Exit Villain and pet Cthulu, left

Idle curiosity: without looking it up, what, if anything do you know of HP Lovecraft? Be honest. Color me stunned if more than one in ten get further than Cthulu (which was all I could do) ;-).

Okay so I’m not a horror fan, and found it more like the Eye of Argon than naked sweaty terror, but it did inspire mockery. It also provided a model for the bust presented at the World Fantasy Awards. Suddenly, suddenly, a mere ?35 years after the fact, it emerges that Lovecraft (An East Coast American who, it turns out was a rabid Anglophile, who thought the American Revolution a very poor sort of show eh wot.) disapproved of all these swarthy types (he was an equal opportunity hater, regarding as inferior anything that wasn’t Anglo-Saxon). The ‘racist’ hue and cry is up among those of our sisteren and bretheren who like to jump on these bandwagons. He’s dead, so I doubt if he cares, or, until it was pointed out, anyone else did. Chuckle. I wonder if pointing out he was also an avowed atheist, a socialist, and a loud supporter of the Democratic Party under FDR is tactful?

Which brings me around to my theme for day: The complexity of villains. It’s amazing how these leap onto the stage fully formed and so co-operatively comprehensively (and often politically correctly) evil. I know there is a large stock of white Christian heterosexual middle-aged men all queuing up for the job (as everything else has a sign saying ‘no WCHMM need apply’) but let’s be real here. Even Adolf Hitler was supposed to have been kind to his Daschund Mitzi. Seriously, if fantasy and sf for me have a weakness it is the lack clearly defined motives for why villains are what they are. Yes, I know, the intellectually lazy (and, incidentally, racist, sexist etc, etc) WCHMM label means they just are evul by breathing, but let’s be real here. I’m a believer in the idea that real evil and nastiness lurks – at least potentially – in all humans. The odd thing is there is no shortage of real motives, especially when you, the author, are playing God, arranging their back-history, building their world. And even the most despicable villains do have Mitzi-sides to themselves.

So let’s here it. What have you read lately that had a truly believable villain?

27 thoughts on “Exit Villain and pet Cthulu, left

  1. Every time I come across a complex, amazing villain, the author kills them off while keeping the cliche villain around. Frustrating.

    YA has seen a decided lacking of complex villains lately. In the fantasy arena, Jim Butcher’s Lady Aquitaine in his Codex Alera series is a very complex villain, though most of the others aren’t. She’s a hero when some other villain is trying to interfere with her villainy, but a villain against the ruling king, a nominal good guy. Good grey-area villain.

  2. Re. Lovecraft: “The Windigo.” And I had a Miskatonic U faculty parking permit on my car while I was in grad school. (It didn’t help with finding a parking spot.)

    Villains. I have to admit it has been so long since I’ve read fiction that no recent one leaps to mind. Of older works, the senator Adrian Bronson in the CoDominium books, the one who so hated Col. Falkenberg that he was willing to destroy the planet of Sparta just because they supported Falkenberg, struck me as a very plausible villain. Bronson never, ever forgave Falkenberg for not dying instead of the Senator’s nephew, and that obsession, combined with Bronson’s political and corporate goals, became a mania that justified all sorts of things, even as the CoDominium was falling apart around him.

  3. Idle curiosity: without looking it up, what, if anything do you know of HP Lovecraft? Be honest. Color me stunned if more than one in ten get further than Cthulu (which was all I could do) .

    I’m horrible about names, but I could describe several of them– only read one or two stories, but he’s very popular for some folks to steal from, especially the recent game “The Secret World.”

    I think Cthulu is so popular among his Elder Gods because he looks scary — how do you draw an ageless horror that simply doesn’t care about anything human and sends you mad at a glance? The various melted looking things, ditto, and fungus guys; the thousand footed mass thingie yazshargoth or sommat that D&D stole has been used as a joke too often, even though seeing it is supposed to drive folks mad….. The water demon Dagon guy has major YMMV on how he’s used. Usually just glorified Black Lagoon stuff.

    I agree about villains, though. The most complex one I’ve seen recently is Robin McKinley’s Pegasus


    where the villain just doesn’t like the main character because she didn’t do what he expected, and later because her existence doing that unexpected thing is a threat to his authority.

    Want a realistic villain? Have them hurt people because they just don’t care. That’s how the worst damage I’ve suffered was inflicted.

      1. Thinking more along the lines of some of the worst ways I’ve been hurt, personally– they could have empathy, they just ignored the possibility because it would conflict with their own desires.

        Think along the lines of those pictures of Nazis in their off time– medical personnel, I think– all happy, smiling, normal… and did horrible, horrible things to the people who Didn’t Matter.

        Tribal thinking is pretty horrific, really, if you’ve internalized (at least the rightness of*) the judeo-christian notion of “all humans are people.”

        (*thinking over some of my past reading, I suspect it’s a lot harder to really internalize all-humans-are-people, even when you ignore the “what you actually can see is more real” effect.)

  4. It’s that “fiction has to be believeable, even though real life doesn’t” problem. As writers, we have to give our villains reasons, or just keep them pretty much off the page. I think Lois Bujold does a good job with villains, but even hers seem over done, at times. How could anyone possibly be as nasty as those Jackson Whole Barons? Even if we know all about torture through the ages and Adi Amin’s dietary habits. Hitler? If he were a fictional character, we’d laugh. Yeah, sure, enjoyed the read, chilling. But in the next book _please_ give us a realistic villain.

    1. Heh. Always a problem, isn’t it? I suppose because we’re messing with so many OTHER ‘realities’ the standard of logically plausible is higher.

  5. While I like a “good villain”, I enjoy more the adversary type character, One aspect of the “adversary” is that you can see the hero working with him under other situations. Such as when they have a common foe. Both the hero and his adversary can be good people but have oppossing goals. One example would be a British agent is working for the good of Britain while his adversary is a French agent working for the good of France. They might work together if a third party’s goals are against both France and Britain. IMO hero vs adversary stories can be much better than hero vs villain stories.

    1. That’s a good point, Drak. Of course, given my own morality and beliefs I believe the adversary also needs decision points in their story. That’s kind of what humans have to do. ‘He always brings down to choices’ to paraphrase one of my own stories.

  6. Idle curiosity: without looking it up, what, if anything do you know of HP Lovecraft? Be honest. Color me stunned if more than one in ten get further than Cthulu (which was all I could do) 😉 .

    “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” was my introduction. Gutenberg has “The Shunned House” which I read recently. I also have a Cthulhu short story collection somewhere around here to go with younger son’s plush Cthulhus. Yes we even had the Jimmy Buffet Cthulhu.

      1. He had a personal life? Up until recently, authors were black boxes who produced alternate realities for me to live. It’s been a mixed bag finding out they are real people.

        1. Actually, Lovecraft started out racist mostly because he was shy and really didn’t like crowds of sweaty stinky people, as far as I can tell. So he was racist against anyone in hot weather. He has incredibly “racist” things to say about crowds of WASPs like himself, non-WASP white people, black people, Oriental people, Cajun/alien hybrids, WASP/elder god hybrids, etc., etc….

          As he got older, he came out of himself a bit, made sf buddies, got a girlfriend, stopped having such bad agoraphobia, etc. As a result, his portrayal of people in the mass got a lot kinder.

  7. Actually, though kept largely off screen and seen only at a remove, Sara Hoyt’s villains in the Darkship Thieves novel, and later in A Few Good Men (coming soon) are believable and have reasonable motives for their villainy.

  8. I found George RR Martin’s villains to be pretty well-rounded. In fact by book 5, he has me feeling a little bit of grudging respect for Jaime Lannister, who threw a kid out of a window in book one. Yes, it was a despicable thing to do, but even Jaime has a code of honour. Only one of his antagonists is truly bad for bad’s sake, and that’s the Bastard of Bolton.

    I have three antagonists in my WIP. The major one is female, a secondary one might fit the description above, being male, white and a power-hungry member of the aristocracy. A third starts out as an antagonist, but isn’t all bad, and despite his hatred of the MC, for something quite ironic, ends up surprising everyone.

    1. 🙂 Yes, but GRRM body-count gets me down :-). I have no problem with SOME WCHMM villains. It’s just got to the point of being so predictable, even in murder mysteries you can spot the villain at 300 paces.

  9. I think most of David Weber’s villains are believable. Maybe not all the ones in his fantasies though most of them are too, but definitely the vast majority of his SF villains have plausible reasons for doing what they do

  10. Something in here reminded me of the Columbo TV shows. The trick there was that you always started off knowing who the bad guy (or girl) was, and part of what Columbo is doing is digging out the reason. More “whydunit” than “whodunit,” with a healthy dose of “howdunit.” This often results in a grey villain, or a tragic one, because we do understand what drove them. Actually, the mystery genre tends to strong villains because they do expect the motivation to be revealed. Can you imagine Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple saying, “They did it because they are the president of a big oil company?” Nah…

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