Friday, 18 April 2014

Villains!

I like villains.

To explain:

Villains are dynamic and charismatic oddballs who stand alone and do whatever it is that they deem necessary. Now, let's not forget that villains are usually quite evil, maniacal and despotic at their best. They will routinely order the deaths of newborns, butcher entire towns and have cats shot for no other reason than they can.

However, it is almost impossible to not like a well written and well conceived Villain. I'm not just referring to fantasy either. SF, romance, drama... any genre you care to name will have some sort of Villain and where they are well written they are enjoyable.

For me this mostly stems from their contrast to their opposite numbers, namely Heroes.
Especially in Fantasy, notwithstanding the few notable exceptions, Heroes are bland and uninspiring figures. A lot of them conform to the standard fantasy plot (which is a contradiction in terms that enrages me no end):

Wizard Gudguff told the awed simpletons of the ancient and totally unknown prophecy. 
"And a young one shall arise, pure in heart and thick of head, this paragon of unwieldy virtue shall gather to them the disaffected, disgruntled and the disowned and somehow bump off the dark lord. Thus ushering in years of peace, plenty and minimal taxation." The gathered peasantry oohed and aahed appropriately at the long words with several of the more knowledgeable nodding their thick heads.

Now don't get me wrong, there are a lot of authors who handle this plot extremely well and actually manage to create a dynamic character who can hold my interest and get the job done. There are more, however, who can't.

This type of Hero is insipid at best and downright stupid at worst. They are often found living simple and wholesome lives in out-of-the-way villages. They might be apprentices or rogues in training or even learning something useful that would allow them to survive for five minutes.

None of that matters however. At some point a wandering do-gooder will drop by and accidentally "discover" the foretold Hero working as a slopmonger. From this point on, the Hero's life is not their own. They are bound by prophecy and more or less told what to do by their wise teacher. Even in cases where the Hero rebels or tries to avoid prophecy they are already doomed to reactionary deeds because by that point they are involved with whatever shoddy rebellion or cause has been peddled to them by their bearded/busty wandering prophecy merchant.

In such cases the Villain is portrayed as a merciless swine who oppresses the good people of Arsewittery with harsh taxes, starvation and the odd kiddy-cull for no particular reason.

Where Villains are done well however they are shown as the genuinely dynamic individuals that they are.  No Villain can rise to power without, at the least, drive. In order to remain on top the Villain will have amassed a huge army or gathered the blackest cut-throats to their cause. Neither of these is an easy thing to do however. The army needs feeding and paying and the cut-throats usually tend to follow the strongest/scariest bastard going.

If Magic/k is involved then it is almost guaranteed that the Villain is a master. Whether it is from years of practice, a dark will, innate and horrific ability or a pact with bigger and darker powers, the Villain has awesome abilities at their beck and call.

Good Villains (if you will excuse the phrase), see something in the world that they wish to change and go and change it. They shape the world around them and remake it in their own image and let's be honest, most of us would do the same if we thought we could get away with it.

We can admire a Hero for their morality but we can love a Villain for their ingenuity and drive. A hero might be able to raise a unhappy rabble to weld them into some sort of army but a Villain is able to change a standing order and remake it in their own image.

For me, the best Villain is one that we don't see coming. A trusted friend or advisor to the Hero. Or better still, the Hero him/herself, in which case we have followed them, rooted for them and sympathised with their setbacks only to find out they were more villain than hero. Excellent stuff.

What follows is my top 5 favorite Fantasy Villain list. Some of them are out and out evil and some occupy a more grey area.

5. Smaug
Say what you like, a charming and articulate dragon is always a frightening prospect. Tolkein's dragons feature heavily in the Silmarillion and are often served by cowed Orcs, ordering death and destruction from a bed of gold. Classy.

4. Grendel
A monster who just wanted a bit of peace and quiet. Neil Gaiman has done a few different incarnations of the original Saxon neighbor from hell both in an original and modern setting. I highly recommend hunting them out if you haven't already.

3. Elric of Melnibone
Michael Moorcock's anaemic manically depressed elf-like prince is not technically a villain by most standards. However, in his first full appearance, it is hard not to empathise with the poor humans who are tortured for information until they are little more than lumps of meat at his command. I dare you to come up with more Villainous behaviour!

2. Tywin Lannister
No list of Villains would be complete without him. Characterised perfectly by the incredible Charles Dance in the HBO adaptation of George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, Tywin is a ruthless, ambitious patriarch. He dominates the political and social aspect of the entire series whilst having the sort of backstory (hands not so much bloody as bathed to the shoulders) that other Villains would kill for.

1. Bayaz, First of the Magi
Bayaz sums it all up for me. Introduced as a wizard out to save the world in Joe Abercrombie's "First Law" trilogy, Bayaz slowly reveals himself as the author of ancient disaster and war and the driving force behind a bank that is more frightening than most Bond Villain organisations put together. As well as being totally beyond the reach of the law and above the rule of kings, Bayaz thinks nothing of risking or ending the lives of the people he encounters if it matches his purpose.


So, there we have it. my thoughts on Villains who have really thrilled/enraged me with their antics over the years. Who would make it into your top 5 and why?