Everybody Loves A Villain


‘And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.’

Richard III was not stupid; villains rarely are. They’re vain, pompous, blind, flawed, egotistical and psychotically ambitious. One of the most fun villains for Londoners has been Boris Johnson, a thought-skimming public school boy with a sense of reality only notable for being entirely absent. His disastrous career of failure was topped with a coruscating New York Times analysis that accused him of lying repeatedly to the British public to further his own ambitions.

It was once unusual for such a damning overview of a politician to take place while said politician is still active, but times are getting tougher and Johnson deserves it. As journalist Jenni Russell says; ‘All of Mr. Johnson’s weaknesses have been exposed: his lazy reluctance to do detail, his preference for bluster over thinking, his contempt for business.’ His weaknesses were laid bare during his tenure as London’s most catastrophic mayor, when hare-brained schemes were showcased because the day-to-day running of a large city was too boring for him.

We find villains in all cities, usually a bit slick, a bit corrupt, a bit too egotistical to think they’ll be caught. They’re out there burying the bad news, manipulating the ignorant and underestimating the poor. We see them in surprising complexity and flat-out stupidity.

History can make it hard for us to see who was an outright villain, even with all the facts at hand. Was Lyndon B Johnson less of a villain than Richard Nixon for failing to stop Vietnam? When Hannah Arendt demoted Eichmann from monster to man at his trial she caused an international outcry, but followed her conscience. In the play ‘Here Lies Love’ Imelda Marcos was given an easy ride in her rise from innocent farm girl to autocratic monster, but we now know that for two decades she was kept in power by America – what bearing does that have on the making of a villain?

Countless ‘charismatic’ (ie. villainous) leaders are imitating Trump, a childlike thinker so vain and ignorant that villainous qualities cleverly work in his favour. It could be that Trump is the only politician to have come up with a way through the clearly unworkable leadership system. Erdogan is taking the same route in Turkey (the country is now over-extended and heading for economic collapse) and Poland is reversing the tide of time to return to Catholic puritanism.

The problem for writers now is that no villain we create can ever be as exciting and newsworthy as Trump (he’s been good for the New York Times’s circulation – see the brilliant four parter ‘The Fourth Estate’) and for the Guardian, a fine paper now in danger of turning a profit. Fictional villains now seem like pallid underperformers.

What I’d love to know is who you think is the best fictional villain? I’m ruling out Moriarty and Fu Manchu on the grounds of over-familiarity, but I’d love to know about anyone else you can come up with – and what makes them good villains.


19 comments on “Everybody Loves A Villain”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    I’ll think about that over night but first why do you equate charismatic and villainous? In this country we first became aware of the word charismatic when Pierre Trudeau was elected. The word was used to equate to magnetic and I still hear it used that way, a neutral word where morality or goodness is concerned. Or are you suspicious of it because it smacks of magic or powers that aren’t subject to analysis? That man Bryant met, the man he was warned to be very careful of, he had that sort of magnetism, but it’s how you use it that counts.

  2. Roger says:

    Boris Johnson’s “disastrous career of failure” has been extraordinarily successful: he is still thought of as a future PM You description of Trump – “a childlike thinker so vain and ignorant that villainous qualities cleverly work in his favour” applies to Johnson too. He is so comical that people disregard his disasters of persuade themselves they never really happened.

    As for fictional villains, I’d nominate Widmerpool, the archetype of banal and boring bureaucracy, and Steerpike in Mervyn Peake’s Titus books, who destroys a world because he has no place in it.

  3. David Ronaldson says:

    I enjoyed Le Carre’s Dicky Roper (“The worst man in the world”) in the Night Manager (the novel, rather than the odd TV adaptation) and I’d give a passing mention to Bernard Cornwall’s vain, cowardly Lancelot in the Winter King trilogy. Both thought they were on the side of the angels and had their followers: outright evil is too dull and one-dimensional.

  4. cherry says:

    Has to be Wilkie Collins Count Fosco

  5. Ken Mann says:

    A good fictional villain has wit and taste and no scruples whatever. I treasure the answer Dr Nikola gave when asked if he had met some aristocrat or other: “No, but I once had the honour of abducting his daughter”. They address problems in non-obvious ways and lack the simple brutality of real-life villains. It depends whether you prefer your fiction realistic or escapist of course. I like my villains to be playable by Charles Grey if possible.

  6. Martin Tolley says:

    I think that’s a hard question. In most crime novels you don’t get to find out who the villain actually is until late on, and whilst you’ve known about their evil acts, you often don’t know much about them or their motivations. I think even the original Moriarty is more cipher than character.
    I’d nominate two pretty nasty individuals, Erskine and Sinner from Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman. Although you could argue that Sinner is maybe more victim than villain.

  7. Jan says:

    Difficult to visualize Boris as a complete villain because he’s carefully packaged as an almost complete buffoon.

    The sight of him stopping on the zip wire or scootering round his mayors office you can’t take such villainy seriously.

    The man is one of the very few UK “feelgood” politicians. I.e. loads of the non chattering classes like him. He sort of revels in his position as class clown.
    I saw him once cycling up Charing Cross road on some foldaway cycle wearing a safety Helmet briefcase balanced on handlebars. People were calling out to him pedestrians, cabbies even the tourists got in on the act.
    Not abuse he was getting either. This was long before the days he merited PPOs. He had no need of protection though. People liked him.

    He might well be a wazuck Chris but folk like him. Where do you go with that?

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    The voting public don’t want to hear the ugly truth, they don’t want to hear from candidates who admit they simply and honestly have no idea. They want someone that they can identify with just a little, yet claims to know all the (easy) answers. That’s why we consistently vote for the most villainous politicians.

    On the other hand, if a UK politician wants to win the support of their fellow MPs, it needs to be clear that (s)he doesn’t threaten them in any way. Ideally, (s)he should have a record of total failure.

    I’m not sure on best fictional villain, but agree with Ken on Charles Grey.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    One of my favourite villains is Moriarty’s daughter in King’s Russell and Holmes series, unless she was only mentally unbalanced. When she learned of her father’s fate she determined to have complete revenge and because she was a mathematical genius like her father was able to locate herself at Oxford as Mary’s math tutor. This took years of planning and in the meantime she ran her father’s “evil empire”. Killing “inconvenient” people was regrettable but it didn’t stop her and blackmailing a seriously rehabilitated bomber was merely a step toward her goal. The egotism there is immense and the complexity of her various schemes is mind blowing, even if quite a bit of it is unlikely in the original Holmesian way. She was horrible and the worst was the “fairness” she showed to the dependents of her victims, uh – employees.

  10. kevin says:

    The character of Kate in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I’m not really sure if this character was meant to be taken seriously or what, but this woman is truly “bad to the bone.” And every time she enters a scene, one is riveted! She is amoral, smart, beautiful, good as all out hell in bed, and the picture of innocence.

  11. Martin says:

    Pre-ghost Scrooge is clearly something of a villain, although his villainy is a side-effect of his miserliness. He has a clear sociopathic lack of empathy until shown the error of his ways!
    I suppose Hannibal Lecter would be the rather over exposed Moriarty of our generation with added cannibalism and a tendency to work alone.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    I’ve always liked The Joker, especially the tall lanky version. Originally it was more like a John Dickson Carr story with a Edgar Wallace villain with plenty pulp colour.

    Jekyll & Hyde – for me both are the villain, Hyde’s brutality is shocking, the battle for dominance by the end of the tale, mental survival, is quite splendid.

    A lot of villains I like though are just flawed human being, not extravagant blusterers, at least with Trump around you can put a really over the top villain in place and nobody can accuse of being unrealistic. the question is how would you describe that haircut? A lacquered, monument to vanity.


  13. Patrick Kilgallon says:

    It seems to me that two things that made Moriarty such a wonderful villain were that he appeared almost invisible and to be at least a match Holmes in cleverness, ingenuity and determination. Few villains since have struck me as having had those qualities. The one that immediately sprung to my mind when I saw the question was a certain Mr Fox.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Mr. Fox of a certainty – he chills you right through. Because Holmes did away with Moriarty Laurie King couldn’t use him but having his daughter share her father’s abilities and intelligence gave Holmes a real run, literally since Holmes and Russell have to actually leave the country and go into hiding to prepare for the show down.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    By the way, what exactly is it in Mr. Fox that is so chilling? It isn’t what he says or even what he does that is so upsetting, and I don’t think it’s how he looks so it must be in the way Chris describes him, but what exactly is it? He’s never properly in the light and he’s just standing in those half shadows, watching. Is that it, that he doesn’t seem part of the life around him? Going to think about this some more.

  16. Diogenes says:

    Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Judge Holden Blood Meridian and Escherich from Alone in Berlin.

  17. Bill Cahill says:

    Livia in Robert Grave’s “I, Claudius”.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Bill, I hadn’t thought about her for a while.Whenever I saw the actress who played her on tv I used to shudder and was relieved when she turned out to be playing a more innocuous role. I’m no good at remembering actors’ names, though.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    I always loved the first iteration of ‘The Master’, as played by Roger Delgado, in Doctor Who. He was always utterly charming, which was what made him so dangerous – that charm wrongfooted so many people, to their cost. This was somebody who saw death and destruction as something to be enjoyed, and took gleeful delight in using and then disposing of people – a genius, but a genius who thought that a TV broadcast of ‘The Clangers’ showed a real alien lifeform, until told differently. His downfall was often due to over thinking things, and forgetting that Humans are capable of irrationality, which often derailed his plans. Roger Delgado obviously loved playing the character, and, on the filming of the 1972 story ‘The Daemons’, encouraged the extras, especially the children present on location in Aldbourne, in Wiltshire, to boo his character as he was led away at the end. Delgado was great friends with Jon Pertwee, who played The Doctor’s third incarnation, and his untimely death, in a car accident in Turkey, in 1973, made Pertwee’s mind up to quit the role of The Doctor.

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