Villains come in as many shapes and sizes as their hero counterparts. The best pairs complement each other. The protagonist’s strengths and virtues contrast against the antagonist’s negative traits. When you take this relationship down to the most basic level, villains all want something and that something is going to cause havoc for the protagonist and/or the people the protagonist cares about. The villain fights the protagonist because he or she stands in their way. It’s a straightforward dynamic when you think about.
It’s the way villains get what they want, the means and tools they use to accomplish their goals that help us to group and define them. Some of the universal villain goals are: power, money, control, influence, vengeance, and even adoration. Where villains get interesting is when you start looking at their motivations. Why do they want to achieve their goal? Are they inherently malevolent or perhaps just misguided and misunderstood?
*Please note the last entry “The Non Humans” has a major spoiler for the film Blade Runner. If necessary please stop reading where I’ve marked and remedy this media crime immediately.
This is the most basic villain archetype. When a kid writes a story, this is the one they naturally gravitate to. It’s everyone’s first experience with someone who seems to get a kick out of being bad. Classic bullies tend to be physically or socially superior in some way to those they bully. They might be better looking, larger, have wealth or influence and they use these attributes as part of their bullying arsenal. They like to surround themselves with minions, either other bullies, or people they can control. Bullies can be very intelligent, often outfitting themselves with a public persona that hides their true nature from family or those in authority. They’re adept at flipping the repercussions of their actions onto the shoulders of others. At their core, bullies are looking out for number one and they don’t like to take responsibility for their negative actions. They may not see what they’re doing as significant or morally wrong. They may act impulsively or without thinking.
Under the surface, bullies are often broken souls, they have low self-esteem and usually a history of abuse or neglect. The bully shows up in almost every form of children’s literature, from Harry Potter to the Chronicles of Narnia. However, adult stories are not immune, the bully boss is a common theme. The bully is a tried and true classic villain for a reason, it works. We can all relate to the protagonist’s fear and to their simmering desire to fight back. For a bully example try Biff Tannen in Back to the Future. I love how they bring Biff backwards and forwards in time, giving us the ultimate bully rise and fall from power, over and over again in the course of the franchise.
This is a revisited archetype; we first met this authoritarian character as “The Leader” in the protagonist category.
Look here for more on that version. Where a leader governs, a ruler controls. Rulers are endowed with a ridged belief structure. They thrive in carefully stratified societies, ones that places them at the top of the elite class heap. They may justify their divine right to rule with magic, prophecy, or a primogenitor. Or just by the fact that they killed off the last ruler. We see this archetype in the evil queens, Malficent, or the White Witch. This character might be a religious figure, or someone deeply spiritual, but they’re using their god figure as a destroyer and not a creator. They can be attractive and charismatic, but also vain, sometimes using looks as a weapon to bolster their sense of self. They may demand adoration and/or crushing tribute and taxes from even the most lowly in their domain (think King John in Robin Hood). Most rulers live separate lives from those they control, and with good reason, they don’t trust anyone. The ruler can be the parent with an extreme mandate for household order, or the supreme authority figure for a nation of millions. The Don of a crime family is another version of the ruler archetype. Check out the Godfather and watch how rulers use many means, both subtle and terrifying, to maintain their authority.
They’re back! Sure these archetypes are wonderful sidekicks, but they’re also homicidal killers, capable of causing destruction on an epic scale.
You cannot top the non-humans for pure villain diversity. Dolls named Chucky, Hal, the rogue super-computer, or Christine, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Some are driven by pure evil. Others instinct, as in that case of the shark in Jaws. They’re single-minded in their pursuit and usually don’t bother to hide their intentions unless it suits their needs. These villains don’t feel the constraints of conventional morality, they lack compassion and empathy, so they’re impervious to the wake of human suffering they leave behind. Whether the non-humans view the humans as adversaries, annoying obstacles, or just well-packaged snacks, the non-humans know how to eradicate with style. Since these antagonists operate under their own set of rules, part of the excitement is watching the protagonist figure out what makes them tick. Plus, they’re often unstoppable by conventional means, leading to exciting climax solutions.
* Blade Runner virgins, please stop reading now *
Top of my non-human heap is Blade Runner’s Roy Batty. He’s a replicant who develops an unexpected survival instinct and he will stop at nothing to find the solution to his own preprogrammed mortality. Batty is the bad guy you can’t hate. Yes, he’s a ruthless killer, but because human scientists made him that way. He moves into the realm of legendary antagonists when he saves the protagonist’s life. As with the best antagonists, Batty is not all bad, he’s simply committed to his own mission.
The clash of two equal partners creates a tension like no other, and it’s in finding that perfect balance of good vs. evil where many writers succeed or fail in creating a memorable story. Don’t be afraid to go big, and to be bad. This is one time in your life when having wicked thoughts will serve you well. Happy villain hunting.