The worst villain

Dolores Umbridge. Loathsome, hands down, for me. Tops Voldemort or even Sauron (yes, they were evil indeed). But I think the truth of the matter is every one KNOWS a Dolores. The petty, useless, bureaucrat who uses the power of the state to ‘help’ you, who never succeeded at anything, never managed any sort of power and leadership their putrid little ego demands, so took this job. The sort of person who will smile and tell you they’re only doing this for your good, while reveling in the power of yanking your chain around. And if you get near a goal-post… they’ll move it.

They’re people with whom every government is rife, seething like maggots in a corpse. All too often, given Pournelle’s Iron law of Bureaucracy – they’ll end up as the ones in control of most departments, where, because they’re useless at anything but internal politics (rather than the purpose -if it ever had one) of the department they spend any spare time making the lives of those who do something useful more heavily laden and worse. There seems a sort of inverse correlation where the worst end up in large ‘sections’ of whatever – in things which really are close to utterly irrelevant and worthless. I suspect they get shipped off there from the more useful places to get rid of them, but it could be they get recruited there by equally useless bosses, and never go anywhere. The one thing you can guarantee, is there’s never just one. Like bowflies, they seem to attract their own kind.

And the other thing you can guarantee is rules are always magically interpreted the way that will cause you most difficulty. I’m dealing an amazing one right now. You all know about people moving houses from point A to their new property? Right, it’s common in any country with timber-frame houses. The entire house – sometimes in sections, sometimes whole, is picked up – put on a transport, driven to a new site, put on new footings, and bob’s your auntie. One of the cheaper, quickest, and most ecologically friendly ways getting yourself a new house where you want it.

In Australia it’s relatively common. Not as common as it could be — there are plenty of beautiful old houses out on farms which used to to be 10 farms and are now one. Too far out to rent, they just rot, because even demolishing them costs. But as old houses are made with Australian hardwood which is brilliant, tough stuff, the old houses don’t rot fast. Given Australia has a massive building and housing problem and homes you wouldn’t pay 50 K for in the US will sell here for 500 K if you’re lucky, it’s something that you’d think that there’d be more call for — but we’ve been a wealthy country. Still, it’s is quite normal. Old houses, on new stumps.

Now, I don’t know about the US, but our building codes change like others change their underwear (why houses are SO expensive). It’s all softwood, but stamped. Every single thing has specifications – even the most irrelevant. The houses don’t last and are rubbish – but they are to code. Doing it yourself is a minefield – straight illegal in many cases as a bit of rent-seeking for the various trades. But… old houses, any work done is to the standard of the code when they were built. And herein lies the charm of a old house. It’s all done, and if you need to fix anything, it’s quite do-able. No old house would pass modern code. If you wanted it to, you’d have to strip it down and rebuild it, with new materials (softwood (stamped) not hardwood) and go through dozens of inspections and extra bureaucratic rubbish.

So: the whole relocating houses industry runs on the new part (the stumps being new build, new code, and, obviously because otherwise it can never comply, original building, old code. Otherwise it is just impossible to ever do it.

Except I now have a local petty bureaucrat saying “No, it’s entirely a new build.” I’ve moved the house 400 yards. The planning authority that passed it last time – 50 or more years back… is the one she works for. Not good enough! But each step is to yank your chain a little more: ‘Oh we just want this’. Not ONE thing has ever just gone straight through, ever. It’s always the next thing…

Yes, I have had 6 years of fighting this now. Yes, it colors your work. Many villains in many stories are obviously not petty bureaucrats – but the attitude of them rubs off!

So: where do you get your villains from?

33 thoughts on “The worst villain

  1. Often, I think of Homeowners’ Associations as especially evil. Everything from exterior paint out is their pitch. Plant new shrub? Need HOA permit! Move a shrub? Permit! Repaint exterior? Umm, of course! Add cover box to water feature control? Don’t ask.
    Why are they especially evil? THEY VOLUNTEER TO INTERFERE WITH YOUR “CASTLE”. Something like getting a “dose” at a brothel from a “freebie”.

  2. > Except I now have a local petty bureaucrat saying “No, it’s entirely a new build.”

    Who is her manager? Her manager’s manager?

  3. I think I often pull from multiple sources. I’ve put in a Umbridge or two in my writings. I will posit that a Umbridge can be worked around, as often they seek recognition and the power they feel comes from that recognition. The ones that get me, the truly evil to the core, versus a Umbridge who has to work and plan at being evil, are those who are apathetic. They just don’t care, don’t care to be bothered, their own interests, what ever they may be, are first and foremost in their minds. They have no thought but for themselves, their brand, and their next thing.

    I suppose one could argue that being willfully cruel like a Umbridge is worse than being so uncaring that neglect would be a step in the right direction.

  4. There are a couple of co-workers from back in the late 1980-90s who really cheesed me off through egregious behavior. They are the villains in a nautical adventure series I have plotted out – supercilious and marginally-competent (but well-connected) Royal Navy officers at the start of the Wars of French Revolution.

    David Drake is said to do the same thing.

  5. I am well familiar with the type of petty, small minded person that derives joy from causing others frustration and suffering. While that class of villain exists here and there in my story lines, I do have others that just ooze up from the cracks…

    There is the well meaning, earnest type of villain that only wants the best for you! And only they know what’s best for you, no matter what you claim is true. Such persons cannot fathom freedom. Not in thought. Not in deed. Surely all the free thought and choice is terrible for you. Conformity would make you much happier, and better morally speaking. This sort of thinking allows for all sorts of evil, as it is done with the highest of purposes in mind.

    Then you have the clock punch evil that does ill towards you because it is the job. They don’t hate you. They don’t pity you. They just see harming you as a task to complete. And complete it they will, efficiently. Morals do not even enter the equation. Thus you get the torturer that is just there to extract confessions. All the pain caused is just a means to an end. It impacts the torturer even less than light rain on a cool day.

    If you should ever have run into the little men or women that go through life with a chip on their shoulder the size of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, you will recognize the sort of villain that only feels good when they beat you down. Petty bullies, in other words. These are mook-like side characters that usually torment the protagonist for a chapter or two before getting a satisfying comeuppance in chapter four or so. Noble brats are usually of this type.

    I have sadists that began as merely corrupt or thuggish and were later carefully trained into the monstrous beings they became. These can be complex villains that derive joy from breaking the strong, but otherwise don’t care to harm the weak. They can be vile things that delight in the corruption of innocence and revel in the suffering they cause, contrariwise. Either way, their driving force is causing pain to others, whatever rules they follow otherwise.

    A very few of my villains have been addicts. Take a normal person, apply unreasonable stress, and give them a substance that makes that stress all seem to magically go away. Briefly. Something that makes them feel human again. Or superhuman. Or bloody well magical. Ridiculously good. They would do absolutely anything to get their fix. And in the process, they do evil. Addicts are fundamentally broken people. The addiction replaces all morals if it gets bad enough.

    Then there are the ones that started out normal. They didn’t set out to become evil, but slid slowly down into it. Perhaps they just wanted to fit in. They don’t consider themselves evil, most of the time. Their victims “deserve” what is done to them. That sort of corrosion of the soul eventually corrupts the whole. They become evil over time, bit by bit.

    Good villains need to be crafted with as much care as the protagonist, I think. One of the things I’d like to do in the future is look at the process of redeeming a particularly bad villain. Reforming, say, a necromancer that fuels his spells with the eternal suffering of his victims should be a monumental task. One that would definitely have at least a halfway decent story in it.

    1. Then there are the ones who did something horrible because they did not know better, but cannot risk their own sense of self by accepting the mistake.

      Instead they just double down, and double down, and double down again, because it is easier than admitting they were wrong.

  6. There is a 25-foot fan palm tree in front of my house . It’s heaving up the sidewalk and my retaining wall, and it casts a shadow on my solar panels during the most productive part of the day.

    The city won’t let me remove it. It’s a City Tree on City Property so I can’t touch it. There’s not even a process for applying to have it removed. I told them it’s heaving up the sidewalk, and they said they’d fix the sidewalk. They’ll keep fixing the sidewalk; they’ve got a process for that. They don’t have a process for removing the cause of the problems. It’s all stuck-on-stupid.

    The city didn’t even plant it. Nobody did. Here in southern Kalifornia, fan palms are weeds. They spring up everywhere.
    The government can mandate stupidity, but they can’t make it not be stupid.

    1. It would be a shame if something coincidentally killed it.

      The coincidence would have to be pretty darned sneaky, though.

      The other problem is that you’d have a potentially dangerous dead tree sitting there.

      Is there any chance that the tree could be interfering with power lines or sewer lines or water lines? Does the city have an official arborist, who would know what forms need to be filled out to get him assigned to stuff?

      1. Not that I could find. Nobody could (or would) tell me if there even IS a way to remove a tree from that little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street.

        If it was in my yard, I could just cut it down, but everything from the edge of the sidewalk out is controlled by the city. If they find any problems, though, I have to fix them. I can be sued if somebody trips over the sidewalk heaved up by a tree I can’t remove.

          1. I was just thinking, this sounds like a terrible accident about to befall a tree. With no witnesses around. (Does the mob, or a tong, do arboricide?)

  7. My Dad was lucky when working as an apartment manager/building maintenance person, and later as part of the city’s parks district. There were a bunch of bonehead bureaucrats in offices that reminded everyone that these things were mandated. The city inspector would show up as he just finished up (I think he sat down the street waiting considering the number of times it happened) and remark, “My but you got a contractor out here fast today,” and then sign off on the work after inspecting it.

  8. Have you considered taking up with your MP’s office? I see that your representative is relatively new, so possibly is interested in helping instead of collecting graft. Umbridges tend to scatter like cockroaches in light when a higher authority pays a call.

  9. So: where do you get your villains from?

    I try to figure out villains that I can see how they got there, even if I don’t agree with them– it feels more satisfying when I’m making a story if it Makes Sense to me.

  10. Conrad explored this in his Heart of Darkness. There were two villains: Kurtz, who went into the jungle and went mad with what he found out there and within himself, and the Station Manager, who created the situation where nothing could get done and stranded Kurtz in the jungle, all to satisfy his own venal profits.

    Kurtz was the red and lusty devil, and the Station Manager was the pale and flabby devil.

    As bad as Kurtz got, you could still have some admiration for him: he had intelligence and courage, he sought and dared and dreamed, and he brought back an answer, even if it was “the horror, the horror.”

    The Station Manager? Absolutely and unrelievedly loathsome.

  11. Historical characters; people who get locked into an ideology that will Fix All The Things that they think are wrong; people who want revenge for slights they think were inflicted on them by the protagonist (“I’d have been the greatest/most-loved/company president if you hadn’t [thing]”); people who decide that they will do anything for power and the control it gives them; people who are sure that the universe must Be This Way and will eliminate anyone who goes a different direction (or whose parents went a different direction) because the individual’s existence shows that there is an option.

    In other words, real-world tendencies dialed up, with a dash of supernatural or sci-fi blended in. Power over others is a common theme, I notice. Make of it what you will . . .

    1. Oooh, the Perfect System, with the *nearly* correct beliefs going into it– just needs a little help and then everything will be good….

      Reminds me of the more easily redeemable ones, though– the folks who are just doing their best in a bad situation, with reasonably sympathetic definitions of “best.”

      Those can be really scary opponents…but if they’re given an out, they can convert over to A Better Situation (and being a good guy) fairly easily.

      Teal’c of Stargate: SG1 is the one that comes to mind right off the bat.

  12. Okay, you’ve made me wonder: Is the old house/new house thing hardwood/softwood, or is it post-and-beam vs. studs-and-sheathing? Seismic reinforcement ought to answer any question about post-and-beam.

    1. It’s really about the wood having a stamp stating it passed some standard test. Not all of it of course. A supposedly random bit. The petty bureaucrats involved can’t tell what it is without the stamp (yes, lots of easy ways to tell).

  13. About 19 years ago I was stationed on Bragg for nine or ten months. While driving down Bragg Boulevard I saw a billboard from Montgomery County, North Carolina Social Services claiming that 12000 families had been “impacted.”

    All I could see, and I saw it clearly, and in an instant, was some poor guy, being held belly down on the dirt outside his mobile home, by four beefy “social workers,” with his drawers pulled down to his knees and a fifth social worker driving a shit back up this guy’s ass with a 12 pound sledge hammer.


    1. Oh good. I’m not the only one who learned that meaning first. (Followed closely by what an artillery round or meteorite do.)

  14. “So: where do you get your villains from?”

    I read these posts and use yours, Dave. ~:D

    Current WIP, I’m using The Perfect System bad guy mentioned above. Utopia, achieved by killing those who don’t measure up. By stealth of course, because the bad guy is a process-oriented pencil-neck.

    I started with evil Canadian pencil-necks and progressed through Americans to North Koreans and now China.

    This process is quite instructive. The basis of the proposition is that ridiculously over-powered protagonists require problems they can’t solve by punching people in the face.

    You have to get away from the bellicose Army General guy, because he can be solved with megatons per second. You have to go digging for the pencil-neck who thought up the idea of holding a whole city hostage, or the leader of the brain-washing gang who made it possible, or the -imbeciles- who thought they could get ahead by doing deals with guys like that.

    Many small evils require a distributed approach. Even the big aliens can’t wave their magic wand and fix everything, it all has to be done at the individual level. -People- do evil. It requires people to find it and fix it.

    I read this brilliant quote the other day which is apropos: “I have a philosophical conviction that individuals are ends in themselves, not means for the ends of society.” Johan Norberg.

    Utopias get this backward. In a Utopia, individuals are the fuel that gets burnt to power the society. Classical evil, in other words. Apparatchiks are the guys with the shovels, chucking people into the furnace. A complex problem worthy of an OP protagonist.

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