Villains – what is it that makes them so sexy?

I was reading an excellent post by Alex Laybourne today in which he asked who we [writers] preferred to write about – heroes or villains.

My immediate response was ‘villains of course!” And then I started wondering why that reaction had been so instant. That lead to thoughts about villains in books that I had read or in movies I had seen. Almost without fail the most interesting characters were always the villains. Why?

In movies, villains are often portrayed as hunky guys oozing danger and sex appeal in equal measure so the attraction is not hard to understand but why does the same thing happen in so many books as well? After all, the author may describe a villain as ‘handsome’ but handsome is just a word and does not have the impact of a three-quarter profile in a close-up. Besides, in books it’s usually the personality that I find myself attracted to anyway.

I’ll admit that for quite a long time I thought there was something a little bit wrong with me until I started talking to other women about this bad-boy phenomenon and discovered that I was not alone. And it’s not something restricted to my generation either –  no.1 daughter is the same and when we first started playing rpg’s together guess who got our attention? Was it Cloud from Final Fantasy 7? Hah! Of course not. How could that angsty namby pamby compete with Sephiroth? I mean come on… even as a pixelated animation that long silver hair was just….

Ahem. I think I’ve made my point. There is something about a good villain that is exciting and yes, sexy and has as much to do with how quickly we turn the pages as any empathy we may feel for the hero of the piece.

Now I need to make a very important point here. When I talk about sexy villains I am NOT talking about romance novel villains. Or heroes.  I am talking about characters in science fiction novels and fantasies and thrillers and, of course, who dunnits. These villains are not out to seduce anyone yet so often they end up being seductive anyway. Why is that?

The only answer I can think of is that the author subconsciously projected that element of seductiveness without knowing that he/she was doing so. Furthermore I think that this element of seductiveness has something to do with the cold, calculating exercise of power. And success. No matter how cold or calculating a villain may be if he is an incompetent bungler then sex appeal goes flying out the window.  And he can’t whinge or whine either – that’s another huge turn-off.

So what the hell is it about villains?  I do have some suspicions but rather than launching into some long analysis that will probably end up being painfully boring I’m going to end this post with a book, a villain, a question and a challenge.

The book : Otherland

The villain : Dread

The question : Did you find Dread as compelling as I did?

The challenge : Name your favourite villain [and the book he/she appeared in] and say why in 500 words or less [preferably less!]

May the power of the pen be with us 🙂


About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

14 responses to “Villains – what is it that makes them so sexy?

  • acflory

    lol – okay okay! I promise I will read Sir Terry again with an open mind 😀


  • metan

    I agree with Ilil about Sam Vimes, although Aragorn was never so attractive in the books as he was in the movies! I prefer the good guy, as long as they are not too good, rarely does the villain worm his way into my affections as well as a good guy does. A wimpy good guy though, not a chance!

    My favourite rogue? Not a villain, definitely not ‘good’, but certainly evil, has to be Terry Pratchett’s Greebo. He might only be a cat, and as such is never a main player, but is such a memorable character in the books.

    (When transformed from cat to human in one book (and randomly at other times) he is described as a ‘beautiful, brainless bully’ who has raided a leather goods store for the discerning pirate, and appears ready to unbuckle any amount of swash, radiating an aura of raw sex that can be felt several rooms away.)


    • acflory

      Dammit! Now you’re making me want to read Terry Pratchet 😦 I could never get into his style of storytelling but Greebo sounds too good to miss 🙂


      • metan

        I just feel sad that Sir Terry has not already infected your life. 😉

        I can add that another favourite not villain, not always conventionally ‘good’ is Granny Weatherwax, probably my very favourite Discworld character. She does what needs to be done, not what everyone thinks is right, even at the expense of her own self.


  • Ilil Arbel

    You all seem to agree with each other that literary villains are so attractive, male or female. I disagree. I think it strongly depends on the quality of the writing. There are some good guys who are just as interesting and even more attractive. Acflory — you want sci fi/fantasy good guy who is really glorious — think about Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings. David – I think most women would fall for Sam Vimes in Terry Prachett’s universe. In the classics – no one can beat Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, every girl’s potential first literary crush. Later, Mr. Knightly in Emma is most attractive despite his integrity which can be annoying at times. I think you are being 1950s and looking for James Dean in a leather jacket in the case of the ladies… or 1940s and the gangster’s moll in the case of the gentlemen. You must expand your horizons!


    • acflory

      lmao – touche Ilil! You’re right there are attractive and compelling ‘heroes’ of both sexes but I suspect that the difference between the characteristics of these heroes and a comparable villain is one of degree. What I’d like to nut out is what those characteristics /are/.


  • acflory

    lol – and mine! But this is the point at which the second guessing starts to get truly interesting. Are we just masochists? Or is there something hardwired into the female psyche that harks back to caveman days? Or could it be that challenge and competitiveness is hardwired into humanity and men and women just express it in different ways?

    This is where David and Alex could provide some insight… for the purposes of scientific research only of course 😉


  • candy

    I’ve been thinking about this and we don’t even like our GOOD GUYS to be too good. If Darcy was sweet and tolerant and open to love outside his class, no one would care about him and Elizabeth. It’s the conflict, the problems, that makes him sexy.

    With the true sexy fiends, their villainy is just clearer and exaggerated. Umm… does that mean we, as women, want men to be difficult? That would explain a whole lot about my romantic history. OMG!


  • Denise

    A lady loves a rogue. It’s an old recipe, but an effective one. Just bad enough to add a little excitement.


    • acflory

      You know the instant I read the word ‘rogue’ I thought of Captain Jack Sparrow. Sorry, I know I just broke my own rule but the association was just too strong to resist 😀


  • acflory

    Mea culpa! When I sent out that challenge I didn’t realise how skewed towards the ladies it was. I’m so relieved you managed to find a worthy villaness 😀 Esmeralda is a nasty piece of work alright. It’s interesting though how she acts as a foil for Quasimodo and makes him shine.

    After reading your comment I tried really hard to come up with another female villaness and after a great deal of thought [and rejecting Mme Bovary for whining] I suddenly remembered Lady MacBeth! Now there was a lady with cajones 😀


  • lorddavidprosser

    I’ve been struggling here to think of a villain/ess that I’ve read about that I could say I’ve enjoyed reading about. The problem is I’ve read so many books over the years. At my age and with advanced senility setting in rapidly I can’t remember what I read yesterday now. One perhaps that does stand out takes me to the classics of my youth ( and before you ask, NO I’m not contemporary with the original) The Lunchpack of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo and the terrible Esmerelda . A woman with not a thought in her head but pleasing herself, you sit there thinking “I’d love to give you a slap” not PC but I’m sure you get my drift. Poor Quasimodo , so in love with this flawed character he hears bells whenever he sees her.
    Esmerelda doesn’t get her own way and she sends poor Quasi slightly Doolally tap (bonkers) at the end so that he plays Tarzan on the bell ropes of his local Cathedral. Alas, she is hanged for murder and he(Quasi) feels responsible and ends up dying in the local churchyard clutching her dead body to him. Which, by the by at least means there is no shortage of romance for all you chicklit lovers out there.
    BTW. No argument, in the films Charles Laughton plays the best Quasimodo.


  • Jones

    My favourite villain is also the protagonist:

    Malus Darkblade, from the Warhammer novels (also titled Malus Darkblade) by Mike Lee and Dan Abbnet.

    Malus is the original snake in the grass. He’s not the brightest, or the most powerful, nor is he the best looking (his retainer Silar is the pretty boy). But he’s sly, HIGHLY ambitious, and so determined you can’t help but root for him. His snarky sense of humour and general pitifulness when things go horribly wrong in his grand schemes make him strangely likable.

    How can you not love a character with banter like this?

    “My lord!” the assassin cried from above. “Are you all right?”

    “Just fine,” Malus snarled. “These jagged rocks managed to break my fall.”

    “Hauclir,” he[Malus] said sourly,”while it is you’re duty to test my food for poison, you don’t have to eat half of the cheese to do it.”

    Hauclir froze mid-chew. “Test for poison, my lord?”


    • acflory

      lmao – you should be doing reviews instead of me Jones! Great example. I’m not as fond of Malus Darkblade as you are but I agree he’s a great character. Definitely more villain than anti-hero 🙂


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