What Makes a Great Villain?

You guessed it, I’m writing about The Witcher series again.

Recently I’ve been replaying The Witcher 2 after beating The Witcher 3 for the third (third!) time, and it’s been quite a puzzling journey to say the least.

To see the sprawling, interchangeable web of friends and enemies that Geralt can make is fascinating to say the least, particularly because any number of the characters you meet throughout both games can be considered both a hero and a villain.

Depending on your moral values, the world of The Witcher can look entirely different from one person to the next. You might have heard this one before, but nothing in this series is ever “black and white.”

And now I shall try to attempt to do The Witcher series justice, by analysing how it can possess so many characters that can be considered both good and evil.

I’ve held this opinion for quite a while now, but I truly believe that the best villains are the ones that think they’re heroes. Sure, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but how does the terrorist/freedom fighter actually regard themselves?

That’s where the key example of Letho of Gulet comes into play. Introduced in The Witcher 2 through the astounding “Foltest assassination” scene, Letho became an absolute scene stealer throughout the game, mainly because I was so desperate to find out what drove him to murder so many kings.

As it turns out, Letho was acting under the orders of Emhyr, Emperor of Nilfgaard. Why was he doing this? Because the Emperor had promised Letho he’d restore the Viper School of the Witcher, giving him a safe haven from the world in which to rebuild the Witcher order.

When I discovered this, my jaw practically hit the floor. Letho was actually on a journey that would benefit Geralt, and all the other Witchers throughout the world that had ever fallen victim to the iron fist of humanity, of which there had been many.

The motivation of the “villain” played directly on the experience of the player. Throughout the hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing The Witcher series, I’ve seen Geralt and other Witchers constantly disregarded as freaks and mutants by practically everyone. In Geralt’s shoes, wouldn’t I want the very thing that Letho was fighting for?

And this is how cleverly CD Projekt RED made their villain so polarising. I’ve scoured the internet and heard many that claim Letho was justified in committing regicide in an attempt to save his fellow Witchers. Similarly, I’ve also heard many opinions that say he inadvertently caused the death of thousands of people, which could never be justified.

But let’s think about how Letho himself feels. We know that the Viper School of The Witcher, Letho’s home, has been completely obliterated, most likely by humans. Therefore I can entirely empathise with Letho’s mission to rebuild his home, especially since it allows him to strike back at those that caused him so much pain.

The Witcher series is filled with these types of characters, that believe they’re ultimately justified in their actions. Take Vernon Roche and Iorveth for example. Both are polar opposites, fighting for the benefit of humans and elves, respectively. But both believe they’re fully in the right.

Roche sees the Scoia’tael as terrorists, that stop at nothing to achieve complete anarchy within the human race. As such, he feels entirely justified and heroic through killing as many of the rebels that take up arms as possible. Bear in mind that this also includes killing women and children.

Iorveth on the other hand sees the humans as the ultimate oppressors to both elves and dwarves, slaughtering his kind endlessly as far back as the history of humans goes. Therefore he feels heroic and justified in being a freedom fighter for the oppressed, but as with Roche, this also includes killing women and children.

There’s a very nice parallel between the history of elves and dwarves in the world of The Witcher and the history of Native Americans in our world, but that’s perhaps an article for another time.

My point is this: in my mind the cackling, demented villains aren’t always the greatest ones. Sometimes the very best villains will make you step away and question your morals and goals, and maybe even unsettle you a bit.


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