In a previous post, I wrote about villainous animals and machines, but most villains are human. In my mind, villains are a subset of antagonists, and the very worst villains are yet a further sub-division. In this article, I’ll look at the most depraved villains in modern storytelling. These are really bad guys and gals who have no socially redeeming value. They have three overwhelming characteristics:
1. they mean the protagonist the worst imaginable harm,
2. they are smart or brutally forceful—or both,
3. there is no redemption at the end of the story.
These are the most memorable villains in all of fiction. I have a Pinterest Board titled “Bad to the Bone” that displays pinups of extreme villains that meet the above criteria. It only looks like a crowded field. In fact, bad to the bone antagonists are the exception. Most villains are portrayed with far more subtlety or empathy. The most obvious reason for painting antagonists in gray-tones is that humans are not all good or all bad, but when a villain is expertly portrayed as pure evil, it raises the story to a level that can transcend generations and cultures.
As an example, look at Martin Vanger, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He is not only a second generation serial killer of young girls, he enjoys assaulting and torturing them over an extended period of time. He has no remorse, he shows no mercy, and he neither seeks nor finds redemption. Another example is Elliot Marston in Quigley Down Under, who under false pretenses lures Quigley to Australia to kill aborigines. Other examples include the Wicked Witch of the West, Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Salieri in Amadeus, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, and the front-runner for worst fictional father of all time, Jack Torrance in The Shining. There is only one answer for these extreme villains … death.
Most stories are about a flawed hero pitted against a villain that harbors some sort of rationalization for his less than pristine behavior. You might call this the decent against the bad, rather than good versus evil. Nuanced characters are more like real life. But sociopaths exist in real life as well. Amon Goeth in Schindler's List is perhaps the most disturbing of my gallery of rogues because he is based on a real person. As in all storytelling, we are meant to take away lessons from tales of good versus evil.