I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately thanks to my brilliant writer friend Amélie Zhao.
I recently read her debut novel BLOOD HEIR and I absolutely devoured it. Amélie’s prose is gorgeous, her world is stunningly detailed, and her characters are so fleshed out they practically leap off of the page. I was reading her manuscript, having a grand ole time, enjoying her scrupulous conman and her driven main character when…bam.
I met the villain.
And I fell IN LOVE.
This isn’t a new thing. Many of my Harry Potter friends used to get mad at me for rooting for Voldemort. I was totally on board with Scar, and even when Azula was trying to fry Aang and co with blasts of lightning a small part of me was shouting, “YESSS MY PRECIOUS MURDER CHILD, DESTROY THEM ALL!”
But I’m not alone. Or a sociopath (probably). Maybe it’s the Slytherin in me, but I’ll take a compelling villain over the hero any day.
For me, the best villains are the ones that see themselves as the hero of their own stories.
They’re not evil for the sake of being evil. They want something. Maybe it’s power, maybe it’s to right a wrong. Maybe they’re trying to build a world they fit into. But a villain who sees their evil as justified—who sees themselves as the hero—is absolutely intoxicating.
The best villains are the ones that do terrible things, but when we get to know them, it makes sense. Sometimes, we even identify with them when they’re furious with a hero that keeps getting in their way.
Voldemort grew up in a horrible, loveless situation. Homeboy is actually incapable of love. It’s alluded in the books that he learned early on the only way to secure safety in life is by being powerful. And what’s his entire, terrifying arc about? Grabbing every single last shred of power he can. Voldyboy didn’t become evil for the sake of it—it was his desperation to wrap himself in a shield of power that led him down that road.
We see this over and over again. Scar was shunned by his family (his real name means GARBAGE, his parents basically setting him up to Evil McAngerpants) and tries to grasp for power in an attempt for control. What’s more: he seems himself as the most capable of leading everyone. In his eyes, he’s justified. It makes sense to him.
And Azula—who will ALWAYS have my heart—was raised to seek power and control. We seem from the beginning that she deeply, desperately believes she must behave in such terrible ways to keep herself at the top. Her father encourages her to manipulate everyone around her. From the time she was a little girl her violence was encouraged and fed by her brother. She’s shaped into a character that’s taught that to earn her father’s validation, she has to use fear and violence to control the people around her. That’s why her confidence fades when they push back. That’s why we see her break down when she realizes Zuko is no longer afraid of her. Azula’s downfall is that she doesn’t know how to exist in a world where she doesn’t use fear to control people, and when that fear fails, all of her confidence and self-worth crumbles.
(Y’all already know how I feel about Zuko.)
This brings me aaaaall the way back to Amelie’s BLOOD HEIR. In her book, the villain is terrifying, sure, but what makes them so compelling is Amelie’s villain thinks they’re right.
And what’s better? So do I. Sort of.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love her main characters. I want them to be happy.
And sure, being a terrible person that crushes people like teeny, tiny eggshells to get what you want is probably not the best way to do things. Her villain could probably really do with some anger management and conflict resolution courses.
But Amelie’s villain comes from a word of pain, and their entire arc is trying to build a world that erases that pain for others through whatever means necessary. They are my favorite kind of villain, because in their eyes, they probably see themselves as the hero. They plan on building a new world. You’re either with them, or against them.
And despite my love for the heroes…I’m totally on board with their reasons for wanting to build a new world, even if the methods are kind of terrifying.
And isn’t there a little bit of that desire in all of us? Don’t you see great injustice in the world sometimes and wish you could step free of the boundaries of law to fix it? Villains do, and they can.
We can’t help but root for that, especially if we agree with the wrong they’re trying to right. This is also why I’m so drawn in by antiheroes. Villains and antiheroes are portrayed as monsters, but even monsters have people that believe in them. There’s a reason why they still have followers, family, and people that love them. The most terrifying villain is the one whose followers believe they’re in the right.
A villain that’s evil for the sake of being evil is boring. But a villain that believes they’re right?
That believes they’re the hero?
I’ll take that over a shiny-eyed, gold-hearted hero any day.
I can’t wait for the world to fall in love (and also be terrified by) the fantastic villain in BLOOD HEIR. The book is now on goodreads, so make sure you add it so you can get your hands on this fabulous book once it’s out!!