What makes a good Game of Thrones villain?

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire gave us some iconic villains. What made them work, and do they meet George R.R. Martin’s standards for what a good villain is (and isn’t)?

"“I don’t try to write anyone who’s, ‘Oh, I’m a villain. Let me get up today and just go out and do villainy and pull the world [in]to darkness.’ They all have grievances. They all have wounds, and they have things that drive them to do the things that they do.” — George R.R. Martin"

So says A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin in an episode of PBS’ The Great American Read. It’s a noble sentiment; artists want to depict the world as it is, not as it’s simplified to sell tickets. In life, people who do horrible things very rarely think they’re doing horrible things. Everyone has their reasons, even if their reasons are awful. “We’re all these complicated people,” Martin continues, “who are capable of doing a heroic act on Tuesday and on Wednesday doing something horrible.”

But do the villains in A Song of Ice and Fire – and by extension Game of Thrones – meet Martin’s standards? Some certainly do. Tywin Lannister was a terrible father and a cold, pitiless human being, but I think most fans can at least claim to understand why he acted the way he did. He cared about preserving his family legacy, even if his actual family despised him.

Cersei Lannister is another wonderfully human villain. She’s vain and megalomaniacal and willing to do unspeakable things to get what she wants, but more often than not, what she wants is a secure world for her children, something most people can identify with. Even Walder Frey, accursed though he is, acted according to motivations we can identify: greed, lust and pride. I don’t sympathize with Walder Frey, but I do see him as a guy with “grievances,” however ill held. He’s not someone who gets up in the morning and decides to “go out and do villainy”; it just works out that way.

But there are other villains who may break Martin’s mold, and they’re some of his most memorable. Whereas villains like Tywin and Cersei act on understandably human impulses, there’s something monstrous about people like Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton and Euron Greyjoy. In their cases, I can believe that they get up in the morning eager to act the villain.

But do they really break Martin’s mold? And more importantly, does it matter? Let’s look at them in a little more detail.

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

Joffrey Baratheon

I think we may be able to give Joffrey Baratheon a pass on this one. Yes, he’s a vicious idiot, but he’s very young, and Martin does allow him a few small moments of vulnerability, most notably during his death scene. As much as we want Joffrey gone, the description of a young boy purple in the face from poison clawing at his own throat is hard to take.

In a weird way, Joffrey’s other redeeming factor is his stupidity. The only reason he can get away with his actions – executing Ned Stark, having Sansa beaten in the throne room – is because he’s king, a position he didn’t earn. Martin makes clear that the business of day-to-day ruling bores Joffrey silly, and that he’s a coward. Would Joffrey be a nice humble boy if he didn’t have the crown? Probably not, but I think there’s something to the idea that Joffrey is what you get when you give your average schoolyard bully unlimited power and an army of yes men. I can see something human in Joffrey, although I have to do some digging.

Game of Thrones
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

Ramsay Bolton

Next we have Ramsay Bolton, who in many ways makes Joffrey look like an angry kitten. Ramsay is every bit as sadistic as Joffrey but grown enough to be in full command of his vices. And as a bastard, Ramsay didn’t have everything handed to him. He had to earn his place by his father’s side, which makes him smarter and therefore more dangerous. From siccing hungry dogs on his bedmates to flaying people alive, Ramsay is a twisted psychopath, and most definitely savage to an inhuman degree.

And yet, as brutal as he was on the show, I don’t think Ramsay ever quite crossed the line into cartoon villain territory, although he came close. For me, what saved him was his deference to his father Roose Bolton, and his desire to be treated as a real Bolton rather than a bastard. You can see it in the awe on his face when Roose legitimizes him in “The Montain and the Viper,” in the way he shuts up when Roose tells him to listen in “High Sparrow,” and in the way he looks away, pained, when he stabs his father in “Home.” (Actor Iwan Rheon deserves a lot of the credit for making these moments work.) Ramsay is most definitely a villain, but including that wrinkle in his character – the need to be accepted by his dad – allowed me to view him as a human villain, whatever horrors he committed.

Euron Greyjoy

On the far end of the spectrum is Euron Greyjoy, who comes as close as any human villain in the Song of Ice and Fire series to being on par with an unknowable evil like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Euron (and here I’m talking mostly about Euron as depicted in Martin’s books) commits atrocities. He cuts the tongues out of the mouths of his crew members, and the women he beds. When Lord Sawane Botley objects to Euron’s claim to the Seastone Chair in A Feast for Crows, Euron has him drowned in a cask of seawater. And he binds his own brother to the prow of his ship and sails it.

Not only do these acts outstrip in cruelty most of what Joffrey does, but it’s harder to find a human motivation for them. Euron doesn’t have his tender age to blame for his savagery, nor does he yearn for his father’s approval like Ramsay. He’s just a monster, as bad on Wednesday as he is on Tuesday, unredeemed and irredeemable. In the novels, Martin hints that Euron is addicted to the hallucinogenic Shade of the Evening, a favorite of the warlocks of Qarth, but this doesn’t humanize him. If anything, it makes him stranger and more remote, as do his grand ambitions of world domination. If any villain is outside the bounds of what Martin set for himself, it’s this guy.

On HBO’s Game of Thrones, Euron’s character is simplified, which I think makes him more believable. He just comes off as a raging asshole who likes killing; it’s more pedestrian than a would-be god-king who fancies himself destined to bring about the end times, but also more recognizable and easier to swallow. Dramatically, I think that works better.

Game of Thrones
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

So let’s return to Martin’s guidelines for villains, and judge whether any of these three jerks violate it:

"I don’t try to write anyone who’s, ‘Oh, I’m a villain. Let me get up today and just go out and do villainy and pull the world [in]to darkness.’ They all have grievances. They all have wounds, and they have things that drive them to do the things that they do."

Well, I think that in all three cases, Joffrey, Ramsay and Euron do probably get up eager to hurt people. But then again, edge cases exist in real life – our world has its share of sadists and despots, and it makes sense that those qualities could thrive in the kill-or-be-killed world of Westeros.

I’m willing to excuse this in the case of Joffrey and Ramsay because they, under my reading, still have lifelines to their humanity. I’m horrified by them, but they never stopped being believable. I never saw the strings, never saw them as impossible people created only to shock me.

Euron is different, at least in the novels. I simply don’t buy him. He seems too extreme, too calculated to disgust and surprise, and I ascribe that feeling to a lack of any identifiably human characteristics. Martin’s story is one about people, good and bad, not monsters. Euron seems more monster than man.

Of course, that could change in subsequent books. I’ll also be curious to see what Martin does with Ramsay moving forward, after his arc was brought to a satisfying conclusion on TV. And finally, we haven’t touched on the White Walkers, which are unique villains deserving of an essay all their own.

What do you guys think of all this? What makes a good Game of Thrones villain? Who are your favorites? Am I way off about Euron? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Next. 25 greatest duos in Game of Thrones history. dark

To stay up to date on everything fantasy, science fiction, and WiC, follow our all-encompassing Facebook page and sign up for our exclusive newsletter.

Get HBO, Starz, Showtime and MORE for FREE with a no-risk, 7-day free trial of Amazon Channels