Monday, 11 October 2010

The Ever-Changing Personality of the Bad Guy

What do you think about when you hear the term ‘bad guy’ in literature? And why are they all ‘Dark Lords’? And, while we’re asking questions, why are they mostly men? Where are all the ‘Dark Ladies’?

Evolutionary Phase 1: The Cardboard Cut-Out Villain

Let’s go back to the beginning, back to the Grand-daddy of fantasy fiction – yep, the Lord of the Rings! I understand I am courting controversy here, and no doubt people will be queuing up to tell me where I’m wrong, but I believe Sauron to be one of the most one-dimensional Bad Guys around.

If I may talk bluntly – his main motivation for coveting the One Ring is to “cover Middle Earth in a second darkness”; he is a glorified minion trying to emulate his master; and comes across as being evil purely for the sake of it. In addition to this, when does he ever actually feature on the pages of the Lord of the Rings – we hear about his actions “off-screen”, as it were; his voice and blazing eye are seen on the briefest of occasions through the filter of the Palantir; but we never get to know anything about the man behind the Dark Lord visage!

And Sauron is not alone… In the Dragonlance Chronicles, we have one of the rare female ‘Bad Guys’, Takhisis, the main goddess of evil and head of the Dark Pantheon. And I swear I just had to look up all of that information – I couldn’t remember a single thing about this character! None of her actions or characteristics stayed with me at all, despite the fact I remember other characters, such as Tanis Half-Elven and Raistlin, with great affection.

Finally, in a slightly more modern series (although only slightly, given the first book was published in 1990, which seems a painfully long time ago now!) we have Shai’tan, clearly a Dark Lord thanks to the redundant apostrophe present in the middle of his name!

Evolutionary Phase 2: The Three-Dimensional Bad Guy

This is the Bad Guy with the personality! I believe that there are two prominent examples of epic fantasy authors who have managed to achieve the seemingly impossible art of writing bad guys that you actually sympathise with and understand. One of these is David Gemmell – he is well-known for the ambiguous characters, drawn in shades of grey, who inhabit his books. The bad guys can sure be nasty – torturing, killing, beheading, maiming – but usually they are capable of acts of incredible kindness as well. A lot of the bad guys will go out to war, but then go home and be caring husbands to wives and devoted fathers to children (who usually happen to be adorable little poppets who love their daddy).

The other author is George R R Martin. We have two excellent examples of three dimensional bad guys in his A Song of Ice and Fire sequence: the Lannister brothers, Tyrion and Jaime. Tyrion is shown to be capable of great callousness, and yet great compassion as well – his treatment of Sansa Stark showed the potential of Tyrion actually being a good guy. In some ways, Tyrion is only a Bad Guy by dint of being a Lannister, and therefore set against the Starks, who are the protagonists of the series. Jaime was shown in the earlier books of the series to be reckless and arrogant, demonstrating malice and amoral tendencies. In later books, he has become greatly conflicted and a more powerful character due to this.

The main feature of all these characters over the Cardboard Cut-Out Villain is an ability to feel and show personality: they are larger than life in the pages of the novels they come from. They stand out as independent characters rather than just being created as someone that the Good Guy has to defeat.

Evolutionary Phase 3: The Hot Bad Guys!

Recently, in the urban fantasy genre particularly, there has been an increase in the number of Bad Guys that end up in bed with the protagonist. I’m thinking in particular of characters such as Jean-Claude from the Anita Blake series – here is a Machiavellian vampire, who is not above sacrificing people for the sake of his own power struggles, who has gone beyond mortal cares. On the face of it he is most definitely a Bad Guy (certainly in the earlier novels; in later novels in the series he was de-fanged to a great extent), and yet we are sympathetic to him because he is both hot and melancholic.

This evolutionary stage can probably be laid squarely at the foot of Anne Rice, and the bad boy vampire Lestat – since then we have lapped up the moody, poster boy Bad Guys that us girls believe we are able to redeem.

Evolutionary Phase ?: The Dark Ladies…

I can’t give this phase a number, since the Ladies have been present throughout all epic fantasy (right from where Grendel’s mother is a bit nasty), but all too rarely.

I’ve already made mention of Takhesis being one of the rare Bad Girls to bestride the pages of our epic fantasy. Can you think of many other examples?

I would probably list in their number Jadis, the White Witch of the Narnia books (although being a ‘White’ witch probably precludes her from also being a Dark Lady!) This is a cruel, bitter tyrant of a lady who wishes to cover Narnia in continual winter. Why? So that it never becomes Christmas – not exactly a great motivation for turning people and creatures to stone, and ruling with an iron fist!

As you can see from this all-too-brief glance at the ever-changing personality of the Bad Guy, it is easy to see why epic fantasy needs these Dark Lords, these petty princes, these manipulative vampires, these Kings and Gods who wish to rule the world. Even the most one-dimensional of villains imbue epic fantasy with a sense of menace and a desire from the reader for Good to defeat Evil – and as such they should be as important and as memorable as the Good Guys.

This article was originally posted to the Voyager blog


  1. My favorite "dark lady" has to be Achren, from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. While Arawn, the main Big Bad, remains shadowy and fairly one-dimensional, Achren actually is given motivation, a background, and is one sexy lady to boot. And her ending is definitely not the standard bad guy ending.

  2. I'm with Elouise--I also like (if that's the right word) Achren best of all the Dark Ladies I've come across. I do hope we'll see more well-rounded Dark Ladies in the next few years, though. They're definitely in short supply.

  3. Takhsis, at least imo, becomes much more three dimensional in later novels, but never really interacts with the protags in truly physical sense as much as Paladine through his Fisban persona

  4. ...(right from where Grendel’s mother is a bit nasty)... *snorts* That's the understatement of the day ;)

    Another interesting Dark Lady is Hekat from Karen Miller's Godspeaker trilogy. In the first book she's actually the protagonist, it's only as the trilogy progresses that she turns into the villain. She's insane and oh so creepy!

  5. Sauron and some of the other seldom-seen bad guys benefit from the fact that the unfamiliar is scarier than the familiar. The same way that the title character of the original Alien movie was scarier because you saw so little of it.

  6. I wonder sometimes if there are far fewer Dark Ladies than Dark Lords because too many people would cry foul. There are a lot of people out there who like to find offense in seemingly insignificant things, so if a woman was portrayed as the baddie, then there'd be a whole host of people claiming that the author must therefore hate all women. Sexualized or frigid, 2-D or 3-D, young or old, there are people who are all too willing to jump down the throats of anyone who presents any minority figure as evil.

    Of course, on the flip side of that, there are also people who insist that the reason there are so many Dark Lords is because of the belief that only men are strong and capable enough to do damage in the first place, and that having a Dark Lord is just as sexist towards women as having a Dark Lady.

    That's it. I'm making a Dark Androgyne just because I can!