What makes The Ultimate Villain™? Now, I’m not necessarily talking about the Big Bad in a story; for instance, we all know the Emperor is the puppet master behind everything in Star Wars. (Gaaasp, spoiler alert!) But the Ultimate Villain in the original trilogy isn’t the Emperor, it’s Vader, with the all-black ensemble and the heavy masked breathing. He’s the one on all the t-shirts, the one who sells the action figures and LEGO kits. True, he had his moment of redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi, but for the majority of screen time in the trilogy, he was fabulously and unapologetically evil.
Darth Vader got me thinking about some of my favorite screen and page villains, and what makes them so fun to hate. In Vader’s case, I think his utter calm and coldness, allied with the distancing his black outfit, gloved hands, and mask produce, makes him a frightening on-screen presence from the moment he appears in New Hope showing off his Force choke.
The Narnia series was my childhood passion, and you don’t get any nastier than the witches that C.S. Lewis came up with. The scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where the White Witch throws Edmund into her dungeon was one I always found chilling: Edmund trusted her (okay, he was also partially bewitched. And an idiot), and she treats him worse than dirt until he’s eventually rescued. The Green Lady in the Silver Chair was also a great villain, with her poisonous sweetness and terrible hidden schemes.
Like Star Wars, the Harry Potter series is another where side villains are often more compelling than the Big Bad, Lord Voldemort himself. Take Dolores Umbridge, for instance. (No, really, please take her, she terrifies me!) She’s tremendously effective as a villain, I think perhaps because most of us have come across that particular brand of petty nastiness at some point in our lives. A schoolteacher, a supervisor at work, an authority figure. Not someone with the power of life or death over us, just someone who can make our lives acutely miserable if they choose. The Harry Potter books have many ‘evil’ characters who we can’t help but understand, at least a little (there’s no way NOT to feel sorry for Draco Malfoy by the end of the series!), but Umbridge certainly isn’t one of those. And oh, boy, do we love to hate her.
Children’s and teen books do this sort of irredeemably nasty character very well (look at Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda, or President Snow from The Hunger Games), but even in adult fiction, you can’t have a decent fantasy or sci fi novel without a great villain. Or villains, plural. Sauron may have been the Big Bad in The Lord of the Rings, but I always particularly loathed Saruman for his backstabbing, tree-slaying, self-centered behavior. The sequence where the ents take down his fortress will always have me cheering wildly, no matter how many times I read it.
I know the trend nowadays is to have villains that readers/viewers can understand, with tragic backstories and deeper motivations that place them in a sort of moral grey zone, rather than the old-fashioned black-or-white of older stories. And I’m all for that, don’t get me wrong. It makes for a hugely compelling story. But sometimes it’s just so fun to be handed a character we’re unabashedly allowed to love to hate. So authors, producers, creators: grey zone your villains as much as you like, but please, please, please toss us an Umbridge every now and then? Go on. You know you want to.