Thursday Dances: Best Villain

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,–meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…

What makes someone a good villain?

Where are YOU on Ye Olde Social Scale of Wickednesse & Nefariosity?
(also called "There Exists a Possibility that I Have Overthought This")

It seems a contradiction in terms, so perhaps I’ll discuss an effective villain.  I feel that a villain should be not pure, shapeless evil (e.g., Morgoth, Sauron, Morningstar, Ungoliant, bent eldila, Galactus, Lord Ombra, etc.), but human; further, I think such humans should be refined in temperament and in dress, being suave and debonair to hide their seedy underbellies of cruelty and malice.  The stringy underfed denizens of the underworld are, perhaps, ne’er-do-wells or hooligans but they are not villains, proper.  That would be the equivalent of calling a fellow a “gentleman” when he in no wise merits the title.*  The villain acts as he does not because he has made his allegiance to darkness, but because his god is himself.  He wishes to behave according to his own ends, which are wise in his own sight.  He can rationalize or justify what he does, but that does not make his actions kind.

The best villains are like a pitcher plant: they lure the unwary with the sweetness of false promises, trap him in a sticky web of ill consequences and deceit, bring him further down the slippery slope of malevolence, and finally devour him.  The villain in the middle, the “Big Bad,” uses whatever means achieve his ends: Turkish Delight, blackmail, trickery, gold, good old-fashioned lies, etc.  Without his plotting and machinations, the ring of malefactors around him do very little malefacting.

That’s why the image of Moriarty, the unnamed adversary in Murder Must Advertise, Macavity, Voldemort, the White Witch, the Man in the Brown Suit – all of these are, in my opinion, the best villains.  There’s a reason why the protagonists go to suicidal lengths to take down whoever sits in the center of the web:  “Mangalores won’t fight without their leader!”

(Rather a failure on the part of evil, though, loving power so much that one’s underlings cannot carry on in the event of one’s demise.  Seems Rule #107 on the Evil Overlord List could use another clause.)

But not all villains are Evil Overlords; it’s not like everyone has the wherewithal or the capital to have their own little cadre of amoral minions.  So who might be the worst of the villainous singletons?  I’m thinking of a murderous fellow in a litel bok I love called Whose Body?   Said book is another by Sayers, and one of my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey books.  This is no crime borne out of passion, nothing clumsy or loutish.  This is the intricately planned, coolly executed, and cunningly hidden destruction of another person to meet one’s malicious ends.  I will not divulge whodunit, but I will say that within those pages exists a mind who does all these things with artful flourish and who, when in company, smiles and smiles.

*You may say I have committed a grave error.  Indeed, I agree with you that etymology does not back me up.  At all.  “Villain” comes from the Late Latin villanus, “farmhand,” by way of Old French, and simply meant “one tied to a villa.”  Such people were not of knightly status, and thus the word came to mean “not chivalrous.”  And as many not-chivalrous acts tended toward the rakish or wicked, it became a term of abuse, eventually taking on its present meaning.  Behold how I have raised the villain’s stature!  They are the nouveau-riche of evil, or something.

20 thoughts on “Thursday Dances: Best Villain

  1. Nouveau-rich of evil? Haha. I like your list of scurvy knaves.

    How did I miss the bit where Bruce Willis is in 5th Element? Extra reasons I need to see this movie. The original reasons being, as a sci-fi buff, I really should see it once.

    • You haven’t seen 5th Element?!

      Okay, not to be that person who is like “NOOOO YOU MUUUST” all the time, but…seriously. You must.

      Thalia and I tend to watch 5th Element while also rocking at some other pursuit. Once we watched it while chopping up a brick of chocolate to make Marriageable-Point-Worthy Cookies. Last week we watched it while knitting/painting. Good times.

    • How about this: I’ve seen The Fifth Element. I’ve not seen Die Hard.

      Fifth Element is fun and goofy, in a slightly disturbing effeminate/artsy/French sort of way, and showcases some of the ugliest costumes designs known to man (perhaps intentionally?). But Bruce Willis is in it, as is Ian Holm and Gary Oldman, and they work hard to make up for the Frenchness of it all. ‘-)

      I, too, appreciate the term “nouveau-riche of evil”! Well-coined, my friend, well-coined!

      • I haven’t seen Die Hard either, even though it is ostensibly my uncle’s “favorite Christmas movie.” XD

        Also, the costumes are definitely bizarre. I wouldn’t have characterized them as French, but my concept of Frenchness in movies was derived from Amelie, Le Choriste, Faubourg Saint-Denis, and that sort of thing. But I suppose they’re reflective of certain aspects of outlandish Parisian fashions…Thalia and I thought of it as an 80’s sort of film, even though it came out in ’97. That may say more about us than it.

        Nouveau-riche evildoers steal their own furniture, muahahah!

      • I say French because it’s directed by somewhat famous Frenchman Luc Besson, and because, yeah, the fashions are so bizarre they’d have to come from France (or perhaps Milan).

      • Question: if I were to insert “really bad eggs” somewhere in the list, whereabouts should it go? I’m thinking below Hooligan and above Rapscallion but amn’t sure.

  2. “The villain acts as he does not because he has made his allegiance to darkness, but because his god is himself.” Ex-act-ly! Well spake!

    I really need to read more Sayers. I found a couple on our “shelf of disappearing items,” at work, and I read one. I liked it, but haven’t made time for more, yet.

    Anyhow, I love your thoughts on villainy, and yes, you have certainly upgraded villainy’s social status, but you are not alone in doing so. :)

    Possible typos: “litel” little? Also, I may be mistaken, but “borne out of passion” doesn’t make much sense to me. Is it correct, or a typo?

    This will probably wind up in the spam folder. I seem able to post on David’s blog, and Urania’s posts, but everywhere else (not just on your blog) I am counted as spam! I don’t even look like spam, do I? Anyway, I am trying to contact WordPress and get it sorted out. Until then, Melpomene’s magical admin powers are not enough to un-spammify me. It seems you have to do that individually. >_< Oh the shame of being spam!

    • Hooray for Sayers! Which one did you read?

      Hahaha, “litel bok” is an allusion to Chaucer addressing his book in Book 5 of Troilus and Criseyde (even if I first saw it on The Inky Fool’s blog): “Go, litel book, go, litel myn tragedye…” The Middle English may look like a typographical error, but it is intentional.

      By “borne out of passion,” I mean that the crime is not the fruit or offspring of a momentary rage or some paroxysm of unholy zeal; the killer does not do his work “seeing red,” but in a collected (thus creepy!!) way. Sorry if I’ve been unclear.

      Alack for the overzealous spamtrackers! I shall give Akismet a talking to. Here you are now, though!

      • One of the Montague Egg stories.

        Ah… I had a feeling, as it looked like a case of good old English spelling creativity, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to point it out. And I’m glad I did, because now I know a new (to me) Chaucerian phrase!

        I suppose the trouble comes from my reading “borne” with the wrong definition. “offspring of momentary rage” makes much more sense than “carried out of passion.” I begin to lose faith in my brain’s ability to function. O_o

        Thank you!

  3. I think villains who are pure evil just for the sake of evil are boring, honestly.

    Villains should always have some kind of appeal. Not necessarily a “redeeming” feature, but something that could be considered attractive on some level. I don’t always mean physical/sexual attractiveness either; it may be that you can understand his (or her) ambition, or why he wants a certain person dead, or you appreciate his methods, or his sense of humor, etc.

    It seems to me that the most dastardly villain is the one tempting enough to make you go, “Hmm, well, he has a point…WAIT, WHAT??” Even if the audience already KNOWS he/she is a villain and not one to be trusted or sided with. Villainy should have a certain pull that can cause a conflict in the audience, because it brings them more into the story.

    But then, maybe I’m a little bit evil, too.

    • True and also true. Originally I meant to include a note about unsurprising evildoers: the wicked stepmother, the witch, the wolf, etc. We aren’t surprised to see them be evil, typically, and it doesn’t necessarily matter (plot-wise, the way it would matter in a murder mystery) *what* evil things they do; what matters is how the heroes respond to their actions.

      But even the unsurprising villains have a clear motive: clutching their beauty, their money, their power, whatever. And, as you say, there’s *something* sympathetic about a well-written villain. Kate’s post on The Man in the Brown Suit illustrates such a dastardly man…even after you shut the book, it’s hard to dislike him (he’s so nice, after all! But so eeeeevil. Just like you ^_~).

      • The one you linked, “Whose Body?” although “read” is not precisely accurate. I listen to audio-books whilst doing mindless tasks at work. As that story is public domain, there are a couple of Librivox recordings of it, one of which is pretty good, in my opinion. Tomorrow I think I may nip over to the public library and check out another one.

        Bunter, by the way, is also awesome.

  4. Pingback: Book Meme 2012 Week 3: Magnificent Villainy « The Warden's Walk

  5. Pingback: Conclusion « Egotist's Club

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