Friday, August 23, 2013

A Question of Villainy

Photo by David Bleasdale, Flickr
The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis, purports to be a collection of letters written by a senior devil (Screwtape) to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. In one of these missives, Screwtape notes, the great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena, the Saints.

Screwtape is here alluding to the fact that certain people are born with a potential for greatness, endowed with exceptional gifts and talents which set them apart from the general population, and enable them to shape their own destinies. The same principle holds true when it comes to characters in literature. To restate Screwtape’s observation from a Fantasy-writer’s perspective: a first-class villain is a hero gone bad.1

Quentin Crisp once defined charisma as the ability to influence others without the use of reason. This is a prime attribute of heroes and villains alike: wherever they go, they stand out in a crowd. Heroes tend to downplay their charisma in the company of lesser mortals. (Superman, for instance, takes on the nerdy persona of Clark Kent to suppress his identity.) A villain, by contrast, consciously asserts his presence for purposes of intimidation. (When Darth Vader enters a room, everybody else registers a shiver of uneasiness.)

Heroes and villains alike are often gifted with superior intelligence. Intelligence renders a hero quick-thinking in the face of a crisis. If he has to jump to a conclusion, it will be the right one. If lives are at stake, he’ll improvise brilliantly to effect a rescue.

By contrast, intelligence in a villain is the key to power. A first-rate villain always has one or more long-range schemes under way. This gives him a starting advantage over the hero who has to play catch-up. A villain’s agenda is self-serving and his methods are ruthless. If at any point, a villain is forced by necessity to make a temporary alliance with his heroic counterpart, he will always be on the lookout for an opportunity to regain the initiative.

Photo via DoodleDeMoon on Flickr
 A first-class villain knows that sooner or later, he’s going to run into opposition, and never succumbs to the temptation to let his guard down.2 Instead, he looks for opportunities to stretch his lead. When – eventually - by dint of bravery, bloody-minded persistence and luck, the hero finally catches up with him, a first-rate villain never whines. On the contrary, he has his pride: he can be defeated, but never cowed. A first-rate villain is a class act3 – someone we’re forced to admire, even after all he has done, as he stands before us in chains.

Which brings us to the final point in this month’s installment. This discussion will continue next month. In the meantime, suffice it to reiterate that a villain, like his heroic counterpart, needs greatness to make him memorable.


1There are, sad to say, more noteworthy villains than villainesses in Fantasy. (The best specimens I know of come from the media, including the evil Amazon princess Callisto from the Xena Warrior Princess TV series, Mystique from the X-Men movies, and of course, Catwoman.) In view of this relative scarcity, and to avoid padding out this article by doubling up on the pronouns, I’m going to treat the masculine forms as generic.

2 For an entertaining perspective on the challenges of being an arch-villain, check out Peter's Evil Overlord.

3John Shea, who played Lex Luthor in the TV series Lois and Clark, succinctly summed up the class advantages of villainy in terms of “best clothes, best lines”.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. In most genres, the villain should always be an effective foe. In literary stories, the villain can be less overtly evil. Hero and villain can be fighting different sides of the same thematic argument or issue. Neither hero nor villain is truly good or evil. They just strongly believe in their side. They should both be equally gifted at persuading people they are right.

  2. What a good reminder about the similarities between a hero and a villain. You are so right about the importance of making them both a bit bigger than life. Or maybe more than a bit. (smile)

  3. A good description of what makes up a villain.

  4. I like to remember what I heard in a seminar once. The villain believes he is the hero of his own story.

  5. Hadn't considered the parallels between villainy and heroism. It might be likened to black and white hats -- they're both hats.

    Villains are often self-confident to the point of arrogance. Heroes are self-confident, too, and hopefully endowed with at least a sprinkling of humility. Villains are self-serving, while heroes are (somewhat) altruistic. Villains bask in the limelight; heroes may or may not sit in the back of the room. Both have gifts that set them apart, but they use them very differently. Hmmm...

    This is a thought-provoking piece, Debby. Thank you for rattling my cage. :-)


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