On Writing: Villains

OnyxSturm's avatar
By OnyxSturm   |   
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Villains. Every good story has a hero, and every good story has an antagonist - be it nature, inner conflict, a supernatural force, a person, or all of the above. But the largely debated question is: what makes a good villain? And honestly, I don't believe that question will ever fully be answered. But, in this next wall of text, I'll list off the many villain types, both good and bad. But first off, before we officially begin, each type of story has its own type of villain. If you're looking to include all of the types then you're going to have a hell of a time trying to manage it, because not all of them fit well in a single story.

1. The Purely Evil Villain. If you've ever read The Lord of the Rings then you know the conflict is between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. The Evil forces are represented by Sauron, who may very well be the perfect example of an all evil villain. Evil villains are motivated by their need to cause chaos and destruction to the forces of Good, which is normally the hero(s). They very rarely have any other motivations for their actions besides the fact that they are, essentially, evil. 'Demons', such as in horror novels, are other examples of purely Evil villains. In the movie The Poltergeist, Reverand Kane is another example. Purely Evil villains normally work best in a story setting where there is a definate Good force. Purely Evil Villains are a good way to get your readers completely allied with the hero.

     *The Power-Hungry Villain. I included this part-way in the Purely Evil Villain description because it in itself isn't a completely valid reason. Power-Hungry Villains, as their name implies, are driven by their need to overpower and control others. Sometimes this includes a detailed backstory on why they feel the overwhelming need to control others, but for the most part (again, with Sauron,) they wish to become powerful to spread more chaos and destruction, thus being ruled as completely 'Evil'. Another example of a Power-Hungry Villain is Ellsworth M. Toohey from Ayn Rand's 'The Fountainhead'.

2. The Jealous Villain. Many villains, especially in romance-oriented stories, are fueled by jealousy, mainly towards the hero's abilities and/or possessions/girlfriend/wife. Jealous Villains are typically very shallow, being their only motivation is the want to be like the hero, or have what the hero has. These are generally personal issues, and the villains often see the hero 'head-to-head'. Very seldom do you see Jealous Villains in Epics like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

3. The Backstory Villain. One of the two most complex types of villains, the Backstory Villain has the most numerous options of why he (or she, not trying to be sexist here) is evil. It can be anything as simple as a bully beat him up in Kindergarden or as horrific as he was severly mutilated or his parents abused him. For the most part Backstory Villains had a very traumatic experience as a child/young adult that caused them to want to seek revenge, take it out on the world, etc. To use a real life example, Hitler (though possibly partially insane) was abused as a child and had his mother die at a young age. Seeing what he did later on in life provides a good example of what a Backstory Villain is capable of.

4. The Insane Villain. My most hated type of villain, Insane Villains are evil almost parallel to how Purely Evil villains are evil. The only exception is that they suffer from a natural 'mental disease' that causes them to commit the acts they do. Insane villains are the most cliche and overused type of villains, as they're the easiest to write about. But why are they the easiest to write about? It's because they can do anything at any time, without any logical reason whatsoever. If Bob the Villain wants to bomb a building, gun down a bunch of civilians and then fly to Japan and do the same thing with no reason on why he did he can, because he's insane. 'Insanity' has become the 'Get Out of Jail Free Card' for many writers this day and age, inspired by the most overrated villain of all time: The Joker. This is a villain type you want to avoid. However, though I'm not trying to encourage the making of an Insane Villain, it can be done right. If you've ever read Dean Koontz's 'Intensity', it has a nearly insane villain that has very believable and logical actions. That's the only Insane Villain I've seen done right, though.  

5. The Love Villain. The other most complex and almost a backstory villain, The Love Villain deserves a title to istelf because its actions can depend upon a multitude of things. Love Villains, typically, act the way they do because they either weren't shown love as a child or their lover died, left them, etc. For example, most of the reason Darth Vader turned into a Sith was because he wanted to become more powerful so he could bring his dead mother back. Because of this, Love Villains are possibly the most reader-sympathetic out of the villain types, because love is (hopefully) something we can all identify with. Love is also a good way to have your hero turn evil, if that's the direction your story is going.

No matter which villain type suits your needs, your villain MUST have a reason for being the villain. If he doesn't then he's considered flat, and a flat villain means a flat plot. ALso, you don't have to limit yourself to just one villain; there can be multiple main villains, especially if you're writing a series. Multiple villains creates multiple conflicts which can enchance your story if you do it right.

Now for just some general villain tips. First off, your villain's appearance says alot about him and the time period in which he lives. You aren't going to stick blue jeans and a T-shirt on a villain in Midevil Times, and normally you won't clad a villain in armor in modern-day New York, unless he has a damn good reason. And that's another thing: as awesome as it looks to give your villain a badass mask, unless he just absolutely needs said mask then he shouldn't wear it. For example my villain (who is modeled after Sturm from the game 'Advance Wars') wears a gas mask not only because it looks cool, but also because he needs to breathe pure oxygen in order to survive. But also remember the eviler a villain appears the more credible he will seem to your readers. Not saying all villains should be dressed in black hooded robes and masks, but it gives off that 'creepy-villain' feeling. Again, if you've ever read 'The Lord of the Rings', the Ring-Wraiths are good examples of fear-inducing villains, both to the hero and the reader.

Well, that about does it for this guide. Hope this helps anybody; comments are highly reccommended.
© 2011 - 2020 OnyxSturm
Yet another brief guide that I hope will better introduce you to the many villain types.
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Willfire-Z-Tiger's avatar
Willfire-Z-TigerHobbyist General Artist
It's a good tutorial, however it only gives good advice on writing villain motivations. I think the advice should say how to write the villains actions and how it makes sense in the story.
Guardian1486's avatar
I really loved reading this, as I am currently in the process of rewriting on of my book for the eighth time, now. In my plot, the world is seemingly overrun by antagonists and villains, where there are few protagonists, and fewer 'good' characters. The problem I'm having though, is developing each character to the point of which they'll be understandable and the reader will be able to relate. How it's set up is there are villains that are pure evil, and then a sub set, so to speak, or more villains, and another set under that, almost in a hierarchy, yet in a very abstract, unrelated way.

The character of the Joker, though insane, I think that he was created for the purpose of being the opposite to the order and incorruptibility of the Batman. Taken from the Dark Knight, he states he is the agent of chaos, and later says that he and Batman are the unstoppable force and immovable object. In a way, that puts him in several different 'categories' of villain. Though overused and glorified, his character is seemingly that of a quintessential villain. At least in my opinion, haha. (:

Thank you so much for writing this, I loved reading! It's definitely given me much insight, and I hope it'll help me with my book! (:
OnyxSturm's avatar
OnyxSturmStudent Writer
Thank you for reading, Frau Guardian1486. :) And I feel your pain: I had to completely revise mine 17 times before I finally got it how I wanted to. That's an interesting plot as well. Makes it seem like the protagonists are always inferior to the antagonists, which keeps readers on their toes.

I think the best way to have readers identify with the characters is give them 'human' traits and characteristics. For instance I modeled the 'heroes' in my series from my friends (and arch enemies), as well as other people I know. If you do that then it makes the whole 'emotional/personality' task a whole lot easier, and readers can identify with them more because they're based off of real people, after all.

About the Joker: I've always seen him as just wanting to screw with Batman as his primary cause. Then again, I've never really gotten into the whole Batman franchise, I've just been on the outside looking in, I suppose you could say. :) The way you say it it seems like he thinks what he's doing is his 'purpose' in life, which makes more sense than just 'screw with the bat guy'. Thanks for the enlightenment. :D

But like I said, thank you for your feedback, and glad I could be of service. Hope that story of yours is a best-seller.
OnyxSturm's avatar
OnyxSturmStudent Writer
Didn't mean to offend you, Frau Udaii. :( Like I said, insane villains can be done right, but I have yet to see one that has been (meaning I haven't seen yours yet, so I wouldn't know :) ). Insanity itself isn't a bad reason, it's just that most authors now don't give a reason why they are, and don't provide insights on why that villain thinks what they're doing is right: they just DO it.

About your character: it's details like those that most authors skip or refuse to add to insane villains. I also like that mix of insanity/backstory/revenge there. You don't see that too often, either. That's why I listed these archetypes: it's supposed to be the basic foundation of villains, meaning you can combine any of them to get a truly unique villain.

Your story sounds a bit like mine in the sense that none of the heroes are 'purely good'. It helps to build tension and make the reader wonder if who they're rooting for is the right person/group. In my series the main character, as the story develops, gradually becomes a 'villain' himself, because he's willing to destroy the entire world in order to reach the Purpose, a group of powerful entities, so he can get his lost love back. But wouldn't you do the same if you loved someone enough?

It really makes you think......

I'm kind of grey on the whole 'Good vs. Evil' ordeal. In certain cases it can be done right (as with The Lord of the Rings) but most of the time you know the forces of Good are going to triumph the forces of Evil, meaning there's really no suspense. Knowing all of this I tried to include every combination of villain type in my series, just to spice things up.

Overall I do appologize if I've made you feel like I've insulted your character. She sounds like the opposite of a stereotypical insanity villain, and the rest of your story (what little you posted) sounded really good as well. Thanks for reading. :)
Udaii's avatar
Interesting guide, especially on how you've managed to organize the archetypes, however I have only ever seen an few insane villains (The Joker -who I actually really enjoyed as a character-, Jim Moriarty from BBC's Sherlock, Jack Torrance from The Shining and maybe Johnny the Homicidal Maniac but he's more of an anti-hero) so I'm not sure where the over used for that villain archetype comes from - that and I kind of feel insulted because I have an insane supervillain and I'm not one to hate an archetype because the majority are done badly.

Actually, I think it's interesting that I disagree on the Insane Villain as a 'get out of jail free', since insanity is more complex than you've made it out to be.
Usually insanity is caused by something, which is where the intricacy lies, as well as how they present their madness; I'd compare Johnny and Jim Moriarty in this instance. It is actually exponentially hard to write an insane character well, which is probably why it's hard to see a good one done. It's just insanity is easy to write badly. Like in Johnny, he's always at odds with himself and hallucinating, thinking he's doing the right thing, turns out he is and that though he is insane, what drove him insane and what people would call a product of his insanity actually exists, which for me creates an interesting loop.

Like my villain Amaterasu; her insanity is vastly complex and more to do with her species and a choice she makes that ultimate leads her to go crazy. However, she maintains a sane disposition and has fits of insanity, and slowly gets consumed by it. She's an insanity/back story/revenge-driven mix of a villain - and only a villain to the main characters and not to the world she's based in.
You can make lots from an insanity based villain but you have to know what you're doing and -especially for second creation- be creative. Like how none of my heroes are wholly good; the hero winning in this case will end a golden era, unfortunately he has no choice because that's what other main characters want. That and he's the reason she's insane in the first place and she's trying to kill him (which would actually end her insanity). Her insanity is less a mental illness rather than her mind actually breaking and falling apart.

I don't like making Good vs Evil. I know it's contradicting, but this is the only archetype I think that is the ultimate 'get out of jail free', since there needs to be no reasonable explanation for either sides other that 'they're good, they're evil'. However this is not based on the bad writing of this archetype rather than, too me, it simply seems lazy and takes the fun out of an otherwise good story. While I do respect your opinions, and I though the majority of this guide was very well written and overall informative, I just didn't agree with the insanity archetype.