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What Makes a Good Villain For Literature?


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Initial post: May 23, 2012 4:03:31 PM PDT
J. Case says:
The Saying "A hero is only as good as their villain."

Posted on May 23, 2012 6:58:04 PM PDT
Literature has no villains, just heroes in conflict, and the real hero is opposed by the world. Take Hamlet. Is Claudius a great villain? No. But neither is he Hamlet's true enemy. It takes the whole world to defeat Hamlet. And it's close.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 8:52:03 PM PDT
J. Case says:
I disagree with that.

Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist
Iago of Othello
Grendel of Beouwulf

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 9:05:42 PM PDT
There is no villain in "Midsummer Night's Dream"; no villain in "Romeo and Juliet" or "Anthony and Cleopatra"; and two villains in "King Lear," neither of which anybody cares about. There is no villain in "Oedipus Rex." There is no villain in the "Iliad." There is no villain in "The Confederacy of Dunces." There is no villain in "Don Quixote." There is no villain in "A Christmas Carol" (since you brought up Dickens.)

Lear is a great hero. So is Don Quixote. So is Ignatius O'Reilly. So is Scrooge. I'm not so sure about Oedipus, Achilles, Romeo, or Cleopatra, but people have seemed to like them over time.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 9:07:56 PM PDT
But in answer to your question, "What makes a great villain," -- it's the same thing that makes a great hero. The whole world opposes her, but she is right.

Posted on May 23, 2012 10:50:42 PM PDT
J. Case says:
Not every story has a villain.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 11:38:51 PM PDT
That's right. But your original post says, "A hero is only as good as their villain." My point is that some of the most interesting heroes in history -- Oedipus, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Ignatius Reilly, and now that I think of it, Huck Finn -- have not had a significant villain that opposed them.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 6:56:46 AM PDT
How about Hamlet's uncle who kills his father, weds his mother and tries to send Hamlet into certain death. I do recall he had a little to do with his death too. If he isn't a villain, who is?

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 9:35:46 AM PDT
Claudius is not a very nice guy. But as the play makes clear, Hamlet could have killed him any time he wanted to. His wife, Hamlet's mother, is a bigger villain than he is (as Hamlet himself implies.) And most actors would rather play Polonius.

Claudius's villainy is not what makes Hamlet great.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 10:04:48 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 24, 2012 10:05:15 AM PDT
No, Hamlet could not have killed him any time he wanted. He was a close relation, and in those days, killing your own kin would be considered a monstrosity. Just look at the backlash Elizabeth 1 received when she killed her cousin. She had good proof Mary Stuart planned to have her killed and still it was frowned upon because in those days royals did not kill their own blood. (Well, they did but it was viewed as an unforgivable sin.)

Claudius, however, killed his own kin, stole Hamlet's throne, committed incest by marrying his brother's wife and tried to poison Hamlet. He is an antagonist who broke the rules to get his brother's throne and wife. Gertrude has no power at all and cannot be the villain. Her eagerness to bed and wed her brother-in-law is a little distasteful, but it is still not enough to make her the main villain.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 2:13:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 24, 2012 2:18:40 PM PDT
dgstone says:
The best villains are those with some sympathetic qualities, so that the reader can't help but identify at least somewhat with him/her. Otherwise they're just one-dimensional "bad guys." Also really good authors provide some insight into the character's motives for his/her behavior. Toni Morrison, in "The Bluest Eye" manages to make a child molester understandable to the reader, even as the reader detests his behavior.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 2:41:40 PM PDT
J. Case says:
So you thought from that meant there is no story that has no villain, or villains?

Well that would make more sense than saying there no villains in literature only heroes in conflict.

Posted on May 25, 2012 8:08:04 AM PDT
Puck says:
A new villain is 9 year-old Ned Low of the historic novella, When Two Women Die When Two Women Die by Patricia Goodwin. Ned begins young, but will soon develop in a sequel (promised by the author at one of her most recent readings). Since folks died so young, Ned doesn't wait till he's an adult to become a villain. Can't say why or how without spoiling the ending of the first book. Enjoy! I certainly did!

Posted on May 25, 2012 9:25:36 AM PDT
Quinton Blue says:
The most interesting villains have a mixed quality. There is something in the character that attracts us, even if we wish or pretend it isn't so.

Posted on May 25, 2012 11:05:10 AM PDT
Dear J. Case: I think that your original assertion, "A hero is only as good as his villain," is wrong.

Look at "Huckleberry Finn," a book many consider to be the great American novel. Huck is certainly one of the great American literary heroes. Who is the villain of the book? Maybe Huck's father. Maybe a couple of carpetbaggers. But there is certainly not one great villain who makes Huck great. What defines Huck are his conflicts: first and foremost his conflict with himself, but also his conflicts with everyone else, including, ultimately, his best friend Tom Sawyer, and finally, his conflicts with all of society and his country. We can argue whether society or America is the villain in "Huckleberry Finn." But to assert so, would be to stretch the definition of a literary villain beyond breaking point.

"Don Quixote" is a great hero of a great novel, the first modern Western novel. Who is the villain here? Dulcinea? Sancho Panza? The windmills? But Don Quixote is a great character. What makes him great? His conflict with everything, the incommensurability of his worldview with the world.

The same is true of Ignatius Reilly in "The Confederacy of Dunces." If there is any villain in the book, it's Ignatius's mother. She is the one who almost defeats him at the end. Yet Ignatius himself identifies his enemy as "that filthy slut, Fortuna" (not a character.) And Ignatius's mother is not match for him. Ignatius's greatness, what defines him as a character, is his conflict with the world. Unlike Don Quixote, Ignatius is not obviously wrong. In fact, it might be the world that is wrong. But can you call the world a villain?

It's the conflicts that make a hero great. Not any villain. I meant what I said.

In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2012 11:11:26 AM PDT
J. Case: Also, there are no villains in literature. I should perhaps qualify that: there are no GREAT villains in literature (as implied by your original post.)

Villains occasionally pop up in genre works, like horror, mysteries, and westerns, but in literature, great villains are those in conflict with the world and with themselves, opposed to society, and passionately driven.

In other words, they are heroes. Think Richard III and the Wizard of Oz.

In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2012 5:21:20 PM PDT
J. Case says:
I think we can agree to disagree. I didn't mean by my original post there are 0 stories that have no villains.

There are villains in literature.
Agatha TRunchbull In Matilda Her idea of detention is to put them in a torture device called the chokey, threw a girl over the fence by her pigtails, threw a boy out of a 5 story window because he was eating licorice allsorts when she was talking in class. The extreme version of a control freak, a incredibly violent bully.
Shere Khan of the Junge Book He causes Mowgli all kinds of trouble, and wants to eat him.
Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist Robber, Child abuser, murderer of a poor but goodhearted prostitute, beater of dogs.
Hannibal Lector of Red Dragon He's a cannibal.

Also Sounds like what you are describing everyone is the hero of their own story.

Posted on May 26, 2012 12:35:10 AM PDT
My preference (and a few others it seems) is for the hero of the story to be his own villain. You know, that side of him he'd rather not face. The shadow within.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 3:59:40 PM PDT
J. Case says:
I think Star Wars has that with Luke Skywalker fighting his father Darth Vador whos is on the darth side of the force.

Posted on May 28, 2012 1:58:28 PM PDT
J. Case says:
Lines that you'll remember and be quoting.

Posted on Jun 4, 2012 2:03:38 PM PDT
J. Case says:
Not a pushover.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 4, 2012 2:57:15 PM PDT
J. Case, sharp point about the villain not being a pushover. I also think the villain should inhabit all the fears of the protagonist. He or she (it's not often a she, is it?) should embody everything the protagonist fears. So when the protagonist overcomes the villain he overcomes his own fears and limitations.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 4, 2012 11:25:45 PM PDT
J. Case says:
What about something that humanizes them? They like art, Opera, Poker, etc?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2012 12:00:32 AM PDT
J. Case, sympathy for the devil, eh? A humanizing quality certainly adds to the lure of attraction. A bastard with no redeeming features is simply repellant. Maybe villain works best when there's a level of attraction and then the twist that reveals the horror.

Interestingly the word "villain" is circa 1300 "base or low-born rustic," from Anglo-Fr. and O.Fr. villain, from M.L. villanus "farmhand," from L. villa "country house". The word developed to mean an inhabitant of a farm; peasant; churl, boor; clown; miser; knave, scoundrel. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the meaning of character in a novel, play, etc. whose evil motives or actions help drive the plot dates from 1822.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2012 11:18:18 PM PDT
J. Case says:
Yes but people love to hate pure evil Villains. Darkseid, Freddy Krueger, Mr.Sinister, Maleficient,etc.
Right now I'm writing a alien hero book, and the archenemy likes the Play Wicked, Captain Morgan rum, and other things.
You'll know why he became a Villain.
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Discussion in:  Literary Fiction forum
Participants:  17
Total posts:  58
Initial post:  May 23, 2012
Latest post:  Nov 11, 2012

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