Some fantasy protagonists aren’t in the hero business, they’re in the EMPIRE business.
AMC’s Breaking Bad set the gold standard for protagonist turned antagonist with Walter White, the dopey science teacher turned criminal mastermind slash violent drug lord (which I’m pretty sure is what his business card said, or would say, if criminal masterminds slash violent drug lords had business cards).
But the fantasy genre has plenty of Walter Whites as well. Though they may not run a meth lab out of the back of an RV, they’ve betrayed just as many of their closest friends, and caused just as many explosions. Here’s a run-down of some of our favorites, who either turned from good/neutral to evil throughout a book series, or villains who were revealed to have gone through such a transformation before the main story started (Walter Whites of their own narratives).
As you can imagine, this post will have some mild spoilers, but we’ve done our best to keep them as light as possible. Unlike these characters’ misdeeds.
By Julia Bergen
Baru Cormorant, from The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
Baru starts out even more innocent than Walter White did, and though the series isn’t finished yet, she’s well on her way to becoming even more brutal. The series begins with Baru as a happy child who has faced little adversity, living in a picturesque sea-side village with her mother and two fathers. When an empire shows up, kills one of her fathers, and starts a harsh rule that outlaws the most important parts of Bau’s life, she vows to rise up within the empire’s ranks and bring them down from within. What sets Baru apart from most fantasy characters with this same goal is that she is forced to do some truly awful things and changes as a person because of them. By the time this series is over, it seems likely she will have no problem busting out the ricin poison.
Daenerys Targaryen, from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
To be fair, I’m basing this from the TV series since the book series hasn’t finished Daenery’s story, but even in the books you can start to see Martin setting Daenerys up to go full Walter White. Getting what you want by fire and blood doesn’t generally end in a tea party. Daenerys starts out as a teenage girl living in exile, married off for political reasons, who just wants to live a safe, happy life. Throughout the events of the books, we see her come into her own power, first becoming the leader of a Dothraki army, then queen of the city of Meereen. Along the way she executes many, often using her dragons, and though her victims generally deserve it, it’s easy to see how burning people alive when necessary could get out of hand fast. If Daenerys thought letting someone choke on their own vomit would be for the greater good, she would totally do it.
Holland Vosijk, from the Shades of Magic series by V. E. Schwab
Oh, Holland. He’s had such a hard life. He starts out as the main antagonist of A Darker Shade of Magic, but throughout the trilogy we learn so much more about his backstory, and how his actions were not always within his control. As the series goes on, details of Holland’s life before his ill-fated meeting with the Dane siblings reveal that he used to be optimistic and kind-hearted, even on the cruel streets of White London. He does get something of a redemption, but that just makes him even more like Walter White (if you accept that the last few episodes weren’t a dream). Still, he does a lot of genuinely evil things, and happily lets other people die if it means getting what he wants.
The Lord Ruler, from the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
When we meet The Lord Ruler he’s in his final Walter White mega-evil phase. He’s a brutal king, using harsh punishments to prop up the noble houses and keep everyone else destitute. However, throughout the series it turns out that some of the things The Lord Ruler had done had actually been part of a much larger conflict between forces older than history. And he hadn’t always been a vicious dictator. At the beginning, he had wanted to save the world, but that came at a price he couldn’t imagine. The Lord Ruler may have actually been more vicious than Walter White, though part of that was supernatural forces upping his evil quotient.
The King in Red, from The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone
The King in Red definitely paints a more evil image than Walter White – it’s hard to imagine something more menacing than a skeleton in a red cloak, especially one with the ability to create a dragon fueled by the souls of his debtors, even if Bryan Cranston did master the evil glare. The King in Red wasn’t always a heartless overlord, though. The books heavily imply that once he was just a powerful craftsman in loving relationship. It wasn’t until the gods killed his boyfriend that he became obsessed with destroying them, and then once that was basically fully accomplished, ruling in their place. The King in Red would definitely agree that he’s in the empire business.