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Rooting for the Bad Guys: Villain Protagonists

"Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?" -The Wicked Witch of the West

Okay, who out there has never rooted for the bad guy?  (You in the back, put your hand down.  I've seen your Loki desktop wallpaper, you so-called goody-goody!)  Much as we say we want the good guys to win in the end, let's face it: good can be boring.  Good has to follow the rules.  Good is hard-working.  Modest.  Clean-cut.  Strait-laced.  Narrow.  Predictable.  Like I said... BORING.  The really interesting characters are the ones who are willing to step outside the lines... or draw their own.

Who writes these "rules," anyway?  Why do they always favor the so-called "good guys"?  While some villains do revel unabashedly in their evilness (because hel-LO, it's FUN), many villains are victims of circumstance, outcasts seeking the justice that has been denied them.  It's a tradition that goes back to children's literature; The Wizard of Oz is a perfect example.  "Good girl" Dorothy Gale's first act in the land of Oz is to murder the Wicked Witch of the East and steal her precious ruby slippers.  Sure, Gale claimed it was an "accident," but what kind of restitution did the brat offer?  None.  In fact, she looted the poor woman's corpse and partied on her grave with those disgusting little Munchkins.  All the Witch of the West truly wants is to recover her rightful inheritance... and if she extracts some revenge for her dear, departed sister in the process, who could blame her?

The villains are generally more colorful and interesting than the good guys, too.  Consider Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Is sappy Prince Phillip the life of the story?  Hardly-- even his horse is smarter than he is.  Princess Aurora?  Please... all those fairy gifts, and she goes down in legend for sleeping.  (Yawn, indeed!)  No, the obvious standout character is Queen Maleficent, with her dark elegance and her terrifying curse and... oh, yes, her ability to TURN INTO A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON.  I ask you, how awesome is that?  And she's a self-made woman, unlike silver-spooned Prince Phillip, who needs the help of those dumpy fairies to vanquish her.  The villains always get the cool stuff, too-- lairs, minions, awesome powers, doomsday devices, laser-mounted sharks (and other exotic pets), and truly fantastic wardrobes. 

Besides, think of what a dull and uninteresting place the world would be without its villains.  In fiction, it's often the villians and rogues who provide impetus for the plot.  They tempt heroes away from the straight and narrow into new experiences that allow them to grow and learn (or regret, but hey, that's a learning experience too).  They create obstacles the heroes must overcome in order to win through to the end.  Where would Luke have been without Vader?  Still slaving away on his uncle's farm, no doubt.  And would Buttercup and Westley have been anything more than a footnote in Florin's history without Vizzini and Prince Humperdinck?  Without villains to thwart or injustices to right, most heroes would be out of a job... assuming they even had the motivation to leave their disgustingly happy, peaceful little villages in the first place.

Who wouldn't want to root for the villain?  In fact...  why bother with a hero at all?  Let's just make the villain the hero of the book.  (Of course, you need to ditch that silly "hero" label-- they'd prefer to be called "villain protagonists," thank you.)  Sure, they're not as warm and fuzzy as your usual protagonists, but they're not bad people once you get to know them.  Wait, scratch that... they are bad people.  But as ultimate bad girl Mae West said, "When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better."

Ladies and henchmen, may I present.. the villains!

The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron (Pbk-Fantasy Aaron)
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie (Fantasy Abercrombie)
Alpha by Catherine Asaro (SF Asaro)
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (SF Bester)
The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust (Fantasy Brust)
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Fiction Burgess)
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (SF Dick)
The Real Story: The Gap into Conflict by Stephen R. Donaldson (SF Donaldson)
Venom by Jennifer Estep (Pbk-Fantasy Estep)
Krondor: The Assassins by Raymond E. Feist (Fantasy Feist)
Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward (Fantasy Forward)
Black Sun Rising by C. S. Friedman (SF Friedman)
Grendel by John Gardner (Reading List Gardner)
The Monster's Corner by Christopher Golden, ed. (Horror Monsters)
If I Were An Evil Overlord by Martin H. Greenberg, ed. (Pbk-Fantasy If)
The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Fantasy Grimwood)
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman (Fiction Grossman)
Death's Head by David Gunn (SF Gunn)
The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (SF Harrison)
Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard (Horror Howard)
God's War by Kameron Hurley (SF Hurley)
Darth Bane: Path of Destruction by Drew Karpyshyn (SF Karpyshyn)
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (Fiction Lindsay)
Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (Fantasy Lukyanenko)
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (Fantasy Lynch)
Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire (Fantasy Maguire)
The Conqueror's Shadow by Ari Marmell (Fantasy Marmell)
Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez (Express SF Martinez)
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock (Fantasy Moorcock)
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (SF Morgan)
Orcs by Stan Nicholls (Fantasy Nicholls)
Gateway by Frederik Pohl (SF Pohl)
Sympathy for the Devil by Tim Pratt, ed. (Horror Sympathy)
The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice (Horror Rice)
Maledicte by Lane Robins (Fantasy Robins)
The Sellswords by R. A. Salvatore (Fantasy Salvatore)
Shadow's Lure by Jon Sprunk (Fantasy Sprunk)
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (Fiction Suskind)
Giant Thief by David Tallerman (Fantasy Tallerman)
The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. Van Vogt (SF Van Vogt) (for Coeurl's story, if nothing else!)
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne (Fiction Verne)
The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks (Fantasy Weeks)
Grendel: Devil by the Deed by Matt Wagner (741.5973 Wagne)
Incorruptible by Mark Waid (741.5973 Waid)
A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny (SF Zelazny)

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I'm totally bookmarking this list for future reference!

And may I also suggest Glen Cook's Black Company series? (I've been re-reading it lately.)

The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin might get half credit, too, since the definition of who's the protagonist and who's the antagonist changes pretty much every chapter.

Glad you enjoyed it!

Both excellent suggestions!  I wavered on Black Company because I seemed to recall they end up working for the forces of Good in the end, and I was trying to stay away from the more neutral characters and antiheroes.  (I finally came up with a defining question for my list: if the main characters were hailed by the authorities, would they a) consult with them b) submit to them c) run away very fast or d) start shooting?  Only the last two had a place on this list.)

Oh, and one more fun thing to share, which I just found via io9: the folks at the economics blog Centives priced out The Cost of Being an Unbeatable Evil Overlord.