6 of the best charming and sympathetic literary villains

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor

It’s almost the end of June already and time for this month’s authors’ Round Robin. I’ve based my post on a topic set by author Dr Bob Rich.

Something that comes up quite often when I’m editing for other writers is whether characters are ‘likeable’. In many ways it’s easier to write a villain, because we can go all out to make them a bad guy and know readers will hate them, too. But I think it takes a particular skill to create a likeable villain.

Here’s my take on this month’s topic:

Who are your favourite charming or likeable villains in literature

Here are the six literary villains I’ve chosen:

Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers

Milady is d’Artagnan’s nemesis: intelligent, beautiful, resourceful, charming and a deadly assassin. I won’t spoil anything if you haven’t read the book, but it’s not until the end that you find out more about her. Although she’s cruel and heartless, I always feel a strong spark of sympathy for her. She met her match in the musketeers – who could be equally ruthless.

Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books

Snape is my favourite of J.K. Rowling’s characters. In children’s books the bad guys are always bad, and the good are good. Snape is presented at the start as someone who must surely be bad, with his greasy hair and his bullying of Harry. But Rowling sets this up brilliantly so that we don’t hate him completely in the opening. Dumbledore is loyal to Snape so we sense right from the beginning there must be something more to him than we see at first sight. Turns out he’s brave, and loyal, too, and genuine hero material.

helena fairfax, freelance fiction editor
Henry Crawford in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Henry Crawford is handsome, charismatic and rich, and with any other author he’d be the perfect romantic hero. With Austen, though, Crawford turns out to be a cad who’s only interested in himself. But he’s redeemed for me and probably many other readers by the fact he falls hopelessly in love with quiet, staid Fanny Price. She could have been the making of him if she hadn’t been in love with dull and foolish Edmund. When I was a teenager I was convinced Fanny ended up with the wrong man. Sigh.

helena fairfax, freelance fiction editor
Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White

On the surface Count Fosco is a ruthless character with nothing to recommend him. He’s manipulative and dastardly and has the most cunning plan to rob the heroine of her fortune. But he’s also eloquent and charming, and despite his enormous obesity he’s extremely seductive. It’s interesting that in the BBC adaptation Count Fosco was played by a handsome actor in Riccardo Scamarcio. But Collins created a complicated character who was magnetic despite his appearance, and not because of it.

helena fairfax, freelance editor
Bertha Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s  Jane Eyre

I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager, and I took Bertha at face value – the mad and bad woman in the attic who is out to destroy Jane. In my early twenties I read Jean Rhys’s brilliant Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells Bertha’s story. It paints a completely different picture of slavery, female oppression and mental health stigma and ignorance. I’ve never been able to enjoy Jane Eyre since, and of all literary villains, Bertha must the most to be pitied.

helena fairfax, freelance editor
Rupert of Hentzau in Anthony Hope’s  The Prisoner of Zenda

Author K.J. Charles describes this book as ‘a rip-roaring swashbuckling tale of an Englishman posing as a king in a [fictional] European country. It has beautiful princesses, dastardly skulduggery, a hot-as-fire villain, endless swordfights, a lot of highly dubious Victorian attitudes with a lot of misogyny and whiffs of racism, and a remarkably high body count.’

K.J. Charles has written her own inimitable homage to The Prisoner of Zenda in The Henchmen of Zenda. She’s right about the villain, Rupert of Hentzau – he’s charming, witty and as hot as fire. Anthony Hope must have loved him himself, because he later gave the character his own book, Rupert of Hentzau.

And in the 1952 film, James Mason plays Rupert. Who could possibly be better to play a charming villain? You can watch three and a half fabulous minutes of James Mason duelling with Stewart Granger in this YouTube clip.

helena fairfax, in the mouth of the wolf, freelance editor

My romantic suspense novel, In the Mouth of the Wolf, also started as an homage to The Prisoner of Zenda, which is a book about doppelgängers. I’m fascinated by doppelgängers in fiction, and in my novel my Scottish heroine takes the place of a princess in a fictional European country. I based the country on Monaco, and my villain is…well, you’d have to read the book to find out who the real villain of the piece is!

In the Mouth of the Wolf was great fun to write, and I’ve really enjoyed revisiting some of my favourite villains in literature.

Who are your your own favourite villains, in either films or books? And do you love doppelgänger stories as much as I do? If so, which are your favourites?

If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you! And if you’d like to check out what the other authors are saying on this topic, please click on the links below…

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1W6
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

22 thoughts on “6 of the best charming and sympathetic literary villains

  1. Villains are such fun to write. One of my favourites in literature is Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. He makes Marianne so happy at first and then totally breaks her heart with his coldness towards her. Boo hiss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dorinda, I loved WIlloughby too – right up until the end :) Like with Mansfield Park, I read this novel as a teenager and I still remember being shocked and gobsmacked to find out what a villain he was. Great choice of bad guy!


  2. Great post as always, Helena. I, too, found Jean Rhys’s book an eye-opening experience. I do enjoy writing a villain and chose Ian Fleming’s James Bond as one subject of my 6th year long essay on The Anti-hero in fiction. the not wuite villains, but with what today we might refer to as attitude. Anne

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Anne, James Bond sounds a fascinating character to write about. I’ve only read a couple of the books, and your comment has made me want to read more. I love the films, especially the Daniel Craig version. It’s interesting to see how his character has changed in the films. Now I want to read more of the books to see how they compare. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


  4. What a great topic! Lovable villains. In fact in my writing I like to create the villain character more than the main character. Thanks for sharing your faves.


  5. With you all the way, Helena, particularly on Milady and Rupert. (I didn’t like The Henchmen of Zenda, though, at least partly because [MASSIVE SPOILER] which, in my opinion, missed the whole point of what makes Rupert an interesting character!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kathleen, I haven’t read the Henchmen of Zenda yet. (Thanks for not spoiling!) That’s a shame about the Rupert character, though, as he’s one of my favourite villains ever. I look forward to finding out what the spoiler is! Thanks very much for dropping in!


  6. Helena, thank you for a very learned exposition.I’ve read all those books — many years ago, and you’ve brought them back for me. That’s except for Harry Potter. I’ve never been able to finish one of those.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for suggesting the topic, Bob! That’s a shame you haven’t read the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling develops his character really well over the seven books, and the threads of all the stories hang together brilliantly. I also like her Robert Galbraith books very much. I hope you can bring yourself to try them! Thanks for setting an interesting subject, and for your kind comment!


  7. Thank you Helena. I based the villain in ‘False Rumours’ on an evil colleague, long since dead. I found that writing about him was very satisfying. His imaginary evil deeds 500 years ago were only a bit worse than the real ones 30 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Danae, that must have been very satisfying to base your villain on a real evil person. I hope he came to a suitably bad end in your book! One of my villains in In the Mouth of the Wolf is an aristocrat. I based him on a posh person I once knew who was actually really nice, but no matter what happened, good or bad, his manners were always impeccable and he always seemed unflappable.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


  8. Oddly enough (and this is a personal one), but I’d have to choose Drusilla from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, mainly because she started out as evil and I took the fictional vampire on a long road to redemption in four novellas while getting involved with her real-life counterpart Juliet Landau and writing DEAR MISS LANDAU about that.

    Drusilla came out as a rich and multi-layered character, and it’s a great pity the novellas cannot be published as (unlike DEAR MISS LANDAU) they fall straight into the trap of BUFFY copyright…

    Long story.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi James, Drusilla is a great example of a villain who could be likeable. that’s such a shame you weren’t able to publish your novellas. I bet there are lots of Buffy fans who’d love to read her story. I hope one day they get to see the light of day.
    Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


  10. A disturbing thought – Are any heroes ever as attractive, or do I mean seductive as villains ?
    So many literary charmers are already taken, could I stray into other genres, suggest Satan/Lucifer , Mephistopholes, Don Giovanni, Macheath.. Not forgetting the greatest demon lover of all…

    As for Bertha… Before Jean Rhys – we are allowed to see only Bertha’s wild desperation, but how did Bertha spend the rest of her time, locked away, maybe in silent misery, like so many mental health patients – because nobody would listen to them ? .


  11. You make a good point about the seductive villain. There’s something about a bad guy, male or female, that people find attractive. I love your examples.
    And it’s sad indeed about Bertha. Her life must indeed have been miserable. If the novel were set in the present day, written by a contemporary writer, it would have a very different reaction. But in a lot of ways we’re still as ignorant today about the causes of mental health problems and how to treat people who are suffering from them.
    Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your thoughtful comment.


  12. Actually Severus Snape was my favorite character in the Harry Potter books. I read them to my kids, when they first came out. I never saw him as a villain, but as a tortured soul. And that’s the very essence of making a villain an admirable character–helping the reader to understand them.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Fiona, I totally agree about the villain. Once readers see the character’s motivations and what makes them tick, they start to sympathise with them.
    I’ve enjoyed this month’s topic again. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment.


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