You’ve been told your story needs conflict. You’ve been told that each scene needs to have tension. You might have even been told you need to be writing villains, memorable antagonists that can supercharge your plot.
Photo by JD Hancock (Creative Commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.
But unless you’re writing a fantasy novel, you might not be sure how to do this. You associate villains with Darth Vader and Jafar from Alladin.
What do bad guys look like in realistic literature?
Writing Villains Using the Villain Archetype
The villain, like the fool, is a classic archetype seen in almost every story from Shakespeare to Disney to films like 27 Dresses. However, unlike the fool, the villain has no consistent character traits. They are a shadow version of the hero, and their personality morphs based on the strengths and weaknesses of the hero.
What this means is that whoever your main character is, the villain is somehow the opposite. To begin our exploration of the villain, let’s go through some examples in literature and film. Then, we will make some general observations based on our examples:
1. The Ring from The Lord of the Rings
Yes, Sauron is the big villain in Lord of the Rings, but it’s interesting to look at each villain individually as a Shadow form of one of the main characters.
Frodo’s shadow and villain is the ring. It is power hungry and malicious compared to his cheerful, relaxed self.
2. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings
With this idea of the shadow in mind, who corresponds to Gollum, who is something of a minor villain (but obviously central to the story)?
At first I thought Frodo’s shadow was Gollum, but then I realized Gollum is actually Sam’s shadow (at least in The Lord of the Rings). That’s why Sam has so much conflict with Gollum later in the story.
3. Saruman from The Lord of the Rings
Gandalf, who consistently avoids recognition, finds his shadow in Saruman, who craves it.
4. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings
And Sauron, in the end, finds his hero in Aragorn, the king who does not seek his own kingdom but is given it, almost against his will.
5. Tess from 27 Dresses
In Katherine Heigel’s romantic comedy, the villain wasn’t obvious to me until I thought about Jane, played by Heigel. As I considered her responsible, shy, honest personality, I thought, Who was the character most opposite? Her sister Tess, of course.
Interestingly, Jane “defeats” her villain not by winning her fight with Tess over the man of her dreams. No, instead she wins by actually become more like Tess (and Tess wins by becoming more like Jane).
6 and 7. Dmitri and Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov
While Dostoevsky’s classic novel has only one hero, Alyosha, it actually has two villains, each representing a different shadow side of Alyosha. They are Dmitri, who thinks with his gut, and Ivan, who thinks with his head. Alyosha, on the other hand, thinks with his heart. Together they form a kind of trinity of archetypes, the Jester, the Mastermind, and the Saint.
8. The Ocean from Finding Nemo
There is no singlular villainous character in Finding Nemo. Technically, Marlin the clown fish’s antagonist is the entire ocean and all the obstacles in it. However, in reality the true villain is biggness. Out of fear, Marlin has become small, and his internal villain is anything resembling big.
9. Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises
Interestingly, the villain in Hemingway’s debut novel is actually the nicest guy in the novel, Robert Cohn. This is an interesting study because the seeming antagonist to Jake, the main character, is his own impotence which keeps him from the love of his life, Lady Brett Ashley. However, I would argue that Hemingway is more concerned with Jake’s moral impotence, and the only character who challenges Jake’s lack of morality is Cohn.
Can you think of any other examples?
General Observations About Writing Villains
After looking at those five examples, we can make some general observations about writing villains using villain archetype:
- Villains are not necessarily evil. Instead, they are opposite.
- There can sometimes be more than one villain per story.
- However, there is always only one internal villain (Dostoevsky broke the rules by having two), whether it is fear, lust for power, or control.
- This internal villain is projected onto a character or multiple characters.
- Thus, the villain is a shadow form of the character, and often the way to defeat the villain is by making peace with it.
I think this also enables us to make an observation about conflict itself:
Good external conflict always comes first from internal conflict (you might need to tweet that).
So what are your characters conflicted about? What are their weaknesses, their regions needing growth? Who is their shadow? Once you discover who their shadow is, it’s as simple as giving them a name and setting them loose.
Who is your favorite villain from books or film? Let us know in the comments section.
Describe two characters, your hero and your villain. Show how your villain is really a shadow version, an opposite, of your hero.
Practice this for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your character descriptions in the comments.
And if you practice, make sure to comment on someone else’s practice with your feedback.
I. What is a Villain?
A villain is the bad guy, the one who comes up with diabolical plots to somehow cause harm or ruin. It is one of the archetypecharacters in many stories. The villain may truly believe that he/she is helping society, but causes harm in the process. In the old days, the villain (usually a man) would somehow be harming the damsel-in-distress (helpless female), who needed the hero (the strong he-man) to save her. Nowadays, we are seeing more women as villains and heroes, and the damsel-in-distress may be a man or a community. However, the archetype characteristics remain the same, only the gender changes.
II. Examples of Villains
In “Dudley Do-Right,” originally a popular cartoon from 1961, the villain is Snidely Whiplash. He likes to tie the damsel-in-distress, usually poor Nell, to the train tracks. It’s always up to the hero, Dudley Do-Right on his trusty steed named Horse, to save her. The cartoon was made into a movie in 1999. This show is a perfect example of the villain, hero, and damsel-in-distress.
A real life example of the ultimate tyrant and fanatic villain is Hitler, the leader of Germany in the 1940s. His goal of ruling the world and creating a pure race was part of his insanity and feelings of persecution due to a tragic young life. The scariest part of his tyrannical time of rule is that he convinced and pushed many to carry out his plans in killing millions of innocent people.
III. Types of Villains
There are many types of villains, just as there are many types of heroes. Some basic, common ones are:
Traitor: This villain betrays the ones who trusted him or her.
Patriarch/Matriarch: These warped villains see themselves as the head of the family or group.
Tyrant: This villainous leader takes no guff from anyone – do as you’re told or pay the price.
Outcast: Shunned and exiled from the community, this villain is getting revenge.
Devil: True evil at its worst, the devil villain has no good side.
Evil genius: Highly intelligent, this villain sees him/herself as superior to all others.
Schemer: This villain loves making diabolical plans and carrying them out.
Lunatic: Just plain crazy, this villain may not have any real motivation but the crazy conspiracies he or she “sees.”
Fanatic: This villain takes strong beliefs to the max, truly believing that he or she is doing what’s best for all.
IV. The Importance of Villains
Villains are an important component in any work of literature. Without the villain, we wouldn’t see how good the hero is; we wouldn’t understand the dangers and conflict a community or person is facing, and we wouldn’t have someone to hate and blame for all the problems. The villain is the foil of the hero – his/her evil ways bring out the goodness of the hero, making the hero’s traits stand out, just as the hero’s goodness is a foil for the villain’s evilness.
V. Example of Villain in Literature
A popular book series that has been turned into movies, “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, features a tyrant villain. President Snow, a ruthless dictator, keeps the people in line by forcing them to compete in grisly and deadly games that are televised to ensure the citizens stay in line. This leader believes that he is doing what’s best for the people by keeping a tight rein of control. While Snow is trying to cause harm to Katniss, this young woman is the hero instead of the typical damsel-in-distress. This series carries on the tradition of many stories being a reflection of their culture, as well as a critique of modern issues. Many theories of the future include the concept that technology will at some point destroy us, sending us back to primitive ways of living.
VI. Examples of Villains in Pop Culture
The Batman series has always had extremely evil and terrible villains: the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman. The latest movie, “Dark Knight,” featured the Joker as the ultimate villain, bringing chaos and despair to the city of Gotham and an end to Batman’s reign as the city’s hero.
There are great examples of villains in most of the Disney stories, a few of which are based on folk tales and stories compiled by the Brothers Grimm. A villain we love to hate is Cruela DeVil (note her name, cruel devil), a horrible woman who wants the fur of the puppies in “101 Dalmations,” in order to make a fur coat. In “Cinderella,” the villain is the wicked stepmother. In “Snow White,” the jealous queen wants to get rid of her own lovely stepdaughter.
Many video games have villains who must be overcome by the players. Some examples would be Majora in the Legend of Zelda, the Lich King in World of Warcraft, Kefka in Final Fantasty, Giovanni in Pokeman Red & Blue, and Shao Kahn in Mortal Kombat. Being able to fight and conquer these evil characters is a challenge that lets players be heroes.
VII. Related Terms
The antagonist in a story is the character who causes a problem or conflict for the protagonist (main character). Unlike the villain, the antagonist may not be evil or bad in any way. The antagonist could be the father who won’t let the daughter hang out with her friends. The antagonist may also be the protagonist, somehow causing problems through internal conflict, such as lying to people and doing dishonest acts or facing difficult decisions within him-herself.
Villains can be an entertaining bane to society in literature. There are many types of villains who bring out many heroes. We can learn valuable lessons from them. While some cause much despair and loss of life, others are characters who have lost their way and are pitied. Literary pieces would not be nearly as interesting without a good villain, although in real life, we dread the idea of a villain.
The Dark Knight – Official Trailer [HD]