epic villains (and the traits we love about them)

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(because we all have to agree that Kylo Ren has a pretty sweet helmet)

It’s no secret among the people who know me that probably about 50% of my favorite characters in books + film would be the villains. And I decided that a post looking into this was long overdue since, after all, I have class (*said in British accent*) and don’t just like any bad guy. I mulled over the villains I do enjoy reading/watching (incidentally I am listening to The Imperial March as I type this) and narrowed it down to the specific traits about a villainous character that makes them leave their mark on my memory.

(so if you want to know how to write bad guys that Annie will enjoy, read on)

Moriarty (BBC Sherlock)

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psychotic genius.

Not going to lie: mental people who are also brilliant terrify me, whether in books or movies or real life. You could argue that Jim Moriarty’s insanity stems directly from his abnormally high IQ level, but no matter what the reason is, this guy should have been put in a straitjacket long ago. But, he is clever and when a bad guy makes me slack-jawed in horrified awe because the twisted brilliance of their plan is nothing like I anticipated…. I love it, humans.

unpredictable.

Granted, Moriarty is predictably nuts, but you never really know how it’s going to break out and if he’s just going to start shouting mid-sentence or instead decide that he’s bored. And when Moriarty is bored, be very afraid.

humor.

He’s horrible, he has no sense of decency, he would force you to commit suicide and smile while you do it, but he still manages to make me laugh out-loud every episode I’ve seen him in. So, either he has some really funny lines or I have a messed-up sense of humor. (tell me I’m not the only one who cracks up laughing whenever Moriarty breaks into the Tower of London. #dramaKing)

creep factor.

If you have a psychotic villain it’s bound to get creepy real fast. Yay for bad guys who are actually frightening.

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Gollum (The Lord of the Rings)

wily, wily worm.

Gollum is a crafty character and all the more so because it’s easy to underestimate him. There’s nothing like being controlled by a magical ring for years to make an already sly creature even more cunning. And it doesn’t help that he does the puppy eyes so well.

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humor.

“Yes, perhaps, yes,” said Gollum. “Sméagol always helps, if they asks – if they asks nicely.”
“Right!’ said Sam. “I does ask. And if that isn’t nice enough, I begs.”

Just the way he puts his sentences together is funny. Then put him and Samwise in the same scene and comedy gold happens.

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 sympathy points.

“And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.” 
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

I cry every time I read this scene. I’ve discussed Gollum’s character many times and at great detail with my various fellow Tolkienites and we all agree that the saddest thing about him is that he had potential to tear himself away from his dark path, but the hold of the ring over him was so strong that every time he considered it something happened to keep him back. He is such a pathetic, pitiable creature and his story breaks my heart.

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Kylo Ren (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

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unpredictable.

A (not-quite-Sith) who throws temper tantrums and wracks havoc on inanimate objects when he’s angry? Yes, please. Uncontrolled bad guys are great because you never can quite predict how they will react (except that it will be explosive) and if you haven’t seen Kylo Ren demolish expensive equipment you’re missing some LOL moments in your life.

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actually does bad things.

When there’s a villain you expect them to actually be, yunno, villainous. So Kylo Ren torturing Poe, killing people instead of just threatening to, and generally being the darker version of his grandfather at that age is satisfying. Even if it does break your heart when he commits some of the deeds he does. *calmly drops Ren off the edge of a cliff*

struggles with the light side.

Talk about intriguing. I love, love this factor of Kylo’s character. The psychology of a Sith is interesting anyways, but when you have one that’s drawn more to the light than they are to the dark, and hence is constantly trying to prove to themselves that they really are as bad as all that…. Excuse me while I do a happy dance over all the fascinating moral quandaries. Which brings me to:

potential for redemption.

You may or may not want him to be redeemed (I’m still torn on that score), but Kylo Ren has serious potential for either an amazing redemption arc or else the possibility of becoming an even darker and terrifying villain. To quote Mirriam Neal:

“Kylo Ren has so much light still left in him that he has to physically cause himself pain in order to keep fighting, because the Dark Side feeds off pain. He is the antagonist, the protagonist, and the battleground of his own story. One thing about true Sith is the fact they are ruthless when harming others to further their own ends. They don’t care if they’re hurting someone else, and this is obviously not Kylo’s case. Kylo isn’t fighting Rey with mere anger or a heartless, stoic demeanor – Kylo is on the verge of breaking down, he’s holding back tears, he is fighting with himself as much as he is with Rey, if not more.

I find it hard to believe that the franchise would present us with such an emotional, sympathetic character if they weren’t planning to give him a redemption arc or, at the very least, giving us an even larger conflict to follow in the coming movies. There’s much about Kylo that we as viewers don’t know and can only theorize about, but they have given us the most emotionally conflicted Sith in cinema history. There is more potential for light and goodness, for redemption, than ever before […]”

Loki (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World)

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alllll the grey areas.

Conflicted villains are the best villains. That is all.

devilish wit.

Loki’s snark is the best. He is the “god” of mischief after all. And did I mention he’s just a bit clever?

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strong sympathy points.

I don’t even know where to start with this one.

His Dad has serious parenting issues, Loki has serious inferiority issues + family issues + deeply afraid + and this guy needs a therapist like a mosquito needs blood. He’s one of those frustrating characters where you can see exactly where they went wrong and you watch as they make bad decisions (despite your [mildly agitated] shouting at the screen). You root for them to make the right decisions and pull themselves off their dark path—and sometimes they do choose right, which makes it all the more difficult when they choose wrong the next time. His relationship with his adopted brother Thor breaks my heart, and his obvious affection for his mother is sweet and makes me cry without fail. I have strong emotions about this character, in case you couldn’t tell; I think I really must write a Loki analysis article sometime.

it’s not all his fault.

This is where Loki becomes a “sympathetic” villain for me because, despite all his bad choices and wrongdoings, so much of the blame for who he became lies at his father’s doorstep—that does not absolve him of his sins, but it does give us as viewers a connection and level of empathy with him. The need to be loved and valued is an inherent part of humanity, and who hasn’t been disappointed by people they look up to? Loki’s desperate hope + his fear of trusting because he’s been hurt so often gets me in the gut every time.

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potential for redemption.

So. Much. Potential. Don’t let me down here, Loki Laufeyson.

The Master (Doctor Who: series 3 finale, series 4 Christmas special)

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humor.

He is twisted and messed up and ohmystars he’s hilarious. I love it so much when villains have a sense of humor or when they’re given witty lines—half of the reason The Master is funny is because he’s such a nutcase. Parliament execution scene, anyone? *copies his double-thumbs up*

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smart factor.

Manic brilliance is how he rolls and it’s a blast to watch. Not to mention, terrifying. The Master has legitimately scared me on more than one occasion and not a lot of villains do that. When a Timelord goes dark + insane it is not a pretty sight. Take note my Timelordy readers.

it’s not all his fault.

The Master is psychotic-killer genius but (SPOILER ALERT) he was made that way through no fault of his own. His dark path was created for him by some seriously twisted people when he was just a child and a recurring four-beat rhythm was placed in his mind to play on a loop non-stop–is it any wonder he went completely mental? The moments when you see him fight against it, when you see his agony and desperation–they’re gut-wrenching. The Master and the Doctor were best friends as children and it’s heartbreaking whenever they go down memory lane or whenever the Doctor tries to get through to him and help him–basically all the time.

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There’s nothing like a broken friendship that gets repaired slightly (only to be shattered all over again) for taking my emotions through the ringer. The potential for redemption and light is strong in this one. Which is why the last scene with the Master in the Christmas special makes me sad/happy all at once. (You Whovians out there know what I’m talkin’ about.)

Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith)

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struggles with the light side.

Anakin is equally torn between the light and dark side of the force. He cares deeply for people and he’s always trying to save or protect–it’s his gut reaction when anyone is in trouble: “How can I help them?” At the same time the abilities to protect and the freedom of choice that he believes the Dark Side could give him pull at his attention like a moth to a flame. His struggle against the dark, against doing what he knows is wrong, and what he’s tempted to do, is painful to watch and still hurts me every time I see it.

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actually does bad things.

Once he turns to the Dark Side there’s no denying that Anakin does some horrific stuff. That scene with the Younglings in particular is heart-wrenching. It’s deeply saddening and almost frightening to see the change in him, but as writers don’t you just love it when a villain fulfills his potential and actually is dark? I get chills every time he makes his march–not because it’s epic but because it’s how a villain is supposed to be. They’re supposed to be a threat, they’re supposed to be menacing, they’re supposed to frighten–otherwise what impact does it even make when the hero overthrows them? i will now get off my soapbox. 

potential for redemption.

As a twelve-year old writer Anakin is the first character I was attached to who spiraled onto a downward path. Even though I was 95% sure it was going to happen, I still spent the entirety of Revenge of the Sith rooting for him to pull through, to see where he was going and why it was such a very bad thing. It’s hard to articulate since he meant so much to me (and still does) but Anakin was the character who taught me that feeling empathy for someone does not mean you condone them or excuse them, villains are not two-dimensional, that as a writer I should never make them two-dimensional, and that everyone has a story.

Check out this article for a more in-depth look at Anakin Skywalker. There are much spoilers. Ye be warned.

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Peter Pan (Once Upon A Time)

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“Oh, the cleverness of me!”

Can I just mention that I absolutely love that the writers of OUAT took the potential for darkness in Peter of Peter Pan and ran with it? Peter Pan is devilishly clever and overflowing with sharp wit + manipulation + fake innocent-boy charm. He’s easily one of my favorite villains in the history of ever. And he is dark, people.

humor.

Did I mention the sharp wit and just general sassy one-liners?

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feels-inducing.

I had not expected this element at all, but when you think of a boy-villain and what exactly that means, it’s sad to begin with. Then you find out about his past and, while you detest him even more, it also hurts your heart and makes you wish, wish, wish that he could go back and make everything alright again. If only for the sake of the people he hurt.

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Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Does this even require any commentary at all???

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To sum up: villains with humor + unpredictability + dark deeds + grey areas + cleverness + potential for redemption + sympathy points, or a blend of the above traits, those are the bad guys who stand out. That make a hero work harder, and a reader happy. 

Which is the sort of villain that everyone wants.

Okay, Wrenlings, ‘fess up. Who are your favorite villains? Why do you like them? Or are bad guys just not your cup of dark (very dark) coffee?

6 thoughts on “epic villains (and the traits we love about them)

  1. Over half of these I either don’t know enough or at all, but Loki rings my heart (except in the Avengers, I pretend that one doesn’t exist, he doesn’t fit in with the Thor movies Loki). I love the bad that turn good too, sometimes (depending on many things) better than the always good. Like Edmund in Narnia (I love him so much better than the others), and Martin (from Faerie Rebels trilogy and Swift Duo).

    Moriarity (in “Sherlock”) is both brilliant and darkly hilarious. Book Moriarity is implied to be brilliant, but I feel that after he dies another, more interesting villain is in a story (not interesting enough for me to remember his name, lol).

    Gollum does so many truly horrible, depraved things (babies in their cradles book readers!!!!!!!!); that I cannot forgive him anything.

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  2. Brilliant post. Glad to see someone else who enjoyed Kylo Ren. I’m rather sick of people constantly making fun of his character (the whole emo/punk teen thing) when he’s shown so much potential and has been emotional instead of cold.

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  3. Aww, sweet crumpets! I’ve been waiting for this post for ages ;). YAYY!

    First of all, great character analyses Annie-darling! I definitely enjoyed that immensely.
    Hmm, for the whole subject of villains and your examples above I am sad to say I only know 3 of them: Moriarity, Gollum and the Master. Villains fascinate me so much, I agree. I can’t say I like them MORE than the heroes. I think they can be more three-dimensional in their depiction frequently, but I always enjoy a good dark strong villain the most when he is a foil for a rich hero/protagonist.
    Honestly Gollum/Smeagol is one of my favourite villain characters, because he is so conflicted, corrupted and twisted yet even that does not remove him from the opportunity of redemption and pity. Haha, him with Sam are some GOLDEN moments. . . 😀 PO-TA-TOES!!!!!

    With Moriarity, I have a great appreciation for his character in the books. I love that he is a professor, a man of genius that rivals Sherlock Holmes, and is the “Napoleon of Crime” as Holmes put it. He is really the match for Holmes. As for JIM Moriarity in the Sherlock show, I have to be honest that I don’t like him at all. He creeps me out so badly, ahhhhh!!! Honestly, he is so creepy and disgusting in his manners, so insane with no sense of decency. I shudder every time he comes on screen. I guess that shows just how great a villain he is, but like Sherlock I have no sense of compassion or anything for him. I am throughly revolted. Actually a favourite episode of mine is “The Great Game”. Personally I find Magnumus in “His Last Vow” way more intriguing, 3 dimensional and chilling.

    Ooh, the Master is a great great villain. I love his version with the 10th Doctor so much, his madness, his feral energy, his love of chaos and destruction, but as you said, he is this Arch-nemesis for the Doctor, but he is also so broken and damaged, and to think that he and the doctor were once boyhood friends, and seeing the Doctor weep so much for him at his death, ach, it really hits you in the feels! Also he has something similar to Moffat’s Moriarity in his complete lack of decency and disgusting manners, but I personally prefer him as a villain. How do you like the reincarnation of the master as Missy, Annie? I actually think she is a very fascinating villainess, not as great as the Master, but she is acted so well! She is so bonkers and wild, but hilarious and sassy, my favourite scenes with her are actually with Clara. . . 😀

    One of my favourite kinds of “baddies” are the conflicted moral ones. Javert is a huge favourite of mine, because of his moral struggle. I also love “redeemed” bad characters probably best of all. . . Boromir, Thorin, Sydney Carton (he’s not really a baddie, but you know…). Ooh, a recent new dark, twisted villainess who I’ve been amazed at has been Morgana from the BBC Merlin show. Her character development (like the rest of the characters) is phenomenal and dark and twisted and SO SO SAD! She reminds me a lot with Smeagol/Gollum actually.

    Star Wars sounds like it has its rich array of dark conflicted villains. Hmm, I’m intrigued. Great post, my dear Samwise! *hugs*

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  4. I agree with all of this. I love villians. sometimes the villains are my favorite characters in a story. (Like Hans from Frozen. My favorite.) Other times I like them just as much as the heroes (Loki, Moriarty, Kylo Ren). You nailed it. This post is wonderful and has all my faves. (Except Peter Pan. I will never forgive OUAT for what they did to Peter Pan. [I liked that he was evil, but I felt the reason he was evil was predictable and poorly executed.])

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