My favorite literary villains (and why they work so well)

In my opinion, villains are often the hardest characters to write. They have to more than just the mustache-twirling, evil laughter caricature in cartoons.

Every villain is a hero of his own story.
– Christopher Vogler

They need to be in opposition with your main character but still relatable. They need a cause they are willing to do anything for. A background, a fatal flaw, a contradiction… Almost as much development as your protagonist.

Otherwise they fall flat and take the book’s pacing, tension and conflict with them.

Now as I’ve discussed on the blog before, one of the most helpful ways to grow as a writer is to read. So today I am examining my favorite literary villains to see why they work so well – and so you can use some of the same methods in developing your own Bad Guy.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Voldemort – The Harry Potter Series

Surprising no one, we’ll start with Rowling’s ultimate bad guy. There is so much about Voldemort’s character that is genius in how he functions with the plot, so I am concentrating on only a few. Let’s look at his name. Vol de mort literally means “flight of death,” and we know that Voldemort’s biggest fear is death itself, something he flees from throughout the series. Pretty clever right?

His backstory also plays beautifully into the overall theme of the power of love. Harry’s mother’s sacrifice is what saved him (several times), but he fact that Voldemort was conceived through a loveless and manipulative relationship made him unable to love at all – his biggest weakness. In every way, he functions as Harry’s opposite: Harry loves, Harry accepts his own mortality, Harry doesn’t want the Elder Wand and refuses to kill – always using a disarming spell instead. This mirrored storyline works perfectly to create the perfect conflict and resolution.

Ramsay Bolton – A Song of Ice and Fire

Let’s face it, I could’ve picked ten incredible villains just from this series, but good ol’ Ramsay has always captivated me. He is literally the worst. BUT you have to appreciate the crafting of such a character – one that has a huge impact on other characters and inspires a strong reaction in his readers/watchers.

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First of all, he’s insanely brilliant, a true force to be reckoned with. And while so many villains are angry and brooding, Ramsay is unique in that he has fun with his psychopathy. He’s a bit of a wild card which keeps the tension high and the plot unpredictable. Lastly, his death will go down as one of the best deaths in history – but also one that everyone will remember, making him an unforgettable character.

Joe Goldberg – You

Joe is a bad guy. He really is, but I still love his character. His sense of humor makes him likable despite his evil stalker tendencies. And the psychology behind his actions is fascinating. Joe’s white knight mentality shows that he really does think he is doing the right thing by stepping in to save Beck from those who would hurt her.

Overall, his character’s actions say a lot about the pitfalls of dating and romantic relationships. Society has normalized some really unhealthy behavior, and You takes that theme and runs with it. But despite the stalking, the kidnapping and the murdering, the scariest part about Joe is that he is just so good at appearing normal. He’s charismatic, he’s smart, he’s caring. And when you’re done reading, you find yourself wondering what is really going on in the head of the next guy you meet.

Lady Macbeth – Macbeth

There’s often a debate over whether Lady Macbeth is a victim or a villains, but I whole-heartedly believe she’s the latter. She orchestrates the bulk of the crime in Shakespeare’s play even if she doesn’t actually commit them herself – setting her up as a unique villain and posing the question of “Are you really guilty if you made someone else do the dirty work?”

She quickly learns the answer though, and it’s not what she hoped. To me, her story arc is all about having to accept the consequences of your actions. A majority of villains are taken out by the protagonist. But here Lady Macbeth kills herself, a villain who learned her lesson too late.

Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs/Red Dragon

The perfect balance of savagery and sophistication earns Mr. Lecter the title of “greatest villain ever.” His conflicting nature and actions create a distinct persona that compels audiences around the world. We love to hate him, and that’s the best thing to have in a villain.

But Lecter can also teach us that villains don’t have to be all bad. In fact, there’s a lot of admirable qualities in him that we’d like to see in ourselves: his intelligence, his charisma, his moral code, his willpower. We want to be Hannibal Lecter… Just not the part that eats people.

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Maeve – Throne of Glass Series 

I am a sucker for villains who don’t truly reveal themselves until the end, and while we know Aelin’s aunt is pretty mean from the start (she doesn’t even appear until book 3), the twists just keep coming as she gets crueler and more complex throughout the series.

It takes a lot of skill to turn a character on its head. To foreshadow just enough so that it’s not totally out of left-field but still surprising. But through a few well-placed hints, some distraction techniques, and a convincing facade, it can be done!

The Republic of Gilead – The Handmaid’s Tale

There a few genuinely evil characters – cough *Aunt Lydia* cough – in this tale, but the true villain is actually the society in which our characters suffer. While represented by different men and women, it’s a lurking evil over everyone’s head, ingratiated into every action and thought.

Even though it’s never truly seen on the page or on the screen, it creates an atmosphere that not only drives the character’s forward but draws the reader in.

White Witch – The Chronicles of Narnia

This scary lady has a lot going for her, but the symbolism she carries is the most interesting aspect of her villainy. She’s the personification of winter – a season of cold, of death, of depression. That certainly fits her glacial and emotionless facade, her cool manipulation and the crimes she commits.

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And speaking of facades, the White Witch is often described as as a stunning beauty. You don’t often think of pretty people as villains, so this juxtaposition is well done compared to the evil lurking beneath her skin. Not to mention that her network of spies creates a constant source of tension for the good guys.

4 thoughts on “My favorite literary villains (and why they work so well)

  1. November O'Malley says:

    Awww, see, I would have gone with Tywin Lannister from ASOIAF, he’s the ultimate in “hero of his own story”. He thinks he’s doing the right thing for his family and his house, but ultimately brings about their entire undoing – his included – by his cruel machinations.
    (and considering what he did to Tyrion at the very end, there’s no way one could consider him actually a hero)

    Liked by 1 person

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