Character Profiles: Rotten to the Core

And all that sat by the fire were sad,
Save Ogier, who was stern,
And his eyes hardened, even to stones,
As he took the harp in turn;

Earl Ogier of the Stone and Sling
Was odd to ear and sight,
Old he was, but his locks were red,
And jests were all the words he said
Yet he was sad at board and bed
And savage in the fight.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

That night, among the campfires of the Danes, five men sang by the fire in turn – the rhymester without a home, King Guthrum, and his three earls. Harold sang of the prizes of war, Elf sang of Balder beautiful, and Ogier sang about hate.

The wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who would rend all gods and men,
Well if the old man’s heart hath still
Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
Like cataracts to break down and kill,
Well for the old man then—

While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.

Ogier was Rotten to the Core.

Some villains are sympathetic; you can’t help feeling sorry for them, or you like them in spite of themselves. Some are even redeemed. Other villains are unchangeably evil, yet in some way admirable. Their courage, or persistence, or intelligence just rates it.

And some villains are Rotten to the Core. There’s nothing in them to excite admiration, or liking, or pity. They are not redeemed, nor is anybody rooting for them to be. When such villains get their comeuppance, it’s wonderfully satisfying.

Villains who are Rotten to the Core are among the dullest to ever stalk the annals of villainy. They are also among the best, generally when combined with other archetypes, such as the Scary Evil Villain. There was never anything remotely sympathetic about Sauron. He was evil! evil!, and we were all very happy to see him go. But while he lasted, he was an excellent villain – powerful, malevolent, and impersonal.

Ogier, too, was a fine villain in his own right. There was little to him besides nastiness, but it was nastiness with meaning.

In The Ballad of the White Horse, the struggle between the Danes and British is part of, and symbolic for, the long war between Christianity and paganism. The Danes are pagans; they are almost paganism. Harold – the youth “the new wine of war sent wild” – exulted in the lawless strength of the Danes and boasted they would “enjoy the world, the whole huge world a toy”. Elf, the minstrel, sang beautifully the sadness of his pagan world. Guthrum, the conqueror who “read lines in Latin books when all the north was dark”, was intellectual, and atheistic, and despaired.

And Ogier, with his vision of the last eclipse and the gods behind the gods, was nihilistic, full of rage and hatred – rotten to the core.

5 thoughts on “Character Profiles: Rotten to the Core

  1. I’ve got one of these in my book. 🙂 I hope he’s not boring. He’s creepy, and just evil. He’s cruel to my main character simply because he (the bad guy) enjoys watching him (MC) in pain. :/ It doesn’t help that my MC is a former slave with LOTS of bad memories (and the scars to go with them. I think MC’s with scars are interesting.) 🙂 My Bad guy is evil, cunning, he hates God (and therefore Christians, like my MC.) and he basically hates good because he’s not, he’s an expert…well pain causer, in various different ways. He’s talented in the cruelest ways. He’s very subject to bribery from rich characters. He’ll do them favors for high prices. He’s an extremely powerful man politically and religiously (he’s the high priest of the city’s pagan temple). Does he sound like an interesting bad guy? This style of bad guy, as you said, can be the most boring, but also can be some of the best. How does he sound? I’m starting to worry he’s a bit 2D… Does he sound 2D?

  2. Pagan high priest, politically powerful, hates God, cunning and evil, can be bribed … sounds interesting to me. The mixture of motivations is consistent, yet can tug him in opposite directions. He may hate Christians, but if Constantinople took over the empire …

    I don’t think being just plain evil makes characters two-dimensional; they just have to feel like real people while they’re at it.

    Is your book speculative fiction, or historical?

  3. Mix. It’s historical, but it’s set far enough away from the west, but not far enough east to be kinda where there isn’t a lot of historical data. So there’s some freedom there. It’s set in the unknowns of middle east during starting around 64AD. That’s the year of the great fire in Rome, and basically my plot kick-starter. Not exactly sure if that puts it win SF or HF… hmm… more historical I think (?) Historical events are talked of and sometimes get plot pieces going.

    Oh, and he’s (the villain) is also responsible for the corruption of my (because-of-that-turned) Anti-Villain, who I hope most of the readers will to be redeemed. (he is eventually…)

    What did you mean by “he mixture of motivations is consistent, yet can tug him in opposite directions”???

    And if Constantinople took over the empire I think he’d enjoy torturing my main character one last time, then drink poison or something… or try to corrupt enough people to get what he wants anyway. He’s pretty power hungry.

    I’m glad you don’t think he sounds 2D though. Very glad. I value your opinion very much. When I’m finished maybe I could email you a copy. (I really ought to be finished soon, it’s almost 100,000 words long already!) 😉

    Thanks a million!

  4. I used Constantine as a quick example. I guess I’d better expand.

    Constantine legalized Christianity and is often considered the first Christian emperor of Rome. What would your villain do if the country were suddenly taken over by someone like that? On the one hand, he enjoys persecuting Christians; on the other, he enjoys money and political power. He would have to choose which he wants more.

    Or suppose your villain captures a Christian and then is offered, by one of the Christian’s relatives, a large bribe to set him free. His hatred would lead him to punish the Christian; his greed would lead him to accept the bribe and free him. Greed and hatred are consistent with each other, but in a situation like that, they would still tug your villain in opposite directions.

    And please, send me a copy. If you look under the “Contact” section, you’ll find a way to do that.

  5. I meant Constantine too. Yeah, greed and power can go along way. I think he’d still do the same thing.

    Captures a Christian, but offered money to set him free? Easy (for my villain). Beat said Christian within an inch of his life, require the money before he gives said Christian back, and give him back. He’s been punished, and he still gets the money, and after seeing what’s happened to their friend, the other Christians (unless there are a whole lot of them, considering there are loads of other priests on the villain’s side) would be foolish to do anything about it. Yeah…he’s pretty cruel. He knows how to get what he wants.

    It’s not quite finished yet, but when I get two of my chapters laced together again, I’ll send you an (albeit very long) draft. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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