You know what’s fun?
The characters you can love to hate. The people who are complex in their villainous ways, who do things that you almost, almost finding yourself rooting for before they do something that seems to say “haha, suckers! had you fooled, didn’t I?” That’s just one of the best things about an sort of entertainment, if you ask me. And you’re here, so I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re asking me.
I suppose this leads to a point that might counter the title I gave this post… the point that there is a difference between villains and bad guys. Bad Guys are one-dimensional. They are just, well, bad. The actions they take are meant to be bad, meant to shock, meant to destroy. Bad Guys can be boring.
Villains are not boring. The actions Villains take are more complex, more personal, more damaging. And they are more damaging because it’s more personal and it’s more personal because it’s more complicated. See? Very much not one-dimensional.
A true Villain probably loved somebody once, maybe in a twisted sort of way. A true Villain probably got hurt somewhere along the way, maybe that’s what makes him or her twisted. A true Villain probably thinks what they’re doing is an absolutely logical, rational thing, maybe that’s what makes them dangerous. And a true Villain probably knows that somebody is going to get hurt but believes that it is entirely worth it, maybe that’s what makes them powerful.
I have always enjoyed the ones I can love to hate, and the first time I heard that phrase was when I had an addiction to “General Hospital” and Helena Cassadine was absolutely the most interesting person on the show. I tried to explain why I liked her character and somebody said “love to hate.” And I like that.
But this is a bookish blog so let’s not get sucked into television soap operas.
Let’s make a list of the 3 Villains In Books (book series, to be exact) That Just Popped Into My Head…
- Nellie Oleson (created by Laura Ingalls Wilder for “Little House on the Prairie”) – Nellie was the first Villain I ever encountered. I don’t know that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her with villainy in mind, and Nellie is a fictional composite of a handful of girls Laura actually knew, but for a child reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books, the way Nellie tormented Laura fits the bill. And kids are cruel to each other. The cruelty of children toward one another is often a means by which one child makes themselves just a little bit better than another, because nothing is so terrifying as thinking you’re at the bottom of the ladder. Nellie doesn’t play all that large of a role in the books, but she is not a kind, sympathetic character. The thing is, the thing that makes her a Villain, is that the unkind things she does, like destroying a treasured doll, are because she is jealous and because she doesn’t want Laura to come close to what she has. And she defines who she is by what she has.
- Valentine Morgenstern (created by Cassandra Clare for “The Mortal Instruments”) – Valentine is, by far, the best Villain that Cassandra Clare created. Maybe it helps that “The Mortal Instruments” began as a “Harry Potter” fanfic, I don’t know. That’s either a discussion for another day or a discussion I’ll take a pass on. The point is, Valentine fits the bill for my favorite sort of villain. He’s twisted, absolutely, but he uses love and purpose as a vehicle for what he does. Is it honest love, good love? I don’t know. I doubt it. He thinks it’s honest, good love. He thinks he loves Jocelyn and Clary and the Nephilim, he thinks that ‘love’ is all the reason he needs to utterly destroy everything that stands in the way of preserving and protecting them. It’s all worth it to him. And that, to be honest, might be the most villainous philosophy of all.
- Severus Snape (created by JK Rowling for “Harry Potter”) – I know Snape is still a divisive topic so let’s start by saying I can have my opinion and you can have yours. Don’t yell at me. But Snape ticks every proverbial box I listed above. He’s complex, he has his reasons (if twisted), he loved once, he is certain he’s doing the right thing, he knows people will get hurt. Does he get a redemption arc? I honestly don’t know. I think what he does in the end is entirely in line with who he was through the first books and Harry’s first years at Hogwarts. Is his final act redemptive? Probably not. And maybe because the books are scattered with things that lead to the final act. But he’s absolutely a Villain the rest of the time.
So I meant to make that a top five list and I didn’t mean for it to be focused on villains in book series but… here we are. I think those three are really good examples of my definition of Villains: The Ones I Love to Hate. Maybe it’ll be Part One of a series on villains and I’ll get into standalone villains or something. Who knows?
In the meantime, tell me your thoughts on villains. Do you agree with my definitions on Villains and Bad Guys? Who are your favorite Villains?
P.S. I have now typed Villain so many times that it’s starting to look like I’m spelling it wrong?