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A Lily Among the Thorns

October 4, 2011

by Rose Lerner

So I’ve recently become extremely enamored of Tom Hiddleston, who played Loki in the Thor movie.

He’s just so handsome and talented and he has such lovely hair and when he talks about acting, I want to swoon because he has such smart things to say.

I’ve frequently found that actors, talking about acting, express things I’ve always believed about writing. I guess in some ways the jobs are similar. Like an actor, a writer has to see a complete character even if that character only has two lines. We have to create the illusion of complete human beings using only a small slice of their words and actions. We have to make something that’s carefully constructed feel like reality. We have to put ourselves inside the minds and hearts of other people and remix our own life experiences to create something new and different.

What’s a little different about being a writer is that instead of only one character, I’m managing dozens at once. And I have to do that in a way that’s fair to all of them. Like a parent, I can’t play favorites. Not because I’ll hurt the character’s feelings, of course, but because it will affect the book. It will throw the reality I’m creating out of balance, and the reader will know I’m cheating. (Don’t worry, I’m getting back to Tom Hiddleston in a second!)

I notice this most often with villains. Villains are frequently bad people, of course. To a certain extent it’s natural to dislike them. But I think that writing a villain (or really, any character) that I thoroughly disliked would be a big mistake. Or at least, letting my dislike of them creep into the story would be a big mistake. Because I’ll end up stacking the odds against them. I won’t respect their point of view or give the reader a chance to understand and root for them. I won’t bother giving them good qualities to balance out the bad ones. I won’t let them feel deeply. I won’t let other minor characters agree with the villain or enjoy her company.

A bully is someone who doesn’t fight fair, right? It’s someone who goes after a weaker opponent. And nobody wants a hero or heroine who’s a bully. But when an author stacks the narrative deck against her villain, she turns her protagonist into a bully in the reader’s eyes: The entire world is on the heroine’s side. That poor schmuck is all by himself. I really believe a lot of readers feel that way subconsciously. I know I do.

A great example of this, in my opinion, is Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. He’s supposed to be a bad guy (though not the bad guy, obviously), and more than that, he’s supposed to be the powerful, popular kid at school who bullies underdog Harry. But J.K. Rowling dislikes Draco so much that she can never, ever let him win. Every plan he makes blows up in his face. In any fight or wizarding duel, Harry and his friends are sure to humiliate him. He hasn’t won a single Quidditch game against Harry. Almost every teacher besides Snape openly despises him. His own father doesn’t seem to love him, and his friends don’t stick by him. Quite unintentionally, now Draco is the underdog in the story! And suddenly you have this whole contingent of readers thinking, Please please please let Harry lose, just this once! Instead of working with you, your readers are working against you.

Of course no writer can control reader reaction. I wouldn’t want to. But a reaction like this isn’t just accounted for by the natural variety in reader experiences and preferences. It’s a response to sleight-of-hand by the author, and it’s avoidable.

A lopsided villain can destroy the illusion that this world I’ve created is real. No one in real life is all bad, no matter how much bad they have in them. My best friend has a rule of thumb: “I should be able to imagine every character eating toast.” If the only thing the reader can imagine a villain doing is raping women and torturing small children, the dreaded word “cartoonish” comes into play. And isn’t it creepier anyway to know that this guy can rape women and torture small boys and then go home and eat toast like anybody else?

A good example of a well-rounded villain is Dave on the reality show Storage Wars. (Dave-the-character, obviously; I don’t know anything about Dave-the-real-person.) I really recommend this show to writers. It’s especially impressive because it’s a reality show, edited together from real actions by real people, and yet it has a very coherent narrative. It’s about people who bid on abandoned storage lockers and then sell off the contents, hopefully at a profit. Dave rapidly emerges as the “villain” because he sabotages other bidders, bids up the price on storage lockers he doesn’t even want just to make his rivals spend more, openly tries to drive a struggling young couple out of business, and generally is unpleasant and hostile to everyone.

However, as the season progresses, we see other sides of Dave. We learn how important his business is to him and how hard he’s worked to make it a success. We see his estrangement from his brothers and how that’s affected him. And in the end, I think Dave is not a villain “because he’s a nasty guy.” Dave becomes an antagonist because, on a very basic level, he believes that success is a zero-sum game. Any gain by another bidder translates in his mind into a direct loss for him. The flip side is that any time he wins, it’s because other bidders failed to stop him, or were stupid, or incompetent, not simply because he’s good at his job. For Dave, there is no win-win situation. Acting according to those beliefs makes him do spiteful, cruel, bullying things. I still root for him to lose most of the time, but I understand him.

Here’s what Tom Hiddleston has to say:

“Compassion actually comes from two Latin words. I studied Latin at university–don’t ask me why. The first word is the word for suffering, which is ‘patior'[…]and the ‘com’ part is ‘with.’ […]As an actor, to have compassion as an actor is to have compassion for the characters that I play. That’s what it means to me. And whatever they’re going through, whatever their predicament, I have to suffer with them. I have to understand, I have to not judge it. I have to be forgiving of it. To have compassion for a character is no different from having compassion for another human being. If you’re playing a character, to have compassion for him is to play them honestly. And so I suppose, suffering with them is to suffer their arrogance, or their misogyny, or their insanity. I think that’s why, for example, Iago is as compelling as Romeo because within all of us, there is the capacity to be anyone or anything. There is an Iago and a Romeo within all of us. There is that lover and there is that sociopath. And that extends to every script I read– to look for the possibility of who that person is in me. And that’s compassion. Yeah, that’s it.”

(If you want to see the whole dreamy video, it’s up on YouTube.)

I could not agree more! Now, this doesn’t preclude nasty, abusive, unpleasant villains, or even some good old-fashioned moustache-twirling. And it doesn’t mean that, looking at my villain’s actions from a larger perspective, I can’t say, “This is wrong,” or “If I met this guy in real life, I would hate him.” But when I’m writing him, I don’t think that way. I think about bad choices, but not bad people. I have to find the part of myself that could act that way under the right circumstances. If I can’t do that, if I look at this character and immediately try to distance myself from her, if all I can think is, “I would never do that, it’s awful!”–that’s a serious problem.

Probably every author has types of characters that she has a hard time being tolerant of. For me, as probably some of my readers have noticed, it’s bad parents. That doesn’t mean I won’t write bad parents, but it does mean I try to be extra careful when I’m writing them. I’m not always successful, but I try.

My primary villain in A Lily Among Thorns is a French spy who used to be the heroine’s best friend. This means he’s really more of an antagonist than a villain, since he’s motivated not by greed or spite but by his loyalty to his own country and family. However, that loyalty makes him do terrible things to the heroine. It was tricky to create a character like that and keep him bad enough to be a deadly threat, while still good enough that readers could understand why the heroine cared about him. I think most readers have been able to forgive him for his actions and like him anyway, but a few definitely haven’t.

Tell me about your favorite three-dimensional villain you’ve read, watched, or written! I’ll be giving away a signed copy of A Lily Among Thorns to a commenter chosen at random.

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  1. Honestly? I really liked the villain, Pryce, in book two, Hellforged, of Nancy Holzner’s Deadtown series. I was hoping in the end that there would be more to him and that he would eventually have a happy ending. I am not sure if that is going to be true as Holzner’s third book in the series just came out a few days ago and I have yet to read it.

    I sort of love those multidimensional villains that turn around in the end! :)

    • I’ll have to check that out! I, too, love a redemption arc. I mean, part of what I love about romance is that the stories are all about hope, and love changing lives, and characters being able to move past their fears and flaws to be honest with each other and grow as people. So a good villain turnaround is the cherry on top!

  2. I think Joker from Batman is my all time “favorite” villian

    • Oh, cool! Do you have a favorite Joker incarnation? Like, are you a Heath Ledger/Arkham Asylum fan, or do you prefer a more light-hearted Joker?

      Two of my all-time favorite villains are Lex Luthor and Magneto. Clearly comics knows what they’re doing when it comes to nemeses.

  3. First, can I say I am in total agreement about the yum factor of Tom Hiddleston. :) My favorite villain has got to be Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent from Lisa Kleypas’ It Happened One Autumn. I wouldn’t say he was an all out villain because it was impossible not to like him. He kidnaps the heroine (who is the love interest of one of his closest friends) and tries to force her to marry him. I know it sounds absolutely terrible. He’s a libertine, and arrogant, but I always felt that there was more to him then met the eye. His wrongdoings just couldn’t wipe away all his charm. Kleypas followed up with The Devil in Winter, where aha, he’s the hero and gets his HEA. His threats were all empty. You find out why he did what he did, you see true remorse and you end up rooting for him and his redemption. All he needed was the love of a good woman :).

    • Oh, that sounds wonderful! I think I read the first book in that series, but I’ll have to go back and read them all because that sounds so cool.

      Georgette Heyer did a little bit the same thing with Tracy “Devil” Belmanoir in The Black Moth, except not…The hero of “These Old Shades” is the identical character and even has an abduction of someone else’s girlfriend in his backstory, but for some reason she didn’t just keep it the same character. I’ve always wondered why!

  4. Peyton Flanders from the Hand that Rocks the Cradle is a good three-dimensional movie villain. The best example in fiction that I remember is Nick from Karen Hawkins’ The Abduction of Julia. (If I had a better memory, I could probably think of others as well.)

  5. A rose at Midnight by Anne Stuart. The major protoaganist Nicholas Hawthorne is the villain of this novel who is portrayed vividly and well. In a movie, The Maltese Falcon, Sidney Greenstreet is a major villain who is unforgettable.

  6. I really can’t think of a villian in a book right now. The only ones that come to mind is the ones in Batman.

    • As I told Marjana above, I’m a big fan of Lex Luthor and Magneto (and more recently, as you could probably guess from this post, Loki). Clearly comics is doing something right! Who’s your favorite Batman villain?

  7. My favorite three dimensional villain from a movie is “Hans Gruber” as played by Alan Rickman in the original Die Hard movie. He doesn’t see himself as a bad guy…he’s just a man going after what he wants for his “cause”. I loved and hated him…lol…I also think that “Belle Morte” in the Anita Blake Vampire series is a good three dimensional villain.

    • I LOVED Hans Gruber! I was so incredibly disappointed when he died. He was just so slick and competent and sarcastic. (Plus, the voice.) I wanted him to get away with it! Or at least survive to come back for another movie.

  8. Tom Hiddleston!! He was such a good Loki, and I’m so glad he’s coming back in the Avengers next year. It seems the more interviews I watch, the more I fall in love with him. :) In keeping with the superhero movies theme, the character of Magneto has been wonderfully fleshed-out, especially with the more recent incarnation as portrayed by Michael Fassbender. He wants the best for mutant-kind! But that means bad things for humans. :(

    • I love Magneto in the movies! I especially loved the most recent one because I felt like there was more room for me to side with him and see the flaws in Professor X’s viewpoint. I haven’t read a ton of the comics, but when I read his Wikipedia article, it seems like most of the time he just wants a mutant homeland (on an unpopulated asteroid! How is this evil?). The worst thing his group does most of the time is assassinate anti-mutant politicians, and I just…obviously it’s not a political process I support, but as far as supervillains go it’s fairly mild. Only occasionally does he have a breakdown and try to conquer humanity. So I can’t get too mad. I just wish there was a middle ground in the X-Men verse between Professor X’s “let’s prove ourselves to humanity over and over while they treat us like crap” approach and Magneto’s “killing humans when they annoy me” approach.

      It’s also really really nice to see a Holocaust survivor get a major role in something that isn’t being someone’s embarrassing parent/grandparent. It’d be nice if there were also some who weren’t EVIL, but baby steps, I guess? It’s funny, I never realized how few Jewish characters there are in comics until I got into Magneto and it was so fun to be able to identify with him in that way.

  9. Pingback: “You’re insane!” “No, no, the other thing.” “Superman will never let you–” “WRONG!!!”

  10. I am going to say Darth Vader in Star Wars but as you so wonderfully explained, there is compassion there too, especially when you get to hear about his beginnings.

    • Yes! Although I have to say, while he’s a great, well-rounded villain (with great fashion and the best theme music EVER), his redemption arc always rung a little hollow to me. Is refusing to kill your own son really a great, noble act that makes up for mass murder?

  11. Enthusiastic agreement with Hans Gruber! Sometimes I think villains get the best voices. There’s not just Alan Rickman but Darth Vader and old Hollywood villains like Basil Rathbone and George Sanders.

    My favorite romance villain redemption arc is in Patricia Veryan’s Golden Chronicles. The villain, Otton, starts out as a turncoat and opportunist, but he’s gradually redeemed until by the final book of the series, The Dedicated Villain, I was completely in love with him.

    • Okay, now I have to read those! I love opportunist turncoats. And yes to villains getting great voices! I adore Basil Rathbone and George Sanders (“I say, marriage to Max isn’t exactly a bed of roses, is it?”)…Maleficent and Ursula the sea-witch also come to mind! They just get to speak (and sing!) with such malicious relish.

  12. I have to jump on the Hans Gruber bandwagon, too! Although, in all honesty, while that character was a great villain I just kind of love Alan Rickman.

    And Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” — great example, too!

    • I want to know more about her backstory. That line “When I lived at the palace” has always fascinated me. When did you live at the palace, Ursula???

      And yes, a lot of Hans Gruber’s awesomeness has to do with Rickman’s performance. I love a man who can twirl his moustache with gusto. (Or a woman!)

  13. I would probably have to go with Lex Luthor from Smallville :-) And yes I might have rooted for him…. just a little bit 😉

    • I had to stop watching that show after season 5 because I would get so mad at Clark for being mean to Lex! I think that was a great example of a “villain” who ended up feeling like an underdog. I love Lex Luthor in all his forms, including the really evil ones, but the thing about Smallville Lex was that (in the seasons I watched, it probably changed a bit later) everyone TREATED him like a villain but he never DID anything all that villainous, and even when he did, it seemed sort of out of the blue, and also understandable because if I were him, I’d be mad at the world too. Nothing ever worked out for the guy! Remember when he tried to end world hunger and he ended up being split in half and torturing himself? So mainly he just made me really sad. Like hugely, heart-meltingly, heartbreakingly sad. His little face when Clark didn’t trust him or his dad was mean to him! <3

      • I know! I wanted him to be happy more then anyone else on the show! And when he and Lana got together, and he so obviously loved her so much, I was like oh, thank goodness, finally. But then, of course, it all had to go down hill. I stopped watching after that because it was too sad. :-(

    • I think part of the problem was that Michael Rosenbaum was such a fantastic actor, AND he was so so good at looking heartbroken, they just kept giving him sad plotlines so he could do that amazing betrayed sad face. And it made it hard to side with anyone else when they were in conflict with him.

      I remember seeing candid photos of Michael Rosenbaum smiling and being totally startled, and then realizing Lex almost NEVER looks happy on the show. I kind of wanted him and Chloe to get together and move to Metropolis and have their own show where people would appreciate them properly, and maybe solve mysteries with her investigative journalism skills and his wealth and connections.

  14. I totally agree about Tom Hiddleston. I could have cared less about the actor who played Thor, I only had eyes for Loki!

    As for the three-dimensional villain, the one that comes to mind is Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. I think I have more sympathy for his because of the wonderful solo in the musical that he sings just before his suicide, “Stars.”

    • I do love Chris Hemsworth too, but Loki was so exactly my type, all geeky and heartbreaking and resentful. I just wanted so badly for him and Thor to go to family therapy together and learn to communicate. Hug it out, guys!

      Yes, I adore Javert! I love him even more in the book where when he kills himself, he leaves like a ten page letter to his superior officer about recommended procedural changes and inefficiences in the department. N’awwww! Obsessive weirdos for the win.

  15. Hey Rose!

    WOW! I am in accord with you when it comes to the villains and I almost love them just as much, especially the ones that are three dimensional! As for Rene, I so wish he had his own book. I WOULD have read it! He’s one of those characters that we get all torn inside and out, because we want to NOT like him, and then he does something that tears us up inside and we get to see more of his thoughts and the way he processes things, and we slowly warm up to him! Loved, loved the story….

    The only one that comes to mind is Captain Jack Randall ‘Black Jack’ from OUTLANDER series from Diana Gabaldon. There were not many redeeming qualities in that man, but as villains go, that Dude had so many facets to him…

    As for the movie/TV villains, the only one I can think of right now is Richard Armitage’s Sir Guy of Gisborne from BBC’s ROBIN HOOD series. Loved that bad boy! I could never figure out if I’d love him or hate him, form episode to episode!

    BTW: I can’t wait to get my paws on your first book 😉


    • Yeah, I definitely don’t think “three dimesional villain” and “sympathetic villain” have to be the same thing, although sometimes they are. Nasty unredeemable people are complete human beings too, that’s all, and if we’re going to tell an honest story we have to acknowledge that.

      I think I’m going to have to break down and watch that Robin Hood eventually, because everything I hear sounds awesome. But first I need to get through the second season of Robin of Sherwood (from the 80s, I think?). The Gisborne and Sheriff on that are pretty fabulous too.

      I’m so glad you liked Rene! I am super fond of him myself. :)

  16. I too enjoy the bad guy more when we see other sides of him than just his villainy. I want all my characters to have depth rather than being a token bodies in a story. I love the grey area surrounding a character because it allows that, given different circumstances, the hero we love could just as easily be the villain we loathe and vice versa. HBO’s The Wire was a shining example of a world in which everyone was grey. I cared as deeply for some of the murderous drug dealers as I did for some of the cops persuing them. One a side note, Disney and wicked stepmothers notwithstanding, how come there are so few villainous females?

    • It seems like a large proportion of the villainous females out there (at least in the romances I’ve read) are mostly backstabbing sexpots who either used to bang the hero or want to bang the hero or are jealous of the heroine’s innocent prettiness or something. You’re right, you rarely see just a regular nasty woman motivated by greed, politics, revenge, whatever. I’m going to make a note of that and see if I can write some one of these days.

  17. I will have to say Steve in Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love series books. He and Ginny were always rubbing each other the wrong way until the final story when they got back together and stayed together, even for the books written about their 2 children.

  18. This reminds me of a quote from Wicked (the Musical): Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?

    Am not sure if Constantine Huxtable in Mary Balogh’s Huxtable series qualifies as a villain but he was portrayed in a not-so positive light in the early books. (He polarized a family — with Ness siding with her husband but with the rest of the Huxtable sisters cautiously accepting him) His story was finally revealed in A Secret Affair and you realize that he is a very complex and layered character.

    • Ooh, that sounds cool! Is he the hero of A Secret Affair, then, or still a secondary character? How many books are in the series, and do I need to read them in order? I quite like the name Constantine…possibly because I associate it with Keanu Reeves. :)

      • Hi, Rose!

        Yes, A Secret Affair is Constantine’s story — yes, you have to read them in order if you want to read the full story about the Huxtables.

        If you want just Constantine’s story, you can read the first book: First Comes Marriage and then A Secret Affair. (There will be some holes in the story, though — about the other Huxtable siblings.)

        I also love the name Constantine and was tempted to give my son that name — but we didn’t. ^_^

    • That was heroic restraint on your part, I have to say! What name did you go with instead?

  19. Hi Rose, your new book A LILY AMONG THORNS looks so good! I enjoyed reading your blog post!
    I always liked Claude Rains in movies like Notorious with Cary Grant. He was quite elegant and evil! James Mason also played some some pretty good bad guys too. Like in North By Northwest — opposite Cary Grant again! :)
    I had fun reading everyones posts!

    • Thank you!

      Claude Rains is fabulous in everything ever! He’s probably my favorite part of Casablanca. Is Notorious the one where Ingrid Bergman has to marry him because she’s a spy but then he figures it out and is poisoning her? I have to admit I was a little envious, if you’re going to be a spy marrying Claude Rains seems like a cushy gig to land (although I guess it didn’t turn out that way, in the event).

  20. I loved Loki too! So much more than Thor. Loki had a much more interesting character than Thor, and he had some understandable motives for doing the things that he did. I always seem to sympathize with the villains, especially since a lot of villains tend to be better-drawn than the hero. The villain can be all shades of gray when a hero is merely white…unless he is an antihero, and I tend to like those too.

    • Lol, it’s the same problem in reverse, isn’t it? Well-balanced heroes are just as important as well-balanced villains, I guess is the moral of the story. Definitely something to keep in mind as a writer–sometimes it seems like there are so many rules for what a hero is allowed to be like and how he’s supposed to behave that a lot of the interesting stuff is shaved away. Meanwhile the villain gets to do whatever he likes, up to and including wearing eyeliner, and there’s just so much space there for fun characters and weird characters that can feel more personal to the reader and connect more strongly.

      I actually thought Thor was a great example of a well-rounded hero, though (all the Marvel movies have been doing good with this recently, IMO). He was allowed to have his own blind spots and faults, and you could really see how he was caught in the same trap as Loki: Loki couldn’t measure up to their father’s expectations, so he gave up…meanwhile Thor DOES meet their father’s expectations, and then he’s trapped in this place where he can never do anything else but be macho and fight things, and other parts of himself get lost. And the really important relationship, the one they have with each other, gets all messed up because of it, and that hurts them both. My favorite scenes were the ones they had together….but what can I say, I still love Loki best. He’s a scene stealer, Tom Hiddleston.

      As I said when the movie came out, though, this is part of why I love romance–in a superhero story, when there’s a person who’s sweet and good, and a person who’s angry and troubled, they’re probably going to end up archnemeses. In a romance, they’ll end up married.

      • You’re right about Thor, now that I think about it, and maybe the first scene was meant to portray his complexity in the way that he was so egotistical and dense about what he thought was doing right. The movie was surprisingly good for me, but going in I wasn’t terribly impressed by the first few scenes and Thor’s insistence on charging in and lack of diplomacy. Plus the dialogue was really cheesy in those first scenes, but Thor won me over when he got exiled to the human world and was hilarious.

        I think I tend to like people who are portrayed as lacking in obvious strength in the beginning but who show intelligence and depth of character. Captain America was portrayed this way, and I really liked his character, although I did not like the movie as much as Thor. The only good parts to me were when he was physically weak.

        On another note, Richard Armitage was in that movie, and I did not even recognize him until the very last possible moment! How could I not know that handsome face right off?

      • I also forgot to add another favorite villain – Prince Varis in Paula Volsky’s The Wolf of Winter. Volsky is a wonderful author who writes lyrical prose, and I think Varis is both hero and villain in the book. He lives in a society where physical strength is the most valued characteristic, and he is sickly and sensitive to the sun. He finds a way to get back at everyone who has tormented him, and even though he does unspeakably evil things, I can’t help but like and sympathize with him.

    • I see what you mean–Thor is definitely a jerk in the first scenes, but I was okay with it because he was SUPPOSED to be a jerk, and then he learned from his mistakes, you know? If the movie gave me the same scenes but was just like, “Look how great Thor is, he punches everyone and it’s awesome!” then I would have problems. It’s funny, one of the deleted scenes is a really cute Thor and Loki scene that was supposed to go before his coronation, in which Loki tries to reassure a nervous Thor and Thor insists he isn’t nervous, he is too brave to be nervous, for about five minutes, then asks “No, but how do I look?” I think they cut it and another scene because it just made Loki TOO sympathetic, but I don’t know, maybe they were just short on time. Either way, I wish they’d kept it!

      I will admit I love the geeks more than the jocks (well, I AM a geek, so) but what I like best is geek/jock friendship or romance!

  21. One of my favourite villain is Darroc from the Fever urban fantasy series by Karen Marie Moning. I got to see so many sides of him and sometimes even sympathized with him. He was a lot more than he seemed.

  22. My favorite villains are also from Batman! From the 90’s animated series, which I used to love. Poison Ivy is a fav because she loves plants, but my heart really belongs to Mr. Freeze in “Heart of Ice,” still plotting revenge even though supposedly emotions are ‘frozen dead” in him. He’s so desperately sad.

    full episode: http://www.thewb.com/shows/batman-the-animated-series/heart-of-ice/b780b2a8-bdcb-49a5-8722-665cff236158

    shortened version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFDTMW3_ilE

    Your villain sounds really interesting… I want to read this now.

    • Oooh, I really need to go back and watch Batman: tAS. It sounds so cool. The only bit of it I’ve actually seen is a clip where my friend insists that Poison Ivy, Harvey Dent, and Batman are on a threeway date. She seemed to be right. I will definitely check out Mr. Freeze!

  23. Ha! Na Darroc is my fave villain as well. Moning did a wonderful job of creating someone you just want to hate, but then surprises you by revealing his feelings he had for Mac’s sister…and then throws you right back to hate when his actions make you wonder if his feelings were real or if he valued them.
    A great post, it is so true about the best villains having a human side, nobody is all evil (unless they are in a comic strip) and characters need to reflect that a little.

    • Yes! I remember when I was about ten, I was reading the Scarlet Pimpernel series, and the one with Chauvelin’s daughter really threw me because Chauvelin is so one-sided in the other books. I talked to my mom about it, and she said, “Just because he loves his daughter and wants to save her life doesn’t mean he’s not a bad guy. Even really evil people love their children.” It was kind of a new thought for me at the time, but it’s really true. Bad people who do terrible things still have feelings and a subjective human consciousness, just like everyone else. It can be hard to wrap my head around, but it’s often reconciling that contradiction that makes for a really awesome villain.

  24. I have to say, great blog post. Thinking about tucking it away for my english department’s resources…Accessable article on writing. I like it 😉 This is going to sound weird but Briony from McEwan’s Atonement is a really well written villain. I HATED her. And yet I totally understood why she did what she did. It only made me hate her more. Even her attempt at atoning irked me. And yet I think it irked her too. You were so spot on in the perfect villain description. Briony is real, I understand her, and I still hate her. Perfect!

  25. I’ve enjoyed few literary villains as much as the master criminal from the Amelia Peabody series set in historical (but not ancient) Egypt, by Elizabeth Peters. It only got better when later in the series the reader finds out he’s actually SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Emerson’s brother. Too funny.

    • Oh man! Now I’m really excited because I’m gearing up to start that series. I loved the Vicky Bliss books and a friend recently sold me on trying the Peabody ones. Yay for master criminals!

  26. Alan Rickman, as the Judge in Sweeney Todd, was outstanding & he sang. Who knew? He always makes a great villain though. (I love him as the hero too.)

    • Wow, I actually DON’T REMEMBER THAT. Which is bizarre, because I was already an Alan Rickman fan when I saw the movie. How did I completely forget that? I guess I don’t remember a lot ELSE about the movie either, but still. Alan Rickman singing, you’d think this would make a lasting impression. I’ll have to check it out on YouTube one of these days…

  27. I ditto the idea that Marvel villains are some of the best precisely because they’re treated as holistic characters. This will loop back, but I was recently introduced to Downton Abbey (thank you, Bev, for the recommendation here!) I fell in love with the series and one of the reasons is the first footman, Thomas. He’s essentially the villain but oh, so complicated! I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the show but the writers did a brilliant job of exploring his character, fleshing him out and letting the viewer share in his losses AND wins! It was brilliant. The entire cast of characters is wonderful but Thomas is one of the sharpest, in my opinion, especially how the season ended–delicious!

    • Oooh! Is he also attractive? Downton Abbey seems full of attractive people, but if there’s also a sexy evil footman, I may have to break down and watch it.

      • Oh yes, break down and watch it. I KNOW you will be pleasantly surprised by his awesomely hot nastiness! Plus, he’s got a secret that is the frosting on the cake.

  28. Oh man. So man possibilities here. First off, I love the blog post – very well written and I absolutely agree with you, both as a writer/creator and reader. Books and movies are just *better* when characters of any variety are three dimensional people with motivations, even the villains.

    As far as my favorite villains, I have too many. Villains tend to be some of my favorite characters.

    I adore Magneto – you hit it right on the money with him. Magneto is such a complex character, and his motivations are what makes him so delicious. Sure, he’s arrogant and believes that mutants are superior to humankind, but he genuinely cares about the other mutants, and wants them to be safe and happy (and more awesome than humans). His contempt for humanity is understandable, especially because of what they did to him, and what they tried to make him into. It’s amazing that he is not completely nuts, honestly!

    My favorite villain in fiction is from a sci-fi/fantasy series – the Coldfire trilogy by C.S. Friedman. The first book is called Dark Sun Rising. If you are at all interested in sci-fi/fantasy stuff, you should consider looking at it, because the villain in this series is *fantastic*. I don’t want to give it away, but he is one of the most beautifully developed, three dimensional characters I have ever read… And he’s bad. Really, really bad.

    • Awesome! Consider me sold. Yay, I didn’t really think it through enough to realize I would have a TBR list as long as my arm after reading the comments on this post, but—bonus!

      Whoever decided to make Magneto a Holocaust survivor should win some kind of award, seriously. It’s SUCH a brilliant character stroke. I bought a Magneto action figure at a garage sale last week…it came without the helmet so he’s just this cute old Jewish guy in a weird red and purple suit. Casual Magneto! It makes me stupidly happy.

      • Don’t worry, my TBR pile is huge because I visit this blog regularly. This post and all the comments are just fuel on the fire! On the other hand, I always have something awesome to read…

        Also, I want a Magneto action figure. :(

    • I know, sometimes people tell me, “I’m running out of books to read,” and I just stare in awe. How does that HAPPEN?

  29. The only “villain” I can think of at the moment is Prof. Snape of Harry Potter fame. In the first books he is the one we love to hate, but there was always something there making me feel that all was not as it seemed. He is presented as a villain, but in reality is a heroic figure. He has been in an tenuous position and is finally given his due.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    • Aw, yes, I love Snape! I did kind of wish his secret backstory had been a little less Lily-focused–if the ONLY reason you aren’t a Nazi is that they killed your crush, there’s a problem. And I didn’t believe it! I knew in my heart that Snape had come to care about the cause! So why not show it a little more? But boy, did he have a sad life or what? I’d like to hug him but I think he’d be horrified.

  30. I guess it depends on what is a villian. I think of Darth Vader, Frankenstein, Jack Nicholoson in The Shining, Damien and the fava-bean eater! Lots of villians out there and thankfully there are always heroes to deal with them.

  31. Thanks again for having me, it’s been a blast! I probably won’t stop by again to check comments, but I am always happy to talk villains! Come talk to me on facebook, twitter, tumblr, or my blog!

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