The Flawed Villain


We’ve talked quite a bit about flawed characters lately.  Flaws make heroes into real people, people we, as readers, can relate to and understand.  But what about the bad guys?

The problem with a villain is that in order for him to really be threatening, he also needs to be someone we readers can identify with, same as the hero.  Think about it for a second – the thing that makes a villain truly terrifying is the idea that we could easily be as dangerous, given just a nudge in the right direction.   A villain who’s purely evil, or utterly undefeatable, is just no fun to read about.  My husband and I watch “Once Upon A Time” on Sunday nights.  The characters are all story book characters who’ve been trapped in the real world by a horrendous curse the Evil Queen cast.  She was just hoping to ruin Snow White and Prince Charming’s lives, but she took the entire fairytale population along, too.  In the real world, Snow White is a school teacher, Rumpelstiltskin is a pawn shop owner and the Evil Queen is the mayor of their small town of Storybrooke.  It’s a fun show, except for one thing – the Queen never loses.  No matter what plan the good guys hatch against her, whether it’s to get her removed from office or just to get a child’s playground saved, she always manages to be one step ahead.  At first, it was interesting, because we were waiting for the protagonist to come up with something brilliant.  But after weeks and weeks of this, I’ve reached the point that I’m only watching in the hope that the Queen will lose.  The last new episode that played was supposed to tell us why the Queen hates Snow White and what made her evil.  The point was to make the Queen a little more sympathetic, but I honestly think the writers waited too long.  If someone doesn’t manage to put one over on the Queen before the end of the season, I may not bother watching when it comes back next year.  An unbeatable villain just isn’t any fun.

On the other hand, one of my favorite trilogies is Louise Cooper’s Time Master trilogy.  One of the reasons I loved these books so much was the flawed villain.  There were actually a few villains, but the one who made the most impact was Keridil, son of the High Priest of the Star Peninsula and initiate of Order.  His father adopts the protagonist, Tarod, when the boy is found wandering and lost, and Keridil becomes a brother to Tarod.   Tarod and Keridil grow up together.  When Tarod finds love with a beautiful woman named Sashka, Keridil is eaten up with jealousy, but tries to bury his feelings.  Unfortunately, it turns out that Tarod is actually a servant of Chaos, and his beloved Sashka betrays him.  Keridil has the chance to help his brother, but instead allows his desire for Sashka rule him.  He declares Tarod to be a demon and casts him out from the only home he ever knew.  By the end of the trilogy, Tarod has come into his full power, and punishes Keridil for his betrayal in a way that fits the sin perfectly. 

This is a much better villain.  He betrays his brother, whom he loves, because he covets his brother’s woman, behaviors that any one of us could be capable of.  We like to think we’re good people, but we’re all guilty of poor choices at one time or another.  It’s those poor choices that make Keridil the villain he is.  As much as we despise him for the pain and anguish he causes his brother, we can all relate to his motives.  That’s what makes him really scary.  Any one of us could descend into that sort of darkness, given the right circumstances.  And even though he’s got the power for most of the story, by the end, Keridil proves to be fallible. 

When you’re creating your villains, pay careful attention to their power and ability.  In the same way you don’t want a perfect hero, you also don’t want a perfect villain.  Whether you give him an uncontrollable lust or merely make him a sucker for kitten videos on YouTube, give him flaws, so that the story is properly balanced. 

Yesterday David started a nice discussion of heroes we like, and why we like them.  Today I’d like to hear about villains who’ve made an impact on you.  Ready?  Go!


18 comments to The Flawed Villain

  • Morning Misty. I picked up a copy of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon years ago, when it first hit the library shelves, and long before Hannibal Lector was a household name. At the time I was reading strictly thrillers, and the book set me off thrillers for years. Hannibal was so charming and erudite and polite — until he ripped the tongue out of a nurse and blinded her just becasue she got too close. It was utterly terrifying for a character to have all the surface polish and sheen of education and breeding and opportunity and still be a monster. I’ve been trying to add some of that unexpected evil to my antags ever since but I’ve never quite managed to create a character that horrible. Yet. Still working on it. 🙂

  • I both love and hate making villains. Some of them end up working out quite well — the villain of my high fantasy book is fun to write because he wants peace, and he has good ideas of how rulers should understand their people. He’s also intelligent and charismatic. But he’s narcissistic, deceitful, and manipulative. His peace is achieved only after treason and bloodshed, and he’s turned a lot of good men down a bad path in the name of the common good, when his goals are ultimately as self-serving as they are for the people.

    But most of the time, they end up either too weak, too unfocused, or too…fidgety with their mustaches? I’ve gone over and over one of my villains, with varying degrees of success. Rather than a perfect villain, I think I started this one with too much about him that was weak or broken, to the point where he just wasn’t scary.

  • I LOVE writing villains, and I particularly love writing villains who are charming, intelligent, and filled with admirable qualities. Just as a good protagonist (in my view) must be drawn in shades of gray, so should a good villain. My favorites? Well, one of the things I love about Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) is that it has two villains, really. One is Colonel Graf, who presents himself as a friend to Ender, but is anything but. The other is the collective of the Buggers, who seem to be evil incarnate, but again, turn out to be something else entirely. Shades of gray.

    But I think my favorite villain of all time is Brandan of Ygrath, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s masterpiece, TIGANA. Brandan is the perfect villain, because he is easy to like, perfectly rational, and absolutely justified in what he does, at least from his perspective. He is also ruthless, at times brutal, and, in the end, fatally flawed.

  • One of my favorite flawed villians is Brandin in Tigana. He is bad and evil but he has a reason for some of his cruelty. Then through the eyes of his unlikely wife, you get to see the softer side of him beyond his dark past. Overall, a well done villian.

    ALos, let’s not forget Cadel in David’s Forelands series. WHo can help but love an assassin looking for a way out of the Life?

  • Megan B.

    I never did like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings; he is just pure evil and all powerful. Golem is much better as an antagonist, because he’s in constant conflict with himself. He wants to be good, but he’s been too badly corrupted by the ring.

    And if I may depart from talking about books for a moment, I really loved Ben on Lost. He was a wonderfully flawed, sympathetic antagonist. Locke and Sawyer were also great because of the way they wavered back and forth, although I’d call them both ‘good guys’ overall. I always look to that show as a model of character development.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Okay, my 2cents: I think that Regal in the Farseer Trilogy was an excellently done villain in that he so very sneakily went from a vain nuisance to O.M.G., he’s not actually *that* selfish, is he? He was very believable and he very well demonstrated how very wrong things can go if the wrong person is placed in a position of opportunity. That being said, I hated him *so* much, that some of that negative feeling bled over onto the books as a whole, and I don’t know that I myself could write a villain who is so completely selfish. Extreme selfishness is just something that *really* gets my goat, and, … I should just stop. I think others will have to rate his great-villain-ness relative to this post. I guess the question is, how much *should* a reader truly hate the villain? A sympathetic villain can be more interesting, but the payoff of the villain’s defeat is much greater the more they are hated.

  • ajp88

    Right on Megan B., Lost and all of its tragically flawed characters made for fantastic storytelling. Mr. Eko is one of my favorite “villains.” His backstory and eventual progression, sadly cutshort by the actor asking to leave the show, told a powerful story of faith and family.

    Roose and Ramsay Bolton are the most chilling villains from ASOIAF so far. They’re characterized so well and they have such cold ruthlessness and calculated cunning (more so from Roose) that I almost dread rereading Reek’s chapters.

  • A. R. Gideon

    A villain that has stuck with me is Emperor Jagang from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. He did horrible things through out the entire book, enslavement, murder, rape, and he did it all with a false sense of justification. In his mind everything he did was alright because he was doing the creator’s work. In all actuality the original idea behind their philosophy was sound, that people should help each other. But they took it to the extreme and ended up controlling everyone’s lives. He was ridiculously arrogant, a lush, a rapist, a sadist, and a manipulator. And honestly I’ve never hated a villain more lol.

    Now to show my youth. My absolute favorite villain ever is Slade from the Toonami show Teen Titans. Slade has been the inspiration for a few of my characters, and not all villains. The main thing I loved about him was how calm and collected he always was. He was an amazing tactician, always planning several steps ahead. He had an amazing understanding of how the mind works, and he was a master manipulator. He always played the titans against each other, always playing on their doubts and fears, and he was deliciously sadistic delighting in tormenting them at every step. He was arrogant though, he had a sense of superiority to everyone and he overestimated his own understanding of people. His downfall came from the fact that he always underestimated the titans strength when they banded together, which is something that dictators and slave masters the world over have failed to learn as well. All in all he was an amazingly written character, and had a big impact on how I write villains.

  • sagablessed

    OK, I’ll give three examples.
    1) The father in ‘The Shining’. A single, unwitting mistake and he is screwed.
    2) The Vorg queen from ‘Calderon’s fury’ series by Jim Butcher. She is only following her natural instict to procreate.
    3) My own villian in ‘Sleepthorn’. Her flaw? A death that drove her crazy. I hope to make the reader feel sorry for her butt, as well as hate her guts. (No more spoilers. I gotta keep somethings secret, don’t I? :P)

  • Ken

    Favorite Villians. Awesome topic. Randall Flagg comes to mind, especially his showing in The Stand (that’s Stephen King, by the way just in case it’s needed).

    “Gentleman” John Marcone from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files simply because it’s all business to him. He’ll help you or kill you depending on whether or not it helps him out.

    The Joker. Like he says, all it takes is one bad day…

    Gollum. I could go on for days about him.

    Algaliarept the Demon from Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan books.

  • Ken, you reminded me of another villain I’m crazy about – Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At one point he becomes incapacitated, so he has to rely on the assistance of Buffy and her crew to keep from being murdered by other bad guys he’s angered in the past. During that period, Buffy convinces him to explain how he managed to kill two Slayers, and he tells her, “But you can kill a hundred, a thousand, a thousand thousand and the armies of Hell besides, and all we need… is for one of us, just one, sooner or later, to have the thing we’re all hoping for. One good day.”


    Faith, I read The Silence of the Lambs before I read Red Dragon, but I, like you, was terrified by Lecter’s evil. I do like the character, even though he seems to be pure, unbeatable evil, because his flaws are subtly hidden by his horrible acts. He’s very arrogant, and when things don’t go exactly his way, he’s as petulant as a child. He just shows it by biting out peoples’ tongues instead of slamming his bedroom door. 😀

  • Some of my favorite villians come from history rather than fiction. There are just so many examples in history of people doing things because they believe it is right (The Inquisition, Roman oppression of conquered lands, slavery, the Trail of Tears?) or because someone they believe in told them it was right (how many wars/war crinimals should I cite?). Very few of them – with the exception, possibly of PapaDoc or Mengela – were just unsupportably evil. And even PapaDoc had greed and lust for power as viable justifications.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever really written a “villian.” I like to put my characters on different sides of an argument – ethical, political, religious or whatever – and I try to be honest with both of them. It makes it hard sometimes, especially when I find I like or understand the Bad Guy that eventually has to lose. And not just because he loses the war… sometimes he has to lose his faith, which is worse.

  • Razziecat

    Hmmm….I’d say Gollum, of course, because of his conflicted soul. Another that sticks with me is Sila Diaglou, the self-appointed priestess in Carol Berg’s Lighthouse Duology. She is so convinced of the rightness of her cause–that human arrogance has mortally offended the spirits of the land, and thus human civilization must be scoured away so that humans will learn true humility–that she’ll do anything to achieve her aims. She sees nothing of the beauty and hope in the world, only the ugliness. She doesn’t stop at violence and war. Yet her own arrogance is what defeats her: She doesn’t believe she can lose.

  • I agree that Spike from Buffy made an excellent villain. Another villain I really like is Johnny Marcone from the Dresden Files. He’s the most terrifying kind of villain, the perpetual lesser evil. You want to like him because he’s charming, intelligent, and only kills people when he has to. Which is the scary part, because there is someone else worse, good people convince themselves that what Marcone offers is acceptable. It’s like staying with in an abusive relationship because you know if you leave your creepy stalker will start breaking into your house again.

  • […] Ideas: The Flawed Villain, by Misty Massey – “The problem with a villain is that in order for him to really be […]

  • Hmm. I think there’s a distinction between “Pure Evil” villains and “Unbeatable” villains that need to be made. Truly unbeatable villains are definitely boring – in the same way that a hero who can never fail is boring.

    But for me, pure evil villains are great story fodder. I love Sauron as a villain. (I also love Gollum, of course. ;)). The reason I think he makes a compelling villain, for me, is that he represents an implaccable force, a true and pure test and challenge for the hero. In a way, a villain like that, I think, qualifies as something else… not a villain really. But, you know the old adage that there are really only 3 different conflicts for a story: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Self?

    Well… a well-done “Pure Evil” villain isn’t “Man vs. Man”. It’s “Man vs. Nature”, first and, if truly well-done, “Man vs. Self”. And the latter plot conflict is, IMO, the most compelling plot conflict of all. And to me that’s what’s so powerful about “LotR” – and part of what makes Gollum so compelling as well. Gollum represents what happens to an otherwise good person when he allows himself to succumb in the “Man vs. Nature” and “Man vs. Self” conflict, and gives us a glimpse of what will become of Frodo if he fails in his quest. It resonates when we see Frodo begin to exhibit symptoms of succumbing. But none of it works without the overarching presence of this powerful (and evil) force of nature that is Sauron.

    All that said… in my current WIP I’m not writing a “Pure Evil” villain, but a somewhat more mundane semi-sympathetic villain. I’ve given him a backstory that is in some ways a mirror reflection of the heroine’s. I hope that makes him interesting as a character and compelling in its way, and – at least according to my outline, though I haven’t written the actual scenes yet – I plan to explore his background and what drives him to make the decisions he makes in the course of the story.

  • Megan B.

    I’m a tad embarrassed for spelling Gollum wrong in my comment above. Shows how long it’s been since I actually picked up the books.

    Stephen’s comments about Sauron as a natural force got me thinking about something. I think a ‘pure evil’ villain can work, if they are in the background like that (almost like a natural force), and there is a more human/flawed antagonist who is more immediate. Think of The Emperor and Darth Vader, for example.

  • @Megan B. I think that’s exactly the point I was trying to make. In the case of Sauron the more “flawed human” face of evil were embodied in Saruman (who didn’t work as well as a villain because he was too much like Sauron) and Gollum (who worked great).