Halloween! This post is dedicated to the diabolical and the morally challenged; the manipulative and the detrimental; the most vile of jagoffs that lurk in shadows and rub their hands together while planning their next step to muck-up everybody’s lives. Or maybe they don’t lurk at all, maybe the bad guy is the bouncing blonde at the local drive-thru coffee shop, the one who smiles when she takes our pumpkin spice latte order, only to memorize our credit card number so she can go on an internet shopping spree when she gets off work. Or maybe it’s the little boy with the filthy mouth in play group who won’t stop pulling your daughter’s hair. Or maybe it’s his mother. They’re all in it together, probably.
Villains. You can’t trust them. But we love to hate them. Here’s a nod to the bad guys, the villains, the antagonists, the 97% bitter cocoa in the candy rack, the triple shot espresso, the Guinness beer of the beer aisle. All of which without, we would never realize that sweet and smooth milk chocolate actually makes the world a place worth living, that coffee tastes a hell of a lot better with some cream and sugar in it, and that Guinness beer just sucks. No offense to the Emerald Isles.
The reason we like villains so much is because they rev up the story. They play against the hero and animate them. They season the plot. They add interest and texture and most importantly of all: tension.
Without the bad guy in a story, what do you have? You have boring bullshit, that’s what. Imagine Othello without Iago. Othello and Desdemona were still in their sex crazed honeymoon humping phase before Iago came to party. Left to natural progressions, Desdemona would have popped out a few kids, put on a few pounds, and started making excuses to not have sex. Othello would leave his dirty clothes from the battle field all over the floor, and then he’s farting and peeing with the door open. The once beautiful couple who sizzled with passion in each other’s arms would have faded into middle age complacency, content with watching late night television, and falling asleep in flannel pajamas before midnig…. Hmm, what? I just nodded off a little bit.
But if you stick Iago into the story, then suddenly all sorts of interesting happens. Stolen and staged handkerchiefs. Jealous rages. Othello freaking the hell out. Treachery. Mayhem! Monstrous!
Iago did them a favor. At least in the realms of making a story worth reading. And Shakespeare knew exactly what was up.
Shakespeare I am not and writing a great villain is easier said than done. I constantly struggle with making my antagonists awesome. I want to do them justice and make them a character worth the expended energy. I want them to be more than an obstacle placeholder. I want the reader to be invested in his demise. Or victory. So I plug into Netflix (because Netflix solves most of my problems in one way or another) and download one of my favorite movie bad guys and I take notes. What makes this guy so cool? Why do I kind of want him to win? How does he affect the outcome of the story?
It takes a lot of skill to create a first rate bad guy. A villain must have some redeeming qualities. That is, he can’t be so evil that he’s lost all shape and function. George R. R. Martin, creator of the Song of Fire and Ice series (aka Game of Thrones) and expert badguyologist says, “Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.” Take his character Cersei for example. She is a cunning, incestuous, murderous bitch, no doubt. But she loves her children and would do anything (emphasis on anything) for them. In Cersei’s golden hair enshrined skull, she, with next to no help from anyone else, is preserving her children’s integrity and setting them up to be the most powerful and successful little inbred bastards in the seven kingdoms. If you were brave enough to ask Cersei, she wouldn’t hesitate to claim that she is her own, her children’s, and possibly her wine monger’s hero of the story, and off with your head if you don’t agree.
Think of some of your favorite bad guys. Here are a few of mine in no particular order. Most are from books, two are from short stories, but all have been reproduced with varying success on the big screen. That means Netflix. Line them up in your queue.
Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs: Manners, charm, intelligence, a taste for fine culinary cuisine. He has a sense of honor and code. As Clarice Starling says, “He won’t come after me. I can’t explain it. He would consider it rude.” Such a gentleman he is.
The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: The bitch shaved Aslane’s beautiful mane to humiliate him, right before she shoved a dagger into his heart. It was the first time I ever cried while reading a book. I still hate her for the emotions she stirred in me as a wee girl.
Arnold Friend from “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates is so bloody awesome. Arnold Friend is probably one of the best villains in literature. And it’s just a little short story that you can read for free right here.
Annie Wilkes from Misery: She doesn’t like smut or swear words. Hobbling and murder are fine though.
Voldemort/Snape from all the Harry Potter books: I know this might be a scandalous opinion, but I found Snape to be the better villain from HP. Harry always seemed to have a much harder time fighting against Snape than he did Voldemort.
The Sleer from The Graveyard Book: The wonderful creepy thing that lives in the caves under a the graveyard. Poor thing is just lonely that’s all.
Richard Parker from The Life of Pi: It’s a toss up as to who is the true antagonist in this story. One could argue that the Pacific Ocean holds the honor, but being lost at sea in a row boat with only an 800 pound male tiger to keep you company is nothing to roll your eyes at.
Jack Torrence from The Shining: No explanation necessary.
Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest: Manipulative and unethical. But, somewhat like Annie Wilkes, she just wants to help.
Warden Norton from Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption: The guy likes his bible. And bribes. And cooking the books. What I really like about this character is that he took the reader on a journey where we were unsure of his intentions, then thought maybe he wasn’t so bad because he favored Andy and got him out of laundry room, then we found out we should have trusted our instincts in the first place. The guy is plain horrible.
Iago from Othello: Just look at him planting seeds of doubt into poor gullible Othello’s ear. I’m pretty sure the 80’s TV show Three’s Company followed the same formula for misdirection.
Who are some of your favorite villains and what makes them a great character?
What I’m reading now: In the Evil Day by Richard Adams Carey with a bad guy in it that is all the more disturbing because it’s non-fiction.