Top 10 Fictional Villains (Part 1)
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
If you stuck around for my tips on How to Write a Villain Readers Love to Hate, you might've picked up that I'm a huge fan of well-crafted villains. None of that one-dimensional, "I'm evil because I can" nonsense for me. I want to see the layers, complexities, and twisted logic that make up a story's bad guy. So I present to you Part 1 of my Top 10 Fictional Villains series (not to include antiheroes or redeemed villains, which I'll discuss in future posts).
10. Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent of Ever After (Movie)
Ah, Anjelica Huston. Is there no role she cannot play?
Ever After is a French-inspired retelling of Cinderella, with Huston's the Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent filling the role of evil stepmother. And, oh, does she fill it.
Those familiar with Lady Tremaine know how cold, detached, and unsympathetic she is. Rodmilla is this and much more. Like the original Cinderella, Rodmilla forces her new stepdaughter Danielle into servitude shortly after the death of Danielle's father, the only parent she had left. Rodmilla's sole concern with marrying Danielle's father was his money and estate, and she greatly loathed being left to manage it on her own—evidenced by her last words to the dying man, "You cannot leave me here!" as she casts horrified glances at the stepdaughter she doesn't want.
From that day forward, Rodmilla is an inescapable iron fist for Danielle. Where the Disney Cinderella hardly interacts with Tremaine and is left to her own devices so long as she does her chores, Rodmilla is everywhere. She is spiteful, critical, patronizing, micro-managing, and progresses to downright hateful as Danielle gets more fed up with her situation.
In addition, Rodmilla is underhanded and not opposed to lying, cheating, and two-facing her and her real daughter into royal graces and keeping Danielle out of them.
Rodmilla is the recognizable villain who exists in everyday society. Take all these traits and tell me you've never known someone in authority who acted like this. Viewers are able to channel all their indignation for these traits onto this character, making her a highly effective and hate-worthy villain.
Takeaway: A villain doesn't have to be "evil" to be a villain. Sometimes, it's those despicable, petty qualities that make them so easy to loathe.
9. Maeve of the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas
Maeve is one of the antagonists in the Throne of Glass series (first book linked above) and manages to be more awful than the primary villain.
A fae queen with power over darkness and the mind, Maeve has built a following by tricking and manipulating fae warriors to pledge blood oaths to her—a binding magic contract that would kill anyone who tried to break it. By the time the protagonist meets this villain in book three, Maeve is an unstoppable and cunning force with fae the protagonist cares about under her thumb.
Maeve is much more of a presence than the main villain, and she plays everyone around her with the ease of an immortal. The protagonist learns Maeve has been setting things in motion since the beginning of Maeve's reign (thousands of years ago) that would ultimately lead to the enslavement of their world.
Like Rodmilla, Maeve is a fantastic villain because of her inescapable presence. Even when she's not physically there, Maeve's plans ensure the heroes aren't able to move forward without hurting someone they love. Maeve's cruelty and selfishness are masked by her claims that she only wants to be happy. In her eyes, she will create a magnificent and peaceful rule—because everyone will love her, or else.
Takeaway: Pairing warped logic and a relatable need for something (like love) with an inability to empathize with others hurt in the process makes for a believable and detestable villain.
8. Erik of Phantom of the Opera (Book by Gaston Leroux & Movies/Plays)
Ah, the Phantom of the Opera. Perhaps one of the most well-known Sympathetic Villains—what I like to call those villains you sympathize with and even root for at times. The ones who make you ask, But is he so bad, though?
That sympathy is precisely what can make a villain so complex. Erik, in the original novel, fled his small French town after tiring of the horror and revulsion his disfigurement brought on his mother. He joined a band of gypsies, where he was shown off like a morbid freak show piece known as le mort vivant, or "the living dead." It's during his time with the gypsies that he becomes a master illusionist, ventriloquist, and architect.
Much of this backstory carries into the plays and films, although the 2004 movie I'm so fond of sensationalizes his childhood more. In this version, Erik is known as "the devil's child" in an abusive freak show that cages him and treats him like an animal. Erik escapes by strangling the ringmaster and fleeing the ensuing mob, where he is helped into the catacombs by a girl—the first person to show him kindness.
In either case, Erik has never felt loved, which is the one thing he craves and is willing to kill for. He becomes infatuated with the young singer Christine, whom he secretly tutored in voice lessons, but it soon becomes clear she loves another.
This rejection from the woman he has helped so much, between his lessons and machinations to get her lead roles in operas, enrages Erik. He vows to kill her fiancée and make her marry him—because how else will he attain love? Clearly, no one wants to show him any willingly.
In spite of the people he kills, the things he destroys, and the distress he puts Christine and her lover through, you are still made to feel sorry for him. There's a hole in his life no one ever gave him the social tools or affection to cope with. So the lingering question remains: how much responsibility belongs to Erik, and how much to the society that created a monster?
Takeaway: Some villains are made, not born, and can display the kindness, intelligence, and affection you would expect of a hero. Like many people, villains will lash out at the wrongs and injustices done to them.
7. Levana of the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
Levana is the Lunar Queen, the equivalent of the Evil Queen in this fairytale-inspired sci-fi series (first book linked above).
Levana is first introduced when she proposes a marriage alliance to one of the mightiest earth empires, whose young Emperor Kai is still freshly mourning the death of his father. Kai knows not to trust the manipulative Lunar Queen, whose control over bioelectricity ensures she can make people see and believe whatever she wants.
She's also a generally nasty person who's allowed earth to suffer under a plague she is withholding the cure to (the plague Kai's father succumbed to), on top of threatening all-out war if earth doesn't bow to her whims and make her empress.
It's a deadly political game trying to keep the queen appeased without giving her total control of the universe—a game Kai's father played for years before his suspicious death. Time and again, Levana forces the protagonists into awful decisions by smugly lording her force and control over innocent people. It's not until Levana slaughters thousands of people that Kai finally concedes more than he ever wanted to give.
Levana's strategic and politic prowess make her a formidable foe even without her powers and massive army. All of it combined with her total disregard for life makes her an intensely strong villain who creates conflict for an entire series.
Above all, what makes Levana the most despicable is she feels she deserves everything she takes. She's built a fantasy in her head where she is the victim, so she is justified in everything she does. It never occurs to Levana that using manipulation and force are signs she's the one at fault (something extremely evident in her backstory novella, where she uses her power to make a man believe he loves her, then kills him in jealous rage when she realizes—shocker—his love was never real).
Takeaway: Villains rarely see themselves as "the bad guy." It's the justifications they concoct to absolve themselves of blame that allow them to commit horrible deeds.
Enjoy this post? Be sure to drop a comment letting us know what you love most in a villain! And stay tuned for the next two parts of my Top 10 Fictional Villains ;)