The protagonist of any story comes into focus more clearly when pitted against a truly epic villain, one who personifies pure evil and proves a relentless foe. Contending with conflict, of course, is a driving force in any fiction, the avgas that feeds the engine, spins the propeller, and keeps the winged creature aloft and alive. This piece highlights a few of the most noteworthy villains ever to stain the pages (or the E-ink display) of a book.
Judge Holden, known simply as the judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, commits all manner of monstrous acts throughout the novel. McCarthy, however, understands the value of profiling a villain with traits that stand in sharp contrast to their evil deeds. Toward the end of the novel, the judge celebrates with a uninhibited moment of pure Bacchanalia, somehow making him seem even more monstrous.
Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
In Rose, authored by Martin Cruz Smith, the chief antagonist is Bill Jaxon, who fights with a brutal ferocity, making him the most feared character in the mining community in which the novel is set. Bill and the protagonist, Blair, are vying for the affections of a pit girl, Rose, and the tension and conflicts steadily build throughout the novel.
He didn’t see the kick. His left leg felt paralyzed from the hips down. Bill bounced back quickly, lightly for a big man, and using his other foot like a scythe, scooped up both Blair’s legs. Blair landed on his side and rolled away from a kick that raked his back.
“I told you to stay away from Rose, didn’t I?” Bill said.
Blair got to his knees, his left leg numb. Bill feinted from side to side, and Blair ducked as a clog swung at this face and crawled backward from the kick that followed that. There was something ignominious about the situation, he thought. He had survived attacks with spears and gun in the most exotic parts of the world, and here he was on the verge of being kicked to death in an English coal town.
A clog caught him above the ear and he saw beads of blood fly to the side. Jaxon skipped playfully from right to left, maneuvering Blair so that he slipped over the edge of the grass with one knee in the slag. Wind stung his eyes with carbon dust.
James Lee Burke is another author who has a knack for casting villains in his tales that can verge on demonic in their level of evil. In many cases, the evil is hidden behind the veneer of polite society with characters that appear to be respected and admired in their communities until the curtain is pulled back to reveal their true nature. In Creole Belle, the depraved behavior extends across generations in the case of the Dupree family.
“You’ve made Gran’pẻre angry,” Pierre said. “That’s not good for you or your friend Alafair and Gretchen, Mr. Robicheaux. Gran’pẻre doesn’t have parameters. He has appetites of the most unusual kind.
He opened a wood door that gave onto a barred cell. The floor was spread with a rubber tarp. A cast-iron sarcophagus had been set horizontally at the rear of the room, its hinged lid open and resting against the wall. At the bottom of the sarcophagus were slits that I suspected were drains. The inside of the lid was patterned with rows of spikes shaped like stalactites. Alafair and Gretchen were sitting in the corner, wrists and ankles fastened behind them with ligatures, mouths taped. Gretchen was bleeding from a cut at her hairline. I saw Alafair’s mouth working, as though trying to loosen the adhesive on her cheeks.
In the hands of a master storyteller, the antagonist can be a non-human entity, a storm or a forest or even a hotel. In Stephen King’s The Shining, the isolated, spirit-infested Overlook Hotel serves as the antagonist, slowly driving the protagonist mad by prodding and exposing his weaknesses. The ominous nature of the place is foreshadowed even as the family is driving up the winding mountain road to the hotel in a stuttering VW Beetle with a bad fuel pump.
The rock wall fell away on their right, disclosing a slash valley that seemed to go down forever, lined a dark green with Rocky Mountain pine and spruce. The pines fell away to gray cliffs of rock that dropped for hundreds of feet before smoothing out. She saw a waterfall spilling over one of them, the early afternoon sun sparkling in it like a golden fish snared in a blue net. They were beautiful mountains but they were hard. She did not think they would forgive many mistakes. An unhappy foreboding rose in her throat. Further west in the Sierra Nevadas the Donner Party had become snowbound and had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. The mountains did not forgive many mistakes.
A well-crafted nemesis can propel a story forward from tension to conflict to resolution—whether fiction or non-fiction. Think of the most memorable books that you’ve read—the ones in which certain details remain clear even years after being read—and it’s likely that they contain a strong, worthy adversary to test the mettle of the protagonist.