Thoughtful Thursday: The Gold Standard of Bad

First off, we’ve picked a winner in the naming the dragon contest. Go read about it here.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSecondly, on to this week’s topic. Every reader has a different list of what they look for in a book. Flawed heroes, unique systems of magic, believable world building, and interesting dialog all are on my list of desirable qualities in a fantasy novel. My top pick for determining whether or not a book is going to keep my attention is the villain.  Too many authors skimp on their villains. While they may expertly show us through nuanced characterization why the hero is the only one in her generation capable of wielding the mystical Special Weapon of Ancient Deity, the villain is reduced to kicking a puppy. Well, it’s usually a bit more involved than that, but frequently abuse of women or children is the signifier for the villain.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe problem is that real life isn’t like that. Yes, abusers are bad people, but if it was that easy to tell who the villain was, he’d be in jail by now. Or in a lower circle of hell. You wouldn’t need a hero to take him out, the local guard would already have him in manacles. In reality, villains are by turns charming, innocuous, generous, passionate, flawed, misguided, popular, have families, dreamers, idealists, cruel, short-sighted, visionary, driven, lazy, and selfish. Sociopaths don’t make interesting villains.  Bad guys, yes, but foils for the hero, no.

The best villain I ever read was Gerald Tarrant in the Coldfire Trilogy penned by C.S. Friedman.  Though a sorceror who had committed an act of almost indescribable evil, he was still one of the most human characters I had ever encountered in the pages of a book.  Tarrant blurs the line between antagonist and protagonist in a way that made me rethink both the purpose  and nature of the villain in fantasy. (Seeing that we don’t have a review for these amazing books may be all the inspiration I need to do a re-read.)

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSo, dear readers, two questions for you today.  First, what are the best villains you’ve read in fantasy?  Second, what’s the most important thing you look for in a book?  Okay, and two and a half, why do so many villains dress in velvet?  What, you’ve never noticed that? Just me?  Okay then, never mind…

Answer one (or all) of the questions and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win a signed copy of John Shirley‘s Bleak History.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. Well, it gets cold in those drafty old Castles Of Evil ™. Hence the velvet.

    Hmmm, how about Jacqueline Carey’s Melisande Shahrizai? Conniving, traitorous, devastatingly sexy…genuinely loves her kid…sincerely religious and always trying to find ways to do her dirty deeds without breaking her religion’s rules…and actually almost endearing by the end of the Imriel trilogy.

  2. Roger of Conte from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet springs to mind. Or Beloved from Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles…she has a fascinating motivation, bred of a generations old misunderstanding.

    Actually, a villain in a fantasy novel would have to be wearing silk velvet (because you know, lack of synthetics in most fantasy worlds) which probably doesn’t keep them nearly as warm. I dunno, maybe the problem is that most fantasy authors haven’t studied enough fashion to know what you can really do with a material like wool? Wool is much better for fending off cold drafts, and you can make it both soft and fashionable.

  3. (Though in seriousness, I wonder if the villains-wear-velvet trope comes from the olden days, when owning velvet at all meant you were rich. If you had plucky peasant heroes sticking it to “the man,” you might signify that someone was “the man” by showing him or her in velvet.)

  4. Melisande is the first person who came to my mind, too, Kelly!

  5. I’d name a few GRRM characters as well, but it’s so hard to tell which ones count as villains. :laugh:

  6. It seems like I mention these books every Thursday, but Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series has some of the most complex villains I’ve ever read. How I love to hate them.

    The most important aspect in a book for me is clarity of the writing. I do not like to have to re-read paragraphs twice or more to understand it’s meaning. If an author has to keep the plot simple in order do that, then so be it.

  7. I have to agree with you there, Justin. There are writers who do wonderful things with ornate language, but there are others who try to do ornate language and just end up with confusing language instead. Simple prose, elaborate prose, both are fine as long as they actually convey what the heck is going on.

  8. To me, the relationship between heroes and villains is like any other literary relationship, strongest when there are elements of love and hate between the two. If a villain has nothing to admire about them, then the novel becomes more of a good triumphs over evil or love conquers all in a very trite way. To me, a novel is only as good as the relationships are complex and interesting, with emphasis on the villain-hero relationship.


  9. Kate Elliott had some great villains in her Crown of Stars series. Hugh, especially was good. Nice guy, but not really.

  10. Anonymous /

    Aunt Maria in Diana Wynne Jones’ “Black Maria”.

    The thing I look for primarily in a book are stories which make me want to know what happens next.

    There’s a much longer list of things I avoid in books. :)

  11. Great topic … and surprisingly hard to answer. (I still need to read Kushiel’s Dart.) I nominate Robert from The Briar King by Greg Keyes (and the rest of the quartet, but I still love that first volume). Utterly cunning and ruthless with that tiny grain of understandable jealousy/wounded pride at his core.

  12. A great book to me has characters that I feel are real or could be real and that engage me emotionally.

    I adore Gerald Tarrant in the Coldfire Trilogy. He is such a fascinating character and the relationship between Gerald and Damien Vryce as they learn to deal with and even respect each other is wonderful. Those books are on my keeper shelf.

  13. I definitely agree with Melisande…and I’d also have to say about half the characters in Stephen King’s Talisman still freak me out.

  14. Our lucky winner is…….Misti

    Don’t want this book (have you lost your mind?) or Live in the UK? Visit the FanLit stacks.

    Please contact Justin within 5 days after contest ends.

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