Just as my previous post saw many changes to my favourite heroic characters, my opinion of ficticious villains has also changed over the past few years. What is a villain? When we think of antagonists in fiction, we might think of the obvious ones like Lord Voldemort and Sauron, or the evil mutated scientist from that computer game/movie/TV series with all the zombies… But I’m not really interested in the stereotypical ‘dark lord’ figure—a character who appears to be in the hero’s way simply as a plot mechanism. These villains are often two-dimensional, lacking depth and real motivations. And while I love the Harry Potter series to bits, I’m still not quite sure why Lord Voldemort didn’t just go into politics instead of plunging the whole wizarding world into war. Twice.
So here we go again. The following characters are the villains who have had great personalities, true motiviations or have made me stop to wonder: who are the real villains here? My original villains post can be viewed here, but like I said, I don’t entirely agree with it anymore.
DISCLAIMER: There will be plot-related spoilers referring to the characters I have chosen.
Pe Ell—The Heritage of Shannara series
Death frightened most people, but not Pe Ell.
The first time I read The Heritage of Shannara was also the first time I read a book (or part of a book) from an antagonist’s point of view. This was an unexpected but pleasant surprise because I loved reading the thoughts of the assassin who was planning to kill one of the other main characters. It’s great to read a thoroughly developed antagonist with his own thoughts and feelings, motives, doubts and fears.
The best part about him was that, at the end, he decides he doesn’t actually want to kill his target. There’s also an element of tragedy here for Pe Ell because, while his character arc was very powerful, he was manipulated into killing his target anyway, so the other characters in the story continued to think ill of him and are not sorry to find that he had been killed (by an invisible plot device/monster thing that, to this day, I think was a really cheap move). This left me feeling very hurt, and stories that can do that are rare and wonderful things.
‘I realised that this city was a part of me, that it was in my blood, and I would do anything to make it a better place for people like you.’
Hell’s Kitchen is the setting for Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil in which a (slightly bland) blind lawyer dons a mask and beats up bad guys by night and shuffles papers by day. The best thing about this series (apart from its production quality and acting, that is) is the character of Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. About as much time is given to fleshing out the villain as is given to the hero, making him a believable and, frankly, likeable man. True, he does kill a lot of people and his plans for Hell’s Kitchen upsets many more, but his intentions are good. His methods are what make him the bad guy here.
How did he become such a powerful crime lord? We see him struggling through his childhood, being bullied at school and then being forced to violent revenge by his father. He killed his father to protect his mother and the two of them cut up and hid the body. After piecing together such a tragic figure, it’s no wonder that, when we see him later as an older man, we’re glad he’s apparently risen above such a traumatic childhood. Problem is, he hasn’t. His present is shaped by his past, he can’t escape the man he has become, and it’s the vulnerabilities in his character that make him so relatable.
When he clashes with Daredevil, we know we should be rooting for the perfect, blind, Catholic, lawyer superhero standing up for the little guy—but whenever Fisk gets away, we can’t help but cheer. Maybe don’t smash that guy’s head repeatedly in your car door? No? No. Okay…
‘I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.’
Very dangerous, a total nutter, unpredictable, cunning, ruthless and wild, the Joker is Batman’s greatest nemesis. Though the Joker has many origin stories, the most common in the canon is that he falls into a tank of chemical waste, which causes him to lose his mind. This accident also turns his hair green, his skin bleached-white and his lips an unnatural red. This is the Joker we see portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto. The origins of Heath Ledger’s Joker (and almost all of Mark Hamill’s renditions), however, is a complete mystery.
Why do I like the Joker so much? He isn’t your usual ‘I want to take over the world and look down upon you from my throne made of cash’ sort of bad guy. He also doesn’t concoct stupidly complicated traps to capture or torture Batman, like a villain from the Bond universe might do. In fact, he’s arguably not interested in killing Batman at all. He simply enjoys the thrill of the chase, the challenge and the mayhem. The fact that he’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic is the reason why he’s so interesting—you never know what he might do next, and he probably doesn’t even know himself, or why.
The Shadow—A Wizard of Earthsea
Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.
Often, a villain reveals something about the hero, about which the hero was previously unaware. The Shadow is one of these villains. While not actually being much of a ‘character’ per se, it first appears when main character and wizard Sparrowhawk is naughtily looking through an advanced book of magic in his master’s collection. He wants to impress a girl he’s just met and so chooses a spell that turns out to be too powerful for him to control. It goes terribly wrong and the Shadow is born.
Despite being banished for a short time by his master, it becomes evident later on that this strange entity is linked to Sparrowhawk in a way he doesn’t initially understand. No other wizard can tackle this terrible beast except Sparrowhawk himself because, as we discover later, the Shadow is a part of him. At first, he tries to run, but in doing so, the Shadow kills one of his friends, making him realise that he is just delaying the inevitable. He is going to have to face this thing alone. The Shadow makes you look within yourself and think about your darker side and how best to tackle it. The decision for Sparrowhawk to leave the safety of Roke takes great courage, knowing full well what lies out there somewhere… waiting for him.
The Phantom—The Phantom of the Opera
‘Can you even dare to look, or bear to think of me—this loathesome gargoyle who burns in hell, but secretly yearns for heaven…’
The Phantom was a misshapen child who broke free of a circus and went to live in the bowels of an opera house in Paris. He became an architect, inventor, musician, composer and tutor and would have been famous for it had it not been for his deformity. Society shunned him and so he hated the world, until a grieving child—Christine—was brought to his opera house. From then on, he made it his life’s goal to train Christine to sing and used his knowledge to write, design and compose an opera in which she would star.
Living in the dark for years in seclusion did nothing to improve his opinion of the outside world and the people in it, so when the members of the opera house turned against him (out of fear of him), he reacted in the only way he knew how, through violence and cunning. His character is so well developed that you pity him and understand how he feels and why he does what he does. Also who couldn’t love a mysterious guy in a cape who lives by an underground lake, plays music to you while you sleep, writes melodies for you by the light of numerous candelabra and has a shrine of you in his bedroom topped with a life-size model of you in a wedding dress…? He also gets the best songs in the musical.
‘Despite your violent behaviour, the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart.’
Mean, witty and malicious, the main antagonist from the extremely clever game Portal actually goes unseen for about 95% of the story. As you make your way through the seemingly endless test levels in the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, GlaDOS’s voice instructs and guides you, as well as pokes fun at you before giving way to simply threatening you (comically) with various methods of death because you didn’t die, as planned. But GlaDOS isn’t simply an artificial intelligence that doesn’t like the fact you’ve outwitted her.
In Portal 2, her character is fleshed out, as it were, and you discover what she truly is—that she was once the thing she despises most: a human. This initiates a character arc in which GlaDOS aids you in your struggle against an even greater adversary, and your second chance at freedom from Aperture Science.
‘Better that we die on our feet than live on our knees!’
None of the above examples better demonstrates the Shakespearean idea that there is no good or evil, that only thinking makes it so. The reason why Magneto (Erik Lehnsherr/Max Eisenhardt/all the other names he’s had) inspires such a following in the X-Men universe is that, while he does have questionable methods most of the time, his overall goal is a noble one. One of the most powerful ‘mutants’ ever born, Magneto believes that he and his brethren are not actually ‘mutants’ at all, but rather the next step in human’s evolution: “homo superior”—and he’s probably right. He’s sick of how he and his kind have been treated by common humans—experimented upon, used, abused, discriminated against and murdered—and makes it his life’s mission to encourage this evolution, by forcefully putting homo superior on top.
His fight ignites the “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” argument, and indeed, he is truly fighting for the freedom and advancement of his own people, but he chooses the path of violence, making him a villain in the eyes of most. And that is why he is such a great antagonist—you can understand his motivations. He is not just a man out for power, glory or wealth—he is fighting for the freedom of many from cruel suppression in a world where he and his kind are feared and mistrusted.
Other notable villainous characters
Francisco Scaramanga—The Man with the Golden Gun
Darth Vader—Star Wars
Mr Hyde—The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Dolores Umbridge—Harry Potter
Illusive Man—Mass Effect
For long-time readers of my material (and those who know me personally), the subject of what exactly constitutes a ‘hero’ is a familiar one. I have already voiced my opinions about this subject three years ago, but reading it now… I disagree with some of my choices. Rather than simply deleting the original article and starting again, I think it’s interesting to keep both (and any future) articles to see what has changed.
The following characters have had a lasting impact on me as a writer, either due to their actions or purely their personalities. So in no particular order, here are my heroes for 2017.
DISCLAIMER: There may be be plot-related spoilers referring to the characters I have chosen.
‘It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.’
The secret identity of billionaire Bruce Wayne, Batman has captured the imagination of every generation since his creation. Sometimes referred to as the Caped Crusader or the Dark Knight, he prowls the streets of Gotham City by night, intent on foiling criminal activities in an entirely non-lethal manner. That’s not to say he doesn’t pack a powerful punch or break a few legs on the way. This DC hero has no supernatural abilities up his sleeve, unlike his sometimes-rival-sometimes-ally Superman. Instead, he relies on his keen eyes, sharp mind and an arsenal of amazing gadgets, weapons and vehicles.
Everyone has their light and dark sides and Batman dramatises both well. Bravery, morals, strength and a fierce intelligence combine to create a complex character simply brimming with reasons to like and empathise with him. He perfectly demonstrates that heroes don’t have to lap up the limelight, they can often be hated or feared by the general public, who don’t understand how much good he really does for them while they sleep.
Corvo Attano—Dishonored 1–2
‘Forgiveness isn’t my specialty.’
Finding a quote for the once-silent protagonist of Dishonored was rather tricky, let me tell you. Luckily, our mate Corvo is back in Dishonored 2, with a voice no less, and while I have yet to play through the game as the Royal Protector (I just finished my first play through as Emily), I expect to play the character exactly in the same way as I did in the first game.
Corvo Attano was framed for the murder of his lover, Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, in Dishonred and spent the entire game trying to do away with the usurpers of the crown and track down those who had betrayed him and kidnapped his daughter, Emily. Depending on how you played the game, Corvo was either a merciless force of vengeance, killing his targets upon meeting them; or a master of the shadows, manipulating and neutralising his targets in various non-lethal ways—my favourite being when you’re given the opportunity to befriend gang leader Slackjaw who will then abduct your two targets, cut out their tongues and throw them in a mine to work as slaves.
With me pulling the strings, Corvo Attano was no assassin, though he had all the tools of the trade—he was simply a wronged man who was trying to get his daughter safely back onto the throne, and he put himself in danger time and time again to do it. In the time of the Rat Plague, Dunwall brought out the worst in people, but Corvo rose above it all and cleared out the corruption—for the memory of the dead Empress, for his daughter and for the common folk of the Empire.
‘I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.’
His life shattered by circumstances beyond his control, the only thing remaining to him is vengeance. From respected and honourable Roman general to expendable slave, Maximus is driven by a sense of revenge along the long and painful road to Rome, where the man who killed his friend and ordered the murders of his wife and son sits upon the throne as Emperor.
Why do I like Maximus so much? The story of Gladiator shows that characters don’t always have to be in control of their journey. Instead of driving the storyline from location to location, their strength of character comes from how they react to the events that transpire in their lives. Maximus rises above his grief and decides to become the best fighting slave in Rome in order to come face to face with the Emperor and that’s what makes him a strong character. When he has nothing left and is resigned to die, he decides to do one last thing—but his quest to kill the Emperor isn’t simply a selfish one: his family is dead, nothing can bring them back, but he believes he needs to save Rome from the Emperor and reinstate the power of the Senate.
‘You shouldn’t have to go. There are plenty of young men to fight for China!’
(This story varies somewhat, depending on the version, but I first met Mulan in the Disney version.) Set in Mediaeval China, Mulan goes off to war to prevent her father, who is old and carries an old injury, from going off to war and probably getting killed. She steals her father’s armour, cuts her hair and impersonates her fictitious brother in order to become accepted into a recruit army. At first, she is weak and quite hopeless, like many of the other recruits, and a confrontation between herself and her captain, Li Shang, motivates her to try harder, as failure would bring dishonour to her family. Her strength of character, as well as in body, enables her to pass her initial training and she joins the army to go off to war and consequently becomes a champion.
I admire her because she is risking her life to save her father and trying her best to bring honour to her family, but not only that—she wants what all the other soldiers want: to save China.
Commander Shepard—Mass Effect 1–3
‘I’m going to do what you brought me back to do. I’ll fight and win this war without compromising the soul of our species.’
Commander (insert first name here) Shepard is a human—an unpopular race in the universe of Mass Effect, one that other races resent for their greediness and false sense of entitlement. We first meet the Commander on a mission that, thanks to Mass Effect 1‘s antagonist, goes horribly wrong. On the hunt for answers, Shepard gathers a crew of talented aliens and stumbles across an ancient race of machines intent on destroying the galaxy. Despite the mistrust and denial of the galaxy’s most senior authorities, Commander Shepard and co thwart the Reapers’ plans, not once, not twice but three times across the series. There are countless situations that demonstrate Shepard’s bravery and heroism, not least of all is the final endgame moment where you can sacrifice you life to destroy the Reapers for good.
Just like Corvo Attano, the character of Commander Shepard reflects your choices in the game, but regardless of your dialogue or moral choice decisions, you will still be at the forefront of the fight against the Reapers with the aim to save the galaxy. Personally, I enjoy the odd jaunt down the renegade Shepard road (mainly because certain situations need a firm and decisive hand), but I always end up playing as a paragon for the simple reason that that version of Shepard is the one that feels truest to me. Commander Shepard is fierce, brave and strong, but also compassionate. He/she is not fighting simply for him/herself or the human race—he/she is fighting for life itself, the billions of humans and aliens that now live and will live in the future. Can’t really get more heroic than that.
Harry Potter—Harry Potter series
‘There’s a reason I can hear them… the Horcruxes. I think I’ve known for a while. And I think you have too.’
If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series (or at least seen the eight main movies—yes, including the fourth one), then I suggest you do so now, because this is a story that will move you. After the death of his parents, baby Harry was begrudgingly taken in by his aunt and uncle, and for 11 years, he suffered humiliation from his cousin and cruelty from his aunt and uncle. When it was discovered that he was a wizard, however, Harry’s journey from nobody to the hero of the wizarding world is long, believable, and full of wonder, loss and many acts of bravery. At first, he seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time over and over again—acting simply to keep him and his friends alive—but as his character develops, he begins to understand that he needs to involve himself because, if he doesn’t, nobody else will and he knows that, to others, he is a leader who inspires bravery.
The most heroic act that he performs (in my opinion, at least) is when he realises that Lord Voldemort cannot be destroyed unless he, Harry, allows the Dark Lord to kill him. He walks to his death willingly—afraid, yes, and of course with sadness that he will never see his friends again—but he also knows that his sacrifice will mean that everyone he leaves behind will have a chance of defeating Lord Voldemort and his followers, and living free. In the truest sense of the word “hero”, he gives up his own life so that others might live. Good boy.
Garrus Vakarian—Mass Effect 1–3
‘If you don’t respect your enemy’s capabilities, you’re in for one nasty surprise after another.’
There’s something quite special about this NPC. As a young turian, Garrus followed in his father’s footsteps and became a member of C-Sec, the law enforcement agency on the Citadel—the centre of galactic civilisation—in the Mass Effect series. Always willing to go further than duty dictates, Garrus winds up investigating a rogue Spectre agent, Saren, despite being told that the investigation has been closed. He teams up with Commander Shepard and co, and sees the villain brought to justice. But that’s just the beginning of his story.
At the beginning of Mass Effect 2, Garrus has become a notorious vigilante on the crime-infested space station-cum-asteroid Omega. He and his team risk life and limb to pick off the various mercenaries making life hell for the residents of Omega, leading to the creation of his nickname Archangel. He and Shepard reuinte and he agrees to step up, once more, to help save countless lives in the mission to save the galaxy from the Reapers.
But what makes him different to the other crew members? They, after all, also accompany Shepard on his/her mission and risk their lives. Well, I think the answer to that lies in his character and his choices. After quitting C-Sec (due to the amount of red tape that was preventing him from investigating Saren), he didn’t find another job in law enforcement, try out for the Spectres or join the turian army. He became a vigilante and sought out criminals. On a larger scale, he was helping Shepard save the galaxy (again), but when he’s not in Shepard’s shadow, he’s just as willing to put himself in harm’s way to make the galaxy a better place.
Other worthy mentions:
Jon Snow—The Song of Ice and Fire series
Neo, Trinity and Morpheus—The Matrix
Eowyn and the Fellowship—The Lord of the Rings
Luke Skywalker—Star Wars
A collective noun is a word that describes a group of people or things, and there are lot of them, as a different one is used for different situations and types of people. Examples of collective nouns for humans include:
faculty (of academics)
team (of players)
crowd (of people)
gang (of thieves)
choir (of singers)
troupe (of performers)
audience (of listeners)
Animals are usually grouped by species or kind:
herd (of buffalo)
pride (of lions)
school (of fish)
colony (of ants)
troop (of monkeys)
murder (of crows)
flock (of birds)
But when it comes to inanimate objects, the following can be used:
chain (of islands)
fleet (of ships)
library (of books)
wealth (of information)
bouquet (of flowers)
convoy (of vehicles)
constellation (of stars)
As you can see, there’s a lot and some get very peculiar, especially the older ones (a clench of sphincters and a beautification of spatulas, for instance). But once you collect a group of somethings, does that make the collective a singular or plural entity?
The clue here is to look at the article.
The colony of ants
A fleet of ships
The choir of singers
Despite the fact we are talking about multiple things (ants, ships, singers), the act of collecting them together into a group means they become a single entity. If you remove the singers, ants and ships from the sentences, you’re left with a colony, a fleet and a choir—all of which are easily singular entities.
The colony (of ants) was destroyed in the flood.
A fleet (of ships) is entering the harbour.
The choir (of singers) is heading to London.
So while we are talking about multiple people or things, the act of collecting them together into groups merges them into a singular entity.
How this affects things like companies, bands and sporting teams is a bit of a contested issue, depending on your locality. I covered this in proper nouns.