My Top Villains

I do so love a good villain. Who doesn't? In some stories, they're more captivating than the hero. But how do you go about making a villain great?

I was recently reading a post on Murderati that suggested I begin by just listing my favorite villains, then looking to see what they had in common. Here goes:

(FYI: Spoilers for various media ahead)

1. Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs

My A-1 fave. There are so many things about Hannibal that draw me in: his utter depravity (dude, he eats people!), his paradoxical refinement (a bottle of Chianti indeed!), that creepy little voice (thanks for the nightmares, Anthony Hopkins).

But I think what captivates me most about Hannibal are the illusions he creates. You could almost believe he wants to help you. No matter how many times he fucks with you, you could almost believe he's going to play this one straight.

It's the refinement, I think. The articulate speech. The manners. It contrasts so beautifully with his inner viciousness that it almost completely disguises it.

2. Javert, Les Miserables

Javert is an odd duck, because he's exactly the opposite of what most fiction texts will tell you to make your characters. Well-rounded he ain't.

Javert's got exactly one thing going, his steadfast belief in the law. He's sort of the single-minded, Terminator-style villain, coming after Jean Valjean no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. But it's the end of his story that, for me, elevates him from your basic, garden-variety villain.

For me, the moment where Javert chooses he would rather die than live as a changed man is always exquisitely painful, yet thrilling. It mixes redemption (he lets Valjean go!) with the inability to change (he throws himself into the Seine). Two grippingly powerful personal events melded seamlessly and believably. If I could write a scene like that someday, I'd be happy.

3. Mrs. Iselin, The Manchurian Candidate

You want depravity, this woman has it in spades. What sort of mother could be so utterly devoid of human feeling that she could use her own son as a killing machine?

Mrs. Iselin is a great villain because she's so inhuman and creepy, but paradoxically she's also great because she's so believable. She's built on a real archetype: the power-grubbing politician's wife. With a few big twists that make her completely diabolical.

4. Gollum, the Lord of the Rings trilogy

It's the tragedy of this character that draws me in. The split-personality archetype is always fascinating for its sheer weirdness and spookiness, and the way it was done in the recent movie trilogy was absolutely amazing.

One Gollum plots death and destruction for our heroes, and when he speaks even his voice is twisted with hate. The other Gollum wants to be good and true, and what we hear in his voice is fear.

It's just gripping, chilling, and horrible, and it's a way of taking a real struggle we can all identify with -- the struggle to be a good person -- and amping it up to the Nth level. There's something to connect to there.

5. The Borg, Star Trek

Here we've got a villain that's inhuman in the extreme. Aside from their great strength and adaptability, what makes them epically chilling is that they simply don't acknowledge the sanctity of human life or rights. They just don't get it.

In this way, they're kind of a stand-in for the very worst humanity can be when we come together in force and decide to steamroll over someone else's rights. Naziism, genocide, the slave trade: these are the actions of a Borg-like people. The Borg are us without empathy. Now that's creepy.

6. Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

What makes Angel a great villain for me is his sadism. Sure, Angel can kill you, but given the choice, he'd much rather hurt you.

And he knows how to do it up right. Angel is an emotional sadist, using guilt, grief, fear, and humiliation to get at his victims. So much more effective than a physical sadist, and certainly a lot more fun to watch.

Combine this with his always-amused attitude, which shows contempt for his victims, and you've got a villain I can watch for hours. I mean, just look at that smirk.

7. Adaleen Grant, Big Love

There's something almost worse about serving a devil than being one, right? Something kind of broken and amoral about blithely following someone else's dark path?

That's what Adaleen does as first wife to Big Love's major antagonist, Roman Grant. I think what makes her captivating to me is the serene, breezy smile that's always fixed on her face no matter how badly she's screwing you over.

Adaleen also serves as a model for a particularly loathsome archetype: the collaborator. She's a woman who participates in the subjugation of other women, managing her husband's fourteen-wife household, including 15-year-old child bride Rhonda Volmer. Adaleen was born into this life, so in a way she can be considered a victim of her circumstances -- but her cool intelligence and lack of empathy swing her decidedly toward the villainous.

8. The Miniature Killer, CSI

Ok, I have to admit: this one kind of fell apart for me at the end of the storyline, where the killer's backstory is revealed. There was nothing about it that really made me say, "Oh, yeah, this is totally the kind of chick who would make meticulous models of people's homes, then kill them."

But I can't ignore that feeling of excitement I got every time I knew a miniature killer episode was coming on. And I think what it was was the fabulous MO. Miniatures! Really specific ones! Cuh-reepy!

It just suggested such precision and patience. How could you possibly best a villain who brought that much forethought to bear? This is a great example of a villain who managed to be a real, chilling character before ever appearing in person.

So, what's the common thread?

Well, looking over the list, it seems I like my villains on the monstrous side. Apart from Adaleen Grant and maybe Javert, there's no one here with simple, understandable flaws. My tastes tend much more toward the boogity-boogity.

I also like a bit o' philosphy with my villains. I like characters like Gollum and the Borg and Adaleen who make me think about the big things: "How do you stop your baser nature from taking over?"; "How can you come to terms with someone who doesn't agree with you about what's right and wrong?"; "In a bad situation, what will people become in order to survive?"

And I like big contrasts: Hanibal Lecter's brutality and sophistication, Gollum's patheticness and scheming, Mrs. Iselin's charming public persona and cold-blooded heart.

It was an interesting exercise, and one I'm glad I did. Anyone else have any favorite villains?


Becky said...

Ooh, great post. There are some on here who would be on my list, and some who wouldn't. Like Gollum, to me, just isn't that interesting. Maybe too pitiable? I like my villains strong. But I love the addition of Adaleen Grant, because get this, I've NEVER THOUGHT OF HER as a villain. But of course, she's culpable for a lot of what goes on. I guess I saw her as sort of a victim, but that's not right.

Now, my favorite villain these days has got to be Ben Linus on Lost. That dude just keeps unfolding like a flower, and I could (have) watched him for hours. We still don't really know why he helped gas all the Dharma folks, and I truly believe he ALWAYS has a plan. A great actor in a great role.

I also like villains like Javert who are so single-minded, they really are like mathematical equations. Fun post.

I never watch CSI so I didn't know about the miniatures. Cool!