There are different categories of villainy: 1) Villains I love to hate, 2) Villains I somehow wind up rooting for even though I know I’m not supposed to, and 3) the villains that give me the serious, creep-fest heebie-jeebies no matter how many times I read and/or watch them….
VILLAINS I LOVE TO HATE
Jane Austen Antagonists…
Lady Jane is great at many things. You hear much about protagonists like Lizzie and Darcy, Mr. Knightley, and Miss Elinor Dashwood, among others. You hear even more talk about her revolutionary style – the wit, the irony, the dialogue. Those are the things that keep us coming back to her novels time and time again. But one of my favorite things about a Jane Austen book? There will always be that one character (or two…or three) that I want to rap over the head with a walking stick. Chief among these is Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice. While the main antagonist of the book is the manipulative Mr. Wickham, Lady Catherine runs a close second…with Mr. Collins and his winding rhetoric bringing up the condescending rear.
While Tom Riddle comes to mind when anybody brings up Harry Potter villains, there’s another name that occurs to me and that’s Dolores Umbridge. Umbridge first appears in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. At first glance, the squat little lady underneath the pink hair bow might not appear too threatening. Midway through the book, however, it becomes clear that Umbridge is another kind of villain altogether – that of the psychological variety. To say readers love to hate Dolores might be the understatement of the century.
“We’re all mad here.” Indeed. But maddest of all might be the ill-tempered monarch who reigns the climax of Alice in Wonderland. As a girl, I loved to hate the Queen of Hearts…even if I sometimes chased my little sister around with a red crayon yelling, “WHOOOOOOO PAINTED THE ROSES RED?” Looking back, it’s still easy to hate the Queen of Hearts. She’s pretty much just a brat in big girl britches with a penchant for beheading her own subjects.
Dimitri Chernenko…The Bronze Horseman is one of my favorite works of historic fiction. That being said, I spent much of the book wishing that the character of Dimitri who serves as both friend and foe to hero Alexander would find some way to disappear. It’s not often you see a coward as a villain. Dimitri uses what he knows about Alexander’s past to blackmail him to get him out of Russia. He shoots himself in the foot to avoid combat. He parades the heroine Tatiana around under Alexander’s nose (knowing the latter is in love with her yet is unable pursue his feelings for her). What becomes of Dimitri is almost disappointing in lieu of what readers WANT to happen to him by the end of the book. Personally, Dimitri is a character that is easy to hate because he’s terribly realistic.
VILLAINS I ROOT FOR (EVEN WHEN I SHOULDN'T)
Severus Snape…Another Harry Potter antagonist. The books are written almost entirely from young Harry’s perspective. Because of that, the sneering, hook-nosed Potions master is tragically misunderstood from the onset of the series up to its near-completion. Not that he helps matters much. He antagonizes Harry for his lack of know-how in class. Also when you dress like a bat, continuously dock points from Gryffindor House and bemoan the hero’s resemblance to his mischievous father, it’s easy to get lumped into the bad guy category. Interestingly enough, Alan Rickman refused to play the character on screen until J.K. Rowling told him in confidence that Snape is actually a good guy in disguise.
His brain is full of spiders. He has garlic in his soul. He’s a mean one, but for those who’ve read How The Grinch Stole Christmas, it’s not hard to love this baddie. The king of sinful sots might ruin Christmas for those poor Whos down in Whoville. However, in one of the most beloved plot twists in children’s literature, he comes to regret his dirty deeds and grows himself a proper (termite-free) heart. It doesn’t matter how many times I read the book, I always root for that scurvy green Grinch.
She started out as a static character in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but through the years The Wicked Witch has morphed into one of the most beloved villains of all time. All the lady wanted was her sister’s shoes. And Dorothy did drop a house on said sister. Even if you don’t love the original version of The Wicked Witch, it’s hard not to root for her in author Gregory Maguire’s Oz reboot, Wicked, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire reveals the real story behind The Wicked Witch, AKA Elphaba. Bullied for being different from her peers, feared for the sheer magnitude of her magical gift, it’s easy to say that Elphie is just another one of those deeply misunderstood characters. (Maguire’s Wicked, of course, became a wonderful Broadway musical by the same name.)
“I don’t hate you ‘cause I’m crazy. I’m crazy ‘cause I hate you.” He’s absurd. He’s creepy. He does terrible, terrible things. He’s got a vendetta for Gotham’s caped crusader. Those who have seen Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker, however, might have a hard time actually hating him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget sitting in a silent movie theater the night The Dark Knight opened and being absolutely riveted by Heath Ledger’s turn as the super-villain. The actor’s death should have foreshadowed the film yet the performance spoke for itself. As despicable as his version of The Joker was, it even made the audience laugh on occasion. A bad guy with a sense of humor? Twisted, yes, but difficult to loathe entirely.
Cue the John Williams overture. Darth Vader started out seeming like the typical, cardboard cut-out villain. But with The Empire Strikes Back, it became apparent that Vader’s character is a little more complex than all that. Now that Vader’s history as Anakin Skywalker (father to the Luke and Leia of the original series) has been unveiled in its entirety, we know that he is a complex character that with a bit of brainwashing and the influence of real series villain, the emperor, went from very good to very bad in a very short amount of time. Vader is rightfully redeemed in the end so we no longer have to hate him. And next time you’re nervous or lacking confidence in a social situation? Sing “The Imperial March” in your head while walking into a room. I dare you not to feel like the ultimate badass!
Captain James Hook…
Hands down, my favorite villain. Before the captain of the Jolly Roger was a kooky Disney character, he was (in the words of the man who created him, J.M. Barrie), “not wholly unheroic.” He might spend a goodly amount of time trying to kill a (albeit immortal) child. But the kid did feed his hand to a crocodile. Some interesting facts about Hook? He’s originally described by Barrie as “the handsomest man I have ever seen, though, at the same time, perhaps slightly disgusting.” Aside from the crocodile who pursues him, his chief fear is the sight of his own blood. He’s a master of diction and can play several instruments with skill. Hook might be one of the most re-created fictional characters of all time. I love Dustin Hoffman’s take on Neverland’s captain opposite Robin Williams’s Pan in the movie Hook. Though my favorite reincarnation of Hook might be that of Colin O’Donoghue in the TV series Once Upon A Time.
It doesn’t matter how many times I watch Spielberg’s film. That fish gives me chills every time. Sharks might attack humans when they need a nip, but they aren’t vengeful creatures. I know this. Yet when I hear that Jaws theme song and see that big, gray fin break the ocean’s surface, my heart starts pumping ninety-to-nothing. As far as thrillers go, you can’t beat Jaws. And you definitely can’t beat a classic villain like a blood-thirsty great white.
Even as an adult, Mark Twain’s Injun Joe gives me the creeps. As a child reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it’s all-too-easy to get scared when Huck Finn overhears Joe plotting Widow Douglas’s mutilation. If that weren’t enough, he murders Doc Robinson in cold blood and frames poor Muff Potter for the crime. You won’t find a more sinister villain in children’s literature.
J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series features a merry-go-round of chill-inducing villains, not least of which is the ultimate, omnipotent baddie himself, The Omega. The villain that gave me the willies, however, didn’t surface until midway through the series when the character of Lash took a turn for the worse, going from simple-minded bully to heir of The Omega himself. Maybe it’s because I love the character of John Matthew so much, but in Lover Mine when Lash’s deeds go from bad to worse to…even worse than that, I need the light on the keep reading.
One of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading is Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life. Like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Boy’s Life cannot be classified by one genre alone. It’s a thriller. It’s historic. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s real. It’s fantastical. It’s tragic, lyrical, ironic, humorous… Summed up, the story revolves around a 1960’s small town as seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Cory Mackenson. In the first chapter, Cory and his father witness a murder. Cory then sees the silhouette of a man in a hat with a green feather, the unidentified murderer, watching from afar. The man disappears but the hat reappears throughout the story, haunting Cory and his friends and leaving clues for them to unravel the mystery behind the crime. Like Injun Joe, this mysterious villain is just as creepy from an adult’s perspective as it is from young Cory’s.
Speaking of Outlander… Aside perhaps from Hannibal Lecter, there has never been a more despicable literary foe than Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. A sadist by definition, he leads by instilling fear in his subjects and becomes obsessed with the protagonists of the book, Claire, and her husband, Jamie Fraser. Using his rank as an officer as well as his status as a gentleman to hide the more loathsome parts of his personality, Black Jack molests both the bodies and minds of his victims. Suffice it to say, there’s no redeeming this bad guy. If I had the choice between facing down a hoard of zombies or Black Jack Randall…I’m pretty sure I’d pick the zombies….
There you have it, readers! My Halloween-inspired Favorite Villians list! Now chime in with your own. What villains do you love to hate, what villains do you root for, and what villains would you never hope to meet in real life?
Follow my virtual book tour for my latest Harlequin Superromance novel, His Rebel Heart, all October long! Find more details on my website at www.amberleighwilliams.com!