Let me say right out of the gate that the White Witch is not like any of the other baddies we’ve tackled so far. As a children’s villain, she’s not bogged down by pesky things like realism or complexity. She can be as powerful, as outrageous, as pure eeeeevil as she likes. That makes her both larger than life and somewhat two-dimensional. Even so, it would be a mistake to underestimate her. Like all things Narnia, her simplicity belies a strong theological and mythological pedigree. And, like the oldest fairy tales and nursery rhymes, though nominally intended for children, the White Witch is bloody horrifying.
Though unmistakably a product of its time, it represented a significant departure from its contemporaries. Most 80s action flicks tended to come in one of four flavours: Spy/Cold War narratives (the James Bond franchise), soldier/ex-soldier stories (First Blood, Delta Force), sci-fi (Alien, Terminator), or buddy cop (48 Hrs).
Die Hard didn’t conform to any of these, yet in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – it became the most influential action film of the decade, spawning so many knockoffs that it practically qualifies as a subgenre all its own.
The 1990s recycled Die Hard over and over again, serving it up Sam-I-Am style in every conceivable location: on a plane, on a train, on a trip and a ship, in the snow and the ice, in a school with a fool… well, you get the idea.* And that’s not even counting the sequels: Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Die Already, Why Won’t You Just Die (or some such… I lost track after a while.)
Much the same could be said of the film’s iconic baddie, Hans Gruber, played by the inimitable Alan Rickman.
Ah, String. Easily one of my favourite TV characters of all time, from one of the greatest television shows ever made, HBO’s The Wire. Amid a large and stellar cast of characters, String stands out; only Omar Little gives him any real competition for Best in Show. This is down in part to the suave, physically imposing presence of Idris Elba; he literally towers over nearly everyone else. But it’s also because, like Omar, Stringer Bell is textured and sympathetic enough that you’re almost tempted to consider him an antihero, in spite of his – uh, let’s say casual – regard for human life.
All right, let’s get the ritual caveat out of the way: the Cersei Lannister we’re looking at today is the version from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, as opposed to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Admittedly, this distinction gets a little messy now that the show has overtaken the books. I’m going to shamelessly take advantage of that by using the show as a sort of bonus reel of material, but in cases where the two sources diverge, the books will always trump. Clear? Good. On with the fun.
And Cersei is loads of fun – if you consider murder, treason, incest, and child-maiming fun. Yes indeed, Cersei’s list of crimes is long, and she shows no sign of slowing down. But for all the ghastliness of her deeds, she’s one of the subtlest, most textured, and in many ways the most believable villains I’ve come across. Not because of what she does, but why she does it.
Loki is a great place to start, because he’s a perfect example of a villain who isn’t really all that impressive on paper. Oh sure, he’s got some nifty tricks up his sleeve – notably his talents as an illusionist – but on his home turf of Asgard, a world populated entirely with godlike denizens, Loki’s powers barely set him apart from the pack. As a warrior, he’s no Thor; heck, he can’t even compete with his brother’s merry band of cookie-cutter sidekicks. His schemes aren’t all that subtle, either. He does manage to manipulate his brother pretty effectively, but let’s face it – that takes about as much cunning as convincing your golden retriever to chase the stick you didn’t really throw.
What makes a great villain?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering a lot lately. Prompted, as these things usually are, by something quite mundane: the realization that I was steadily losing interest in a show I’d previously been enjoying.
We in the fantasy community love to categorise. Perhaps more than any other genre, we delight in dividing and subdividing into ever more specialised niches, until the distinctions between subgenres are so subtle as to be almost meaningless. And yet, for all our enthusiasm for labelling, a lot of it is pretty superficial. More and more, our taxonomy seems to me to be based on backdrops and widgets – urban, or flintlock, or steampunk – rather than substance. To use an analogy, it’s a bit like punk: to some people, punk is a subculture; to others, it’s just a hairdo.
I’ve had this on my mind a lot lately, in the course of promoting my latest book. When it comes to guest posts and interviews, I’m most commonly asked to focus on one of two things: antiheroes, or what it’s like to write two different – completely different – series. These two subjects have something in common: they both boil down to a discussion of worldview. And it got me thinking, is there a different way, still meaningful, that we could be categorising our books? A taxonomy that tells you more than what the characters will be wearing, and whether they’ll be driving or riding or winging about on dragonback?
I think there is, and I’d like to take a shot at it.