Villains can be a turn-off. But they can also be compelling, fanciable, even sexy. Think Alan Rickman as just about any movie baddie you care to name. (Confession here — I’m a Rickman fan and this blog was partly inspired by him. But there are other baddies here too, and many are from books as well as films.)
DenOfGeek.com (and others like LA Weekly) rated Rickman’s outright (and not so outright) villains, big time. The four above — L to R, Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; De Valera in Michael Collins; Gruber in Die Hard; Snape in the Harry Potter films — filled the #2 #3 #4 & #6 slots in their 10 best Rickman movies, in a tribute after his death. In their top spot was Truly, Madly, Deeply — a film where Rickman’s enigmatic ghost appeared as a self-centred character who may (or may not?) have been playing a part in order to release the beloved for a new relationship. Audiences had to make up their own minds whether he was hero or antihero (or even villain?) in that one.
So . . . Antiheroes rather than Villains?
Your average antihero, according to Wikipedia lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, or morality, and may have dark personality traits more commonly associated with villains.
But antiheroes are not villains, right?
Well… It can sometimes be difficult to be sure. Usually it’s the story telling us, as readers, that Mr/Ms Antihero is the main character — and therefore we should be focusing on them — even if Mr/Ms Antihero is a pretty nasty piece of work.
What about Flashman, or Scarlett O’Hara, or James Bond?
Flashman is a complete rogue but very funny and clear-sighted about himself and the world.
Scarlett is snobbish, wilful, dishonest and manipulative, but crazily brave and determined.
Both have redeeming features that make them more antihero than villain. With both, we want to read on.
James Bond kills people, lots of them, and his moral compass often goes missing in action, especially where women are concerned. But Bond is an antihero, not a villain, because he’s always battling against a much more villainous villain. And millions of readers and viewers find him compelling. Is it the violence, or the humour, or the sex? Whatever it is, we happily pay to have the Bond experience in print and on screen.
From comments made in response to Sophie’s post about Heyer Heroes last week, it’s clear that the Duke of Avon, in Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades, may be as close to a villain as an antihero can get without actually being one.
Avon certainly has villainous traits and he can be pretty nasty. But he is redeemed by falling in love with Léonie. For her, he gives up many of his wicked ways. Mind you, he is not totally reformed. He accepts, many years later in Devil’s Cub, that he is “a man of few morals and no heart” and still “unscrupulous and sinister”. In spite of that, Avon remains both attractive and compelling for readers. We may not like him — he could become a villain again and that frisson of danger is still there — but we keep on reading the books in which he appears.
Can evil Villains be attractive? Or Is a Villain just a Villain?
I’d say it depends, first and foremost, on the writer.
We don’t usually find it difficult to recognise the intended villain on the page or on the screen. So often he,
or occasionally she — remember Servalan, the military commander turned president in Blake’s 7? — personifies evil and lust for power.
The villain is the antagonist to our hero or heroine, the opponent who must be defeated if Evil Is Not To Triumph.
Even outright villains like Servalan can be attractive. Admittedly, that may be easier to show on the screen because a subtle actor can make the villain less of an evil cardboard cutout and more of a human being, with virtues as well as flaws. Servalan was a bit short of virtues (apart from charm) but she was no cardboard cutout. She was such a compelling character that her role in the series got bigger and bigger. Decades later, she’s still seen by fans as an ideal villain — and sex and power personified.
In some films, by contrast, you might wonder whether the cardboard villains have ever had any virtues. Other than — perhaps — caressing a long-haired white cat?
That Moggy looks desperate to escape. With reason, maybe?
Cherish your villains
Dear Authors, please don’t make your villains from cardboard. Please make them rounded characters, and preferably attractive as well.
Because, as readers, we much prefer to read about them.
Because rounded villains make your story more believable.
For the sake of the story, you may want to turn them into heroes later, so they need to be rounded and real to start with. Think Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books, revealed at last as a Sidney Carton figure, conflicted and jealous as hell, yet sacrificing himself for Lily for years as a double agent. (That villain-to-hero transformation is obviously easier if there is an even worse villain, like Voldemort, in the background.)
At the other extreme, your twisting storyline may tempt you to make the ultimate sacrifice by turning your hero/antihero into a villain. That’s a common trope in spy stories, of course.
But your audience may hate it, as many of us did when Lucas North, Richard Armitage’s brooding and conflicted spy in Spooks, was outed as a traitor.
The viewers longed for him to be redeemed. He wasn’t.
And as a traitor, he became, by definition, a villain. Yet, even as a villain, he was still compelling.
Do you have a villain you love? If you’d like to share your favourite, please do.
RIP Alan Rickman 1946-2016
Alan Rickman, good or bad. 🙂 And I loved the Duke of Avon. Not sure what that says about me. 🙂
Or me either, Liz, since I find Avon utterly compelling. One day, I’m going to sit down with the book and go through line by line to work out how she does it. Masterly.
As for Alan Rickman… Well, I wrote the blog, so nuff said?
I so agree about Jamie’s enigmatic character in TRULY MADLY DEEPLY.
You could make a case that in life, although exciting and charismatic, he had been selfish, demanding and careless, letting himself be loved as much as loving. And it is only post mortem that he experiences and then demonstrates the sort of love that puts the beloved’s good above your own. Though even then it is in his own wilful, quirky way. Maybe a near villain saved by the love of a good woman? Who doesn’t even realise it?
So, so, SO love that movie. Such pitch perfect performances from Rickman and lovely Juliet Stevenson. And even when it’s sad, what happens is utterly right.
Now you’ve got me wishing I’d said that in the blog, Sophie. OTOH, it was already getting a bit long and I didn’t want it to be all about Alan Rickman. 😉
I love Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon in ‘Sense and Sensibility’. In many ways, it’s a thankless part – he has an awful lot of waiting around – but he manages to convey deep feeling with just his eyes and his silences.
Couldn’t agree more. I’d have included a pic of him as Brandon if I could have justified it, Elizabeth. Will have to find another blog for that one 😉
I don’t much care for villains — probably shallow of me. Alan Rickman, of course, always holds my interest, but I still don’t LIKE Snape!
OTOH, good stories usually need conflict, and conflict usually calls up a villain.
I heartily approve of your call to authors. Villains should be well rounded with reasons to continue to read the villains part of the story.
Is Snape likeable? Great question, Sue. Hope someone else has the answer 😉
I was thinking this morning about how many Heyer novels actually don’t have a villain but where the conflict is rooted in society instead. Sylvester, for example, doesn’t have anyone you could really call a villain but it does have lots of conflict.
As one of his biggest fans, can I say that in my opinion, Snape was actually a hero – I guess he might have been an anti-hero, but he was no villain. I read the last HP book, just praying that he would be what I’d hoped all along, a good guy. Admittedly not a very pleasant good guy, but not a bad one.
I do like my villains to have some redeeming qualities though…and of course, a good reason for being a villain!
I remember thinking Snape couldn’t be a villain, after that first quidditch match when he saved Harry, and so I was quite bamboozled later when he was prepared to swear the oath to kill him. Clever plotting and character construction.
Love the idea of redeeming qualities in villains, Liv. Never saw any of them in Bond villains, I must say. Don’t think that white-cat-stroking counts!
Lol, absolutely not! We all want a man who loves animals – but it’s pretty essential that he shoud love humans too.
Oh Alan Rickman definitely. Adored him in Truly Madly, loved him as Snape – and reading the books I was convinced he was really a good guy – and he was the best villain as Nottingham ever. I do so agree with Liv that Snape was a hero – so yes, an antihero. I think Rickman did those so well. I saw him on stage playing Antony to Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra. So much power and presence, and so much angst. Beautifully but subtly done. I think that was his forte, as someone said, conveying so much with so little.
And villains who are actually flawed heroes are tragic – like Macbeth – and thus they can seize your heart more than a straightforward hero.
Envy your having seen him on stage, Liz.
Villain as flawed hero. Gosh. There’s another blog subject just waiting to be explored… Thanks so much for that.
I loved Severus Snape. He was definitely a hero! As for villains I love, how about Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Robin Hood, as played by the divine Richard Armitage. All right, he was pretty horrible most of the time, but his love for Marian redeemed him. And boy, did he look good in all that leather! 🙂
I do agree about Gisbourne, Sharon. And wasn’t it Armitage’s performance in Robin Hood that got him the role in Spooks? He does make a very attractive villain. Very attractive indeed 🙂
He was the visual for a very unpleasant character in my novel. Gorgeous man, but he just seemed right for the role!
But he was such a sweetheart in Vicar of Dibley – sign of a great actor.
And I’ve just found, and put on Twitter, a pic of Alan Rickman as Nottingham with Richard Armitage as Gisbourne alongside.
What more could a fan ask for? Drooling is permitted…
That is just mind-blowing! Cor.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post – also very easy on the eye! I was one of those who hated the Lucas North ‘twist’ – however, I think many of us expected something like that because it was by then clear, he was joining the LOTR cast. Still, I think it was a twist too far. May I also mention George Warleggan – a complex anti-hero if ever there was one. The motivations for his envy and jealously are so complex. I love that dynamic between the characters.
Thanks, Phillipa. Warleggan is an interesting suggestion. Didn’t occur to me while doing the blog because I’m not (whisper it ever so softly) a great Poldark fan and had frankly forgotten it. Apologies to all outraged fans of same 😉