In response to my “7 Types of Heroes” blog, someone suggested that I take a look at villains as well. That got me thinking about just what it takes to make a real villain. I came to the conclusion that if anything, villains are harder to fit into neat little boxes than heroes are. Sure you have fantasy tropes like the Big Bad Evil, the nameless monolithic evil or even the monolithic force of nature (or super-nature) that doesn’t exist as a physical being.
So I chose to take a look at the components that make up a villain. Going characteristic by characteristic and showing how you can use each to change the tenor of the story and the role of the villain seemed a better way to go.
First, I Define a Villain
I’m going to use a broad definition here. A villain doesn’t have to be the embodiment of evil, or even evil at all. In the context of a story, all we need is an antagonist to oppose our hero. For now that’s the definition I’ll be using. Everything from here on is filling in what that means for us.
Grand Schemes vs. Petty Plots
Fantasy is notorious for “save the world” adventures. It stands to reason that there is someone on the other side of that who is trying to destroy/conquer/enslave it. Unless you plan on getting into destroying whole galaxies or the universe itself, this is about the high end of a villain’s ambitions. This is going to set a high expectation for the reader that you’re going to come up with a believable scheme and hopefully a good justification for it (conquest is fairly easy to explain away, destroying the world usually requires some sort of madness or belief in something beyond the world as a goal). You are going to require a reason for your hero to be the one to save the day as well. Bear in mind that this common trope of world-saving gets used a LOT, so you need a hero who is going to do it justice if you’re going to drag it out.
On the other end of the spectrum you can get down to really petty disputes. Fantasy doesn’t spend as much time as other genres on this end of the spectrum. Interpersonal conflicts over matters that aren’t life or death don’t usually end up on the marquee, but may be stepping stones along the hero’s path to bigger and nastier things. These are usually villains that come early on in a story, either as part of the protagonist’s background story or as incidental roadblocks along their way.
Grand Schemer: Galactus
Middle-Ground: Artemis Entreri
Petty Plots: Draco Malfoy
Power, Compared to the Hero
It’s very common for the hero to be up against a seemingly invincible foe. Either by magical power or force of arms, on paper it should be no contest: villain in a landslide. Our plucky hero is set an impossible task and we get to go along for the ride to see how he goes from underdog to victory. It may be through training and hard work, forming alliances, the discovery of some maguffin that gives the hero the upper hand.
Sometimes though, the villain is actually the underdog. This is common in thrillers and mysteries where a lone (or small group of) criminal is being hunted by a massive law enforcement agency. It can also be adapted to fantasy in much the same way: a lone miscreant on the trail of some object that could be disastrous in their hands. It could also be in the form of political or religious dealings that place the hero in a position where their superior power is rendered ineffective against a clever foe. In many ways this can be the tale of the plucky hero turned on its head.
Other times, it can almost be a mirror held to the hero’s face: a contest with an equal adversary where every decision can tip the outcome because the hero and villain are so evenly matched. This is also a common occurrence in the case of a mentor character gone bad who has to be stopped by their student who has to discover that they have equaled (or exceeded) their teacher.
Much More Powerful: Q
Evenly Matched: Professor Moriarty
Much Weaker: Lex Luthor
Sympathetic vs. Unsympathetic
Sometimes there is just something evil and it needs to die. You don’t know why it’s unhappy with a world filled with living things or why it wants to consume them all in a hellish conflagration, everyone’s a little too busy stopping that from happening to care. Nameless or faceless evils fit into the category of unsympathetic villains.
There are times though, when you wonder what is going on inside the head of that killer. Why has he been hunting down everyone who was involved with a certain military mission 20 years ago, or why all his victims are wizards, or why has he been using his stolen valuables to buy the freedom of slaves? Something in the villain’s portrait just isn’t fitting. You want to call him evil, but you learn enough about them that you can almost see yourself making the same choices in his place. Often times, this is what people mean by a “complicated” villain; it’s a villain that they can see as a human being (or whatever race he really is) rather than an evil to be destroyed. Sympathetic villains are ones we come to care about, whether because we can actually applaud their aims (while condemning their methods) or because we can recognize bits of ourselves in them.
Proximity to the Hero
This is a subtle one but it can really effect the story. How close the villain is to the hero has to do with both how well they know one another and how physically near the villain is during the narrative. The closer the villain, the more tangible the threat he poses. The more distant, the more room there is in the story for things like character development among the hero and his or her companions, side stories, and respite. The more familiar the villain is, the more personal the antagonism.
Close Physically: Ring Wraiths
Close Emotionally: Scar (Lion King, not Full Metal Alchemist)
Distant Physically: Wicked Witch of the West
Distant Emotionally: pretty much anyone who is unknown to the protagonist at the beginning of the story
How to Get a Villain Out of This
Let’s take a look at a few well-known villains and see how they look through this lens
Scale of Scheme: When first you meet him it seems as if he’s just looking to maintain control in a brutal empire. Later on he reveals his plan to take over the galaxy.
Power Compared to Hero: At first, fairly lopsided. Toward the end of the series it seems like Luke is a fairly even match for him.
Sympathetic?: You never find out much about him personally until it’s rather too late to do anything about it. He dies sympathetically, but for nearly the whole of three movies, he is anything but.
Proximity: Dark mask, artificial voice, and Luke only gains a glimpse of him in Star Wars. By the time Empire ends though, it’s gotten a lot more personal and up-close.
Scale of Scheme: He wants to rule the world. He is also trying to gain vengeance on a prepubescent boy wizard. (some disparity here, but I guess hobbies are nice)
Power Compared to Hero: Harry eventually becomes a fairly competent wizard, but generally it’s tricks and quirks that evens the odds in the end. He’s never really as good a wizard as Voldemort.
Sympathetic?: He begins as a faceless evil, “He who shall not be named.” Eventually he gets named more often and even later we learn his real name. A bitter childhood puts a better spin on his life but never really makes him sympathetic. He’s petty, bitter and vindictive.
Proximity: The familial connection with his parents’ murder makes it fairly personal, if not by blood. Harry’s scar gives them a mental link though that means Voldemort is never far enough away for anyone’s comfort.
Scale of Scheme: Dracula has no grand scheme. He exists as he is, which happens to mean feeding on the blood of humans.
Power Compared to Hero: Dracula is much more powerful and is only overcome by cleverness and Applied Superstition (there’s probably a class on it at Hogwarts)
Sympathetic?: Dracula is a monster in human guise. Most sympathy was added in derivative works.
Proximity: Emotionally none; he is a total stranger. The physical proximity is what drives a lot of the horror.
Take these guides for what you will. If you can break down a villain into his component parts, you can understand better how to change him to suit the needs of your story.
I have intentionally omitted the characters of the Twinborn Trilogy from this exercise, even though I often mix in references to them. I’ll leave a discussion of my story’s villains to others for now.
Ahh, I applaud you sir! Eloquent and thorough – you got to it before me, ha!
Touched on some very good points, fueling my interest in villains.