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8 Villain Archetypes
Every Snow White needs an evil queen; every Gandalf needs a Sauron. Many of the great villains that oppose classic heroes fall into a handful of villain archetypes:
- Anti-villain: The anti-villain is a villain archetype in which the bad guy has a sympathetic motivation or appealing characteristics. In the same way that an anti-hero is ostensibly a good guy with villainous or immoral tendencies, an anti-villain may have justifiable, noble goals or even a good side. Examples of anti-villains include Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the film version) and Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
- The beast: A classic villain whose goal is to terrorize and attempt to defeat the main character, the beast is a literal monster. This type of villain cannot be reasoned with and is often found in the horror or science fiction genres. The whale from Moby Dick and the shark from Jaws are examples of this type of villain.
- The bully: Bullies serve as simple, straightforward opposition to the protagonist. This character archetype is sometimes marked by a backstory that explains their mean and oppressive tendencies, such as a childhood marked by abuse or insecurity. Other times, they are simply mean for the sake of being mean. Examples include Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Fletcher from the film Whiplash.
- The machine: The machine is similar to the beast, with one major difference: It is a technological construct and is therefore lifeless and incapable of pain, fear, and emotion. The machine can often be found in science fiction thrillers—like Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic killing machine in The Terminator.
- The mastermind: The mastermind opposes the protagonist by overseeing a brilliant, diabolical master plan. They are a gifted schemer and evil genius who attempts to defeat the protagonist mentally as opposed to physically. Great villains in the mastermind tradition include Hans Gruber from Die Hard and Lex Luthor from the Superman series.
- Evil incarnate: This villain personifies evil itself, offering little in the way of character development or backstory. This type of evildoer serves as an obstacle to the hero’s journey and is primarily found in fantasy and superhero genres. Examples include Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Darth Vader from Star Wars, and the Joker from The Dark Knight.
- The henchman: The henchman exists to do the dirty work of someone else, usually the mastermind or another major evil character in the story. They are functionally the sidekick of the main villain. Though they usually lack the villain’s brains, they make up for it in brawn. Examples include Boba Fett from Star Wars and the monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.
- The fanatic: The fanatic’s villainy is driven by an extreme ideology. Oftentimes, they are propelled by religion or a twisted moral belief that gives them fuel to carry out their twisted mission. The serial killer John Doe from the movie Seven is a true villain in the fanatic tradition.
4 Tips for Writing Compelling Villains
When it comes to writing villains who transcend cliches, there are four techniques that can elevate your writing:
- Make sure your villain has a strong connection to your hero. A true villain is inextricably connected to the hero and aids in the hero’s character development. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents when he was a child, leaving behind a magical scar on Harry’s forehead. This scar serves as a symbolic reminder of the connection between Harry and the power-hungry Voldemort and foreshadows that the fates of our hero and villain are dependent on one another.
- Make them a worthy opponent. A great villain is a strong and worthy adversary to your hero, directly opposing the hero archetype of your protagonist. The villain shouldn’t be weak and easily beaten, nor should they be so powerful that they can only be defeated by random chance. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes’s arch-nemesis Moriarty is a brilliant criminal mastermind. Having a villain who is equal in skill and intelligence to your hero will raise the stakes of their encounters, creating a credible threat to your hero.
- Put yourself in your villain’s shoes. When it’s time for your villain to act, put yourself in their place. Think about challenges or hardships that might tempt people to act out or behave badly. How do you react to bad things? Tap into those emotions and try to apply them to your villain.
- Consider your villain’s motivation. Why does your villain want to rule with an iron fist? Why do they want to put the damsel in distress? As with your main character, determining your antagonist’s motivation can help you unlock other aspects of their character, such as their goals and their personality.
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