Before we can answer that question, we’ve got to decide what makes a villain villainous. So, here’s my criteria:
- A villain has to be A Slime. George Wickham in Pride & Prejudice is a good example – he’s a fortune-hunter who goes after younger, naive girls with artistically crafted tales of woe and no thought for their reputation. Over the course of the book, he lavishes his simpering attentions on no less than four different girls. Yup, he’s a slime!
- A good villain should be Crafty/Cunning if he can possibly help it. Cardinal Richelieu in Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers and Baba Yaga in Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment are our poster children for this trait. They have plots, sub-plots, counter-plots, and contingency-plots and their hooks are in every corner of their realm. Staying ahead of them is nigh impossible and they know it… which is usually why they fail in the end.
- There should be a sense of Malice in a villain. Nothing too overtly threatening, just a sense that this is not someone you want to meet in an alley at night. Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is very good at this. He’s courtly and polite, perfectly correct in all of his mannerisms, well-educated, and charming – and he still creeps everyone out because he can’t quite hide that sense of wrongness about him. Or maybe he projects it on purpose, who knows.
So, those are my main character traits. Anything else is icing on the cake, but without these three, any villain will fall flat for me.
Now, the original question as posed by the Egotist’s Club: who’s the best villain? Who embodies all these characteristics and more?
I vote for Shakespeare’s Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, King of England, and mass-murdering humpback extraordinaire!
He’s a slime – after all, he woos Lady Anne over the corpse of her late husband (whom he killed) and succeeds! He then kills her and begins to woo his niece (using the almost exact same pick up lines!).
He’s cunning – He manages to kill all of the opposition without having any hard evidence point his way. He manipulates people into trusting him and then kills them, and then does it all over again, and nobody seems to catch on!
He exudes malice out of every pore – only a true psychopath can say “I shall smile, and murder while I smile” and then go and do so without batting an eyelash. He murders (or has other people murder) his brothers, wife, and nephews with just as much ease as he kills his political opponents.
On top of all that, there is a certain sinister glee that he displays throughout most of the play that just completes his evil. I am convinced that beyond being power-hungry, Richard takes over the throne simply because he’s bored. As a soldier with no more war to fight, and so hideous that “dogs bark at [him]” as he passes, he has nothing to do. As he says in his opening soliloquy, “Since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain…”.
So, there we are, my nomination for best villain.
By the by – as much as I respect Sir Lawrence Olivier’s Richard, look for Al Pacino’s version if you want uber-sinister, and Ian McKellen’s if you want evil glee. I find I prefer McKellen to all the other incarnations of Richard that I’ve seen.