Monday, May 17, 2010

The Art of the Multi-Dimensional Villain

Everyone loves to hate a villain. They're evil. They're miserable. They're always running about mucking up everyone's lives. In books where the villain wins, you want to cry and throw things a little, and the times when the hero is vindicated, you can feel your heart swelling.

Still, just because a villain is technically the bad guy doesn't mean he or she should be all bad. In fact, you need to find a way to give your villain some depth, otherwise they'll fall totally flat and will be unbelievable. Even the big historical villains had a hard time somewhere along the way - and that often turned them into the person they became. Hitler, for example, had a troubled relationship with his father, who beat him and sent him to a technical school, even though young Adolf wanted to attend a school for artists. Serial killer Ted Bundy struggled with depression, and found out as an adult that the parents who raised him were really his grandparents, and his "older sister" was actually his mom. Another serial killer, Charles Manson, also had family and abandonment issues; apparently, Manson's mother once sold baby Charles to a childless waitress for a pitcher of beer. An uncle rescued him a few days later. Although these stories certainly don't excuse what the men would eventually become, they do make you feel just a little sorry for who these men are and what they had to go through - a crucial element in the art of villain creation.

Until recently, I had a villain who was all evil, no sorrow. Then I chatted it out with my writer-friends (who are awesome), and now he has some neurosis that fit his character oh-so perfectly (I just have to write them into the MS. Don't you love revisions?) Since talking about my character will make no sense - you don't know him or my story, I thought I would share some of my favorite, well-known, multi-layered villains with you. (Please note that the character discussions obviously have some spoilers for their back-story, so if you're not familiar with the story but plan on being one day, perhaps you want to skip over that character and move on to the next. They're not too bad, but maybe you'll hate me if you read them. I don't know, but I do know that I don't want you to hate me if you don't like spoilers without warning, so...You've been warned.)

Exhibit A: Sue Sylvester
Quote: "I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat. I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat. And then, on some dark, cold night I will steal away into your home and punch you in the FACE."

Sue is a great villain. She is mean to everyone - everyone - the students, the teachers, even herself, at times. Her intentions are always clear and never waver, and even when she seems to have a last-minute change of heart, in the end we see it's all about getting rid of the Glee club and getting the funding for her Cheerios back. She's selfish, obnoxious, arrogant, and hilarious. But then, about halfway through the first season, she did something that seemed so heinous that even I was appalled - she invited a girl with Down syndrome to join the cheerleading team (a very un-Sue move). Of course, people were suspicious, and Sue pushed the girl hard to keep up at practice. When her behavior was questioned, Sue just said she's not going to treat the girl any differently because of her handicap. At the end of the episode, we saw Sue visiting her sister at a nursing facility. Her sister has Down syndrome, and our evil villain was so sweet and caring that I almost cried. In fact, every time Sue visits her sister and shares this little glimpse at her softer side, I get a little choked up. I love the softer side of Sue, and it's almost enough to make me forget that she's totally sabotaging everyone in the Glee club - almost. 

Exhibit B: Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman 
Quote: “Oh, there is more suffering to come. We have a thousand years of experience in this Church of ours. We can draw out your suffering endlessly.”

(Excuse my use of the movie Mrs. Coulter for the picture. Nicole Kidman was creepy, but the movie totally missed the mark in every way, and made the first book way less awesome than it really was.) Mrs. Coulter is one of the most terrifying women in literature, in my opinion. She comes off so sweet and innocent, like she really wants to protect and help young Lyra. She takes Lyra under her wing, and Lyra is ensnared by her beauty and grace. Of course, we find out soon enough that Mrs. Coulter and her evil little golden monkey are actually up to no good, and are in fact responsible for ordering the separation of children from their souls. Mrs. Coulter is evil, definitely, but she also has a complicated past that wraps her up even further in the mysteries of the book. I won't spoil the past here, though, because I'm hoping you pick up the book (maybe even order the series from The Book Depository for just $19! For three amazing books!) and find out for yourself what makes Mrs. Coulter multi-dimensional - and whether or not she redeems herself.  

Exhibit C: Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling 
Quote:  "There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!"
Voldemort is probably my favorite example of the sympathetic, multi-dimensional baddie. We hated him through five books, our hate only growing more passionate with each one, then, suddenly, we read Half-Blood Prince, and we started to feel just a little sorry for him. Obviously, the kid was still totally creepy. But you could see exactly where he got his Muggle/half-blood hatred from, even through he himself has a Muggle father. And the situation with his orphanage, where he got almost no personal attention, and had no idea who he was or how to control his evil urges and power, was obviously not ideal. If only he'd been raised by someone who cared, then maybe none of this would have happened. If only Tom Riddle Sr. had really loved Merope enough to stick around. If only Merope had been strong enough to get herself together, run a comb through her hair, and be a badass single mother. If only Marvolo Gaunt wasn't such a misogynist jerk to his only daughter, then maybe she could have been strong and independent all along. But none of those things happened, and instead Voldemort turned into, well, Voldemort. Raised in circumstances much like Harry's, he became something very, very different - and of course, this comparison to our hero only further heightens the complexity and sadness we feel for our lonely villain, who uses power to get friends he's never had. Is it possible to cry through snake-like nostrils? I'm sure lonely Lord Voldemort can tell us it is. Then he blows the head off another Muggle, and we forget we ever felt sorry for him at all.

There are a ton of excellent villains with many layers - layers like onions. (Yes, shameless Shrek reference there. Which, hey, there's another villain with issues! Not Shrek, but Lord Farquaad, who is so short he's self-conscious about it and tries to overcompensate by being a raging jerk.) So, you tell me...who's your favorite multi-dimensional villain? 


  1. Good question. I'm not going to list a published/produced type of villain but instead talk about my own. Because in a few hours, a post is going up on my novels blog that is a scene between the villain and the hero. It's for the "let's talk" blogfest and happens to show the soft side of the villain.

    Valk isn't good. He has no problem destroying a bridge during rush hour to get attention. Kidnapping a bunch of people and leaving others tied up in closets, not big deal. Manipulation to get what he wants is common fair. But, because of what he needs, he has some sense of caring towards the hero. He wants him to understand exactly what he is capable of and the dangers behind his genetic mutations so that he can use those powers. But he still is a little bit nurturing to the hero, when the hero's own parents didn't help him.

    That's my villain. :-D

  2. I think one of the keys here is to make sure we know the villain as well as we know the MC so that his (or her) layers can show through. It doesn't make me feel sorry for them to know where they came from but it helps me accept the story and their actions.

  3. Sue is my favorite, for sure. The scenes between her and her sister just melt my heart.

  4. My favorite villains are those who are just evil for the sake of being evil, without the addition of sympathy. Iago in Othello - I believe that he wasn't "cuckolded" that it was just another part of his lies. It's also why I loved Pennywise in It. Those are my two favorite literary villains.

  5. Partly because I just finished reading the Underworld series, but mostly because I held out hope for him until the end, I think the Bane deserves a mention here. We see practically everything he goes through, and get that glimpse of his mental state as he nibbles on his tail for a security blanket. I don't want to spoil anything, but as I said, I was still hoping that Gregor might be able to do something to save him.

    Don't know if it's my iphone or the site, but it won't let me sign in my usual way. Sorry about that!
    <3 Holly Strickland


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