Disney occupies some interesting territory when it comes to constructing villains for their animated films. On the one hand, they’re making movies for little kids and our modern society generally frowns upon exposing our fragile youth to the face of true, terrifying evil. At the same time, however, their fairy-tale source material often includes some pretty nasty people as the primary villains in the stories and, indeed, good fairy tales can’t really function without good villains. To their credit, Disney has managed to walk this line in order to come up with some pretty stupendous villains – bad guys and gals that have occupied our imaginations every bit as forcefully as the likes of Darth Vader and the Monster Under the Bed. What follows are my top five, in the order of Least Evil to HOLY CRAP THAT’S EVIL.
#5: Cruella DeVille
To be fair, Disney didn’t create Cruella – she was born out of the novel upon which the animated movie was based – but she occupies a unique and loathesome spot in the pantheon of Disney’s Baddies, as she’s the only one actively trying to kill and skin puppies so she can wear them as a coat. Wow. Puppies. That’s pretty damned cold, especially when she goes to such (crazy) lengths to get such a coat.
Then again, puppies are still only animals, and what Cruella is doing might get her a few years in prison and some serious community service time, but she really isn’t any more evil than Michael Vick, and we all forgave him, didn’t we? Honestly, the worst thing about her in terms of society is her reckless driving and the second-hand smoke exposure. What she has making up for it, though, is panache – it’s hard to find a villain with quite the same dramatic flair as Cruella.
Evilness Scale: Pretty Evil.
#4: The Wicked Stepmother
Skinning puppies is one thing, but the systematic and conscientious emotional torture of a minor is a whole other kettle of fish. Cinderella’s stepmother makes her own stepdaughter into a domestic slave and deliberately attempts to destroy the young girls will to live FOR NO GODDAMNED REASON AT ALL. She doesn’t even really get anything out of it other than spite.
I really have to hand it to the artists and voice talent that made the stepmother come alive in the old Disney flick, because this woman is vile. You don’t laugh at her; not at all. There is nothing funny about the Stepmother. She is the very embodiment of horrible, petty meanness. From allowing her own daughters to rip off Cinderella’s dress in the front hall to locking the girl in her room just to prevent the merest chance of the girl escaping her power, kids and adults loathe this character from the moment she steps on the screen. Wow, evil.
But, again, not really off-the-charts Hitler-wanna-be evil, either. She belongs in prison (and needs to meet with a therapist), but she’s ostensibly still a member of the human race. Those higher on the list can’t really make that claim.
Evilness Scale: Wickedly Evil
#3: Ursula the Sea Witch
Honestly, Ursula makes this list because she’s exactly in the middle of the road. She is engaged in some classic, bottom-rung evil activity here (stealing souls, killing people, etc.), but she lacks a certain…panache? She’s well past emotional abuse and animal cruelty, certainly, but is she at a level much higher than ‘standard evil witch’? Not sure.
The thing that separates Ursula from other standard witch-archetypes (think the Wicked Queen of Snow White or even Mad Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone) is her musical number. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a masterpiece of evil song-singing. Ursula blows to doors off most of her competition with that stuff, and the fact that she steals Ariel’s voice is fiendishly clever. Beyond that, however, I’m not overly impressed. I would rank the Wicked Stepmother higher were it not for the fact that she still provides for Cinderella’s room and board and seems to never indulge in physical abuse. It’s a near thing, though.
Evilness Scale: Textbook Evil
Okay, so say your neighbors don’t invite you to a party. You don’t really want to go, anyway, but you see the cars lined up around the block, hear the loud music, and think to yourself ‘I’m going to crash.’ Now add on the thought ‘and see if I can curse their infant daughter to die in sixteen years and watch the fuckers squrim for the next decade and a half trying to avoid it.’ Is that pretty evil or what?
The thing that Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent has that the lesser villains lack is how she sets up her victims to create the maximal amount of suffering with the minimum amount of effort on her part. She could have just blasted the princess Aurora into ashes, but no – she figured it would be meaner to let the kingdom keep her long enough to fall irrevocably in love with her and then take her away. Wow, that’s cold. And patient, too, which is even more terrifying.
Take what she tells Prince Philip when he’s in her dungeons: I’m going to let you go…but only after you’re so damned old that claiming your princess with true love’s kiss will be robbed of all meaning. Your beloved will be shocked and disgusted by you, you’ll die shortly thereafter, and it will all be horribly, gloriously fucked up. And I, Maleficent, will be willing to wait that long for my evil punchline.
Evilness Scale: Daaaaamn….
#1: The Coachman
Any of you see Pinocchio, lately? Well, if you haven’t, let me remind you about the guy who, for my money, is the most horrifying villain Disney ever put in a movie: The Coachman. Here is a guy who rounds up little boys who misbehave, tells them he’s taking them to a theme park, and then, after encouraging them to act like animals, he turns them into donkeys and then either enslaves them or sells them to glue factories.
He doesn’t do this to one boy, either. Not to a dozen or a score, but to hundreds and hundreds of kids over a span of probably years. Himmler and Goebbels have nothing on this psycho. Why does he do this? That’s just it – whereas all those other villains have ostensibly understandable motives for their wickedness, this sociopath does this just for the hell of it, apparently. If he wanted to make money, he wouldn’t bother with this. If he just hated little boys, you’d think maintaining a theme park for them to play in would be a bit counter-intuitive. No, he just likes making little kids suffer horribly for his own psychopathic enjoyment and then, when he is no longer amused, he has them killed and melted down into glue.
Holy shit, people, we show this to our children. Jesus.
Evilness Scale: Nightmare Fuel
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Table of Contents
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I’m in the middle of reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy. I’m not precisely loving it; I don’t dislike it, either, but I was expecting to be more wow-ed by it, given how much love it’s received from fans and critics and such. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks trying to put my finger on why I’m not really jazzed by it. I have a theory: I’m not impressed with the villains.
I don’t know about you, but villains are often my favorite parts of any given book/movie/show/play or whatever. I like Othello over Hamlet because I find Iago so damned fascinating and Claudius rather dull. I’ve always had a soft spot for Captain Hook, thought Cobra had all the coolest vehicles, and would rather command a Star Destroyer than own the Millennium Falcon. Bad guys – really cool bad guys – make or break a book for me.
So here’s the thing with the Mistborn Trilogy: It is a world where the Dark Lord actually won and, a thousand years later, everybody been’s living under his thumb. When I saw that on the book jacket, I was pretty damned excited. “Oooo!” I thought, “This book outta have some pretty fantastic bad guys.” Turns out, not really. I mean, the Steel Inquisitors are pretty cool, but they never do anything to get my blood going. They torture some folks with hooks, they execute a bunch of innocent people (by beheading, which seems a bit passe), which is okay, but they never hit me in the guts hard enough to make me either want them dead or think they’re awesome. As for the Lord Ruler himself? Well, turns out he’s mostly just grumpy and tired of people’s crap. His Obligators? They’re fascist bureaucrats, yeah, but they seem to spend most of their time observing marriages and enforcing laws. Unjust laws, yes, but, I don’t know, not evil enough, right? This is a world under a thousand years of darkness, right? Where are my mountains of skulls? Where are my cauldrons of blood on every street corner? Why aren’t I scared of these guys? As for The Well of Ascension, the worst folks get is Straff Venture, and he’s mostly just a callous jerk and cruel father. He’s no Darth Vader.
For me, villains run in two varieties. They either make you hate them so much you need them to get justice or you won’t be able to live in the world anymore or they make you so excited with terror that they’re the most awesome guys in the book. Let me list off some of my favorite villains that fall into either category:
Villains I Love to Hate: The Seanchan (The Wheel of Time), Cersei Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Freys (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Others (from Lost…early seasons), The Bondsmagi (Lies of Locke Lamora), Gollum, Wormtongue and Saruman, Arthur Donovan (from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and so on.
Villains I Just Love: Darth Vader, The Forsaken (Wheel of Time), The Nazgul, The Druchii (Warhammer), Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Blofeld (of James Bond fame), Benjamin Linus (from Lost), JR Ewing (Dallas), Dr. Doom, Darkseid, Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), and so on and so forth.
The Mistborn Trilogy, for as cool as the heroes are and for as much fun as Allomancy is, doesn’t have villains that fall into either category for me. This means the heroes are striving and fighting and struggling against enemies I find somehow underwhelming or the threats they pose seem abstract or indirect, rather than visceral and horrifying. There is nobody pitching lovable little Bran out a window on page 35. What we’re given is institutionalized cruelty on a social level. This is, of course, every bit as cruel and terrible as pitching a little boy out a window, but it doesn’t always feel that way. It is very easy to disassociate oneself emotionally from the cruelty of social institutions. That is why, after all, so many social institutions are cruel in real life. Sanderson, of course, is making a statement about the cruelty of social institutions; his work is, on some level, meant to be political and religious critique. I can appreciate that, of course, but that still doesn’t engage me.
I need my bad guys to pitch kids out windows on a whim, simple-as.
The plain, wooden letterbox on Banric Sahand’s desk was so nondescript that a visitor to his voluminous field pavilion might have noticed it anyway, given that everything else in the tent was unforgettable. An educated person would quickly note that the contents of his bookshelf ran in two varieties—military strategy and proscribed magical texts—and that the vast majority of the books there had long been thought lost or had been banned throughout the West. A businessman or merchant would have noted the ostentatious quality of the Kalsaari rug that covered the ground, or the expense and rarity of the iron-and-mageglass chair that loomed behind his massive, hand-carved desk. A soldier would note the rune-inscribed broadsword on the rack by the fire not only for the weapon’s quality, but also because it was clearly kept sharp, oiled, and in regular use, as were all of the various weapons and armor supported by racks and stands and attended to by invisible specters bound to Sahand’s will. An uneducated person, meanwhile, would have likely been distracted by the imposing person of Sahand himself—his heavy fur cloak; his polished, silver-shod boots; the dark, iron circlet resting on his rugged brow; the goblet he drank from, made from a human skull. All of these things were amazing, terrifying, and incredible to varying degrees, and then, as some kind of strange, mundane joke, there was the plain wooden letterbox, sitting alone in a corner of the desk of a man who had once sought to conquer the West.
Of course, few ever noticed it, or anything else at all about the room. They were usually too busy lying on their faces before the Mad Prince, groveling for their lives, to take in the finer points of His Highness’s personal living quarters.
On this particular afternoon, the groveler was a warlock from Ayventry named Hortense. Hortense was perhaps forty, with a wife and a teenage daughter, and had come highly recommended as a man of skill, principle, and noble bearing. Sahand’s right-hand man, the towering Gallo, pressed a heavy boot into the small of the man’s back, pushing his face towards the floor; watching this, Sahand noted yet again how quickly one’s ‘bearing’ slipped when faced with imminent death. Hortense was weeping tears, drool, and snot on Sahand’s expensive carpet. “Pl…please, Your Highness, permit…just…just permit me one more chance….I, I, I know we’re close…”
Sahand sighed and looked out the open tent flap, where the snow was falling in heavy sheets along the upper slopes of the Dragonspine mountains. “Hortense, what did I tell you last fall?”
Hortense tried to look up, his eyes blinded by tears, but Gallo pressed his face back down. “Oh! You said…that…that I had one year to get the machines to work.”
“And how long ago was that?” Sahand asked calmly.
“Silence.” Sahand nodded to Gallo, who pressed harder on the engineer’s back. “Now, I am not certain how they read contracts in Ayventry, Hortense, but if it is anything like in the rest of Eretheria, twelve months equals a year. That means you are two months behind schedule, which means I am two months behind schedule. This strikes me as unfair, Hortense. Doesn’t that seem unfair?”
“V-very unfair, milord…”
“I agree, it is very unfair. It seems that you are in a breach of contract, even after I so graciously granted you an extension to complete your work and even went to so great a length as to kidnap numerous thaumatuges to assist you and procured literally scores of wild beasts from all over the world to make your work possible. Are you aware of how much such activities cost me?”
Hortense’s voice was mangled by his cheek being pressed into the carpet. “A great deal, milord.”
“Do you hear yourself, Hortense?” Sahand asked, standing up. “Are you aware of just how cavalierly you just uttered the phrase ‘great deal’?”
Hortense’s breath heaved in heavy sobs. “I…I didn’t…I don’t…”
Sahand crouched besides the prone warlock. “Of course you don’t, Hortense—this, I believe, is the problem we are having in our professional relationship.” Sahand grasped the man by his hair and jerked his head back until Sahand could see his eyes. “You simply do not appreciate my problems. My goals, my aspirations, my operations, my finances are abstractions to you, aren’t they?”
Hortense didn’t answer save to produce a nasal whine through his running nose.
“I have a solution to this problem—a way to bind your self-motivation more closely with my own interests. Now, of course, you are too valuable to punish physically—an injured, ill, or starving man does not work well. However, I have found men with families in jeopardy show a great will to succeed in their tasks.”
Hortense’s bloodshot eyes widened and his face crumpled into an even less flattering expression. “Oh…oh please, Hann, no! Anything! Anything but…”
Sahand permitted himself a tight grimace. “For every day you do not meet the goals I set for you, on that night I grant my officers access to your daughter. It is my understanding that they are not gentle lovers.”
Sahand rose and nodded to Gallo, who released the sobbing warlock. Hortense simply sat in the center of the room, tears streaming down his face, his palms upwards in his lap. “It’s…it’s impossible! It cannot be done! I…I…can’t!”
“Well, then, Hortense,” Sahand said, sitting behind his desk, “Congratulations—you will soon be a grandfather.”
Gallo seized Hortense by the scalp and dragged him from the room like a sack of grain. The tent flap closed behind him, leaving Sahand alone. He glowered at the dark stains on the rug where the warlock had been. Ten years! He had spent the past ten years of his life painstakingly preparing for this winter, and now to think he might fail just when success was closest. He wanted to flay the skin of that inept fop of a warlock himself. He wanted to make the entire city of Freegate wade in rivers of blood. He wanted to call down all the powers of the world to crack the fortresses of Galaspin open and feast on the flesh of the fools inside like a bird cracking open a snail. He clenched his fists and teeth until he heard the leather in his gauntlets cracking and heard his teeth grinding with the stress.
He stood up and released his rage into The Shattering. The heat and raw power of the Fey roared through his blood and blasted forth into one of his bookshelves with a spectacular boom, reducing the shelf and the books to flinders and torn pages. The Mad Prince watched the paper flitter around the tent for a moment before taking a deep breath and sitting down. Then he heard something drop into the letterbox.
On the inside of the lid of the plain wooden container was a spider web of intricate astral runes that, when the lid was closed, linked the interior of the box with a spatial rift through which secure messages could be sent. It was, without a doubt, the most expensive object in the room. Even the mighty Arcanostrum of Saldor did not possess such devices. The Sorcerous League, however, possessed many secrets the magi of Saldor did not.
The letter inside had a red seal, marking it as important and specifically addressed to him—the whole League would not be privy to its contents. Waving his hand to seal the tent from intrusion, Sahand broke the seal with the proper word of power and flipped open the letter:
6th Ahzmonth, 33rd Year of Polimeux II
Our friends in Freegate have come upon a unique and unusual opportunity regarding your operations in the mountains. A meeting is requested this very night for those involved to discuss the situation.
Curse the Name of Keeper,
The Office of the Chairman
Sahand frowned, pondering the implications. The vague wording wasn’t unusual for a letter from the Chairman, of course—it was the highest priority of the League to maintain its secrecy, and so any official correspondence would lack detail in case the message were intercepted. The League was, of course, aware of his actions in Freegate—they had afforded him material support in the form of a variety of magecraft—but what they would consider a ‘unique and unusual opportunity’ was very much a mystery. Especially since they had no idea what his real plan was, else they never would have agreed to support him in the first place. Whatever the reason, the meeting would have to be attended. As usual, the timing was very poor.
Sahand summoned Gallo back into his tent. Gallo was a man of similar stature to his lord, but far less social grace. Even in this cold, he wore dull and dented plate and mail with a wolf’s-head helm that only partially hid his horrendously flame-scarred face. His breath was a choking rasp that gurgled and wheezed constantly, as though the man were constantly drowning in his own saliva. His face was a ruin of burn scars, with only a ragged hole for a mouth and two, dark, fish-dead eyes. Of all Sahand’s underlings, he knew he could rely on Gallo. Gallo was that rarest of creatures—a man without ambition or compassion. Whatever fire had melted off the warrior’s face had also taken with it whatever made him human.
“I am not to be disturbed for the remainder of the evening for any reason, on pain of death.” Sahand ordered. He found threatening death to be the most reliable way to keep his idiot underlings away from him for any lengthy period of time, and he knew Gallo would follow through without hesitation. Referring to the spirit clock in his tent, he saw that he had only seven hours before midnight—just barely enough time for the ritual to be completed. Again, he wondered what could be going on for the meeting to be called on such short notice.
Gallo’s voice was a hollow rasp. “Is that all?”
“No. Keep Hortense working, and inform the city that we will need to get the idiot more help. You are dismissed.”
Gallo executed a stiff bow and went out.
“This had better be good.” Sahand grumbled to himself. He sealed the tent, threw the letter in the fireplace, and got to work.
Author’s Note: This is the first half of a chapter from Tyvian Reldamar and the Iron Ring (working title), an Alandar novel I’m currently putting through it’s final revision (hopefully) before it’s healthy enough to send out. Sahand is one of the major villains.
In RPGs, there is always the question of just how much of a challenge any given NPC should be. Ultimately, most GMs want to see the players succeed in their mission, but they also don’t want to make it easy for them. If something is too easy, it isn’t any fun–there’s no tension, no suspense, no mystery whether or not success is iminent. Likewise, too hard is just as much of a bummer–nobody likes getting their butt kicked. Oh, and then, just to make things more complicated, nobody likes everything to be a challenge all of the time–it makes the game exhausting, and underscores the ‘awesomeness’ of the PCs which is the bread and butter of so many RPGs.
Then, of course, there are the GMs concerns regarding story. As anyone who has played in one of my games will tell you, I am really into story. Indeed, I think story is more important than almost everything else (well, except ‘players having fun’). I want things to make sense, push the plot forward, create conflict, and be believable. This applies to my NPCs, specifically. If the players are up against the King’s spymaster, he should be a pretty sneaky guy. As my improv training taught me, I want to behave ‘at the top of my intelligence,’ and therefore I will make him as sneaky as I can, since the King’s spymaster is probably going to be a very capable guy. It makes sense, it fits with the story, and it will give the PCs a wonderful sense of accomplishment when they finally defeat him.
That is, unless they don’t or can’t. There have been many times when PCs haven’t seen the traps I’ve laid out or have shown remarkably little curiosity regarding the doings and capabilities of rival NPCs, and, as a result, find themselves blindsided, outmaneuvered, or even killed. This has occasionally resulted in players being disappointed or even angry with what happened, and this is a terrible thing–people should be having fun. This is a game we’re talking about, after all.
So, what to do?
The Idiot Ball
In fiction, there’s a device called ‘the idiot ball’. It’s primarily a derisive term for inconsistent plotting, and it refers to the times when various characters in a work behave more stupidly than they should for the purpose of moving the plot along or enhancing tension.
Perhaps the best and most obvious example of the idiot ball is the Galactic
Empire of Star Wars. So long as the stormtroopers aren’t shooting at people with names, they’re pretty damned dangerous. As soon as they start blasting away at Han or Luke or Leia, they’ll be damned lucky if they score a glancing hit. The reason for this is obvious–you can’t have your main characters getting blown away every time they run into tons of Stormtroopers. The entire Death Star escape sequence in Episode IV would be impossible were that the case. Rather than make Han and Luke and Liea more intelligent, however, they make the Empire stupid. While this is happening, the Empire is said to be ‘holding the idiot ball’.
In RPGs, the idiot ball is what a GM uses anytime the players don’t seem to be capable enough to handle the foes they are faced with. Orcs suddenly make foolish tactical decisions, giant robots carelessly step on volatile chemicals, and the unholy hosts of Hell suddenly have an awfully hard time searching your average elementary school for hiding investigators.
While it isn’t very good for fiction, the idiot ball can be very useful for a game. It ought to be used sparingly, though, as making the party’s foes too stupid (especially when it is contrary to their nature) makes the game too easy and gives the GM a reputation of being a softy (which reduces the tension inherent in the game). The idiot ball ought to be given the henchmen and underlings–the guys the PCs are supposed to be able to outwit and beat up without fear. It should not be applied to the big villains, since they should be a significant challenge. Heck, it shouldn’t even be applied to the big villain’s elite bodyguards since, again, you want to keep things tense and give the PCs that sense of accomplishment.
But what happens when the PCs just aren’t up the challenge? What happens when they encounter a guy they just can’t figure out how to beat? Well, first of all, this shouldn’t happen all that often–they should have the capacity to defeat anything they are supposed to be able to defeat. Secondly, if it does happen, you should consider this question: Why can’t the PCs lose? Now, if the answer to that question is ‘they all die and the campaign ends’, you ought to pull the idiot ball out of your back pocket, hand it to the All Powerful Necromancer, and have him do something stupid. If the answer, on the other hand, is ‘the PCs are stripped off all their stuff and sold into slavery in a distant land’, that sounds pretty goddamned awesome to me and I say go for it. Have them lose. Let them nurse the bitter seeds of hatred and revenge; have their ordeal temper them into a much greater force than before and, when they return, have their victory be that much more sweet.
To me, that sounds like a lot more fun than ‘Queen Bavmorda spills the
sacrificial blood on herself and dies’. How stupid is that?
Remember: the PCs are in your game to have fun, and having fun means overcoming obstacles and conflicts and winning despite all odds. Everybody wants to pull a Die Hard and wipe out all the terrorists with a mixture of luck (dice), skill, and sneaky planning. Let them pound on the underlings, but make them earn the big kill. Throwing Alan Rickman out that window wasn’t easy, and your PCs don’t want to defeat their villain as easily, either. The PCs should only have a 60% chance of success against the big baddie. They either step up to the plate or die.
In this regard, I must say that D&D 4th Edition, a game which I conventionally find very dull and flavorless, has mastered this. They have a built-in system for creating challenge. I think they do so at the expense of story, myself, which is it’s own problem and a topic for a different day, but any given GM can pick up their system and put together a challenging, easy, or moderate encounter with just a calculator and a monster manual. The idiot ball only rarely need be applied. Of course, since story is generally less important, the use of the idiot ball is correspondingly less egregious.
Anyway, I digress. My point is that GMs should be tough on their players and consistent with their characterizations of villains (some of whom will be plenty stupid, obviously). That should only change if and when persisting with undermine the fun had in a game. That should always be paramount–it’s a game, and games are meant to be fun.