Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created and hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, in which we all talk about a bookish topic and have fun making lists. This week it’s characters we just can’t agree on.
But here’s the thing: I don’t know that I’ve paid enough attention to say whether other people love and hate the same characters I do. So I’m going to take a different tack and talk about villains. See, I like me a good villain.
I have a high bar – indistinct motivations around ruling the world accompanied by moustache-twirling will rarely tick the box (I love epic fantasy in spite of its villains, rarely because of them), any more than evil by excess (torturing kittens, eating children – see The Weavers of Saramyr for a perfect example). I don’t need villains to be sympathetic, but I want them to be complex, difficult characters in their own right.
I’m deliberately excluding any villains whose identities would be end-game spoilers. There’s a number of fabulous turncoats in fiction (because hey, where better to get conflict and depth than a solid bit of treachery), but none of them appear here.
Jadis, the White Witch
Queen of Charn, speaker of the Deplorable Word, the White Witch who bound Narnia in eternal winter. From her first scene in The Magician’s Nephew, sat under a dying sun in a world she destroyed to spite her sister, she is haughty, ruthless and glorious. Plus, she has Turkish Delight.
Denethor, Steward of Gondor
Poor Denethor. So easy to dislike, favouring one son over another and turning his back on hope. The heir upstaged by mysterious Thorongil (gee, thanks Aragorn); the Steward presiding over the End of Days; the scholar who longs for a vanished past. He’s prickly and arrogant, and in the end he’s dishonourable for deserting his post. But he passes the test for complexity.
Yes, really, if more so in Game of Thrones than in A Song of Ice and Fire. In the book, she’s less clever than her brothers; in the show she’s more nuanced, more damaged, and more dangerous. It was A Feast For Crows before I really enjoyed her in the books; in the show, she had me at hello and not only for Lena Headey’s charismatic venom.
I love that The Lies of Locke Lamora twists our frame of reference sufficiently that law-keepers are the villains (if less so than the Bondsmagi), but not half as much as I love the Spider. I won’t say anything else that might reveal the identify of the head of the Duke’s secret police. But I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance.
Not all villains are villains. Coker’s got nothing but the best intentions for what he does. He’s a pragmatic socialist who believes in doing right by others – which is why he coshes our hero over the head and kidnaps sighted survivors. In the end, he sees the error of his ways and I find him impossible to dislike. Of course, he also turns out to be by far the least of our hero’s worries – amongst men or plants.
I don’t much like The Wheel of Time (although I did as a teenager), but arguably, the villains are the most interesting characters in it: self-involved, supremely ambitious and utterly ruthless. I liked Lanfear for her willingness to stab anyone in the back if it would get her ahead. I never got the sense that her loyalty to her Dark master was particularly well-cemented; she just hadn’t found the loophole that would let her sidestep his service yet.
Okay, I lied. Technically the next one is a spoiler, but honestly? It’s a very early twist. Still, if you haven’t read Kushiel’s Dart, don’t mouse over the next name.
Meet my favourite kind of villain: classy, clever and competent. Backstabbing is to be expected, and mustn’t be taken personally. There’s little she won’t stoop to to get her way, and you can be sure she’s got contingency plans if she mis-steps. It’s her ruthlessness that makes her a villain rather than an excellent politician: that little detail of being willing to have inconvenient people murdered (because honestly, I don’t much care who sits on the throne of Terre d’Ange).
The last is only a spoiler if you read Julian May’s books chronologically rather than in order of publication. Still here? Right then:
Ah, Marc. Sexy as hell, brain the size of a planet, moral compass with the accuracy of a drunk at closing time. He’s driven by intellectual ambition. He knows his goals are achievable – if he can just figure out the science. Of course, when you get into the nitty gritty of the science, the ethics get questionable, to say the least. And then there’s the little matter of murder and revolution. His full character arc – when it becomes clear – is mindboggling.