The Perfect Villain

Quick, what image popped into your mind when you read this title? Voldemort? The White Witch? Cercei Lannister?

I’m not going to lie—the image that popped into my head was Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Do-Right cartoon. Yes, I was a child in the sixties. However, that instant image was soon followed by more serious villains. Although, sometimes a villain can be a faceless entity such as, the Visigoths or the Klingons; generally I think we can all accept that most works of fiction must contain at least one villain. So what are the characteristics of a truly great villain?

Some villains are purely evil. The White Witch, in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is ruthless, cruel and sadistic–evil personified. Perhaps Voldemort falls into this category too. Even though he is fully human, there is little humanity left in him by the end. On occasion, a faceless entity can land in this camp. Authors of Highland romance frequently paint the English in this light, although that can begin to stretch credibility. I think, outside of fantasy, it is difficult to create this kind of villain believably.

Occasionally one meets the damaged villain, one who does horrible things or commits absolute atrocities. Characters such as Hannibal Lecter or pretty much any “unidentified subject” on Criminal Minds fit this category. Generally these villains are seriously mentally ill and as such raise conflicting emotions of disgust and pity. I generally don’t enjoy encountering these villains in romance, although they exist.

In genres where pure evil or serious mental illness is hard to swallow, a more convincing villain is, frankly, a normal person. Someone who is so motivated by his or her own self-interest that greed, pride, envy or one of the other deadly sins guide their actions. Cercei Lannister, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Darth Vader and even Gru in Despicable Me can be lumped into this category. Sometimes this kind of villain can even garner the reader’s sympathy especially if they aren’t wholly bad. After all, cute little Anakin Skywalker is inside Darth Vader and Gru just wants to make his mother proud. I rather like it when a collective enemy winds up here as well. The fact is, faceless entities are actually comprised of people and sometimes good can be found in the vilest places.

So how does one handle a perfect villain? In my opinion, pure evil must be destroyed as happens to both the White Queen and Voldemort. Damaged villains too must be contained in some way, if not destroyed outright. However, there are many more options for the ordinary villain. Often they have simply gone too far and must be destroyed for me to gain closure. Sometimes they remain as lingering threats, only to wreak havoc again later. Occasionally, under the right circumstances they can be redeemed, like Darth Vader and Gru.

Who is your perfect villain and were you satisfied with what ultimately happened to that character?

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4 Responses to The Perfect Villain

  1. Sue-Ellen Welfonder says:

    Excellent post, Ceci. You are so right about ‘ordinary’ villains. Those who fool people by seeming what they aren’t. It’s amazing how many people don’t see through the smoke and mirrors such villains cast around them. They pull strings behind their curtain, causing harm and mayhem, yet many adore them, never seeing the twisted mind. One of the most chilling villains I can recall from the screen was sociopath Rhoda in the 1954 film, The Bad Seed. Good heavens, she was only 8, but so evil. Yet no one saw it, or very few, and then it was too late. Rhoda the sociopath does get the ending she deserves, to my view. Patty McCormack played Rhoda so well that, to this day, she scares me.

    • Sue-Ellen Welfonder says:

      Correction: I think the film was made in 1956, not ’54.
      Whatever. It’s an old b/w film and because of the sociopath mind, more terrifying than any monster or vampire or what-have-you. Scary, scary, scary film. Most evil villain I know.

  2. cecigiltenan says:

    You are so right! I find the best way to write a believable characters, including villains is to watch behavior of ordinary people. There have been a number of people who don’t like the hero in Highland Solution. The fact is, he holds on to his own opinion just a tad too long. Hmm, I can’t think of any real men who do that (Hear me snorting at my own sarcasm). Sometimes you don’t have to look very far to find the raw material for honorable but realistic heros or the most malevolent villains.

  3. Sue-Ellen Welfonder says:

    Ditto on both counts. 😉

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