The Smiling Villain


“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” — Hamlet

I’ve always had a soft spot for the smiling villains. The ones who are charming and funny and everyone’s best friend — everyone except the hero of course. It’s one thing to fight the Big Bad that is universally declared True Evil, but it’s a completely different war when faced with the smiling villains.

Claudius is, of course, a perfect example. He was probably a charmer before murdering his brother (unlike Lion King’s Scar), so the court’s attitude toward him probably didn’t change. He did manage to win over Gertrude fairly quickly though. Hamlet is the only one in the entire court to find him suspicious, and voicing his displeasure makes him seem like a resentful, spoiled brat who hates his uncle/step-father on principle. Which only gets worse when he pretends to go mad. Nobody believes him except his best friend Horatio, and even that’s tenuous at best.

Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet faces a similar problem with Duke Roger, a powerful sorcerer and cousin to the prince. Everyone loves Roger. They trust him, confide in him, rely on him to protect his extended family. And because everyone implicitly trusts him, Alanna can’t reveal her suspicions to the prince. With only two allies who believe her, she has to stand up to Roger without attracting attention, without drawing the anger of her friends at court.

In both cases, the hero has to fight sneakily. You can’t draw swords with the Big Bad when everyone else thinks they’re the Big Good. The heroes have virtually no support in opposing the villain. If they let their suspicions slip they’re in danger of being attacked by people who should be allies.

And that conflict is amazing.

I haven’t created a smiling villain yet for my upcoming series, but I think it would be great fun to play with. Now to find a good fit…

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.