Galaxy Crushers and Miserable Shits; the Binary World of Villainy

Sometimes, hatred is awesome. Not, obviously, in the real world, where it makes you itchy, cranky, and disagreeable, but when dealing with books. There are few pleasures as exquisite as loathing fictional villains for hundreds of pages, groaning at their triumphs, cheering at their failures, and then, in the end, watching them get what they so richly deserve. I will stay up all night reading, regardless of the quality of the writing or the coherence of the plot, just to see a character I detest brought to justice. And there are some truly detestable characters out there.

William Hamleigh, the central villain of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, springs to mind, establishing his villainy early, awfully, and often. By the end of the book he’s killed and raped dozens of innocents, helped to slaughter Thomas Beckett, and generally made life miserable for just about everyone he meets. Pillars of the Earth is a long book. I would have read ten of them to see the end of William.

Interestingly enough, it’s not simply the badness of the baddie that makes us hate him or her. Darth Vader is pretty bad. He helps to destroy an entire planet. Hannibal Lecter isn’t so nice either. The thing is, I never really detest these characters. In fact, if the thriving prequel and sequel market are any indication, it seems as though most readers and viewers actually want more of Vader and Lecter (more on that here). They’re frightening. We accept that they must be defeated in the end. But then, even Agent Starling has a soft spot for Lecter.

It seems that we can classify villains into two broad categories: the loathsome and the frightening. There is overlap in the Venn diagram, naturally, but not so much as we might expect. Lecter: mostly frightening. William Hamleigh: most loathsome. That’s because the traits we find terrifying are not the same traits that we detest.

Let’s consider Lecter and Vader for moment. Both are scary, but they are also brilliant, extremely capable, and in the case of Lecter, funny. It’s hard to hate a character who’s brilliant and capable, even if he’s turned his (impressive) cloak to serve an evil, galaxy-crushing Empire, even if he wants to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

William, on the other hand, is somewhat dim-witted and relatively incompetent. He holds power by virtue of his birth, his gender, and his size. In this he reminds me of another execrable turd: Joffrey Baratheon. I wish George R.R. Martin would devote an entire novella to Joffrey’s demise; cut the Daenerys plotline and just give me chapter after chapter of Joffrey getting kicked in the shins. The thing is, neither Joffrey nor William is all that scary. I would be worried if I were in Joffrey’s clutches because of the advantages afforded him by his position, but I wouldn’t be scared of him personally any more than I’d be scared of William if I ran into him at a bar. They simply don’t have the personal stature, in and of themselves, to warrant fear.

It’s an interesting situation for a fantasy writer, one with, I think, an obvious conclusion: you really need two villains (unless you’re over the whole bad-guy thing), because the one the reader loves to hate won’t be the same one who makes the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Of course, in this, as in so many things, Tolkien was a step ahead. Sauron is terrifying; Saruman, once you take away his orcs, is just a little shit of a magician who doesn’t belong in the big leagues.

While we’re at it, let’s just get a list going. Who are the great villains of fantasy, and where do they fall on the spectrum?

10 thoughts on “Galaxy Crushers and Miserable Shits; the Binary World of Villainy

  1. I forget who said it, but my favorite assessment of Lecter is that he’s scary because despite everything he says and does, and partially because of it, if you met him at a party, you’d really want him to like you. He’s the Christopher Hitchens of cannibals. So heinously judgmental and educated that it turns around on audiences. And Hopkins helped him a great deal.

    Jason Voorhees is one of the great villains, attaining fame despite hailing from such an awful series. It’s interesting that he touches on both the miserable-end and the omnipotent-end.

    • I’ve never actually watched the Friday 13th movies. Maybe I ought to check them out. I don’t watch a lot of slasher/horror, but I’m also intrigued by Saw. According to friends, the plot arc over the series is surprising, and the main villain has interesting motivations. Have you seen those?

  2. Fabulous post! I agree with all your villains. I’m actually only 200 pages into Game of Thrones though, and I already didn’t like Joffrey. Can you like anyone in that book?

    I’ll need to think on some more villains I loved to hate. While I can’t remember exact names, Vanity Fair comes to mind. If you’ve read that, you’ll know the girl I’m talking about.

    The only villain I think I was a bit sad to see go was Javert, from Les Mis.

    • Get ready to like Joffrey a lot less! He’s a nice, thoughtful guy on page 200, compared to where he ends up…

      I haven’t read Vanity Fair in ages (since just after college), but this is tempting me to go back to it!

  3. I don’t think anybody comes near to the villainous characters created by Cormac Mccarthy-The Judge- mr know it all and Anton Chigurh-the sociopath with principles.

  4. I like poetic justice, or at least creative justice. I remember from one of the Hannibal Lecter books (spoiler alert) where Hannibal kills an even worse villain by getting him to eat his own brain, in another instance a villain breeds man eating pigs only to get eaten by them himself.

  5. what about voldemort? he’s definitely among the scary guys right? in Harry Potter, there’s Bellatrix Lestrange, who you just can’t help hating.

    By the way, Brian, I just read the emperor’s blades, thats how i came to your blogs. really worth the time, both the book and the posts. love the POVs in the book. all your hard work has really paid off. well done again, and thank you for writing it.

    • I cringe to admit it in public, but I actually haven’t read the Harry Potter books. I’m really looking forward to them, actually, but decided that I was so far behind the ball that I’d wait until my son (now 2) is a little bit older, and then we would read them together. I’m probably the only person in the world who doesn’t know how the series ends!

  6. Technically, Anomander Rake is the antagonist (well, one of them) in Book 1 of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Throughout the course of the series you uncover more and more showing just how complex a character he is. Runs around with a magic sword that enslaves anyone killed by it inside a self-contained world, forcing Rake to keep on living and killing in order to keep those already chained from being released upon the world. Living for hundreds of thousands of years, experiencing all of the hopelessness of those ages and the cyclic, inevitable uselessness of mortal endeavors, yet still deeply caring about the future of his own people to serve them the best way he can despite knowing he will fail. Knowing everything you know about him by the end of Book 8, can you find anything but sympathy for him even while he’s singlehandedly leveling an entire army of Malazans or laying siege to Dahrujastan?

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