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?