[SPOILER ALERT: There may be unintentional spoilers though I’ve done my best to minimize discussing major plot points – but be aware nevertheless.]
Heroes are what most stories are about, but one character who can make or break a story for me is the villain. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a story is only as good as its villain. When you think about it, the villain is the chief threat for the hero. If the villain is weak, then there isn’t much for the hero to do and the story suffers. But if the villain is strong and a nearly equal match for the hero, then the story will likely be rife with drama and tension. Thus, most of my favorite stories usually contain a very memorable baddie. So for this post, I’m going to explore my top five favorite villains from print fiction (but who may have since been adapted to film or television).
#5 – The Ten Men (The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart)
Appearance: These gents win the award for Best Dressed on this list. Always donning expensive suits, accessories, and cologne, the Ten Men opt for a classy look as one of their assets is the ability to pose as common businessmen. They’re almost always outfitted with a briefcase containing assorted weapons (crafted from office supplies) and don shock watches to electrocute victims. While a few of the Ten Men’s physical attributes are isolated, it’s McCracken, the head Ten Man, who gets the most attention. He’s the leader and for good reason as his size and strength are often emphasized. (After all, any guy who is described as “a huge man with shoulders like bedside tables” better be leader, right?)
Backstory: In book one, The Mysterious Benedict Society, we see the early origins of the Ten Men as Recruiters, men hired by Ledropatha Curtain to “recruit” (i.e. kidnap) children and bring them to his Institute. Hinting at their later incarnation as the Ten Men, Recruiters wear suits, shock watches, and go overboard with the cologne. Their eventual disbanding and renaming as the Ten Men comes from the fact that they have ten ways to inflict harm.
Why They’re Bad: The Ten Men are in the employ of the nefarious Mr. Curtain, who pays them handsomely. In fact, the Ten Men follow him solely for a paycheck and because they enjoy destroying things and hurting people. On that note, Mr. Curtain often brings McCracken in to help plan some of his schemes and McCracken seems willing to lend aid but delivers a good dose of sarcasm, implying he doesn’t strive for the same aims as his employer. McCracken also displays a certain ability of foresight as, on many occasions, he can predict the moves of the “enemy” before nary a move is made. Thus, these gents are clever, ruthless, and cunning though they don’t react well to the element of surprise as they’re more methodological in their approach.
Good Points: Their negative qualities double as positives: they’re intelligent; good at reading people; capable trackers; can see through ruses, misdirection, and lies; and hold their own in a fight.
Why I Like Them: The Ten Men are classic henchmen figures but they’re not stupid and approach their line of “work” with a calm, casual air combined with a polished exterior. This gives them a sinister quality that, in some respects, is more frightening than Mr. Curtain’s presence since they pose more of an overt, physical danger to the lead characters. Also, the fact they don’t use guns and knives – in favor of killer pencils and exploding calculators – softens their image to make them suitable for kids while still being formidable.
#4 – Pitch (The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce)
Appearance: Pitch is a shadow-covered figure who is human in form yet technically not Human. The book’s illustrations often depict Pitch as having dark, flyaway hair and donning shadowy armor and/or garments. He’s tall and lithe, much like the way a shadow exaggerates a person’s shape, and he carries himself with a noble air.
Backstory: Pitch’s real name is Kozmotis Pitchiner and he was originally from the constellation Orion, so he’s otherworldly yet Human in appearance. In the past, Pitch served as a commander of celestial armies that fought against the Dream Pirates, insidious beings that brought nightmares to life. Pitch battled these nefarious foes until they got the better of him. Realizing Pitch’s family was his heart’s weakness, the Dream Pirates schemed to kill Pitch’s wife and daughter. Before their assault, Pitch’s daughter sneaks aboard a star boat and sails away to safety. In the meantime, her mother sacrifices herself by devising a ruse so the Dream Pirates believe both she and her child have died; and though Lady Pitchiner does not survive, she knows her daughter is safe. Satisfied, the Pirates brag to Pitch of their victory, resulting in their immediate execution by his hand. Pitch then vows revenge and stations himself as the sole guard of a prison where shadowy nightmare beings called Fearlings are held. In time, Pitch is deceived and, in a moment of weakness, becomes possessed by the same dark forces he hates.
Why He’s Bad: Pitch is the Nightmare King who commands a vast array of dark beings and is capable of performing magic to deceive and trick his “enemies.” While I absolutely love the film The Rise of the Guardians, its version of Pitch is decidedly less dark. In the film, he’s the Boogeyman, a powerful trickster with a playful side, bent on spreading nightmares to children and crushing their belief in the Guardians. His primary grief, as it were, is that no one believes in him. But in the books, Pitch is a dark force whose desire is to spread nightmares to children everywhere simply because he is so consumed with darkness himself.
Good Points: Pitch possesses a high level of intelligence and is no amateur at magic. He is capable of using foresight to plan his next move and is very goal-oriented. A final point in his favor is that Pitch has the ability to be redeemed as his daughter seems like the only person who can bring out any softer emotions in him. Thus, Pitch’s heart isn’t 100% black (just 99.9%).
Why I Like Him: Out of all of the villains on this list, Pitch is the only one who started off as a good, noble hero, hence why I believe he can be redeemed. Unlike most children’s stories where villains tend to be safe, cookie-cutter baddies with no how or why regarding what they do, Pitch breaks the mold by being scary (but not too scary) and has an origin that explains what drives him. Not to mention it evokes sympathy as Pitch becomes evil, not because he desired to be but because he was taken advantage of in a sense. Thus, Pitch is the only villain you can feel sorry for, which makes him a well-rounded baddie indeed.
#3 – Negan (The Walking Dead comics, adapted for television)
Appearance: Negan is a physically imposing man who, naturally, looks the part of a leader. In the television adaptation, Negan is played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a casting choice I think was spot-on. While no comic-to-screen casting is ever going to be a perfect match, I think Morgan is as close as you can get without hiring a clone to play the part (and I don’t think we want any Negan clones running around). In both versions, ever by Negan’s side is his trusty barbwire-covered baseball bat named Lucille with which (or maybe “with whom” because Negan talks to and about her like she’s a person) he can inflict death and destruction with a single swing. He’s also known for touting an extremely foul mouth and can use the f-word as every part of speech known to the English language. Much like in A Christmas Story where Ralphie’s father “worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay,” so does Negan dabble in the art of sarcastic wit, sadistic humor, and no-bounds swearing.
Backstory: Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead comics, presents Negan’s pre-zombie apocalypse occupation as a teacher/coach who wanted to be perceived as the “cool” teacher. He was also married to a cancer-stricken wife (yet this evidently didn’t stop him from cheating on her). In time, Negan becomes the fearless, fierce king-like leader of the Saviors. His band of survivors exists under a system of give and take where they do far more of the latter and far less of the former: they protect surrounding communities from Walkers (i.e. zombies) in exchange for a portion of the communities’ supplies, always taking more than what they really need. Those who refuse or fight back are punished in unreasonably cruel ways. Negan’s philosophy is that he’s actually doing these communities a service by using strong-arm tactics in exchange for offering them protection. However, Negan seems to possess some remnants of a heart as he takes a non-creepy liking to Rick Grimes’ (the chief protagonist) son, Carl; has a distaste for sexual violence; and, while he amasses a harem, doesn’t abuse his wives.
Why He’s Bad: Negan employs a sense of twisted logic where he forces people to do what he wants them to under the guise that he’s open to negotiation. In reality, the communities he bullies are put in a bind – give in to Negan’s demands or pay the consequences, often with a tragic loss of life. In truth, Negan isn’t 100% psychopathic as he will listen to a well-reasoned argument albeit he doesn’t feel compelled to agree with it and probably won’t. That being said, he has a taste for violence and shows no mercy towards anyone whom he feels has slighted him or broken his rules.
Good Points: The fact Negan wants to establish at least some sense of order amid chaos is, in and of itself, admirable. Likewise, his governing philosophy, while morally murky, is that rules keep people safe. He’s also disgusted by sexual violence, calling it “unseemly,” and one of his rules is, “We don’t rape,” and even an attempted rape is punishable by death. Lastly, his charisma enables others to follow him (though swinging a barbwire-covered baseball bat will probably have something to do with that, too).
Why I Like Him: Negan is nearly a pure psychopath as he ultimately acts out of his own self-interests, feels little remorse or guilt, displays violent behavior, and can adopt an empathetic attitude with a disarming and charismatic air. However, I say nearly because Negan assumes a quasi-paternal attitude towards Carl. Granted, it’s rife with his usual brand of profane humor, but ultimately Negan doesn’t do Carl any real harm and, later on, even agrees to help Rick Grimes fight some common enemies. Thus, there seems to be a strand of good inside of Negan that prevents him from becoming 100% evil. Still, he truly is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
#2 – Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)
Appearance: As a youth, Tom Malvolo Riddle (Voldemort’s real name) is described as handsome, but that quickly disappears when he allows his ugly inner desire for power to manifest itself. Using magic, Tom transformed himself to mimic a snake (as, being a parselmouth, he can talk to snakes). After this change, Voldemort sports serpentine facial features, including slit-like pupils and nostrils, and an overall waxy appearance. Seemingly tall, thin, but undeniably imposing, Voldemort commands respect from his followers and elicits fear from those who would dare to defy him.
Backstory: Tom was the son of Merope Gaunt, a witch from an abusive household, and Tom Riddle, a handsome Muggle. When Riddle left, abandoning his wife, Merope did her best to survive while pregnant with her son. Finally, she gave birth in an orphanage and died soon after even though she had the power to save herself. Young Tom grew up without knowledge of his heritage until Albus Dumbledore showed up at the orphanage and Tom was welcomed into Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. However, even at an early age Tom had a habit for using magical skills for ill, from stealing to being a bully. In time, he honed his dark talents, renamed himself Lord Voldemort (an anagram of his full name), and amassed followers known as Death Eaters. Thus, Voldermort became a deadly threat to the Wizarding community, committing murder and leaving mayhem in his wake.
Why He’s Bad: Lord Voldemort is the epitome of the perfect Svengali villain as he has everything you need to make a great baddie: a desire for power and control; cold, calculating logic; a frigid, unsympathetic heart; the ability to read minds and detect lies; cleverness; impressive rhetoric; sympathetic backstory; and an aim to spread death and destruction. Combine all of that with the ability to do some of the darkest magic imaginable, and you’ve got yourself one almost unbeatable foe.
Good Points: Lord Voldemort is not an idiot as his deductive reasoning abilities are incredibly high as are his foresight and ability to plan. He’s charismatic enough to gather followers yet retains them by ensuring their loyalty. Not to mention he’s a powerful wizard. These are all good things in and of themselves, but combined with the sheer badness that is Lord Voldemort, they cease to be anything positive.
Why I Like Him: Lord Voldemort is just bad. Like Pitch, his backstory is tragic but he made wrong choices as a youth to do evil and abuse others, which carried over into his adult life. Likewise, Voldemort is the type of villain you want to see defeated because there is no good left in him. While in the final book Harry asks Voldemort to “try for some remorse” and repent of his wicked ways, Voldemort refuses. So from start to finish, Lord Voldemort is a quintessential baddie – the very worst of the worst.
#1 – Grand Admiral Thrawn (Thrawn trilogy and standalone novel by Timothy Zahn; Star Wars Rebels TV show)
Appearance: Thrawn (whose full name is actually Mitth’raw’nuruodo) is from a humanoid alien race known as the Chiss, who inhabit the galaxy’s Unknown Regions. Like his fellow Chiss, Thrawn possesses striking bright, blue skin; dark blue-black hair; and naturally glowing red eyes (which actually enable him to detect infrared light/heat more so than a Human). Naturally, and especially combined with the white uniform befitting his rank, Thrawn is a visually striking character even among his fellow officers, who sometimes find his humanoid form yet clearly alien attributes disconcerting.
Backstory: Through a series of events, Thrawn is exiled from his homeworld and eventually catches the Empire’s attention. He quickly impresses those around him with his sharp intellect and tactical insight, so the Emperor places him in Imperial navy service and intentionally elevates him quickly through the ranks, eventually awarding Thrawn with the highest honor of Grand Admiral. As Grand Admiral, Thrawn oversaw several missions to quell the Rebellion’s attempts to strike back against the Empire’s forces. Through it all, he revealed himself to be not only a valuable asset to the Empire’s naval ranks but also to his crew and even his enemies, who generally held him in the highest regard.
Why He’s Bad: Thrawn might be a villain but he’s not evil. Instead, he earns the title of baddie simply due to his choice of alliances as, being an Imperial officer, he’s in direct opposition to Star Wars‘ heroes who represent the cause of the Rebellion. Other than for that reason alone, Thrawn would actually have made for an interesting good guy as he possesses numerous traits that one would be more pressed to find in a heroic character as opposed to a villain. However, Thrawn is mindful to keep the Empire’s interests at heart, hence why he will be willing to fight Rebel forces and track down Jedi as he believes doing so advances the Empire’s cause. (That being said, Thrawn actually harbors personal reasons for joining the Empire’s service in the first place, namely the ability to gather intelligence on potential threats and the opportunity to combat said threats should they pose as dangers to his own people. While this isn’t a motivation Thrawn lets known to too many people, it’s an inherent drive that urges him to do what he does in terms of big picture decisions.)
Good Points: As stated, Thrawn has a lot of traits that are positive, such as his Sherlock-esque means of deduction, high level of intelligence, level-headedness in battle, tactical expertise, intense curiosity, and internal motivation to protect his people despite being officially labeled an exile. Thus, Thrawn’s actions are done latently for the good of his people as, being an exile, he can never benefit from any such actions as he can never return to his homeworld, thus he displays a certain degree of selflessness which is rather unlike a traditional villain. Likewise, unlike Darth Vader, the most easily recognizable Star Wars villain who commands respect out of a sense of fear, Thrawn commands respect based on a sense of loyalty. Thrawn’s crew is willing to follow orders because they trust him and respect him as an officer and a noble person who, many times, will try to avoid taking too many casualties (unless doing so cannot be helped). Similarly, Thrawn dislikes bloodletting for the sake of bloodletting and senseless brutality and even sees no problem in stepping away from a fight if pressing onward would waste resources or valuable crewmen. Lastly, Thrawn is intensely curious and pays an incredible attention to detail, and this is no better reflected than in his deep appreciation for art. To him, learning another culture’s art is like looking through a window into that culture, so he is able to glean what a particular culture deems as important or what they fear simply by studying their art. Overall, Thrawn is the only villain on this list to possess so many good points. Were it not for his alignment with the Empire, he would have made an impressive Rebel indeed!
Why I Like Him: Grand Admiral Thrawn is an outstanding character thanks to his tactical expertise, sharp intellect, careful attention to detail, unique appreciation for art, and intriguing cultural background. It almost makes you feel bad that he’s considered a villain because he possesses a lot of attributes that would have made him an awesome good guy. Not to mention that, despite his incredible smarts, Thrawn isn’t all-knowing, and I enjoy this aspect to his character as it keeps him from becoming too good to be true or too larger than life. Overall, Thrawn rightfully assumes the top spot on my favorite villains list due to his fascinating combination of positive traits that, unfortunately, are put to use for the Empire’s service, which pits him against Star Wars‘ notable heroes. That being said, he isn’t an evil or even a bad person: he’s simply chosen the wrong side in the conflict but has made this choice for, what he believes, is the good of his fellow Chiss. Regardless, Thrawn is an incredibly complex, intriguing character who fairly deserves this list’s top spot!