I read a Facebook thread about memorable villains recently. You know, those long sprawling posts where eventually the majority start sharing some combination of the same five characters, and others share obscure entries to avoid that trap?
The top 5 seem to be:
Darth Vader (Star Wars)
Randall Flagg (Stephen King's The Stand and Dark Tower series)
Sauron (The Lord of the Rings)
Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Cersei (Game of Thrones)
Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)
That's completely unscientific. Now, the reason I mention it is because we are taught to write villains who have more than one side, who we can sympathize with, who don't think they're the villain. And from the success of these series, that advice seems to be worth its weight in squirrel turds.
The worst thing to happen to both Vader and Lecter was when the creators showed more of them, and why they became who they are. Vader's redemption in Return of the Jedi was enough for me. He was just someone tempted by power, and that was enough. Lecter is great on paper, the mastermind serial killer who outsmarts everyone; he works because to quote my friend Les Edgerton, serial killers are boring. (Read that and more in his post about talking to Charles Manson, at his website). They do the same thing over and over! Only in fiction do they become interesting. I loved Silence in book and film form. Hannibal was silly fun, but Hannibal Rising was a disaster. And so were the Star Wars prequels. They made Anakin just an angry kid who got taken in by a Rasputin. Chigurh is a great creation, but he's barely human as well.
But I digress. I haven't read George R.R. Martin--he's far too wordy for my tastes, I prefer Glen Cook's The Black Company for my grimdark fantasy-- so I can't speak of Cersei except from the HBO series. She's not one-dimensional there to me. Randall Flagg certainly is. In The Stand, he is more than or less than human. I still recall the scene with his boots crunching gravel as he runs after a toadie who failed him, and the last thing that toadie sees, "big tombstone like teeth." He's the worst of us, but I can't see any sympathy for him. In the lesser novels of the Dark Tower series, he is more of a toadie himself, a henchman of the Crimson King, and he is much weaker for it.
So why are we crafting villains who are just folks like us who think they are working for the good side, if the culture adores big grandiose villains who are barely recognizable as human? In Bad Boy Boogie, the police chief Leo Zelazko is such a character. He is based on my father's friend Tony Maffatone, a former police officer turned executive bodyguard, who was a great family man and friend, but who had a Machiavellian philosophy of life. I amplified that to the extreme, creating someone who would commit terrible crimes to protect his family and his town, a man who lost the love of his son and tries to explain his behavior to get it back. Zelazko means "iron" and in my stories, the "iron people" are the authoritarians, who would rather be feared than loved.
What were my choices? I opted to pick new ones. I like Vader, Lecter, and Saruman, too.
Magneto from the X-Men movies especially because he thinks he's saving the world.
Javert from Les Miserables, for the same reason. He is the iron rule of law personified.
Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. She feels wronged and insulted and punishes generations of a family for it.
Loki from the Thor movies. Another wronged type who uses deceit and subterfuge rather than brawn. In Ragnarok he is still terrible, it's his nature, but can still love (and hate) his family. More realistic than many villains out there.
The nameless killer from Lawrence Block's final Matt Scudder novel, All the Flowers Are Dying. He's Keller if he murdered for sport, a villain out of Dumas made real.
Soulcatcher and Lady from Glen Cook's The Black Company series make the Cersei and Jadis look kind. I think they were sisters, too. Soulcatcher is the younger jealous one. Lady just wants what she wants, and heaven help you if you're in her way.
Annie Wilkes from Misery is pure terror.
A good read is this article, The Root of All Cruelty? in the New Yorker. The pattern in my choices becomes clear, afterward. The article speaks of how we commit atrocities, and Fiske and Rai define it as "the desire to do the right thing, to exact just vengeance, or to teach someone a lesson." With righteousness behind us, we can do terrible things.
And live with it.