by Grant Smuts
There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or, if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman.
-The Tale of Despereaux
And at the end of the dream… even chaos tears itself apart!
The bad guys. The evil witches and sorcerors, the cruel despots, the archdemon, the assassins, the murderous swordsmen. In fantasy, the villains take many forms. In real life, we usually just forgo that complication and call them politicians.
And yet, despite the fact that we’re supposed to cheer for the hero, there has always been a long-standing interest in villains (in literature, anyway, politicians just piss us off in reality).
Some villains are renowned for their intellect, for the “evil plan” that has sent the whole world into chaos. Some are noted for their extreme power that cannot be faced directly; others, for the irredeemable darkness in their hearts, a marvel as to how far a soul can descend, whether it be into madness or ruthlessness. Still others are noted for hiding the malice in their hearts, sometimes even walking and fighting at the hero’s side against another darkness… until that one fatal moment comes.
For the most part, the appeal comes when a villain is well-written – when he has powerful motivations and philosophies that make sense, but must, by necessity, be opposed.
The interest comes because the villain is usually the reason why there’s a story at all – it’s the old formula of Villains Act, Heroes React – something that’s a bit of a pivotal point in any genre. The villain must want something and must stand a reasonable chance of getting it.
For instance, Voldemort intended to make himself immortal, so he created Horcruxes. (Harry Potter)
or the god, Ruin, trapped in stone, engineers false prophecies and attempts to manipulate the world to bring about his freedom. (Mistborn)
The ascent to godhood narrative is also a popular convention in fantasy, and has been done many, many times… sometimes poorly, sometimes well, and sometimes completely understated. Sometimes the villain is an absolute nihilist and wishes to see the world (or on a smaller scale, a nation or a city) destroyed, and often delves into darkness. If magic is involved, he may summon an ancient evil, or use forbidden magic. You have your well-intentioned extremists, those who commit evil acts ‘for the greater good’…
And then you have the strangest sort. Those who incite chaos for no other reason than… it’s chaos. It upsets people when you give them something they don’t expect, or which they have no idea how to react to – and that is precisely their reason.
Regardless of the motivation, villains are the ones who drive the story, who get things started. ‘Origin Tales’ usually come about if the author recognizes the popularity of his villain and wants to tell the tale of how they became that way. Unfortunately, many origin tales tell the rather unoriginal story of the would-be villain losing a loved one.
You can understand the appeal – it tells the tale of someone who was just like anyone else. Love is something we can all identify with, and losing that often feels like the worst pain in the world.
Pain, then, is the real catalyst, but all too often, writers prefer their dashed love stories, creating tragic figures. Sometimes these origin stories change the context of the main story completely, and you wonder what the point was. It’s okay to create a sympathetic villain – but what if your villain was never meant to be sympathetic? Sometimes changing the context of how the reader sees the foe isn’t always a good thing, and sometimes tying a character’s development into a heavy-handed aesop can ruin them, unless a writer plans it out very well and has thought it through. But if that is the case, the key is the execution. If a writer doesn’t convey what he has in mind very well, it’s often better to just leave the villain’s history to the imagination.
“I am the Elder King: Melkor, first and mightiest of the Valar, who was before the world and made it. The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will.”
-Melkor, who was called Morgoth by the elves – a name meaning “The Enemy of the World”
– JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion (This was the guy who showed SAURON how it’s done)
The Dark Lord is a common villain in high fantasy (and sometimes in heroic fantasy). They are often depicted as a nearly omnipotent, purely malevolent being. Indeed, sometimes they are less entities and more of a ‘pure force’, something indelibly tied to the world. The Dark Lord usually is surrounded by minions of every stripe, and almost always resides in a foreboding fortress. The power of the Dark Lord may be so much that the very land near it is corrupted.
Notable Dark Lords
Sauron and Morgoth from Tolkien’s Legendarium
The Dark One Shai’tan from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time
Ruin, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn
The White Witch in CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Lord Foul, the Despiser, from Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
And many, many others. The Dark Lord is a popular convention in both fantasy and science fiction (Emperor Palpatine, anyone?) and they’re used in more or less the same way – what separates them from each other, usually, is their reasoning and their origins, and why they are a threat to the world.
Robert Baratheon:What about Aerys Targaryen? What did the Mad King say when you stabbed him in the back? I never asked. Did he call you a traitor? Did he plead for a reprieve?
Jaime Lannister:He said the same thing he’d been saying for hours… “Burn them all.”
–Game of Thrones
“Life… Dreams… Hope… Where do they come from? And where do they go…? Such meaningless things… I’ll destroy them all!'”
-Kefka Palazzo, Final Fantasy VI
The Dark Forms villain sometimes overlaps with the Dark Lord, but deserves a special mention in that their reasons are purely their own. While the Dark Lord may wish to pervert reality to rule it under their twisted perception of perfection, the Dark Forms villain is ultimately more destructive and chaotic. The end-goal is ruin, not dominance. They are motivated not by greed or power or madness (though for some insanity is indeed a driving force), but they are driven by pure malice – out of the simple wish to unmake everything they see. Oddly enough, these kinds of villains are more prevalent in video games than in film or literature.
Notable Dark Forms Villains
The Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods, from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos
Lucifer, Paradise Lost (or in any incarnation of the Devil, anyway) by Milton
Diablo, Diablo (hehe)
“I am the last Pillar. The only survivor of the Circle of Nine. At my whim the world will be healed… or damned. At my whim.”
-Kain, Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain
The world is in a horrible state, and slowly getting worse. There are heroes… but they aren’t able to do much good, nothing more than a few ripples in a sea of darkness. Out of the twisting darkness, a savior arises, someone who preaches hope for the downtrodden and promises a utopia…
by any means necessary.
He isn’t the personification of darkness, but he does have delusions of being a messianic figure. Sometimes he may, in fact, be a messiah, but… born in a world where being good doesn’t amount to much, became perverted in his means to secure a better future. Interestingly, sometimes this figure can serve as the protagonist, rather than the villain, but if he is anything other than a point-of-view character, the heroes will come to blows with him, and come to question their own way of fighting evil. Often, the Dark messiah serves as a shadow archetype to the heroes, when he isn’t the hero himself. Of note is that the Dark Messiah can fall on either side of the good and evil spectrum.
Notable Dark Messiahs
Rand al’Thor, The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter, by JK Rowling
The Lord Ruler, Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Kain. The Legacy of Kain
“Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend
Grendel who haunted the moors, the wild
Marshes, and made his home in a hell.
Not hell but hell on earth. He was spawned in that slime
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime
Of Abel’s death”
A convention older than feudalism, the monster was the prototypical villain – something frightening and inhuman that preys on travelers or would-be adventurers. Sometimes the monsters are coincidental – they wander from the wilderness into a more populated region and begin attacking people on the roads. Sometimes they are explicitly a curse laid upon a city (or its king) by a wizard, or a god for sins or crimes committed. The hero is usually the one free of that curse, and comes to save the city and its people, only to uncover a deeper darkness – the monster is usually symptomatic of some deeper problem, in which case the hero has to solve that one as well. This was the basis of many, many myths.
‘Death and dreams, transience and eternity. In the end, I will rule them all.’
Men or women who singly became the most powerful ruler of a particular region or country. In their extreme forms, they may be called despots or tyrants, depending on the setting; they invariably abuse their power to such an extent that their own people seek their overthrow (but are obviously incapable of bringing it about). There are subtle variants as well – the so-called Benevolent Dictator, who seems lawful at first, but is in fact guiding a false utopia.
Emperor Zakath of Mallorea in the Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Targaryen Dynasty produced a slew of these, and Joffrey Baratheon became one as well, in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire
Emhyr var Emreis of Nilfgaard, from The Witcher series (Yes, THAT Witcher) by Adrzej Sapkowski
Littlefinger: Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next. Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that have no purpose, or even seem to work against you. Remember that, Sansa when you come to play the game.
Sansa: What… what game?
Littlefinger: The only game. The game of thrones.
-George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
The Master Manipulators tug at the strings of influence, and patiently move their pieces into positions that seem harmless or pointless… until the trap closes. These are the villains with a vision, who set their goals far in advance and begin to plot routes to that goal. They may befriend the hero or otherwise entrap them and blackmail them, though they prefer a subtle touch. Usually, they tend not to be physical threats, opting for a battle of wits rather than with the sword or the spell – though many manipulators also practice magic. These kinds of villains are more psychological and intellectual challengers – when written well, the books involving these kinds of villains make for the best reading, as the contest between protagonist and antagonist is more a battle of wits than anything else.
Many, many characters in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but Varys and Littlefinger tend to stand out.
Arawn the Death Lord, from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain
Voldemort, from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. (He might have won except he was set against an even better manipulator – a somewhat more heroic version – in the character of Dumbledore)
And so many others…
There are as many villains – and villain types – as there are stories – I’ve only covered some of the more popular types in fantasy.
I think we are drawn to villains because without them, there would be no stories… and of course, humanity has always had a morbid fascination with the darker aspects of their existence. Villains are those darker aspects, they are our fears, our pain, our despair, our hatreds made manifest. They are our deadly sins, the many downfalls of man.
What is understated in so many stories is the winning ratio of these villains. Sure, in the story you read, the hero has triumphed over the villain in the end… but what came before? How many times has humanity struggled against a Dark Lord and failed? How many people have died, trying to stop the Dark Forms before the hero succeeds? How many years has the Dictator ruled and bled his nation before he is overthrown?
And how many people are thrown away as pawns in the Manipulator’s little game before he is defeated? It’s always implied, at the very least, that the villain is a danger to humanity, and that the world suffers for their existence.
Ultimately, the villain is a test, and often the final test for the hero – the last thing that needs to be defeated, for there to be any resolution, any end to the pain that abounds in the world.
The villains are the one who shape the narrative; they define the kind of story you read, and they define the heroes they torment.
And in our hearts, we know them to be a necessary darkness – just as pain causes us to grow stronger and wiser.
Troll magazine’s second issue is up and running, and we compiled a list of those we consider to be the top ten villains of fantasy! Take a look, and let us know if you agree!
Live in our world.