations, his past, or how sympathetic he ultimately is as a character, he still chooses to engage in some rather abhorrent activity. So while I love his character (I love all the villains I listed), I definitely put him solidly in the “villain” category. Even if a villain redeems himself in the end (Darth Vader anyone? Ooh, I should really put him on here), he’s still a villain.
TheHouseworkCanWait recently posted..Review: What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang (@KatZhang @harperteen)
One of the best examples of this that I can think of is Captain Kennit from the Mad Ship trilogy…
Where do antiheroes fit into this? I haven’t had coffee yet this morning, so I’m having trouble coming up with a literary character that fits that mold. I think House would be the best TV one (or maybe the guy from Breaking bad, which I’ve never seen).
YES. Captain Kennit is an amazing villain, because you can totally understand each and every decision he makes, and why it all makes sense in his heavily twisted brain. I figured I should stop using Robin Hobb books as the epitome of everything, as not everyone has read them, but you’re totally right.
And antiheroes are tough nut to crack. They could be their own entire post, requiring a lot more thought than this one. Doctor House is a great TV one, or maybe (although I haven’t seen it) Dexter. I’d have to do some serious pondering to come up with some good book antiheroes. Hmmm….
My Comment is that I LOVE JAVERT! He has always been my favorite character of the Les Mis story! And I totally agree with everything you said about the villains. Having a villian you can truly, almost, understand makes a story so much more compelling.
I love this post!
And yes, I think Snape is the real villain of Harry Potter… Snape, the Malfoys and Peter Pettigrew who in my opinion have so much more depth than Voldemort that it’s not even a competition. Voldemort is more just the catalyst for people to act badly. Without him, these other characters couldn’t let the worst be brought out, because alone, they’re all to meek… but let them be spurred by ultimate evil (often times in ways that are even unpleasant to them) and you start to get some really interesting, conflicted villains 🙂
So, yup, I agree, as the actual villain, Voldemort is pretty bland and one-dimensional… but as a catalyst for all the other shady characters, and true villains in this story, he works wonders XD.
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That’s a great insight, that Voldemort isn’t great as a main villain, but he’s an excellent catalyst. And great villains need a catalyst, because that pushes them beyond “evil for evil’s sake” into something else. Thanks for stopping by!
I love this post! Blogging at it’s finest in opening a discussion! I can’t even think of a villain other than the mad scientist father in Wither…I mean he thought of everything! I will be thinking about this for quite awhile and if I come up with any good ones, I’ll get back to you. Thanks for a memorable post! Wish I’d thought it up first…lol!
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I can think of a whole slew of cliched or poorly developed villains, but good ones are hard! Hence having to go back to the 1800s to find my favorite!
I love discussion posts. It’s fun to examine things from all sorts of angles and points of view. Thanks for stopping by!
Gary Sinise is simply fantastic in that movie! I think I need to re-watch that, and soon!
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