I’ve always believed that any good vs. evil tale is only as good as the evil. The best villains are the ones you end up rooting for—the ultimate guilty pleasure. You want them to survive, so you can get another unhealthy dose of fear and loathing down the road.
Check out the following links for various lists of the top literary villains of all time and the top film villains of all time. I’ve included three lists in each category to point out the overlap of critical consensus. In literary fiction, many of the same names keep popping up. Ditto with the film villains. Which are your favorite villains from each list (or your own write-ins)?
When I reviewed these lists my overwhelming takeaway was: on the average, the film villains are so much more memorable than the literary villains. There are many exceptions of course. Shakespeare really knew how to write a good villain. But for so many of the literary picks, my reaction was a shrugged, “meh.” Maybe it’s the compressed time frame of a film that brings out the best in a writer. You’ve got two hours to scar someone’s psyche forever, as opposed to 300+ pages. Another factor is the collaborative nature of film. The actor and director do a lot of the heavy lifting in making a screen villain so compelling.
What makes a great villain? Here’s my critical checklist (Most of these reference points are cinematic because…see above):
- Percentage of “screen time”. Whether the villain is cinematic or literary, if the villain rarely appears, you’re ultimately dealing with a thin character, sometimes paper-thin. Take Voldemort for example. Please. He’s on every one of the literary and film lists, but out of thousands of pages in the Harry Potter series, and eight films, how much screen time does he get? A pittance. Another area where the V man falls short is:
- Set Pieces: For those who haven’t heard this term, a set piece is cinemese for killer scenes that make a movie shine and become engraved in your brain until you draw your last breath. The more set pieces that occur in a book or film, the higher my ranking. Oh, and Voldmort? Roll off a view of your favorite set pieces in 4,224 pages. Hmmmm…yeah, I thought so.
- Memorable dialog: Zingers. Bone-chilling threats. Great exit lines. Operatic monologues. For a villain to be truly great, it’s not just what they do, it’s what they say. Richard III, Iago, Othello. Once again, I defy anyone reading this to not be able to recite verbatim some of your favorite villain’s best lines.
- Charisma: Charm. Humor. Intelligence. Wit. Flamboyance. Theatricality. Grandstanding. Scenery-chewing. Megalomania. For me, all these qualities matter most when creating a villain or enjoying one. I want to be riveted every time the villain appears. That’s not going to happen with some one-note boogeyman or grunting numbskull.
- Complex characterization: Good villain: The Terminator. Great Villain: Hannibal Lecter. It’s possible to have a compelling one-dimensional villain, but personally, I prefer a multi-layered monster that’s unpredictable, perhaps even unfathomable.
- Sadism: this is where most people get all wishy-washy and apologetic in discussing their favorite villains. Because ALL the great villains are sadistic. They take great pleasure in others’ misfortune. They think up ingenious ways to make their victims suffer. It’s very uncomfortable for any decent person to fess-up to their fondness for a reprehensible character who is causing such tremendous suffering. But…there you have it.
- Despicableness: I could probably file this under sadism, but for me, this connotes an across-the-board contempt for all humanity, of all things “other.” A great villain will commit the worst possible offenses whenever the opportunity arises.
- Humanity: I want a villain I can get inside. Mr. Smith in The Matrix or HAL 2000 aren’t human, but they make me feel my own humanity through the emotional depth of their despicability.
- A ray of goodness. Only a ray, mind you. I don’t want my villain getting all Darth Vadery at the end. But I do want to see that glimpse of “what might have been” – the road not travelled.
- Motivation: Every great villain has an ax that needs grinding…and a person or world population he/she wants to grind it on.
- Entitlement: All the best villains feel completely entitled to behave exactly as they see fit, and fell 100% entitled to the nefarious goals they seek to achieve.
Can you identify all the villains below? Any stump you?
Okay, your turn to weigh in on all things villainous. Leave your evil comments below! And make sure you don’t miss our special 2 hour blog radio show, The Dead End on Wednesday, April 3rd 8pm-10pm Eastern time. The topic? VILLAINS!
Just click this link for the show and if you can’t make it LIVE, it will be archived later for you to listen to like any villain would: WHENEVER THE HELL YOU WANT!
So before I wave my sickle in a fond farewell, I’m sure you’re dying to know my favorite villain of all time. Why, I thought you’d never ask! Or need to ask! I’d stack Paul Kelly from The Book of Paul up against any of the desperados above! For those who’ve read The Book of Paul, how would you rank Paul? And for those who haven’t–WTF are you waiting for? Start reading tonight when you’re nice and cozy and safe in your bed. Then tell me how you feel about Paul tomorrow.
If you get a good night’s sleep.