All-Time Greatest Villains (IMO)

By Betty Thomason Owens

Villain: antagonist; a dramatic or fictional character who is typically at odds with the hero.

I posted a question on Facebook, asking for favorite villains, including those you “love to hate” which includes comic villains, of course. I got some pretty good answers. Here’s a rough list:

Books: Narnia – The White Witch, Les Miserables – Javert, Dune – House Harkonnen, LOTR – Saruman, Peter Pan – Captain Hook.

Movies: Superman – General Zod, X-Men – Magneto, Batman – The Joker, Terminator – Skynet, 101 Dalmations – Cruella De Vil

TV & Cartoon: GI Joe – Cobra Commander, Transformers – Megatron, Looney Tunes – Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, Seinfeld – Newman, Lost in Space – Dr. Smith.

My personal favorites: Javert from Les Mis, though Colin O’Donoghue’s Captain Hook in Once Upon a Time was outstanding, but that would bump it to the TV category. Barrie’s original was not so handsome or personable. My favorite movie villain is Cruella De Vil. The TV villain? Wile E. Coyote.

My reason for assembling this list was to look at certain characteristics that make a good villain. As a writer, I like to form my characters from scratch. Sometimes, they are a combination of several different characters or people with whom I’m acquainted. I don’t want them to be “too” identifiable––know what I mean?

My present WIP includes a villainous character who is bigoted against class, race, and sex. A small-town lawyer in the deep South, head deacon in his church, he’s judgmental of anyone he suspects of having “tainted” blood.  At one point, he tells my MC she can never teach in the white schools because her skin is too dark (she’s half Hawaiian). I loved building his character and his lines are just pure fun to write (though some were uncomfortable).

What makes a good villain? Looks probably figure high on the list. Often, they’re unattractive. Witches tend to have warts and long noses, missing teeth and beady eyes, but look at the movie version of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The White Witch is not horrible. Her looks are harsh and severe, but not lumpy and gross. And there’s 101 Dalmations’ Cruella De Vil. She’s not cruelly ugly on the outside. But inside? Pure slime. She’s a spoiled, rich dame who covets the beautiful black and white hides of the dalmations. She’s used to getting her way and won’t let anything stop her. Well, except the law. I was happy to see her humiliated and…well, gone.

What about the lovable villains like Yosemite Sam and Wile E.? What makes them lovable? Wile E. never catches the roadrunner. He always gets crushed by the Acme anvil or blown up by the Acme rocket. Their evil deeds never win. Looks-wise, these characters are more shrewd than ugly. I think they’re endearing characters because of their comic nature. We laugh when the shotgun blows up in their face. But only because we know they’ll be back in one piece to make us laugh again. And again…

Although most comic villains live to be vile again and again, in real life and maybe in our favorite novels, when they die, they’re gone forever. Javert in Les Mis, has a final scene that almost makes us like him, but then he commits suicide. He’s not coming back from that. Saruman is destroyed in LOTR and we hope he won’t return. Ever.

My antagonist does not repent. He tries, but he’s just too filled with hate and deception. Maybe one day, maybe on his deathbed, but not now. Villains are often so eaten up with themselves, they fail to see the need for repentance. So they continue their bad deeds. In literature, we deal with them in some way. They are killed or incarcerated, or lope off with their tail between their legs like Wile E. Sometimes, stories end with their existence in doubt. Will they “be back” like the Terminator? Can our protagonist breathe again, free of the villain’s tyranny? One of the things I love most about writing is this: I get to decide.

To be entered in our monthly contest, please leave your comment on this post.  Who are your favorite fictional villains? Maybe you can come up with a few more obscure ones than those I named above.