The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Who Is The Villain Of The Story Anyway?

Posted by BigWords on July 14, 2009

The AW Blog Chain is about writing this month, so I’m playing along. The topic I have been handed by DniC (I swear I didn’t set this up) is

To BigWords (he’s got the whole special effects thing with his words too…big budget people…), here’s my question:

“What makes your favorite villain memorable?”

It’s an old trick, focusing on the darker side of the moral landscape, but writing about the villain is deeper than merely window-dressing. When I consider the great villains I come back to three characters above all else; three villains who have shaped my understanding of what can be achieved when a writer sets out to demonstrate the lengths an individual will go to when they are desperate. Remember when I said I didn’t play well with others? That’s why I get to cheat, and that is why I’m picking three characters.


If you haven’t read Frankenstein, you would be forgiven for thinking that I refer to The Monster. No. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m referring to Victor Frankenstein, whose creation of the creature is the cause of all his problems. My reading of the narrative may jar with your own experiences of the story, but I stand by the fact that Victor is the villain of the book. Not only is he the villain, but he is also arguably the first character I read who was to be completely overwhelmed by his own actions rather than by outside forces. He is the cause of his own destruction, and ignorant to the end.

I always get a kick re-reading the book, knowing that everyone else focuses so much attention on the Monster, and the subtle anarchy present in Victor’s character goes unnoticed. He has a full back-story given over to the ways in which he is set apart from the rest of society around him: He reads banned texts, performs diabolical experiments, engages in the life of a common grave-robber… And yet he is seen to be the victim. That is a bloody good trick. The way in which he has been presented in other media continues the ‘Oh, woe is me’ portrait of a man out of his depth. Not so.

There have been other, and arguably better, villains who have managed to gain the sympathy of readers, but I set Frankenstein apart for two reasons. One: He’s so blinkered to the outcome of any action that his work is paramount. That particular mindset, expanded to the degree of “the insane scientist” has been explored endlessly, and we have Mary Shelley to thank for the trope. It is a character touchstone that lives on in science fiction to this day. Secondly, there is the book’s ending. Nobody from the main story gets away untouched by the hand of death. Try selling that to sequel-conscious publisher today…

There is nothing better than a villain who believes himself to be hard done by. Frankenstein is the beginning of the deluded antagonist trope, and his place in the Halls of Evil is guaranteed by one act. One single moment of horror and vile madness. When he agrees to create a bride for the original, and tragically intelligent, Monster, he signs over his soul as surely as if he were Faustus. It is a pact that will bring the world around him crashing down. That is his defining moment, and the reason I am giving him the top spot here.

Frankenstein is my tortured villain.

Jack The Ripper.

I’m using the real-life murderer here because of the numerous fictionalized accounts. It really doesn’t matter if it was one or more individuals, what matters is the creation of three threads which run through the core of modern fiction. Most fiction (novels, film, television…) rely almost as heavily on random and unpredictable incidents as they do on carefully staged ones. It would have been unthinkable for Hitchcock to kill off Marion Crane midway through Psycho if Jack had not carried out his senseless attacks in the 1880s. It speaks to a modern audience of more relevant concerns as well. Terrorism has replaced a knife-wielding butcher, but unpredictability remains a constant.

He was also the first acknowledged serial killer, which has proven a deep source of raw material for authors and filmmakers alike. Sawney Bean may have the precedent, but Jack had the press. I have been fascinated by the case for as long as I can remember and, the constant stream of books and television theories aside, he has remained as elusive as his Spring-Heeled namesake. I have the nagging feeling that without such a vicious and unpredictable killer to draw inspiration from, films such as Se7en and Silence Of The Lambs (moreso than the Thomas Harris novel of the same name) would not have fared so well.

The third reason I give for his inclusion on this list is the abrupt nature by which the killings ended. It has been the source of many conspiracy theories over the years, and ties in to a deep-seated distrust of the information parceled out by those-whose-words-we-must-trust. Conspiracy theories wouldn’t reach their golden age until Kennedy’s assassination, but it was in the back-streets of the East End of London where they were truly born.

Jack is still with us. He is still around, albeit in different guises. He is the Silent Killer who stalks pretty girls in Scream, whose measured pace permeates the  Halloween films, and whose name, when spoken five times into a mirror, still carries a dread disturbance. I like my villains to stand apart from the crowd. Fu Manchu could easily be any number of oriental criminal masterminds, Klingons are interchangeable, the alien menaces of the fifties had a sameness to them… Jack was a nightmare brought to life, whose craft was murder. He was the original psychopath.

Jack is my nightmare villain.

Lex Luthor.

Appearing in comic books, radio serials, television, film and novels, the Machiavellian antics of Lex Luthor are textbook villainy, though the rationale behind his actions is impeccable. He wants to keep Earth safe, so the alien intruder who has arrived in Metropolis must be stopped at all costs. It is a bit deeper than that, with a simmering resentment of the newcomer’s abilities, a desire for Lois Lane and a lust for power matched only by his temper. He is a personality that cries out for counseling.

I came to the character late, around the time the DC Comics universe was being reshuffled and reorganized into a singular entity. The pre-Crisis version of the character, who was very different, never appealed to me. I couldn’t get into the mindset where I completely believed in Gene Hackman’s performance in the first film either, and had serious questions about the stability of a person willing to kill millions for what was essentially a land swindle. It wasn’t the character I had been reading in the funny pages.

The Lex Luthor from the comics, whose whiter-than-Mark Twain’s-white suits and oversized Cuban cigars instantly set him apart from the garishly-dressed “supervillains”, is a character who I could imagine existing. He breathes through the pens of the writers and artists who have chronicled his journey. But his defining moment? The reason he is so memorable? It’s a purely character-driven moment from a back-up story which guarantees his place on my top three.

The basic plot had him stopping off in a diner and offering a waitress a job. He tells her he will wait for (I think) fifteen minutes, then goes and sits in his car. Of course, being the villain of the story, he gets his driver to take off after ten minutes, and the poor waitress realizes she has missed her big chance at getting a better life. I like the malice in his actions combined with such sincerity in all other aspects of his being. That is the mark of a great villain – someone who can achieve a degree of fascination in the reader while he is being a complete bastard.

He may have been killed off, mangled into a mock-Aussie for a while, written as a megalomaniac dictator and treated as if he were any other villain, but for one shining moment, for one brief short story, he was the most magnificent and thoroughly corrupt villain in comics.

Lex is my sophisticated villain.

Those three characters, disturbing as my adoration may have been, are where I gain inspiration for my own villains. Without those essence-of-evil archetypes, whose influences are felt across the spectrum of media, I would be at a loss. The villains are as important – and in many cases more important– than the heroes. The square jaws and muscular physiques of the standard Hero fall short for me, seemingly poorly equipped to deal with true evil. Fiction dictates that we must have heroes – I say that we need villains. “Our enemies define us” is a common trope, and for very good reasons.

I’ve trudged through this at quite some length, more than the subject possibly deserved, but the question hit a nerve that jingled just right when it was nudged. I’ll let this subject sit for a while, maybe (perhaps) think further on about what villainy means…

…beffore setting out on my conquest to ensnare all of humanity under my tyrannical grip. Jeez, did I think that, or did I actually type it out?

Before I go any further with the villain-love, I ought to set a Q for Fokker.

Do you believe novels have the power to change the way we view the world, or is that the role of non-fiction?

Here are all the writers participating in this loop-the-loop of blogging. I strongly suggest that you take a look at their blogs…


Fokker Aeroplanbau



Forbidden Snowflake



Lady Cat










21 Responses to “Who Is The Villain Of The Story Anyway?”

  1. dnic said

    I enjoyed reading your answer(s). =] Pleasantly surprised by Frankenstein topping the list there. I think most people do assume his Monster to be the villain of the story. Might just be because the Monster is further removed from us physically than Frankenstein. It’s easier to sympathize with someone that physically is similar to you.

  2. I agree with DniC, it’s intersting to note that Monster Frankenstein was hardly the villain, but in popular culture he is always interpreted as the pinnacle of horror. While his creator, at worst bungling, at best: brilliant.

    *Takes a step back*

    Wow, Frankenstein topping the list! Outstanding, and to believe that so many people believe Frankenstein is ‘only’ the monster; while you have put so much thought into it. I applaud.

  3. Excellent post !
    I am not big on monsters myself (as in” he who fights monsters is yet to become one”, Nietzsche if I am not mistaken) but villains come in all shapes and forms and most times we don’t know they are villains until after they misbehaved …

  4. rosemerrie said

    Now I want to read Frankenstein. Good post and interesting choices. Definitely not cliche answers.

  5. bigwords88 said

    Thanks all.

    I edited the list (incredible as it may seem given the length of my post) to concentrate closer on the aspects which intrigue me the most. There is so much tied in to the concept of “villain” that I would be hard pressed to make my thoughts any briefer.

    There are gaps in the thinking above, due to space and brevity. If this were to be expanded, I would include Diabolik as the best absurdist villain, make note of the weakness of Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories and possibly add a comment or two about the rise of anti-heroes in popular culture.

    Damn, I haven’t even mentioned the trend (begun in the Dick Tracy newspaper strips) of killing off villains right, left and center…

  6. harri3tspy said

    Terrific post (and a terrific question). For me, the whole issue of villains can be broken down into, Walt Kelly’s “We have met the enemy and he is us,” vs. Sartre’s “Hell is other people.” I tend to gravitate toward the former as more interesting. The latter is too easy to dismiss.

  7. Jamie said

    Well I for one would be most interested in the thoughts you cut out, and the villains you left out, especially Moriarty. Anytime you want to do another post continuing this one…

    And I totally agree with you on Frankenstein. I didn’t read the book until I’d graduated from college, and when I put it down, I could not believe how many years I’d spent thinking ill of the Monster, who was only the victim after all.

    Fabulous, fascinating post.

  8. bigwords88 said

    Jamie: Have you seen the slavish devotion of Holmes fans? I’ll be stirring up a hornet’s nest if I laid out the problems with the character of Moriarty in full.

    In brief, however, he simply doesn’t work. Being the cause of all London’s problems? That, even for a genius of crime, is asking a bit much of the reader. There is a neat manner in which some of the villains I like, especially Lex Luthor immediately post-crisis, can have a ‘front’ which makes them publicly adored.

    Characters who hide in shadows and pull strings just don’t hold my attention as much, though the deus ex machina underpinning Death Note can create a “villain” of interest (it is a troublesome manga in which to cite any main character as a true villain) and such complex interplay does get my interest up.

    Everyone can thank DniC for the post, as the question was so juicy. 🙂

  9. Carol said

    Excellent choice of villains!

    I haven’t read Frankenstein (yet), but I’ve never forgotten that the real monster was Victor, not the monster he created. Jack the Ripper is a favorite of mine as well. Did you ever see the Star Trek (OS) episode that had the spirit of Jack as an immortal entity? And I’m so glad you didn’t use the Gene Hackman Lex Luthor. That was a truly terrible characterization!

  10. bigwords88 said

    I can’t remember the Star Trek episode offhand, but I’m sure I’ve watched it at least once.

    I was sorely tempted to launch into a massive tirade against the obsession wih land values that largely defines the movie version of Lex. It is a partial characterization which does a great disservice to one of the most interesting comic-book characters DC has.

    Interestingly, the Smallville version of the character doesn’t entirely jibe with what I expected either. Not that I’m looking for complaints to find in a show which clearly isn’t aimed at my age group…

  11. Snowflake said

    That was a great read and I really like that you’ve got Lex Luthor on this list as sophisticated villain.

  12. A nice post and nice comments followed after the post. To me, Frankenstein is more of a tragic hero than a villain. Moriarty is in my list of sophisticated villain. I am a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. If he says that Moriarty is the best evil in Europe then I believe that he is.

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  21. Jennifer said

    Gosh, I’m incredibly sorry that I’m late with my comment. Lol. I hadn’t heard of Lex Luthor until now, and so thanks for the introduction. Interesting reading, as I don’t think I have ever thought so deeply about villains until reading this. 🙂

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