Brilliant villains

Elaine T says in a recent comment:

The Teen and I recently have been discussing villains recently…. As far as we can tell, based on books, anime, and movies, what makes a villain satisfying to us is intelligence. We’ve been watching the anime One Piece which has lots of villains, some who might be more antagonists than villains, and they’re all different, almost all satisfying in their challenge for the main characters. So we were poking at what made them so good and decided all the good ones are smart: One runs a large organization and has plans, backup plans, and just-in-case-Murphy-strikes plans. Beaten by assorted characters not giving up and by the hero coming after him at the last in a battleground where his primary combat capabilities were useless. We have no idea of his past, there is almost no backstory for him, and what tidbits come out come up long after his starring role. We do know his present day motivation – he wants something hidden in the country he tried to take over.

You admire his capability but want to see him fall.

Another is an engineer and master of electricity, goes, again, for redundancy, and thinks very fast. Almost beaten by cleverness, but reacted too fast before dying. beaten by something he never knew existed – a perfect insulator – so couldn’t plan around. To the place he took over, he came out of nowhere like the thunder he controlled. What he wanted, in the end, was a resource they were abundant in. Material to build his spaceship – it’s a long story and it doesn’t make sense outside his head. He’s a lunatic with a god complex and power to back it up.

We see his followers first, his ‘priests’ and we meet them hounding a man to death. Sets the tone for him and his followers, especially when he vaporizes their fugitive, and they complain about him spoiling their fun. The nature of his subordinates says a great deal about their ‘god.’

You admire his ability to recognize and adapt to threats, and satisfied when he gets his due at last.

A third and one the Teen says is magnificent in his villainy: tortured by mob at age 8 and promised death to everyone involved in it; commits patricide (while his father is kneeling and holding his younger brother) at age 10 in retribution for what his father had inflicted on the family as he sees it. Upon his former peers throwing him out when he brought them his father’s severed head (still at age 10), he didn’t sit quietly, he escaped with blackmail material so he could get something like the status he used to have from them anyway, and declared his intention to destroy the world that his former peers ruled. And set out to do exactly that. Now adult, he murdered his brother when his brother betrayed him – love between them went only so far. And proceeded to take over the nation his ancestors had ruled, by enslaving everyone who’d ever opposed him, and removed them from the memories of all who ever knew them. With the memory of them went the grudges relating to him. His country is considered a beautiful place – until you learn the truth. Almost a fairy tale kingdom. He takes in children – those who are like he was.

By the time he is toppled, he is pulling the strings behind most of the powerbrokers in the world and has his fingers in every single pie. By toppling him a power vaccuum has been created and the world is thrown into chaos. As more and more unfolded about him, past and present, two things became clear:

1) his past excused nothing, but where he learned some of what he learned and how held the power he now has was all too clear.

2) he’s irredeemably evil now in a glorious depravity, magnificent, hated and admired in equal measure. you want to see him toppled, but you don’t because that would mean it’s over. His envy is unsurpassable, his arrogance knows no bounds, his fury is the fury of the wronged. in a complicated ball of motivations, grudges, and flamboyance. Willing to commit genocide to keep word from getting out when at last a linchpin of his plans comes undone. In his introduction he waltzed into the place that had once been his home, and is seen with glee and amusement laughing as he forces people to fight to the death for his amusement. With extra relish as they realize they can’t control their own bodies. You hate him, you know he’s evil, you want to see him fall. But (Teen says) you can’t help but admire his style as he flaunts everything in the faces of those he hates.

3) even chained imobile in prison he’s still pulling strings and considering when and how to spill his blackmail.

So – intelligence, planning, pro-activity, – I guess that sums up to be a worthy opponent – oh, and…

I remember a historical series where we finally got the villain’s backstory, and the general reaction among those I know who were reading it, was “that’s it? That’s garbage!” Everything implied about the character in the backstory contradicted what we saw every time he was on stage. And there was no way he could have plausibly gone from what was claimed of him to what we saw.

Lastly, character coherence. If the backstory undercuts the on-the -page presentation, there goes the killer villain. But you don’t need a backstory, just smarts.

This was too good and extensive to leave just in a comment, so here it is, up front in a post.

There’s a lot to this comment, and it’s true that sheer intelligence in a villain can be a great thing; also sheer competence; also great power; also unswerving commitment.

Let me think of some villains who appeal to me and see how the above criteria fit.

Has everyone read The Fianovar Tapestry by GGK? Remember Galadan, the Wolf Lord? The Dark Lord in the series is Rakoth Maugrim, who is not very interesting. Galadan is much more interesting. He is not brilliant; his thing is definitely sheer commitment. Galadan’s personal goal is to destroy the world, out of rage that his “true love” rejected him in favor of a mortal and then died. That sort of thing is not about the love object, of course, it’s really about the narcissism of the lover who was rejected, but my point is, Galadan was really dedicated to his goal. Until, at the end, defeated, he accepts defeat and chooses a different course; for me, one of the most affecting scenes in the story.

Other villains who work for me:

Doro in Octavia E Butler’s Wildseed and on through Mind of My Mind. Doro is also extremely committed, in his case to the goal of breeding people until he gets someone like him, except of course when he finally sort of comes close to success, he can’t bear having created rivals because he’s too used to holding complete power himself.

We know quite a bit about Doro — about his early life and the tragedy that took him young, and about his gradual mastery of his power. We can understand his disregard for any life other than his own, his profound selfishness, his assumption of superiority. We can sympathize with all that, or at least I can, even when he is doing pretty terrible things to people. I love Doro. But no matter how much the reader loves him as a character and sympathizes with him, I think any reader is going to have to be glad when he is finally pulled down and destroyed.

Another villain who worked for me was The Man With the Thistledown Hair, from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Not intelligence there either, but poetry and creepiness. This is a villain who is completely self-absorbed and has zero comprehension of human concepts like, I don’t know, compassion and justice and so on. Not sympathetic at all, but so beautifully horrifying.

I honestly can’t think right now of any complicated, well-drawn villain in SFF who worked for me because he was just that competent and/or intelligence. I’m not sure that’s a very important criterion for me — for villains. Instead, I like protagonists who are very intelligence, very competent, and very ruthless, but who are not villains. I’m thinking here of Nicholas Valliard, but this is a type I like a lot and I’m sure there are others.

Can the rest of you think of a favorite villain, and where does he or she fall in sheer intelligence and/or competence?

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7 thoughts on “Brilliant villains”

  1. Reflected on this.

    Actually, the villains that strike me are more forces of nature than particularly crafty.

  2. Mary, are you thinking more of a literal force of nature, perfect storm style, or a person who is like a force of nature?

  3. I’ve read a few where actual forces of nature are the opponents. The one that made the most impact was Rohan’s Winter of the World (didn’t you sample the first of that?).

    I can’t think of any SF-side brilliant villains, either. Not in books or movies.

    Thought of another category, though: the bureaucrat: Power mad like Umbridge (from Potter), Spandam (from One Piece, and probably lots of others. Or Just Doing My Job and refusing to think about consequences. The first category generally have competence in one area (I’m skeptical about Umbridge’s in any area, but she did climb the ranks.). Then story happens and they’re let loose on people and misery for Our Heroes follows.

    GGK has a couple more excellent villains in Tigana , especially Brandin. He was a great man, who loved greatly and couldn’t the loss of his son in battle. The other guy is a masterful contrast.

  4. Villains who are bureaucrats annoy me so much I can hardly stand to read a book with this kind of villain.

    Villains I like: Dramatic, evocative, powerful, ambitious, competent

    Villains I hate: Petty, short-sighted, selfish, small-minded, incompetent.

  5. I’m not sure the Man with The Thistledown Hair is a villain – he’s so much a Fae, being fae my brain is having trouble with the idea. I think there’s a foundational requirement of humanity for great villainy, as I use it, anyway.

    Yes, the bureaucrat sort tend to be petty short-sighted, selfish, small-minded and incompenent -in important ways. I won’t touch Umbridge, but the other one I named while all of the above, is also shown competent enough to frame others convincingly. It’s when danger comes close instead of staying far away that he breaks down. But he still almost succeeds – through having capable subordinates who are thoroughly well bought in to the system, even if they have no respect for him.

    Brandin in Tigana is a great villain because he’s a great man who is taking an imaginative and nasty long revenge with dedication and feeling. – Rather like Galadan, come to think of it – the other guy is much more the standard petty bureacratic tyrant type. No greatness in him.

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