Modern fiction has a problem with villains.
Well, maybe not. It could just be that the majority of any kind of popular undertaking is lousy but over time the good stuff becomes timeless and the bad stuff is forgotten, giving the impression that things were better in the past when, in fact, they were no different. But right now modern pop culture seems to have a problem presenting compelling villains. And so, for the next month or two, we’re going to go down the rabbit hole and talk about the other half of a great good vs. evil story.
And this is about good versus evil, or at least normal versus evil. The Art of Evil is not about protagonist and antagonist, it’s explicitly about the second half of a hero and villain equation. Right off the bat this makes the lessons here not applicable everywhere, although some of them have relevance in any story.
Before we start let me stress that what we’re going to be talking are not necessarily things I’ve mastered, or even done well. Part of the reason for writing this is to give me a strong driving reason to dive into the nature of villains in an attempt to uplift my own craft. Hopefully we’ll be making the journey to a better understanding of villains together.
And a second preface is… well the rest of this post. When trying to do something it helps to examine great examples of that thing being done in the past. So The Art of Evil is going to draw heavily on a set of ten villains to serve as those examples. If you want to familiarize yourself with them, or you just want to know what I think some of the greatest villains in fiction are, here’s a list. Don’t feel like you have to go out and watch or read all the source material for these folks – there should be more than one example for everything I want to talk about here so hopefully if you’re not familiar with the villainous context of one character you’ll be able to fill in the blanks with another example. Without further ado, feel free to boo the villains!
Let me say right of the bat that Elsa is not actually presented as a villain in Frozen. But I think she was meant to be one for a large portion of the film’s development. She fills many of the plot purposes of a traditional villain: A threat to the peace and safety of a large number of people, the primary obstacle for the heroine to overcome and an attitude of callous indifference to how her actions affect others.
Don’t believe that last part? Listen to the song “Let it Go” hard and ask yourself whether the lyrics really sound like something a person worried about hurting others would say. Yes, it’s a kind of teenage rebellion anthem but teenage rebels can be villains as easily as heroes and when they lean that way it’s usually because they’re willing to turn away and slam the door in the face of people who need their help (or sympathy, at the very least). Add to that the fact that the fairy tale character she’s based on, the Snow Queen, was a villain and the case for her being a villain at some point in the creative process looks pretty compelling to me.
Of course, she’s not presented as a full fledged villain in the final product, which is sad because the villain redeemed is a great story line in and of itself and might even have made the story of Frozen more poignant. It certainly would have been better than the somewhat slapdash conclusion we actually got.
Kefka (Final Fantasy Three/Six)
Don’t ask about the numbering. Final Fantasy is a weird franchise.
Kefka is the only video game villain explicitly called out on this list (although see The Don’t Knows) and he’s a good example of why video game writing can be good but, due to the needs of the medium, frequently isn’t great.
Our crazy clown is introduced in the opening sequence of the game and he is a thorn in the side for the entirety of the first two acts. He manipulates one hero, runs another out of his ancestral home, schemes against another to ensure she’s proclaimed a traitor and the poisons the water supply of an entire city.
The most interesting thing about Kefka, however, is that he’s laughably weak compared to the heroes and is, in fact, fairly easily run off by them in their early encounters (unless you’re just bad at the game). He’s a fairly unimportant advisor to a powerful military empire – at first. But at the end of the first act, after wiping out the city of Doma, Kefka begins a horrifying ascent to power, political and otherwise, through a series of ruthless manipulations, betrayals, murders and one genocide. By the end of act two he has betrayed his emperor and destroyed the world.
Then, at the beginning of the third act players are left in the ruined world to fend for themselves and Kefka ignores them entirely so they can explore and see how things have changed, destroying all sense of pacing and tension. The heroes have no direct interactions with Kefka again until the very end of the game. It robs him of much of his power and threat. While Kefka is supposedly still a being of power great enough to wipe humanity out in a matter of days the players don’t get to experience that to nearly the extent they got to experience his twisted and heartless ambition in the first two acts.
Of course, this makes the game more fun to play which, let’s face it, is more important than raw story quality for a game. Thus, my assertion that the needs of the medium frequently hold good writing back from being truly great.
Grand Admiral Thrawn (Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn)
With blue skin, a taste for art and a touch of compassion, Thrawn was everything the Emperor and Darth Vader were not. Thrawn was a more cultured and insightful villain, frequently interested in his heroes as people as well as pawns, and a deep and more dangerous force of evil for it.
The primary danger from Thrawn was how well he knew his enemies (and fittingly his downfall came from how little he understood his allies). As a tactician he was without peer in the Empire and he once nearly wiped out the Outbound Flight project, colony group with nearly twenty Jedi on board, in spite of having no Force users of his own to draw on. When the old Star Wars continuity was cleared away by Disney one of the first things fans hoped to see again was their favorite blue skinned Admiral. Fortunately the House of Mouse knew a good thing when they saw it and word on the street is he’ll be back with his own novel in 2017, written by the only man who can do Thrawn right.
That said, Thrawn wasn’t a perfect villain. Although he was a great schemer the way Zahn writes is not always fair. Thrawn, in particular, relies on an understanding born from art to predict his opponents moves in ways that no real person could do. While Zahn typically writes “fair” strategies relying on information available to readers and inferences they could draw themselves some of the leaps of logic Thrawn makes are either not quite fair or rely on an understanding of “alien psychology” that exists only in the author’s head. Hardly a deal breaker, but just enough of a drawback to keep him from edging out other master tacticians on the list like Slade or O’Shaughnessy.
The Don’t Knows – The Joker (Batman), Apocalypse and Dr. Doom (Marvel Comics), Sephiroth (Final Fantasy Seven) and many others not on this list
The villains listed above (and many more) are villains generally acknowledged as “good” but who’s stories I personally haven’t read/watched/don’t understand well enough to use for the purposes of this project. Or to consider definitive villains for that matter.
Anyone from Actual History
Real history is complex and makes it difficult to really cast people as villains and, even then, these people rarely fit the needs of a fictional villain well.
Yes, Mr. Small-Moustache-Goose-Stepper is an exception. He is still not on the list. Consider Godwin’s Law in effect for the purposes of this project.
Ten Villains to Know and Loath
10 – Yzma (The Emperor’s New Groove)
This lady is a testament to the importance of good HR policy for villains. While she’s not incredibly tough and stern in her own right she does have the remarkably competent Krunk in her corner of the ring. Together the two of them pose a serious threat to Kuzko’s throne where as separate neither one would be truly credible, Krunk for obvious reasons and Yzma because, for all her ambition and very real magical powers, she’s never going to be likable enough to succeed in the ways she really wants.
Yzma and Krunk also embody perfect executions of comical villains. While many comical villains are written as bumblers or otherwise incompetent, thus undercutting their ability to creditably stand in the way of protagonists, Yzma and Krunk have plans that should work but don’t because of their stark contrast in personalities and priorities. By playing these differences for laughs, Yzma’s inability to usurp Kuzko never quite undercuts her threat while still being quite funny. There aren’t many great comedic villains out there and Yzma of one of the best.
9 – Slade Wilson/Deathstroke (Teen Titans)
While I don’t know much about the Teen Titans as portrayed in DC Comics I have watched this TV series and Slade is pretty much the perfect villain given it’s tone and target audience. Slade can outthink and outfight the Titans while never giving the impression that he’s overly worried about the outcome. His visual design is sleek and mysterious, adding to his general air of inscrutability. But the capstone on his unpredictability is his single-minded focus on his own legacy. Such an atypical goal made him hard to predict and wrapped another layer of mystery around a man who was already a cipher.
Driven to the point of clashing head on with beings from beyond the walls of the universe, Slade would ultimately pass the doors of death in pursuit of his vision of the future. While it was never clear if he was driven by pride, ideals or something else Slade Wilson never backed down from a fight, regardless of whether it was with Batman’s own protégé, an alien of cosmic power or a cyborg genius. Most strikingly, he did it all without raising his voice, ranting or otherwise breaking with an image of consummate professionalism. Truly an impressive achievement.
8 – Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)
The heavyweights are starting to weigh in. There are few villains in the history of animation that do simple menace as well as Maleficent. From her sickly green color pallet to her eerie entrances and exits to the cold indifference with which she proclaims a death sentence on a newborn child, Maleficent is one of the most hostile figures ever to grace the silver screen. That in and of itself is an accomplishment warranting her place on this list. But when added together with her final apotheosis and battle against the hero and her rival fairies Maleficent becomes a beautiful example of the villain as a spectacle as well.
7 – Bill Cipher (Gravity Falls)
There’s a moment, just after he’s introduced, when Bill Cipher snaps his fingers and all the teeth in the mouth of a nearby deer fly out of its mouth. Bill laughs.
A few moments later time reverses and it’s like nothing ever happened. Later, while possessing a human member of the cast, he slams “his” own hand in a drawer because he finds the sensation of pain hilarious. While Bill is obviously powerful, given the many supernatural feats he accomplishes in the first few minutes of our meeting him, it is his incredibly skewed perspective, free of empathy or any notion of human morality, that marks him as truly villainous. He manages to be threatening in spite of just being a triangle with an eye and a top hat and he does it all by setting priorities that will clearly hurt not just the Pines family but anyone who comes into contact with him.
Like Ysma, he’s funny and entertaining in his sociopathy but he’s also an order of magnitude beyond anything the fearless Pines twins will be able to outfight or outwit which makes him all the better as an opposing force.
Tune In Next Time…
Wow, we’ve only covered the first four and we’re already over two thousand words. Guess we’ll have to wrap this up next week! Come back next Friday for more examination of evil’s greatest masterpieces. Hope to see you then!