When most of us think of motivation for evil, we often think first of tragedy. People who are bad, we assume, are those who have suffered injustice, or are the victims of some mental malady that drives them to commit socially aberrant behavior. It seems to go against logic that a person who has everything they could possibly want in life and who is good at everything that matters to them would be inclined toward villainy. And yet, Princess Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender is just such a villain.
Azula is the favored child of Firelord Ozai, ruler of the warmongering Fire Nation, and serves as his chief enforcer. She is a prodigy of firebending, the ability to create, control, and manipulate the element of fire, as well as traditional martial arts, able to hold her own against several skilled opponents at once. She is also extremely clever and manipulative, and has the backing of her father’s empire. She has a pair of elite bodyguards, Mai and Ty Lee, who double as her best friends. With this array of skills, she is able to defeat or at least stand off against the Avatar himself, as well as his entire group, not to mention her rogue brother and uncle. She is also an extremely dirty fighter, exploiting her foes’ compassion by attacking the weakest and most vulnerable, or those her enemies are inclined to care about, instead of her enemies themselves.
The fact that Azula was born one of the most powerful people in the world and impressed everyone with her abilities from an extremely young age seems to have convinced her of her own infallibility and perfection. Most people learn empathy and compassion through hardship and failure; by understanding their own pain, they learn that it is wrong to cause it for others. Azula, however, never had any hardship of her own, and as such never learned that other people mattered. It doesn’t help that her father, whose favor she was granted, is almost inhumanly evil and would never teach her such a thing. Because of her upbringing and bloodline, Azula is a firm believer in the divine right of kings, the belief that being born with power makes one special in a way that others simply aren’t, and because she is special, she can do whatever she wants to whomever she wants.
Given her track record, it’s easy to see why Azula feels this way. She rarely loses, at worst suffering stalemates against her foes. Azula’s crowning moment of competence comes when she strikes the city of Ba Sing Se, a place long thought unconquerable by her people. With only her bodyguards and a bit of manipulation, she manages to stage a coup, then oust those she used to stage said coup and claim power herself. She finds her brother, who had renounced his loyalty to the Fire Nation, and brings him back to the fold while arresting their uncle, whom she considered a traitor. Then, as the crescendo of her symphony, she manages to near-fatally wound the Avatar himself just as he was about to summon the power to stop her once and for all.
Unfortunately, Azula’s impressive victories and inability to fail become her eventual downfall. For a person like Azula, who has never had to deal with misfortune, when misfortune eventually does come, she does not have the emotional maturity to deal with it. During a brief and rare moment of personal reflection, Azula is forced to admit to herself that her mother was terrified of her and thought her a monster. She quickly recovers, but for the briefest of moments, her invincible facade cracks. After this, and a string of defeats, one of which costs her the loyalty of Mai and Ty Lee, she begins to lose her sanity. The final straw is, ironically, when her father declares himself ruler of the world and makes her the new Firelord, an action she sees as a consolation prize for leaving her behind. Given her increasing disdain for being abandoned (first her mother, then her friends, and finally the father who had adored her unconditionally), Azula’s mind snaps, and she begins making increasingly irrational decisions, such as banishing all her servants. When she is finally defeated and captured, she lashes out, mindlessly screaming, breathing flame, and finally bursting into tears, knowing she has at last lost everything. Despite all she’s done, it’s hard not to pity her in that moment.
Azula is not the ultimate villain of Avatar, but given that Ozai feels more like a devil than a person and is so distant for most of the story, she is for a long time the face of the Fire Nation. Therefore, we come to understand and fear her in a way we never do with her father. She is intelligent, ruthless, powerful, and just a touch crazy, until the end when she becomes completely crazy, which makes her no less dangerous. Indeed, her breakdown at the end, while it could have been used to render her character inert, serves to prove that Azula is a person somewhere deep inside. For all this, by the age of fourteen, she manages to conquer her first nation and become the ruler of another, something not many villains, even those on this list, can claim.