Saturday, September 7, 2013

Oh, The Villains

Posted by: Shawna Reppert

     So, been thinking about villains lately.  Specifically about the attractiveness of certain villains, and how it makes the tales they appear in richer and more compelling. 
No, this is not an attempt to justify having blown much of a long weekend watching the David Tennant’s Doctor and John Simm’s Master play off one another in season three of Doctor Who and fangirling over Loki in Thor and the Avengers.  OK, not much.
(Besides, I could argue that Loki in Thor is more a tragic hero than a true villain, but that would be another blog.)
     Ahem, yes.  Villains.  There are as many ways of writing villains as there is writing, period, and I couldn’t begin to cover them all in a blog. (Though Jessica Page Morrell covers the subject nicely in the book Bullies, Bastards and Bitches.  I highly recommend it.)  So I’ll just stick with the compelling villains, why they fascinate, and my thoughts on how to build one of your very own (in fiction, that is.  Though if anyone out there has figured out how to make a Loki, make an extra one for me.  I promise to take care of him and heal his wounded soul and. . . Sorry.  I blame the cold meds.)
     OK, back on topic.  Loki is, as I mentioned, a wounded soul. (I’m dealing with the Marvel movie-verse Loki here, not the original Nordic myths.)  Forever in his brother’s shadow, his intellect and sensibility are discounted while Thor’s strength, bravado and charisma are praised. And then he finds out that he is not Thor’s brother at all, and his own origins are far darker and the people he thought were his parents have lied to him all his life. He has ample reason for turning against his brother, and villains with reasons are always more believable than villains who are evil for the sake of evil.  More, we have a reason to sympathize with him in the same way we sympathize with underdog heroes like Harry Potter.  Yes, attempted fratricide is taking things a bit far, but haven’t we ever wanted to get even with those who got the attention, the glory, the affection that we thought we deserved?
     The latest incarnation of The Master is also wounded, driven to madness by the sound of drums only he can hear. We viewers may hate him for what he does to the Doctor (not to mention the Earth), but we have to also feel sorry for him.  It takes the storyline from simple Good v. Evil to something more complex, poignant and therefore memorable.
     Having a complex villain makes it more believable when the hero sympathizes with/ wants to save or redeem the villain. This in turn makes for a more complex and sympathetic hero.  (Witness Thor at the end of the first movie, The Doctor with the Master in season three, even Frodo with Gollum, who is certainly villainous even if he isn’t The Villain.)
     So, a wounded, lost and vulnerable villain is a good start.  But if you want a villain so compelling he gets his own fan club, you need more.  Sex appeal helps.  I’m not talking about the Mimbo on the Cover of the Book, but a villain with that je ne sais quoi that comes more from grace and presence. Of course, this is easier in TV and film, where the right actor goes a long way.  In the classic Doctor Who, Anthony Ainley brought a sardonic sexiness to the role that the early-adolescent me only barely understood, but the more mature me can’t resist.  I could fill a whole blog with examples and not run out (Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, anyone?)
    In fiction, we bring out that sex appeal the same way we develop any aspect of character— with how the character sees himself, with how others react to him.  In my forthcoming urban fantasy novel Ravensblood, William Blanchard may be a paranoid, conscienceless dark mage bent on world domination, but he never lacks for willing sexual partners, and even Raven, who has no desire to sleep with the man, acknowledges his aesthetic appeal.
     People read books and watch movies or television for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important motivations is wanting to spend time with the characters.  While it’s safe to say none of us would actually enjoy dealing with the Master in real life (or Avengers-Loki, though Thor-Loki I kind of think I’d like), when he comes on screen, we know something interesting is about to happen.  John Simm’s Master in his dance-videoesque sequence is just plain fun, with a little bit of sexiness thrown in when he pulls his wife in for a kiss.  My William has a dark sense of humor and occasional bursts of manic energy that were a blast to write, and which I’m confident readers will enjoy.  (He also follows the wounded villain pattern, even though I only let the tiniest tip of that backstory iceberg show in the novel.)
     So go on, love those villains.  You can’t help it.  The writers obviously meant you to, the manipulative so-and-sos.

(A/N As I get ready to post this, I realize that it is completely biased toward male villains.  Truth be told, I can’t think of a female villain that I have found as compelling as Loki or the Master (or Khan, or even Vader).  I don’t think it’s just because I’m a basically straight woman; there are plenty of female heroes and sidekicks that rock my world.  I think there is a dearth of richly drawn, compelling female villains.  Readers who can come up with examples to contradict my theory, please post comments.  I’m curious.)


  1. I love those villains as well, but I also love a well-written, complex villainess. Here are a few of my faves: the Evil Queen of Once Upon a Time; Melisande Shahrizai from Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series; Princess Ardala from the 80s Buck Rogers (lol!). Two who didn't work for me: Miranda/Talia al Ghul and Catwoman from the Dark Knight Rises. In the same movie, two female characters who had perfectly good reasons to turn to the dark side still somehow managed to seem...pathetic. Disappointed in Christopher Nolan, but looking back, he doesn't really seem to know how to write realistic women.

  2. Regina the Evil Queen on Once Upon A Time is fantastic, far more compelling than the show's tepid heroine Emma. I also agree with Jane about Christopher Nolan - he cannot write women characters. I've given up on his movies.

    I'm not sure if Faith Lehane from Buffy/Angel would be considered strictly a villain because her character arc took her from zesty slayer to bad girl to true villain and ultimately all the way to redemption. That's why I always loved her, though. In the Avengers when Black Widow says "I got red on my ledger", I immediately thought of Faith. Buffy was a terrific heroine, but Faith was the more unforgettable character, for me at least.


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