What Makes a ‘Good’ Villain?

A master at work

Vincent Price: A master of on screen villainy

I’m going to a school in Harrow tomorrow to present its 2016 Junior Book Award. I’ve been preparing some bits and pieces to (hopefully) interest and entertain the pupils aged 10/11.

One of the things we are going to think about is villains. I love a ‘good’ villain, don’t you?

Here’s something I wrote recently on the theme:

A couple of summers back I went to an outdoor screening of the 1958 Hammer film Dracula at the British Museum. It was chosen as one of three classic horror movies to launch the BFI Gothic Season and it was wonderful to sit beneath the flood-lit columns (or perhaps that should be ‘blood-lit’ as the front of the museum was bathed in vampire red) watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battle it out in a climactic flourish of fangs.

There must have been more than 1,000 people there, some of them draped for the occasion in their best black velvet capes. The first appearance on screen of Christopher Lee as the eponymous count was greeted by a huge cheer and as I looked at the delighted faces around me I was reminded how much everyone loves a really ‘good’ villain.

Books need strong, sympathetic heroes and heroines and they also need a cast of colourful, recognisable supporting characters, but go on, think about it for a moment… it’s always the villain you’re waiting for, isn’t it? There’s an almost electric thrill when a truly satisfying villain takes the stage.

And I do mean ‘the stage’ for I think it’s essential for baddies – in children’s literature particularly – to be theatrical and extreme. Their menace should teeter on the edge of the ridiculous; their personality and, more importantly, their appearance should be a grotesque distortion of reality. It’s a way of signposting to a reader you’re okay really, you’re quite safe. This would never actually happen in real life, but go ahead and enjoy the show. There’s an element of cartoon to nearly all the best villains and that’s what makes them so entertaining.

Roald Dahl understood this completely.

Vincent Price, the American actor who spent the latter half of his life on screen playing a succession of wonderfully camp, slightly English villains, wrote: “Another reason you prefer the evil ones is that the hero seldom causes anyone, least of all himself, to laugh. The villain, through his ability to make you and his fellow characters lose control of emotions, brings about all the fun.”

I was on a panel at a literary festival in Devon recently and I described Lady Ginger, the ‘villain’ in my Kitty Peck series for adults as ‘the love child of Vincent Price and Miss Havisham, with a dash of Fagin thrown in for charm.’

Now, there’s an image to conjure with? But I have to admit that I love writing scenes where she’s centre stage.

When I was working on The Jade Boy, my first book for children, the parts I most looked forward to writing involved my villain Count Cazalon. It’s clear that John Milton felt very much the same when he was writing Paradise Lost. You can tell that he’s not really interested in the prosaic lives of Adam and Eve – no, he’s champing at the bit to get back to writing lines for Satan, who is both seductive and fascinating.

(Please don’t imagine I’m comparing myself to Milton! I just think he brought one of greatest villains in English literature to the page and promptly fell in love with his own creation.)

Coincidentally, the action in my children’s book takes place at about the same time Milton was dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters. The Jade Boy is set in London in the year of the Great Fire 1666 (there’s a spoiler!) and my lead characters – Jem a servant boy, Tolly an enigmatic African page and Ann an apprentice witch – find themselves battling to thwart Cazalon’s sinister schemes.

The 17th century gave me the chance to dress my villain in the most extraordinary range of towering wigs, cloaks and face paint – a distinctive and hopefully unsettling image that sticks in the reader’s mind. If you’re watching the current series of The Musketeers, Rupert Everett’s wonderfully twisted Marquis de Feron gives you a general idea of the look I was aiming for.

I’m a thwarted thespian. Often I found myself reading aloud the lines I had written for Cazalon in my best ‘villain’ voice to test that they worked. The neighbours probably thought I was going mad as I swirled around the dining room, pretending to have a limp and lisp, loudly declaiming lines like: ‘I have travelled the earth in search of knowledge and the power that knowledge can bring. These books are my children, Jeremy Green… and my insurance.’

In my mind I sounded like the late Alan Rickman (in barn-storming Prince of Thieves, Sheriff of Nottingham mode c.1991), but actually to my neighbour I probably sounded like the batty woman next door talking to her cat.

British actors are always at the head of the queue when it comes to casting a screen villain. There’s something about the silky-soft, cultured quality of a stage-honed voice that immediately says ‘wicked’.

In Hollywood, I suspect the British accent – unaccountably – also whispers ‘intelligence’, and that’s a very important quality for a successful, satisfying villain.

If you don’t believe for a moment that Ian Fleming’s Dr Julius No would be capable of building an underground lair from which to disrupt an American space launch with a radio beam, you don’t really have a plot. It’s the same for other arch baddies – Moriarty, Goldfinger, Blofeld, even Count Dracula, who in Bram Stoker’s original is portrayed, initially, as very elderly, cultured man with an enormous library. In Peter Pan, old Etonian Captain Hook plays the harpsichord (it’s best not to think too deeply about how) and loves Wordsworth and Coleridge!

Don’t get me started on zombies – I’ve never been able to see the scream-appeal of an animated corpse with a mound of compost where its brain used to be. Villains need to be able to think, they need to make grand plans, they need to speak and they need to be witty, clever and dangerously charming. These are all qualities that zombies lack.

Some of the most terrifying villains are women. I’m thinking of the embittered Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, cunning (bald) Miss Slighcarp in Joan Aiken’s marvellous Wolves of Willoughby Chase and of Jadis, the charismatic and manipulative White Witch in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, cleverly tempting unwary Edmund with Turkish delight.

My own Lady Ginger, a raddled, opium-addicted crime baroness operating from a frowsy, silk-draped nest in the back streets of Victorian Limehouse, is, hopefully, chilling and utterly disgusting in equal measure.

Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the most truly chilling villains to stalk the pages of a children’s book. A brilliant scientist, she seems to have shed every last shred of maternal feeling. Pullman created a monster here by ripping up the rules. There’s something bleakly real about Lyra’s heartless, ambitious mother. That’s why she is so disturbing.

Finally, villains must always have the best names as proved by Cruella de Vil (look closely at that spelling). Although I knew exactly how Count Cazalon looked, what he was, and how he spoke, I didn’t know his real name for a very long time. In fact, I spent sleepless nights wondering what to call him.

Good villain names have hard consonants, perhaps a ‘V’, a ‘D’ or a ‘Z’? They must sound slightly exotic or other-worldly. Very few villains are called Freddie, Gary or Cheryl.

I am indebted to a Mr Casalon who called me at work one afternoon for providing me with the final solution. I didn’t want his premium advertising space, but I snapped up his name.

Equally, Lady Ginger seemed to have spicy, fox-like ring to it.

Creating two villains has been a guilty pleasure and I hope that readers enjoy Lady Ginger and Count Cazalon as much I do.

I’ll leave the last word to the master. When asked why he loved playing evil characters on screen Vincent Price summed it up perfectly: “BOO! It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.”

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