Why can’t characters just be evil?

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In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort made to humanise evil. Through the rise of anti-hero stories, we seem to put violence on a pedestal, to worship the wicked and praise perversion… Or do we?

nearly got everything peaky blindersYes, there has been more and more of an interest in anti-heroes of late- but when we explore these topics, like in the spate of gangster stories we put on our screens, we still are fully aware that these characters are doing bad things. Indeed, it’s almost written into the formula- if the protagonist seems to be reluctant to engage in misdemeanours, the writers shake up their lives, throw them for a loop and *bam* they’re committing atrocities again. We know full well they’re the bad guy in the story- anti-heroes are just villains in the role of the hero after all- and we’re on board with that.

So does this mean we think evil doesn’t exist? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s like I said, we’re conscious of this character’s role in the story. Indeed, I’ve often been disappointed by an anti-heroes that fail to do their job properly. Take the example of Maleficent. Now, I’ve got nothing against the film and I get it was made for kids, yet many will agree that it fell short of the mark- chiefly for failing to make the villainess truly malevolent. It’s very notable that the biggest change from Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty is that she doesn’t want to kill the girl here, only send her into a cursed sleep. And it was this reluctance by the writers for her to go fully dark that meant this unforgettable villain lost her menace and consequently michael corleone godfatherthat the message revolving round the impact of human cruelty was never properly realised. For me, it would have succeeded if it had got the Michael Corleone balancing act from the Godfather right- sure, make the protagonist  understandable, but don’t lose sight of the fact they’re the bad guy!

aslanThe fact we want them to fully realise that core of evil isn’t to provoke chaos in the real world– no, it’s to identify something far deeper than that. You see, there aren’t many “perfect” characters in the history of literature– well apart from lion Jesus 😉 . Even in the biblical tradition, particularly in the Old Testament, people make errors all the time. Why? Because if the cast of the Bible was littered with only perfect people, there would be nothing to aspire to and no mistakes to learn from. We are drawn to complexity. No character can be wholly good, just as no character can be entirely evil.

And this is why we love anti-heroes so much. It’s not because we reject the idea that evil exists. It’s because we get that we have a lot to learn. And sometimes you can learn things from the dark side- the clinical psychologist Dr Peterson often points out that we have to incorporate a little bit of our inner monster in order to succeed: 1) because it’s not heroic to be weak and 2) because we have to be in control of our inner luke skywalkermonster in order to overcome it. That’s why the hero is so often the person that mirrors the villain- they’re the one with the power to defeat the darkness, BUT like Luke Skywalker, they show restraint when it comes to the fight. A hero isn’t someone who’s never tempted- it’s someone who overcomes that temptation. Still- and here’s the kicker- how are we supposed to overcome that inner demon if we don’t understand it? That’s where anti-hero stories come in.

maleficentTo go back to Maleficent, it’s all about trying to puzzle out the causes of evil. Where there was scope in the original was that we didn’t know why the character was evil. While terrifying, Sleeping Beauty Maleficent was never fully developed in terms of what the hell were her motives anyway. Thus here’s the part of the new movie that worked- underneath all her awesome aesthetic, there had to be that pinprick of goodness or she’d continue to come across as a cartoon villain. And, of course, that’s fine- but I think most of us crave a little more complexity.

So I think the real reason a character can’t just be evil is that our hearts rebel against the notion. We barely believe in the Aslans of literature as it is (being lion-Jesus is a little unattainable 😉 ). In the same way a character can’t just be good, we need villains to have a little humanity to work. We’re all a little bit of both after all.

Well, my thoughts got a little rambly there, but what do you think? Where should the line between good and evil be in books? Let me know in the comments!

What I Look For in a Villain!

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Hello again! I’m back with one of my favourite topics… BAD GUYS! Specifically what I look for in a villain. Now, if you’re expecting a list like: tall, dark, handsome, brooding… prepare to be disappointed. What I look for in a villain is slightly more complex than the surface level stuff. I’m not going to be addressing things like the paraphernalia, names, or aesthetics- that’s not what draws me in or makes my heartbeat quicken. No, I’m after something  a little more elusive, like…

peaky blindersA great plan– I love me a clever baddie. So whatever they’re planning to do can’t be easily undone by a teenager (usually one who can’t even figure out which love interest is more appealing to them, let alone save the world) doing something really simple (like pressing a big red button that says STOP EVIL GENIUS). Plus, whatever this dastardly plot is, it has to make sense. So they definitely have to have…

dr evil laughing.gifAppropriate motivation– this underpins whatever they’re trying to achieve and without a “good” goal, they’re never going to hit the target. None of that “so why do you want to destroy the world?” “Because!” When I was younger I read a lot of the Alex Rider books and could never quite understand why every. single. villain wanted to *blow everything up* just for shits and giggles. Otherwise they’re going to be textbook, moustache twirling villains. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some explosive individuals out there, yet a) they’re not always the most compelling villains and b) it has to make sense for this particular character (eg it won’t necessarily make sense for a billionaire, largely motivated by money and control, to set the world ablaze). This doesn’t mean that their backstory has to be a justification, but that it has to line up with what they want to achieve. Which leads me onto…

pondering pinky and the brainPsychology that makes sense– now I will say that I am in no way an expert when it comes to psychology- it’s just an interest I have. And I do think about the baddie’s motivating factors in relation to books like Baumeister’s Evil and like looking into interesting. This doesn’t mean that the bad guy’s dreams have to be overtly destructive- we’ve all heard the idea that the villain should be the hero of their own story-yet that doesn’t mean they have to be honest with themselves. I’m often drawn to theories that suggest evil people can have sinister goals buried deep in their psyche (there is an argument by Dr Peterson, for instance, that Hitler may have claimed to want to build a thousand year Reich, and yet every action he took led to catastrophic destruction- so what’s to say that when he was sitting in his bunker with all of Europe burning above him he hadn’t got *exactly* what he wanted deep down?). Regardless, if what’s going on inside the bad guy’s head doesn’t add up or seems totally illogical, then it’s very noticeable. Speaking of human monsters…

darth vader humanA human being… gone wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not adverse to *generic monstrous evil* all the time- however I’m never particularly drawn to it either. Manmade evil feels more authentic than the detached *evil force*. Seeing the villain as a *person* can make them feel more sinister, since we can see ourselves reflected back in their seductively relatable ways. And there’s nothing more terrifying than that.

i see you sauronOf course, they also must be SCARY! Without being a true threat, they can hardly be the driving force of the novel. And, unless it’s parody, people in the book have to be scared of what they’ll do. So that means they actually have to DO SOMETHING. Preferably something truly malicious…

alan rickman cut your heart out with a spoonBecause, yeah, I’m looking for someone NASTY. I’m really not someone who cares about what the baddie looks like- whether they’re ugly or stunning doesn’t matter to me- it’s what’s inside that counts. And what’s inside has to be *horrible*. Villains need plenty of flaws. Some of the best ones for a bad guy are resentment, arrogance and jealousy. Even if they’re appealing externally, they need to have some traits that are off-putting. That’s why liars work for me too- the best manipulators learn to hide their faults. This certainly helps to make them less than straightforward.

sad thanosIn fact, it’s brilliant if they have some *major doubts*. Or a soft side. Even if they’re perfectly malevolent, like Thanos, pitting children against each other to create the perfect murderers, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a good side and, you know, care.


I'll help you kiara and zira lion king 2This naturally lends itself to the possibility for REDEMPTION. Now, I’ll admit I can be a sucker for a well-told redemption arc. For me, the best stories have a hopeful side, with the chance for turning back always being on the table- that’s why I love Star Wars. At its core, the original story was always that good guys can go over to the dark side OR come back to the light. This doesn’t necessarily = forgiveness, mind. My major caveat in a story like this, especially when you have a genocidal maniac for a villain, like, say, Darth Vader, is that they don’t get to go off happily into the sunset at the end of it. Harsh as it is, they pretty much have to sign their death warrant when this type of story comes to an end.

choicesFor that sort of story to work, the evil character has to have some agency. One thing that bugs me about a lot of stories lately is the desire to take away the villain’s free will. For instance, spoilers abound particularly in Falling Kingdoms, Gaius taking a magic potion to be evil or in Throne of Glass where the king was possessed all along (though in Maas’ defence she makes possession work well for Dorian’s character). As horrible as it is, evil does exist and it’s nearly always a matter of free will. Some henchmen can have limited choices, but the driving force of the story has to have the power to make up their own mind.

harley quinnWhat can also work particularly well is if they’re chaotic and unpredictable. While not totally necessary, I do think it can be the greatest cause for a plot twist if the villain did something no one expected. Again, this comes back to them being vaguely competent as a villain and having an intimidating presence, but they should be able to outwit the hero at some point.

loki and thorAnother favourite is for them to have a personal relationship with the hero. To go back to the Marvel universe again (because they do this so well) what makes for an interesting adversary is if they are closely connected to the hero. So, Loki for Thor, Killgrave for Black Panther, Ultron for Iron Man etc. These villains work so well because they are practically handpicked for the good guy to overcome. Which brings me to…

harry vs voldemortHaving parallels with the heroI seem to go on about this every week now, cos it works so well, but having a similar backstory can work brilliantly. That’s why it’s so significant that Harry, Voldy and Snape’s all have tragic pasts- because they have to make different decisions. And that is the only thing that separates them from each other. It’s a powerful tool and works exceptionally well when it comes to forming a fantastic antagonist.

So that’s all for now! What do you think? Do you find any of these traits appealing? And what do you personally look for in a villain? Let me know in the comments!

“What would the world be like without Captain James Hook?” Villains I Can’t Live Without

I wasn’t actually planning on making this post… Somehow though, I couldn’t let my thoughts rest after talking about why villains are the greatest and I started mulling over which crooks are the very best at being bad guys…

AKA what villains could I not live without? Well, I’m here to tell you which baddies are some of my faves:


Captain Hook– there’s a very obvious reason why I named Hook in the title of this post- he’s probably one of the best villains of all time! (not just because I love the movie Hook) As a man who grew into a tyrant, he is the perfect foil for someone who doesn’t want to grow up at all. There is no better symbol of what a person can become if they let their worst impulses get the better of them. Indeed, what would the world be like without Captain James Hook?!

richard iii

Richard III– I’m mostly trying to avoid putting anti-heroes on this list, because then I really could go on forever. Still, out of all Shakespeare’s villains, this is the one I find most compelling. I especially wanted to mention him, because I was reading the most incredibly thoughtful post a couple of days ago from Cameron @Here Be Wyverns (seriously recommend checking it out), where he described how you can’t make someone less villainous with a backstory and, well, I thought that’s it exactly. Characters like Richard III are a great example of this- they’re the sort where you see where they’re coming from and yet it’s impossible to excuse their actions. Plus I had to include dear old Richard; he’d have got the hump if I didn’t 😉


Joffrey Baratheon– GRRM has created some of my all-time favourite villains- yet I don’t think there’s any that I loathed more than Joffrey! (and that’s saying, especially since Ramsay Bolton was in the running!) One of the reasons he’s my pick is not only because he’s one of the first big bads in the story, he also somehow managed to get a lot of the action rolling by being such a vicious idiot. Also, as Drew pointed out in my why I love villains list, he’s a very notable villain- this one’s for you Drew 😉 I don’t think I can formulate the words “I love Joffrey as a villain” though- he’s not even remotely lovable.


Cathy Ames– aside from how much I love her introduction, she’s one of the most spiteful, vicious characters in literature. I love to loathe her.





Lydia Gwilt– it’s fairly simple why Armadale is one of my favourite classics: it has one of my favourite villains. I adore this femme fatale- she’s not one to be underestimated.



mrs danvers

Mrs Danvers– MRS DANVERS IS EVIL. That is all. (Seriously, I’ve hated this woman since I was 10)



thewitchesThe Grand High Witch– I always get the heebie jeebies whenever I think about the Witches- those long nails, bald heads and basically the fact that she’s pure evil made me terrified of her- arghh- like I said I don’t like to think of her!


doomspellDragwena– it doesn’t matter how long it’s been since I read this trilogy, I will always be terrified of the witch characters in Doomspell. With extra sets of teeth and a snake wrapped around her neck, there’s something endlessly ominous about her.



MissPeregrineCover (1).jpgHollowgast– that name is pretty genius, embodying a period of time and sense of dread, and subsequently demonstrating some of the inventiveness that made this series so powerful for me. I don’t always find myself fearing generic monsters in books, however, there’s something so unsettling about the creatures in Peculiar Children.

i see you sauron

Sauron– a lot of people would perhaps argue that Sauron is more of a force of evil and so not the best villain. However, not only is he creepilicious as a dark force overshadowing Middle Earth, having read the Silmarillion now, I can see how fully fleshed out he is, well, minus the actual body 😉

dolores umbridgeDolores Umbridge– more sinister than Voldemort, more unsettling than the Dementors, Umbridge definitely takes the biscuit for being my most hated Rowling villain. There are no words to describe how much I loathe this woman.


smaug 4Smaug!!! I was desperately trying not to include two Tolkien villains- but I can’t help it! I pretty much love all of Tolkien’s baddies, nonetheless, Smaug takes all the gold medals for being my favourite fictional dragon.


And finally some “you know who” villains ie ones that would be spoilery to name:



shades children

So what do you think with my list? Agree or disagree with any of them? And who are some of your favourite villains? Let me know in the comments!

Why Villains are the GREATEST!

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Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my favourite subjects: VILLAINS. Too often, I find myself drawn to the darker side of the story. Sure, it’s great to be noble and I love a great hero I can get invested in… yet sometimes I think the villains are a tad more fun. Sometimes I find the “Darklings” more interesting than the light bringers. Sometimes I find myself distracted by all their evilly-goodness. And I know I’m not the only one to think so, cos Trang @Bookidote wrote an awesome post a while back (which I really recommend) about why roguish characters rock! Which makes me wonder… why do we all find villains so intriguing? Let’s discuss!

i see you sauronThey provide a thrill– their terrifying ways and insane antics have a way of getting my pulse up. The more a villain gives me chills, the more likely I am to get heated over a book. Nothing makes a book more exciting than a properly scary villain. And nothing does that better than Lord of the Rings- a stroll through middle earth could involving crossing anything from wraiths, to Shelob, to hoards of orcs, to Gollum… to Sauron *shudders*.

paradise lostThey are alluring– they have to be in order to tempt the protagonist. Satan from Paradise Lost is the quintessential example of such a compelling evil character and it is Milton’s genius that he drew him thus. After all, if he were not seductive, how else are we to believe that mankind could be taken in by the literal devil? Rather than looking at Milton and screaming *SATAN WORSHIPPER* (as some are wont to do) maybe we ought to look to ourselves and wonder why it’s possible to see Satan as the hero of the story. So yeah, villains oddly attractive to the reader too.

magnetoThey can be sympathetic and that can make the story a beautiful, painful journey. I always think of Magneto as one of my favourite villains, because I feel so sorry for him, but at the same time I know he’s a complete shit- and yet I kinda want the writers to stop putting him through hell and just leave him be arghhh… So yeah, it’s another way a story can get under my skin and make me so invested in it.

carry onThey push the plot on with their antics. Because let’s face it, without something to fight against, there wouldn’t be any plot. I could literally talk about any villain here, because no story would exist without an evil force, but right now the Humdrum from Carry On has popped into my mind, because he’s certainly there to be a foil to the Chosen One (no spoilers 😉 ). Which leads us onto…


voldemortThey force the hero to be heroic. Usually for some personal reason like, “you killed my parents!” aka Harry Potter vs Voldemort. In turn, a personal connection can make us feel sorry for the lead. Speaking of Voldy and Harry…


iago othelloThey provide insight into the hero– because so often “neither can live while the other survives”. More than that, however, the best villains illuminate the flaws of the protagonist, such as how Othello mirrors Iago’s weaknesses. And thus…


hook.gifThey can project a possible future for what the hero might become– this is never more true than in Peter Pan, where Captain Hook represents a tyrannical patriarchal figure… the very future Pan fears becoming. All of this shows how…


six of crowsThey have to speak dark truths about the human soul. Indeed, sometimes it’s easier to identify with a villain, fallen into depravity and chaos, than the perfect hero. There is something *more* insightful about a baddie somehow. On one level we identify with their flaws; on a darker more primordial level, perhaps they show us what we fear we could become. Incidentally this is probably why I like anti-heroes most of all and why I fell for the Six of Crows duology.

macbeth2They create the moral questions. And really, that’s one of the ways we learn from a book. We can get lost in the psychology of a well written villain and have to find our own humanity to get back to ourselves. Shakespearean anti-heroes, like Macbeth, teach us our fallibility and our limits. It’s about knowing ourselves and identifying that little villainous voice egging us on. Learning about ourselves doesn’t stop at knowing our strengths and nothing tells us more about our weaknesses than a baddie. What they do, the lines they cross, can make us question everything- and that’s a good thing.

darth vaderThey have the chance at redemption– yes I’m one of those people whose favourite Star Wars character is Darth Vader, because he redeems himself- well, sort of… it doesn’t make up for the genocide of an entire planet… (and no, Anakin Skywalker from the prequels is not really Vader in my mind- those stupid movies don’t deserve a look in to the Star Wars universe) *Ahem* got a bit carried away there… ANYWAY redemption stories happen to be one of my absolute favourite story arcs- partly because they teach us they’re not all bad news!

So after all that, I guess it’s no wonder that a lot of us want to be “chillin’ like a villain 😉

supervillain orangutan

But am I alone in this fascination with the “dark side”? What do you think of villains? Love ’em or loathe ’em? Let me know in the comments!