The Best Villains


A friend of mine was looking for a suitable villain for her story and sent out a FB request for ideas. Aside from “My HOA President,” none of the suggestions she received were particularly interesting.

So I started thinking. What makes a good villain? Of course, I went to the literature. Who has already made a great villain? In my mind, it’s not the mindless, two dimensional baddies in so many stories who serve only as a foil for the hero. Who are the interesting villains?

My first thought was Huckleberry Finn. However much a reprobate Huck was, he was still an innocent and a child running away from the responsibilities of manhood. But Huck thought himself to be a bad person. He absolutely knew that he was going to hell for helping Jim escape from slavery but Jim was his friend and that was a risk he had to take. Huck believed his actions to be, not only illegal, but immoral.

From our viewpoint 135 years later, Huck Finn is on the side of the angels. I hope his quandary also resonated with readers from Mark Twain’s own time.

Another great villain is Hugh D’Ambray in some of author, Ilona Andrews’ novels. He pops up in the Kate Daniels series to give her all kinds of trouble. What is interesting about Hugh is his backstory. He was a child in France, abused, enslaved and hungry, when he was rescued by Roland, a powerful wizard intent on world domination. Roland takes Hugh in, raises him, educates him and makes him strong. The one requirement is absolute loyalty.

Through Roland’s ministrations, Hugh becomes a monster. The fact that he is committing his atrocities out of blind loyalty, probably love, is what makes him interesting. Of course, Hugh eventually falls out of favor and is abandoned to a state that mirrors the way Roland found him. How Hugh deals with this devastating setback kept me reading. Everybody loves a redemption story and Hugh has so much to answer for. Still, I find myself rooting for him.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain although no one seems to be able to prove it one way or the other. Still over one hundred years later Josh Whedon came up with a villain who could be the mirror image of Huck Finn.

In the movie Serenity, he is only known as The Operative and he plays Javert to the heroes’ Jean Valjean, the heroes being Mal Reynolds, River Tam and the crew of Serenity.

The Operative knows that he is a monster and that he does monstrous things but he believes in his cause so strongly that he will do anything necessary to further it along. He believes that he will create a world so good that he will not be able to live in it. He persists nevertheless.

Huck believes that he is doing bad when he is actually doing good and good prevails. Hugh knows he is a monster. The question that will keep me coming back to his story, is to find out how much he cares. The Operator also knows he is a monster and justifies it in the name of his cause. When he finds the cause to be as monstrous as he is, he abandons it completely and disappears. We will never know if The Operative achieves redemption but the ending is hopeful. I believe him, in the end, when he tells Mal that he will never see him again.

As I look back on this essay, I realize, I really need to up my game with villains.