Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Unforgettable antagonists

At CrimeReads: NINE OF THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE ANTAGONISTS IN FICTION

Sure, I’ll bite! Go ahead, who are the most unforgettable antagonists in fiction?

Before looking at the list given in the linked post, I should probably mention that (a) I’m not always that interested in the antagonist; and (b) actually, one of the tropes I like best is the fairly rare antagonist-to-ally trope. That requires an antagonist who isn’t a terrible person; eg, Inspector Ronsarde is a great antagonist for Nicholas Valiarde in The Death of the Necromancer. The real enemy in that book is, of course, the necromancer. He is not nearly as interesting or fun to read about as Ronsarde. All the scenes I’ve bookmarked in that novel involve Ronsarde and Nicholas interacting.

Also, I think I probably often prefer depersonalized antagonists, like the environment itself, rather than a bad guy.

So maybe I’m not the very best person to think about making a list of great antagonists! Even so, if I tried for a list of great antagonists, I wouldn’t stop short at nine! No matter who is on this list, I’m going to feel compelled to try to come up with one more memorable antagonist in order to bring that list to a nice, even ten.

Now, to be memorable, it seems to me an antagonist who is a person needs to be interesting in some way. That lets out evil antagonists like, say, Sauron, who really is not at all interesting. Dangerous, sure, but not interesting. Saruman is more interesting than Sauron, though that doesn’t mean he’s interesting — it’s not a high bar.

A more interesting antagonist … let me see … all right, how about General Woundwort in Watership Down? He’s evil, no question, but you can sympathize with what he was trying to do as he created a totalitarian society and crushed his people beneath his iron paw.

So that’s my pick for a memorable antagonist! I bet that is not one of the ones on this list from Crime Reads, but let’s see …

1) Rebecca, from the book by DuMaurier. Okay, that’s fair.

2) The Storm, from The Perfect Storm. All right! That’s a great choice. Glad to see they’re picking some depersonalized antagonists. We could undoubtedly do a top ten list just with examples of Nature As The Antagonist. No shortage of outstanding examples, that’s for sure. I’ve never read The Perfect Storm, but I bet I would like it.

3) Cujo. Oh, no no no. No.

Listen, you cannot pick a sick dog as a great antagonist. How can anybody not feel sorry for the dog? Also, the protagonist — can’t remember her name — is such a wimp! I’m getting angry again just thinking about this book. Put me in that car and I could handle that dog, I don’t care how big he was. Poor Cujo! I wouldn’t have wanted to kill him, but I would have done it. And so would you. A reasonably intelligent, able-bodied adult human with all the time in the world and everything in the car to work with could absolutely kill a big SICK dog who has already been weakened by the disease and thirst.

I’m inclined to be done with this list right now.

You know what, I’m going to just poke around for a minute …

Okay, here is a different list about antagonists:

MIND MELD: Who Are Your Favorite Villains In Fantasy And Science Fiction?

That’s more like it! Let’s focus on SFF and see about picking out some antagonists. Since the post is about villains, there won’t be any Nature-as-Antagonist, which is too bad, but with any luck we won’t be seeing Cujo again either, so there’s pluses and minuses.

Here in this post, we have … let me see … Scott Lynch, Helen Lowe, Howard Andrew Jones, and twelve others pick out some of their favorite villains in SFF. (There are so many authors who contributed to this post, I’m just naming the ones I’ve read stuff by.)

Oh ho, we do get Nature As Antagonist! — here’s someone, Shaun Duke, picking out “nature” in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’ve read that one! It’s the one where McCarthy plays with punctuation. Very literary. Very dark. There is a tiny, tiny glimmer of light in the darkness, right at the end, or that book would be unendurable. It almost is anyway.

Anyway, glad to see Nature As Antagonist. Plenty of post-apocalyptic novels where that’s a feature.

Hah! LB Gale picks various others AND General Woundwort from Watership Down! Good for her.

Ah, Helen Lowe picks out Galadan in GGK’s Fionavar trilogy. I should have thought of him! Great choice! I love the little redemption arc he gets right at the end.

I’ll be darned, here’s something you don’t see every day — Ian Sales is picking out an antagonist from The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley. I always think of Varley when I think of authors who are all but forgotten today, but should absolutely be brought back into the public eye. Though this title isn’t my favorite of his and I have to admit I do not remember the antagonist at all.

All right, I’ll stop there — lots (lots!) more at the linked post.

I’ll end by saying that my favorite villain from my own books remains Lelienne from The City in the Lake. She’s really creepy and honestly quite inhuman. It’s like you know she has motivations, but they are so weird it’s hard to decide what they might be. Or that’s how I think about her, anyway.

If you’ve got a favorite villain (or other antagonist) from one of my books or any SFF novel, or both, drop some names in the comments!

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15 Comments Unforgettable antagonists

  1. Craig N.

    Sauron in LotR is honestly closer to being nature as an antagonist than an enemy person — really, his looming presence is sort of a boundary condition for the story. (To be fair, in the Silmarillion, he’s more of a character in his relatively brief appearances.)

    Dark Lords are a common feature of high fantasy books, but are any of them really memorable antagonists? I can’t offhand think of one as memorable as Darth Vader on the “pretending to be SF” side of the fence.

  2. SarahZ

    I think one of my favorite antagonists is the Mayor, from S3 of Buffy, because he paired standard villain goals like invincibility & wholesale slaughter with someone so squeaky clean & wholesome he chides his henchmen for cursing and really means it when he calls himself a family man.

  3. Rachel

    Interesting, Pete. Now I’ll have to consider giving Etienne an opening and seeing how that goes.

    Great point, Craig! The moment you said that, I agreed — Sauron isn’t a person so much as a Dark Storm of Destruction; eg, a natural phenomenon.

  4. Allan Shampine

    What about Ozymandias in Watchmen? I really liked how after the Comedian figured out what Ozymandias was up to, he couldn’t decide whether to actually try to stop him or not. Usually when there is a “sympathetic” villain, you can see where they’re coming from, but you still think they are in the wrong. Ozymandias came closer than most to arguing that the ends justify the means.

  5. Rachel

    Allan, did you read The Goblin Emperor? When we finally found out who blew up the airship and why, well … it’s hard not to consider that the ends did in fact justify the means.

  6. SarahZ

    That reminds me of all the conversation around Black Panther and Killmonger – a much more charismatic, persuasive bad guy than your average action/comic book movie. I think, though, that this is emphasizing to me that the bad guys who make the biggest impression on me tend to be in movies & tv, not books. Not sure why…

  7. Elaine T

    SarahZ, your comment reminds me of a book someone mentioned (here, IIRC) wherein the antagonist would have been a hero if the story’s focus had been on her. Her role was Empress of the Evil Stagnant Empire, but her character was the outsider who took power and tried to shake things up, get rid of stagnation, you know, all those good things we’d cheer on a hero for. I read the book she appeared in, and yep, she coulda been a hero. Now THAT was an interesting way of handling the antagonist.
    If things hadn’t been all at interstellar ranges so there was no actual interaction except through delegated authority it would have been more interesting, though. (dredges up the title at last) Long-Range War by Nuttal, #5 in series, but I read it cold and followed everything well enough.

    I’m quite fond of the griffins an antagonists – they aren’t evil, they’re trying to survive like everyone else. But can’t share living space with humans.

    And Taudde. Not evil, but makes some bad decisions. Lelianne is a great creepy alien antagonist, though. Much more opaque and alien than the griffons.

  8. Allan Shampine

    I had completely forgotten about Goblin Emperor. It’s interesting that I didn’t even classify that character in my mind as an antagonist. He did help the main character quite a bit. I guess it goes to the point you and others made here that for well -written characters, whether they are protagonists or antagonists depends largely on which POV the author is writing from. “Yes, she’s a cold-blooded spy who will do anything for the cause, but she’s our cold-blooded spy and it’s our cause.”

  9. Rachel

    “Our cold-blooded spy” makes me think of Nicholas Valiarde himself, who would be QUITE the antagonist if we were seeing the action from the other side!

  10. ELaine T

    Come to think of it, that Evil King in Keeper might compare with Leliane in sheer alien quality. I must reread both to check.

  11. Amara

    “whether they are protagonists or antagonists depends largely on which POV the author is writing from” – Allan, have you read Vicious by V.E. Schwab? The whole book is essentially a riff on this idea, and it’s super interesting to read! Victor is a classic superhero villain, but because of the way the story is told, we not only understand his reasoning but even sympathize with him. (Plus there’s a sequel, which is always fun!)

    I’m a gigantic sucker for the antagonist-to-ally trope, so I LOVE Innisth’s arc in Winter of Ice and Iron. He’s not exactly the villain in the beginning, but I usually read Kehara as the main character, so it squeaks by, in my opinion!

  12. Rachel

    Thanks, Amara! Innisth would absolutely read as an antagonist-to-ally if we didn’t see so much from his point of view, wouldn’t he? So yes, I’d say he counts!

  13. Elaine T

    So, I did indeed reread City and Keeper . Lelianne comes across as a more human antagonist. Alien in her desires and understandings, and not really understanding people except to manipulate them. The King in Keeper is more of a lurking presence, a la Sauron through most, and when he is on stage he’s still unknowable. We see less humanity from him. Lelianne’s comes through in body language mostly: patting her hair is satisfaction, that sort of thing. He doesn’t even do that, so he comes off as much closer to an eldritch abomination. The horror of his existence is that he’s made himself into that.

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