A good villain can make or break a story. One dimensional villains are so common so I like to celebrate good villains wherever I find them. This list is almost exclusively from books and I should mention that I really love pretty much any movie villain played by Gary Oldman and David Bowie but that seems to be mainly the cause of the men playing them rather than the actual villains themselves. Slight spoiler warnings for the books in question.
The Other Mother
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline goes through a hidden hallway into an apartment exactly like hers except more interesting where the Other Mother waits for her. She knows how to give Coraline everything she wants; delicious foods, attention and exciting diversions. But there is something she wants in return. And she’s creepy and scary And absolutely wonderful. And even though she’s more or less a fairytale villain, she’s still understandable. She has motivations that can be understood.
The Illustrated Man/Mr. Dark
Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes brings us Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man. He is echoed in the Alice Cooper stage persona and many others besides. He’s deliciously dangerous, scary and downright wicked, doing depraved things to keep himself alive. While he’s long gone beyond the point of no return, I can see how he wound up there and it might be an interesting story (I haven’t read the short story collection called The Illustrated Man, so it might be touched upon there). Nonetheless, we all know people who are so afraid of death they might well go as far as Mr. Dark.
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett is one of my all time favorite books so it isn’t that surprising that it also has one of my favorite villains of all time as well. Captain Findthee Swing of the Particulars – or the Unmentionables, however you prefer – is someone who is absolutely convinced he’s doing the world good by finding criminals using the methods provided to him by phrenology and physiognomy. After the criminals are caught they are tortured until they confess to the crimes Swing and his fellow phrenologists have found them guilty of. Swing is both incredibly creepy (I’m sensing a pattern here…) and evil while not being a travesty of a villain that would be so easy to create of such a person. His motives are sort of understandable and even noble in a sense if you don’t take his methods into account. This seems to be more or less on par with other Pratchett villains, except maybe the queen of the elves but that’s another story altogether.
Marisa Coulter, the Magisterium’s autonomous operative in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, is a ruthless fundamentalist who’s willing to resort to any means necessary to prevent The Fall. For me True Believers have always been scary. People who are willing to claim absolute knowledge about things that cannot be proven by rational methods are necessarily loose cannons. There is no guarantee that they will not kill, torture or do other unspeakable things in their quest to keep the faith. And in fact they do. Anyone could find with only a little googling at least a dozen real people (who I’ve never met) whose actions, within the last year, have been at least as evil as Mrs. Coulter’s during the books. And, like Mrs. Coulter, they all absolutely know they are doing the right thing.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith introduces to us the… well talented mr. Ripley. He is a small time crook, making a living by being a conman. He lies, cheats and forges his way through life until old mr. Greenleaf pays him to bring his son back home. Tom swiftly befriends young Dickie Greenleaf and progresses to murder when Dickie gets bored with him. He is the only main character on this list and for a good reason. It’s very hard to make a really good villain and even harder to make them sympathetic enough to be the main character through a whole novel, let alone several, as Highsmith has done with Ripley.
So… Who are your favourite villains?