(The following post talks about The Avengers on its way to the actual point, but does not give spoilers.)

Interestingly, one of the moments that has stayed with me the most strongly from The Avengers is the speech Loki flings at Black Widow.

He has other Villain Speeches in the movie, of course. But this one stands out for its sheer, unbridled malevolence. He doesn’t say those things out of megalomania or fraternal resentment or any other such understandable motivation; he says them because, quite simply, he wants to hurt her.

I’ve said before that I tend to write antagonists more often than villains. That is, I write characters who think they’re doing the right (or at least the necessary) thing, who happen to be wrong about that. There are exceptions, of course; Nadrett doesn’t give a damn what’s right, only what he can get away with. But I have a harder time writing that sort of thing.

Which means — of course — that I want to study how it’s done. So this is a Recommend Stuff to Me kind of post: what books/movies/TV shows/etc have those moments of pure malevolence, where the character is just trying to hurt somebody? Off the top of my head, there’s Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (“Stop sidling, my swan. I am going to hurt you, but I am not going to kill you, just yet. You are going to provide me with a deal of merriment still.”), some of Angelus’ moments in Buffy, and pretty much everything the main villains do in Tokyo Babylon and X, but I’m having trouble thinking of more. (Actually, that’s a lie. I can think of plenty of sadistic villains. It’s just that most of them are sadistic in a shallow, uninteresting way, and I want ones that really manage to get the knife between the ribs.)

Where have you seen this done well?

Edited to add: Please to be avoiding spoilers as much as possible. This discussion will necessarily involve a degree of revelation, but if you can use phrases like “the main villain” instead of the name (where the villain is not obvious from the start), etc, that would be much appreciated.

0 Responses to “Malevolence”

  1. aliettedb

    Hum, not quite what you’re looking for (strong comical element, plus I can’t really pinpoint a scariest moment, except maybe his final scene), but Teatime in Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather is a truly chilling villain.

    • laylalawlor

      I think Teatime might be the exact opposite of this, though … at least in my head. What makes Teatime so terrifying isn’t that he’s malevolent; it’s that he truly doesn’t care, and sees people basically as objects to be used or taken apart as necessary.

  2. ratmmjess

    Westley’s “to the pain” speech in Princess Bride?

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. If it were uttered by another character . . . but I don’t think it’s solely Westley as the speaker that makes me say, not quite. He’s out to intimidate Prince Humperdinck, more than to hurt him.

      Man, why do I not have a Princess Bride icon??? (I mean a picture from the movie, not the one I just put on this comment.)

  3. sarcastibich

    watch “House” as in the tv series with Hugh Laurie. I’d argue that he frequently is snarky/cruel/incisive just because he can be, although I know more often he does it to make a genuine point.

    • Marie Brennan

      Cruelty because he can is a large part of why I stopped watching the series. Snark is okay, but they kept crossing the line into him just being mean.

  4. rachelmanija

    I could give you a good one from real life – the single meanest thing anyone ever did to me when I was an adult, out of sheer unmotivated malevolence as far as I could tell. But only if you want.

    The most realistic fictional depictions of people doing stuff solely to hurt someone else, and not because they’re cardboard sadistic villains, are in mainstream children’s books, and depict the horrible things kids do to each other for no apparent reason other than that they can. I’m thinking particularly of the scene with the chocolate in Judy Blume’s Blubber.

    • Marie Brennan

      Feel free to share your experience if you want to; it’s entirely up to you.

      • rachelmanija

        This was when I was in grad school the first time. I was madly, painfully, totally unrequitedly in love with one of my classmates. This had been going on for about a year when a new student joined the school. She seemed lonely, so I took her under my wing, introduced her to people, even invited her to have Thanksgiving with my family when she said how sad she was that she had no one to have Thanksgiving with.

        Eventually, I confided in her about my unrequited thing and how painful I found it. Soon afterward, she started dating him. That’s not the mean part. The mean part is that she started telephoning me solely to give me graphic, blow-by-blow descriptions of all the sex they were having. This was so boggling (and hurtful) that I couldn’t even figure out if she was just clueless or what at first. I tried telling her I didn’t want to hear about it, but she kept on doing it. In the middle of one call, the shoe finally dropped, and I realized that she knew exactly what she was doing and was sadistically getting off on my pain. I hung up and never spoke to her again.

        To this day, I have no idea why she did it. Maybe she was a sociopath.

  5. carbonel

    Not exactly the same thing, because there aren’t any villains by your terms, but The Lion in Winter sticks with me for how hard all the clever clever characters work at hurting each other.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, yes! Not villains, but that’s exactly the kind of moment I’m thinking of. Philip’s speech to Henry, about his relationship with Richard — it’s pure poison.

  6. juushika

    Durarara!!’s Orihara Izaya is sorta almost this. The reveal of what exactly his nature/actions is sort of a spoiler, so … I probably shouldn’t post it because I can’t use HTML tags. Grrrrr. But he falls along the lines of chaotic neutral while being fully cognizant of—and in his way benefiting from—the harm he causes.

  7. juushika

    The Evil Queen from The 10th Kingdom.

    Evil is in the job description, so talking about her isn’t a huge spoiler—she has complex motivations, but her end goal is to cause harm and she never balks at doing more harm to reach that goal—it’s willful, well, malevolence, but never shallow in its reasons.

  8. prosewitch

    The villains in Elizabeth Hayden’s Rhapsody were malevolent in really disturbing ways.

    • Marie Brennan

      Interesting. I think we have that on our shelf, but I haven’t read it. Thanks for the rec!

      • prosewitch

        I really adored that whole trilogy (Rhapsody is the first book), so I recommend reading it for more than just villain research. It rearranges the elements of epic fantasy in a way that I found very interesting and compelling (having a woman as a character, who was a sex worker to boot, meant that the gender dynamics drew me in rather than making me feel excluded, among other things).

  9. twistedchick

    The Dark Knight. The villain still sticks in my mind as the murderer of Heath Ledger, even though Heath was playing that as a role.

  10. mindstalk

    Carcer in Pratchett’s _Night Watch_? “I can see your house from here.”

    The elves in Lords and Ladies? Maybe they’re shallow or just alien.

    Twelve Kingdoms has character who seems neither sadistic nor “doing the necessary thing”, he’s lashing out in self-destructive petulant rage. There’s another character who… we can’t tell his motivation yet, but spiteful “let the world fall” destruction may be part of it.

    The Other and Bangladesh Dupree and Old Heterodynes in Girl Genius. Given free rein, the Jaegers and Castle.

    Ges, Serg, and Cavilo in Bujold.

    • tooth_and_claw

      No specific villain, but I can point out that malevolence like that, the desire to *hurt*, comes almost entirely from wanting to feel powerful. It’s a horrible cliche, but it’s true, and you can certainly see it in Loki– almost everything truly malicious he does is so that he can demonstrate his power. Power is joy, and safety, and delight. And for these folks, viscerally (often because it was how people had power over *them*), inflicting pain is power.

      • mindstalk

        That might work for Carcer and the second 12K character. Not so much the first one, who’s motivated by a mix of bigotry (purity response) and fear of being shown up. He’s also not being sadistic in intent, just wants someone *dead*, the misery of two kingdoms being a side effect…

        BTW, I strongly recommend Pinker’s _Better Angels of Our Nature_ on violence, for those with the time to read it.

      • Marie Brennan

        True, and a good point.

    • Marie Brennan

      Danke! I’ll look into the ones I’m not familiar with. 🙂

      • mindstalk

        Hmm, I should say that while I like Twelve Kingdoms a lot, I wouldn’t seek it out for this purpose; the villains mentioned are barely even seen in person, let alone get much page count. The anime shows more of one, and turns yet another from venal corrupt guy to “test the Heavens” guy. But overall we’re talking Sauron more than Richard III or Iago in terms of actual appearance.

        I.e. the villain exists and shaped the world, but we might find out who they are and their motivation in a couple pages near the end. 12K is unusual.

  11. Marie Brennan

    I think the trick for me is, malevolence can’t be all there is. A moment of it in the midst of other motivations, however, can be extremely chilling.

    • sartorias

      Yes. There have been some interesting malevolences in Bujold’s work, and it occurred to me that there was an interesting one in The Sardonyx Net, though I only read it the once 20 years ago. I don’t know if it would hold up.

  12. akashiver

    It depends on how dark you want to go. A lot of us don’t *want* to spend time with truly evil people, so we prefer antagonists to outright villains. True evil is often banal, too, so while I find the “villains” of True Stories like Wild Swans horrible, I don’t know that they’d make good fictional villains. At least, they wouldn’t make good *super*villains, of the sort you secretly kinda root for and find compelling and charismatic.

    I have one suggestion though: the main villain of In the Company of Men.

    Also, I just watched Snowtown, a hard-to-watch Australian film based on a series of (real) serial killings in the 1990s. ( It’s a compelling portrait of evil, and one of the most realistic things about it is that the villain’s motivation is basically very simple: he enjoys power. Anything that demonstrates his power – insulting people, seducing people, torturing and killing people – is fair game.

    I bring it up not because the film features torture but because it struck me as an utterly convincing portrait of a non-Hollywoodized psychopath. And because it’s seen through the eyes of a bystander, most of the powerplays in the first part of the film are very domestic and ordinary. They’re social challenges, and at heart, they’re nasty. It’s an interesting film but one I’d only recommend if you honestly think you can sit through it.

    • tooth_and_claw

      Thanks for the movie rec. That looks amazing.

      • Anonymous

        It’s good, and disturbing. The characters can be hard to follow sometimes, so I’d recommend reading up on the Snowtown murders case before you watch it. And I’ll also put a massive trigger warning on this film. A lot of the bad stuff happens off-screen, but there’s a rape scene and a torture/murder scene. The latter is *really* horrible, less for gory detail (there’s some) than for the emotional distress inflicted on the pov character, and via him, the audience.

    • Marie Brennan

      Wow, yeah, that film sounds hard to watch. I’ll keep it in mind, though.

      It’s definitely true that real evil of that sort is not actually what we’re looking for most of the time in our stories.

  13. lowellboyslash

    The main villain of Rebecca!

  14. akashiver

    Oh yeah.


    Thinking about this question made me realize there’s an unwritten rule in most storytelling: even ignoble villains can’t enjoy hurting people directly. They can kill people on their way to a goal (Hans in Die Hard, the Joker in Dark Knight); they can manipulate their victims to hurt themselves and others (Iago, Oldboy), but they cannot be shown to enjoy physically hurting people.

    I was thinking about Hans in particular. He’s a great villain. But his position is very carefully crafted in the film so that the audience will want to watch him for long periods of time.

    1) He’s clever and witty and a figure of power. His people obey him unquestioningly. This is “supervillain” appeal, but honestly, it’s not enough. If he killed a puppy in scene 1 the audience would want him dead by scene 2, no matter how witty he was.

    2) He’s a figure of mystery – his plan and his motivations are hidden until very, very late in the film. So his screentime is justified because the audience wants to figure out what he’s doing.

    3) While he plans to kill innocent people, he only actually kills 2, and both of his victims are complicit in their own deaths. They had choices. The boss could have told him the code to the vault; the slimey guy could have not tried to betray McClane. So the audience is implicitly reassured: Hans will threaten innocents, but he won’t wantonly kill them. And he is only shown killing people who “deserve it.”

    4) He does not kill people because he enjoys it. He kills them en route to his goal. He does not torture them or prolong their deaths.

    5) While he’s the villain, he’s shares antagonists with McClane. He’s out to defeat the same figures of dumb authority (FBI, cops) that McClane has to contend with. So in a way, every villainous victory he scores further justifies the hero’s position.

    Particlarly after watching Snowtown, I’m thinking that readers/viewers have very low tolerance for full-on evil. If a character kills a “real” innocent deliberately – not by accident as they’re trying to kill the hero, for example, – the audience will want that character punished, like, now.

    Ditto with sadism. It’s one thing to have the hero (whose moral worth we’re assured of) torture for information or revenge (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). But the villain?

    The instant a villain tortures an innocent the audience will be rooting for his/her destruction. They’ll hate that character whenever she’s onscreen. So either the person tortured has to be the protagonist-who-escapes (in which case, the audience is reassured that the protagonist will punish the villain later) or it has to happen near the end of the story so that the villain will be punished quickly.

    (I think.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Oh yeah.

      Good points, all. Especially your breakdown of how Hans fits into Die Hard — you’re dead-on about the tricks that allow him to be a character we want to watch, rather than one who needs to have died, like, eight scenes ago. (My only quibble would be in the phrasing that he only kills people who “deserve it” — rather that he only kills people who played some part in their own deaths. Takagi didn’t deserve to die; he just chose honor/loyalty over living. And even whathisface the cokehead doesn’t deserve death; he just chose to risk his life, and it ended badly for him.)

      Where torture is concerned . . . I dunno. I’ve hit a point where I’m not very willing to let the hero get away with it, either. Taken, with Liam Neeson, was the movie that made it clear to me how much my tolerance for that had dropped.

      • Anonymous

        Re: Oh yeah.

        Yeah I put “deserved it” in scare quotes for a reason. But you’re right, that’s not what’s quite going on. Instead it’s about letting the audience believe they have control over their fates. It’s “if I was in that situation, he wouldn’t kill me because I’d have kept my mouth shut” thinking. Its appeal may be different from the horror-movie trope of “only teens who have sex get killed” but it’s similar.

      • akashiver

        Re: Oh yeah.

        Yeah I put “deserved it” in scare quotes for a reason. But you’re right, that’s not what’s quite going on. Instead it’s about letting the audience believe they have control over their fates. It’s “if I was in that situation, he wouldn’t kill me because I’d have kept my mouth shut” thinking. Its appeal may be slightly different from the horror-movie trope of “only teens who have sex get killed” but it’s only slightly different.

        Both of these tropes work because deep down, audience members are thinking “that wouldn’t be me.”

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: Oh yeah.

          It also makes Hans not arbitrary. It’s very hard to successfully pull off an arbitrary villain; it’s much easier to follow one who shows logic in his decisions, even if the logic is cruel.

      • akashiver

        Re: Oh yeah.

        Oh. And I just watched The Avengers. Loki hits many of the same beats, I think: he’s got supervillain appeal, he has a mysterious plan and the only people he directly kills are SHIELD agents.

        To this we add the classic “sympathetic villain” appeal (nobody wuvs him), and, more interestingly, the outranked villain maneuver, where Loki’s allies are nastier than him and it’s obvious he’s a bit scared of them. Even though he’s the main villain of the movie, he’s in the Baltar role.

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: Oh yeah.

          Not to mention the implication that — SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER — it’s possible that Loki himself was mind-controlled. His eyes aren’t changed, but he does get his head smashed into the floor a dozen times or so, and after that he seems different.

          • Anonymous

            Re: Oh yeah.

            Oooh! I like that! It would explain why Loki’s taken such a giant step down in his douchebaggery. From trying to be RULER OF ASGARD AND THE NINE WORLDS to “King of Tiny Little Earth” was a bit of a step down. Like Lex Luthor declaring that he was going to become manager of that tiny bagel shop over on 4th street.

            I don’t know that I’m fully persuaded though. If you have a mind-controlled Loki, why not send him to take over Asgard?

  15. dark_towhead

    Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in the original Cape Fear (a role reprised by Robert De Niro in the remake) kind of embodies well-done malevolence. Also, Mitchum’s turn in Night of the Hunter is somewhat malevolence-incarnate. Mitchum’s strength is in selling these characters as authentically creepy instead of cartoonish.

  16. moonandserpent

    At the risk of giving you flashbacks…


    Edited to add: Doh, she beat me to it…

  17. sandmantv

    And of course there’s Vriska in Homestuck, but I rather doubt you’re going to consume that corpus for this sliver of inspiration. Still, she combines both “fantasy villainy” with “teenagers are cruel as eff”.

  18. Marie Brennan

    Re: Oh yeah.

    I’m not sure that is what was going on. It’s just a possibility you can read into the movie. If they wanted that to be the explanation, they ought to have made it a good deal clearer. (And who knows — maybe there will be something in the deleted scenes that indicates either way.)

  19. boannan

    I was struck by that scene in the movie as well.

    I’d add Niska, during the War Stories episode of Firefly, with Malcolm Reynolds. He’s obviously sadistic, but he also has an unnerving obsession with the connection between pain and what he might describe as “character”.

Comments are closed.