December 6-12: “Who is the best antagonist of all time (other than Hannibal Lecter)?”

The villain — the person we all love to hate. Or do we? Some say it’s really the villain who drives the story.  If that’s true, who’s your favorite evil mastermind of all time, and why?  Raymond Benson, C.E. LawrenceGeorge Eby, Grant Blackwood, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and James Hayman answer the question and kick off another terrific Roundtable discussion.

Raymond Benson is the author of 23 published books.  He wrote six original James Bond novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories—all published worldwide.  Three 007 titles each are collected in the recent anthologies CHOICE OF WEAPONS and THE UNION TRILOGY.  His series of “rock ‘n’ roll thrillers” include DARK SIDE OF THE MORGUE and A HARD DAY’S DEATH.  As “David Michaels” Raymond wrote two NY Times best-sellers in TOM CLANCY’S SPLINTER CELL series.  Raymond is also the author of two METAL GEAR SOLID novelizations and the recent HOMEFRONT—THE VOICE OF FREEDOM (co-written with John Milius).

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Screams and Silent Victim are the first two books in her Lee Campbell thriller series.  Silent Kills comes out later this year.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge.

George Ebey is the author of Broken Clock, Dimensions: Tales of Suspense, The Red Bag, and Widowfield. He is a graduate of Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and a minor in writing. He lives with his wife, Gail, in Northeast Ohio. Visit his website at: www.georgeebey.com

Grant Blackwood, a U. S. Navy veteran, spent three years aboard a guided missile frigate as Operations Specialist and Pilot Rescue Swimmer. The author of the Briggs Tanner series — THE END OF ENEMIES, THE WALL OF NIGHT, and AN ECHO OF WAR — Grant lives in Colorado where he is at work on the third Fargo Adventure novel with Clive Cussler, following the first in the series, SPARTAN GOLD, and the second in the series, LOST EMPIRE. Grant’s short story, SACRIFICIAL LION, appeared in the acclaimed anthology THRILLER: STORIES TO KEEP YOU UP ALL NIGHT.

Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 26 EMMYs and dozens of other journalism honors.Her debut mystery, PRIME TIME, won the Agatha. FACE TIME is a BookSense Notable Book. AIR TIME was nominated for the AGATHA and ANTHONY.DRIVE TIME earned a Library Journal starred review. Hank’s 2009 short story On the House won the AGATHA, ANTHONY and MACAVITY.Hank’s on the board of NE SinC and national board of MWA. Her website is http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com

Jim Hayman was born in Brooklyn and raised in Manhattan. After graduating from Brown with a degree in history, he talked his way into a job as a copywriter at a major NYC ad agency and spent the next twenty-five years creating TV commercials for clients like the US Army and Lincoln/Mercury. Jim’s first Mike McCabe thriller, The Cutting, was published by Minotaur in 2009. The second, The Chill of Night, came out last July.

Latest posts by ITW (see all)
54 Comments
  1. This is a tough question. There are plenty of antagonists who can give Lecter a run for his money, but if I’m being true to ITW’s bailiwick and loyal to my own sub-genre, I’m going to have to go with a bad guy who shaped untold numbers of international-intrigue thrillers: Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the nefarious head of SPECTRE from the James Bond series.

    Is Blofeld a cliche? Without a doubt. Has he spawned a generation of satirical villains? You bet. But, as what I call a “template antagonist” for big, globe-trotting thrillers, Blofeld is without peer. Strip away the hackneyed trappings and look at what you’ve got: a smart, merciless bad guy with the resources and the will to wreak havoc on not only the world at large but also a valiant protagonist.

  2. Top on my list: Mary Terrell from Robert McCammon’s classic Mine.

    To me, a good literary villain is one that sticks in your memory long after you’ve encountered their tale. Not all fictional baddies have staying power. Yet every now and then you encounter one whose actions are so twisted, whose histories are so tragic, whose minds are so haunted, and whose motivations are so disturbingly sympathetic that you are stuck with vivid memories of their exploits for weeks, months, and even years after reading about them. Mine’s Mary Terrell has always had that effect on me.

    For the uninitiated, let me bring you up to speed. Mary Terrell, aka Mary Terror, is a battered survivor of the radical 60’s. Forget all the flower power stuff. Mary, as part of a militant group of fanatics known as the Storm Front Brigade, did her protesting at the point of a gun. After a violent shootout with the FBI in 1972, Mary looses everything: her lover, the baby in her womb, and soon enough, her sanity. Fast forward twenty years and we find Mary living in a drug-induced haze, tortured by memories of her past and about to go off the deep end in a big way. She becomes convinced that her long lost lover, a man she once knew as Lord Jack, is beckoning her to come to him. There’s just one problem. She wants to bring him a child to replace the one they lost. Her solution: she decides to steal a newborn baby from the local hospital. What follows is a terrifying cross country odyssey as the infant’s real mother, Laura Clayborne, must track down the twisted Mary Terror in a desperate attempt to get her baby back.

    Mine was first published in 1990. I read it in 1993 when I was a junior in high school. All these years later I’m amazed at how fresh and vivid that story seems to me. Though much of the book centers on Laura, the hero of the story, it’s the scenes involving Mary that stick out the most in my mind. When I recommend this book to people today its funny how I can talk to them about it as if I just finished reading it last week.

    What makes Mary so memorable? Despite some of the shocking deeds she performs throughout the story, I think it’s the fact that McCammon manages to tap into her psyche in a way that makes her seem so real and believable that you walk away with an idea of what the world must look like through the eyes of a truly disturbed person.

    This is something that heroes don’t do. We know what motivates the good guy: justice, peace, survival, defeating evil. We can all relate to that. But a good villain like Mary Terror gives us a glimpse into something we might not be so familiar with, and it’s the experience of that darker side that makes the encounter all the more intriguing and memorable.

  3. All time covers a lot of time. If you want to go back roughly 2,500 years to 400 BC, Euripedes’ Medea comes to mind. She earned her stripes as a nasty piece of work by murdering her own two children simply to spite their father. A little more recently, just 400 years ago in 1607, a writer named Will Shakespeare created another nifty female antagonist named Lady MacBeth.

    But instead of covering all time, I’ll stick to the last fifty years or so. And instead of going by reputation, I’ll stick to books and writers I’ve actually read.

    Lechter was, of course, terrific. So too is his female counterpart, Gretchen Lowell in Chelsea Cain’s series Sweetheart, Heartsick and Evil at Heart.

    But I wouldn’t rank either of those as the best.

    For me the honor of being most chilling antagonist of all goes to Patrick Bateman in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. I rate Bateman so high because I can actually imagine him existing in real life. In fact, I think I’ve seen him prowling around a few of my favorite downtown bars and restaurants. Truly creepy.

    Other candidates on my list include in no particular order:
    • Max Cady in John D. McDonald’s Cape Fear.
    • Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley
    • Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. I must admit I’m not sure if the real antagonist in The Shining isn’t Torrance but the hotel, The Overlook. I’ll leave it to you to decide.
    • A very different but, in her own way, equally horrifying antagonist is thirteen year old Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement which I happen to think is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years.
    • Finally, in a shameless bit of self-promoting, I’ll throw in my own bitch goddess from The Cutting and The Chill of Night, Sandy Ingram. She’s very easy for readers to hate.

  4. Great comments, everyone – but I feel we can’t have this discussion without at least a mention of “the Napoleon of Crime,” the nefarious Professor James Moriarty. – a villain so memorable that most casual Conan Doyle readers don’t realize he appears in only one story (though he’s mentioned in two others.)

    So why is the Professor so memorable? Like Hannibal Lector, he’s brilliant, perhaps the only man in London (or the world) whose intellect is a match for Sherlock Holmes. He’s implacable, heartless, cunning and rapacious; one gets the sense that he’s doing evil not so much for gain as for the mere pleasure of it.

    Finally, he’s practically invisible. Apart from the famous confrontation at 221B, he is neither seen nor heard, lurking behind the scenes like the creature in Ridley Scott’s terrifying movie, Alien. Doyle knew what a lot of other writers do: a threat half-seen is far more terrifying than one visible in broad daylight. In fact, he compares Moriarty to a spider, sitting in his web pulling strings, while other, lesser creature do his dirty work. Like Viktor Bout, the arms dealer recently nabbed by the CIA, Moriarty is, in many ways, the very template of evil.

  5. I don’t think it’s possible to name the “best” of anything, whether it’s Antagonist, Motion Picture, Thriller Novel, Actor, Actress, Debut Author Novel, whatever… it’s too subjective. I always prefer to say, “My *favorite* ____ is…”.

    Obviously, a great antagonist has to be the opposite of the protagonist, and if the protagonist is *good* then the antagonist must be *evil.* So who is really, really evil? The character who comes to my mind was a real person, but he’s often been used in fiction as an antagonist. Thus, my *favorite* (although I’m not sure that word applies here!) most evil character is Adolf Hitler. (Note– my saying *favorite* doesn’t mean I like the guy, let’s just make that clear.) Seriously, who has ever shown more evil than him? And what’s great about Hitler–and Nazis in general–is that he and they make great antagonists! They’re the all-purpose bad guy. As Indiana Jones said, “Nazis– I *hate* those guys!”

    Hey, and if you really want to go to the truly evil, how about Satan? There are plenty of novels in which the Devil is the antagonist.

    But before I get too philosophical, I’ll bring my comments back down to earth and talk about James Bond villains for a second. Since I had the pleasure and privilege of penning 007 novels for seven years, I had to deal with some of these guys. Grant mentioned Ernst Stavro Blofeld as a great villain. True, that he is. The thing is, a Bond novel is only as good as the villain is bad. Coming up with a believable and original villain (and his nefarious plot) is the big challenge for Bond continuation authors. My good friend Jeffery Deaver has that task now, as his new Bond novel comes out in May 2011–I’m very curious to see what he comes up with! At any rate, some of our most memorable villains were indeed created by Ian Fleming– Blofeld, Auric Goldfinger, Dr. No, Rosa Klebb, Hugo Drax– all terrific.

  6. Moriarty! Of course. Number one, absolutely. But here’s my question: do you think..could we get away with writng a villian like MOriarty doay? We aren’t quite sure what he looks like, isnt that right? And we’re not exactly sure of his real motivation, right? And are we really sure that he…exists? And is not just a figment of Shelrlock’s “imagination”?

    Well, okay, I guess we know he’s real.

    But one thing that makes him such a good villain is that there’s so much in the reader’s percepton, and Sherlock’s perception, and whether he’s really the mastermind behind all tlhe crimes. Everything bad that happens–you think, AH, MORIARTY! But maybe not.

    I do think though, seriously, that one instructive thing about Moriarty is that he’s a match for Sherlock Holmes. They’re equally smart, equally clever, equally driven–and equally convinced that they are in the right.

    And I think that’s how any villan-protagonist relationship has to work. They have to be worthy adversaries.

    I have two more villians I relish. And I’ll tell you who they are later.

  7. When we consider the likes of Blofeld or Moriarity for that matter Lechter himself, these guys were created to be so over the top awful that they defy credibility. In fact, for me, part of the pleasure in reading the Bond series is that the villains come off more as comic figures than scary ones.

    I think a real fear begins when the reader has his or her first inkling that a vicious psychopath may just be lurking beneath the charming exterior of the good-looking guy in the next office or the bar we hang out in or even in the house across the street. For me Bateman fill that bill. So does Ripley.

  8. All great comments, everyone. In the end, I think there’s no right answer. As with everything in life, it’s in the eye of the beholder — or in the case, the reader. A Blofeld-esque villain would probably ruin a Thomas Harris style thriller; similarly, a Lecter-esque antagonist would defeat the purpose of a high-concept adventure-thriller.

  9. For the ultimate nemesis, Professor Moriarty. He seems the master of all that is evil. The ultimate controller. The invisible protagonist in every crime that plagued victorian England. A mastermind who challenged Sherlock Holmes, and almost brought about his death.

    I also want to submit, the close runner up, Ernst Starvo Blofeld. A modern day Moriarty

  10. The thing that makes it such a challenge to write a terriifc memorable villan is that –well, they’re gonna lose. And we know it, right? And in a series, our hero comes back in every book, but there most often has to be a new villain.

    Ian Fleming’s bad guys–and I remember reading all the books hiding under my covers with a flashlight so my parents wouldn’t know–bet I fooled them, huh?–were terrific, although as someone mentioned, kind of predictable and over-the-top. But who cared, really.. (Who was the bad guy in On Her Maesty’s Secret Service?)

    So who else do I love as a bad guy? The Jackal, in Forsyth’s iconic Day of the Jackal. I mean–here’s an assassin, a true villain, and we’re kind of rooting for him to succeed! (I was, at least, ANd I had to keep reminding myself that I did not want xx to be shot. (No spoilers, if there’s someone who hasn’t yet had the joy of reading this book..)

    He was cool, he was smart, he was capable and brilliant. And handsome. And such a good bad guy.

  11. Hank– the baddie in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was Blofeld.

    Much of what makes a villain great is the plot, especially in a thriller. Here’s a question for my fellow panelists– which comes first, the character or the plot? Assuming you already have your protagonist, how do you create your antagonist? (Or maybe you create the antagonist first!) I’ve had cases in which the plot came first and I fashioned a villain to fit the plot. And then there are examples that are the other way around. Sometimes you know the motivation of your bad guy before you know your bad guy. Maybe you just know that you need, say, “a corrupt cop with ties to the mafia,” because that’s what the story is about… and then you create the character from that.

    The next question is… how do you make him/her *really bad*? 🙂

  12. Oh Ray, I was just thinking about that. In all my books, I go in thinking I know who the bad guy is. But it hardly ever is.

    In PRIME TIME, I was completely wrong, Completely wrong! I was halfway through the book–and realized I had chosen the wrong villain. The real guilty person was there all the time, lurking and being guilty–I just hadn’t recognized it. I mean, talk about a surprise ending. I surprised myself!

    And interestingly (to me at least) when I figured out that I had to do the story with a new bad guy–I barely had to change a word. I mean–barely! It was so fascinating. I had simply been writing a different book than the one I thought I was writing.

    So amazing, isnt it?

  13. Interesting question, Raymond. For me I think the plot tends to come first, then its a lot of fun concocting a baddie to fit the situation just right.

    How to make him/ her really bad? I think it works best when you find a way to make your villain somewhat sympathetic. You know they’re bad, what they’re doing is bad, but in their minds they think they’re doing the right thing. The character doesn’t choose evil just to be evil. They do it because they see a justification for it. This makes them appear more human, more everday. It’s a scary prospect when you realize that any average ordinary person you pass on the street just might be planning a villainous act.

  14. I liked the movie version of all the baddies I listed. The Jackel, absolutely. But also the film versions of Bateman, Ripley, Jack Torrance and both incarnations of Max Cady, but especially the original Robert Mitchum version.

  15. Oh, Please, Robert Mitchum was the scariest in Cape Fear.

    And I talk about this all the time in seminars–a good villain doesn’t wake up in the morning and think about all the bad things he/she is going to do! They think they have a reason for it–they were wronged or mistreated or the world doesn’t work fairly for them, they’re misunderstood, they’re not getting the glory or attention they deserve, they know better than others, they’re smarter, no one listens to them, they never get a break.

    Or–they’re insane. Which is a different deal completely, don’t you think?. My husbamd, a crimnal defense attorney, has used the insanity defense..and he says it’s almost impossible to get a jury to believe that a defendant really didn’t understand the ramifications of what they were doing. “But he planned it!” they say. “That proves he’s not insane.”

    Ah, Discuss.

  16. Hank, I’m not sure I could start writing a book without knowing who the bad guy is. I’m an outliner. 🙂 But I admire those of you who don’t outline, too.

    George is right, you have to humanize the villain. Even Hitler was an animal lover and took great care of his dogs.

    You know, one of the best understated villains of all time is Hal 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. So calm, so intelligent and nice-sounding… and yet he murders 3 hibernating astronauts in the coldest possible way and kills off one of the other guys and tries to kill the protagonist. But we start off liking him and in fact he is intentionally the most “human” character in the film. Brilliant stuff.

  17. I agree with Hank that the Jackal is a fascinating and effective villain. And with Grant that there is no “right answer,” or a one-size-fits-all villain.

    I think James makes an interesting comment about the chance that the boy next door is a psychopath. Since we’re also discussing real life killers, that was certainly true of Ted Bundy. He was charming, handsome, educated, intelligent – the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to marry…. if you wanted her to end up dead.

  18. Oh,Ray, I thought I knew! I was just..wrong. 🙂 (And I did have an outline. So much for that…)

    For a wonderful villain–how about,oh, what’s his name? In Strangers on a Train? Was it–Guy? (Very everyman/phony name, huh?)

    And how about the talented Mr.Ripley?

  19. Good one, Hank, in thinking of Strangers On a Train. What a memorable encounter! And what an amazing and dark movie. Ripley is fascinating, too – I adore stories about con men. And of course they often turn into something darker.

    A notable exception is real life Frank Abagnale, who went from being a con artist to a guy who catches them – sort of like another real life thief turned officer of the law, the great Francois Vicdoq.

  20. Hannibal Lecter is really Ed Gein (the real serial killer) who was also the inspiration for Norman Bates and Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I guess that Ed Gein was some piece of work!

  21. Actually, Raymond, sorry to correct you, but “Buffalo Bill” (the Ted Levine character) in Silence was the one based on Ed Gein, who made garments from the skins of his victims. Gein was some piece of work indeed; like virtually every serial killer studied in depth by criminologists, his antisocial behavior started early in life.

    Hank, Robert McKee has some brilliant things to say about Lecter in his book, Story. He talks about the attractive aspects of Lecter’s personality – his brilliance and wit and perceptiveness. I think that’s one reason he’s so frightening; he appears to be so in control, until he’s not. There’s also something terrifyingly primal about being eaten alive – it taps into our deepest animal fears, I think. Not to get too Freudian, but he’s the perfect combination of the false superego and the out of control id.

  22. I agree with Raymond and Grant, no right answer here. Only the “My Favorite is…”

    Lecter was a great character, I loved how he was a secondary on Red Dragon and came center front in the next novel.
    Hittler is probably the baddest of the real ones. Heck, I even used him on my Spanish novel “Heir of Evil.”
    I’m also a Bond fan, and yes, he has to fight some really bad dudes!

    Now, I know this is thriller and its sub-genres, but I’d take a moment to list Count Dracula as a wonderful villain. He pretty much spawn its own genre!

    And last, how about that damn Barzini! He gunned down Vito, Sonny and even took a shot at Michael before anybody got the wiser.

  23. I’d like to mention Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. That book taps into the idea of being helpless and at the mercy of someone who is coming unhinged. The abuse Annie inflicts on Paul is both physical and psychological. She can be subtle one moment then in your face the next.

    Also, what about Ebenezer Scrooge? He can be an example of the reformed villain. In a way, he was his own worst enemy.

  24. Ray,
    An easy mistake to make – I remember how creepy Ted Levine was as the sexually ambiguous killer, and then what a treat to see him as the bluff, sexy captain on “Monk” years later. Quite a versatile actor.

    George, I love that you brought in two fictional characters from genres other than thrillers – though I suppose the King novel is as much thriller as it is horror. Isn’t Annie sort of every writer’s darkest nightmare fan? Love it! And Kathy Bates was such a great choice for the movie.

    As for Scrooge, very appropriate for this time of year! What a great book, what a great character. I wonder if it would be too off topic to ask if anyone has a favorite movie version, since it’s been filmed so many times??

  25. Oh, you got it. Yes. And he’s pret-ty interesting, right? Talk about motive, and arrogance, and hubris. I mean,–part of the tension of a good bad guy–is that we can be just a bit impressed.

    Who else, you all, do you remember? And isn’t it fascinating? If the question were–who’s the best good guy, it would be much easier. And don’t even ask me about Reacher.

  26. Jumping in here. The first, I mean THE FIRST, villain that came to mind is:

    JACK THE RIPPER

    Yes, he was real…. we think. Yes, he acted alone…. we think.

    To this day, we don’t know for certain who (or what) he was; a butcher, a baker, a Prince, a foreigner, a midwife? Scores of stories and novels and movies have used him as the villain (Best Ripper Movie ever: TIME AFTER TIME. Best Holmes/Ripper movie: MURDER BY DECREE). Writers have taken him to the far flung future and hurled their own heroes back in time to capture him.

    After 122 years, the name still strikes a chord; the Yorkshire Ripper, ‘Jack the Stripper’, etc etc etc. Almost any killer who uses a knife is christened “The Ripper”.

    Jack is an all-purpose boogy-man, yet with such an air of real-life mystery he stands (to me at least) as the Perfect Villain.

  27. Tremendous answers here, and so many I hadn’t thought of or remembered.

    I’d like to throw in the poster child for blind careerism, Tribune Messalla from Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. A guy willing to throw his best friend under the bus (or the chariot, as it were) and then tossing the man’s family under for good measure.

    All in the name of getting promoted.

  28. CHer’ley…I’m with you on Dexter. What do you all think?

    WIlliam–brilliant. And I competely love Time After TIme. What a great movie. And apparently part of it was shot in the Hotel where this year’s BOuchercon was held. (But he’s not fictional. Or maybe..he is..)

  29. We need some women villains here. How about Cruella deVille? She scared me to death when I was a kid. And I couldn’t even bear to look at Margaret Hamilton until I was about twelve. Even now that theme music gives me the creeps.

  30. OH, of course. Women–Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. And the girls in The Beguiled. Which I cannot even watch.

    In books–well, who do you think is the best-worst female villain? Not Rosa Klebb, right?

  31. I’ve mentioned two female villians so far. As for a third, Aunt Ruth from Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door comes to mind. She was some piece of work.

  32. It’s a good one, Hank. Disturbing though. It’s set in the 50’s. Aunt Ruth is nice figure to the kids in the neighborhood. But behind closed doors she’s a holy terror. Her two orphaned nieces come to live with her and she ends up putting them through the ringer. It’s mostly about this neighborhood boy who figures out this is going on and has to decide what to do about it.

    Ketchum’s book Off Season was one of the ITW’s 100 must reads. That one probably has the scariest GROUP of villains I can think off.

  33. ANd Mrs. Danvers, of course.

    George, that’s so tantalizing! I’m off to find the book.

    How long does it take you to spot the bad guy in the book you’re reading? (It was alway so easy watching Perry Mason…)

  34. Oh, I love Gollum and Mrs. Danvers – good ones! Good question, Hank – there’s a cliche on TV shows that the most unassuming, polite person is the killer. But it’s hard to disguise them, because so many twists have already been done. That said, I love it when writers really surprise me. I was recently surprised nicely by a Jonathan Kellerman I read, because he introduced the villain very early but then sort of “buried” him for a while.

  35. Yeah, in Perry Mason, it was alwaya the third person. Not the MOSt obvious, and not the second most obvious. The third one.

    But of course, part of the fun of bad guys is when you DO know who they are. And we get to watch them at work.

MATCH UP: In stores now!

mu_footer

VIRTUAL THRILLERFEST XV: Register Today!

FOLLOW US ON

FACEOFF

One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!

fo_footer