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What Is an Anti-Villain?
An anti-villain, unlike their evil counterparts, are not complete monsters. This makes them particularly hard to hate, despite all their terrible deeds. In the character’s minds, they have justifiable, noble goals—how they go about achieving those goals is what eventually becomes a problem for the hero. Their means don’t justify their desired ends.
Every villain has their own morality. A key principle to remember is that making a decision between good and evil is never really a choice: All humans will choose good as they see it. Your villain chooses their own good, which to readers, and the hero, appears evil in opposition. This creates a moral dilemma at the heart of the novel’s conflict.
4 Types of Anti-Villains
Villainy comes in shades of gray.
- One that starts out good. This anti-villain is a good person who has been pushed to the brink of their personal limits.
- The one you feel for. A sympathetic anti-villain may do bad things, but they are ultimately a product of their circumstances or environment. They may have had a terrible upbringing, where people acted evil towards them as children making them evil as adults. They deserve to seek different circumstances, and were their means not so terrible, you might root for them.
- The one who means well. When good intentions go crooked, and heroic qualities like tenacity and cleverness are aimed at the wrong target, you get your “well-meaning” anti-villain, who often takes things a step too far in pursuit of a noble goal. These anti-villains typically have a plan to save the world, with many, many casualties along the way in the name of the “greater good.” Think of Marvel’s “Mad Titan” Thanos and his plan to clear half the universe in order for the remaining half to thrive.
- The one in the wrong place at the wrong time. This designated “villain” in name only typically falls into this category as a result of the existence of the hero. Their acts might be totally justified—vengeance for a loved one, or carrying out the corruption required of them by their job—but the protagonist doesn’t give them a free pass.
3 Examples of Anti-Villains
Sometimes, the only difference between the “bad guys” and the “good guys” is a point of view.
- Carrie from Stephen King’s book Carrie is a sympathetic anti-villain. As a teenager in a small town, she is an outcast because of her beliefs and the way she dresses. Bullies at school make fun of her incessantly, building to the point where she turns her rage into telekinesis (mind power) to kill everyone in her school, then goes on a killing rampage through the town.
- While The Joker in Batman is fairly straightforward in his villainy, it’s his tragic backstories—at different points, either driven insane by grief after the death of his wife, or disfigured after a fall into a vat of poisonous chemicals—that makes him compelling to watch. The audience suspects that if they were pushed to the edge of their sanity, they might act in the same way—and that’s all it takes to create an anti-villain worth of the caped crusader.
- The character of Draco Malfoy in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an example of a troublesome, yet ultimately sympathetic, anti-villain. He is a ruthless, cruel figure throughout much of the books, yet the reader eventually comes to see his behavior as a result of the political and personal choices of his parents. When it comes down to it, he doesn’t kill headmaster Albus Dumbledore as instructed, and struggles with giving his life over to darker forces.
What Is the Difference Between Anti-Villain and Anti-Hero?
While an anti-villain might be a villain with some redeeming features, an anti-hero is a heroic character without the conventional charms. They might do the right thing, but mostly out of self-interest. They are often portrayed as a principled, but somewhat isolated figure, and their heroism is usually a product of their surroundings and circumstances. In some narratives, the anti-hero may be subject to a shift of perspective—like the twist in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl that reveals the truth about Amy Dunne’s actions—that paints them as an antagonist.
Other examples of an anti-hero include:
- Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
- Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain
- Tony Soprano of The Sopranos (1999)
- Walter White of Breaking Bad (2008)
- Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2008) by Stieg Larsson
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