Saturday, August 6, 2011


I'm a little bit (ok fine, a LOT) behind on Camp NaNoWriMo, but since I'm dying from my self-imposed Google Reader ban, I thought writing a post would help take the edge off blogosphere-withdrawal. At least I'm producing words, right? Can't wait until the weekend when I'll let myself catch up on blog posts (all several hundred of them — yes, I peeked a few times) regardless of word count!

I'm always on the lookout for great articles about villains and antagonists since I have such a hard time with them. I really liked the amazing Jodi Meadows' post about Villains You Like because it resonated with me and got me thinking more about the different types of villains out there. Here are some of my thoughts:

Generic Villainous Overlords
When I was in elementary/middle school, this was the kind of villain I thought up with my friend and sister. We'd play pretend and spin stories where we were magical princesses rebelling against an evil stepmother (so original, I know). I think she also had an evil sorcerer ally.

I've since discovered that evil villains out to take over the world for no good reason tend to fall flat and be utterly boring, so I'm glad I know better now. Imagine my surprise when I came across one in a recent debut! The one-dimensional villain actually claimed "I'm evil" as sole motivation for world domination, dashing all my hopes for an interesting and nuanced antagonist. It was hard not to groan or roll my eyes. (Oh well, the book pretty much nosedived into terribleness halfway through, anyway.) So yeah. No cliché, boring evil villains, please!

Sympathetic Villains
I guess it was so shocking to encounter such a lackluster villain because it seems that sympathetic antagonists are all the rage these days. And for good reason — characters that the reader can relate to are so much more engaging than cardboard cut-outs, no matter where they fall on the good/evil spectrum.

One way to add complexity to a villain is to give him or her a redeeming quality, vulnerability, or troubled past. A villain with motives that are understandable, or even almost noble, would make the protagonist's inner struggle that much more difficult (and who can say no to more conflict?). And who knows, maybe the villain actually thinks he or she is doing the right thing, even if the protagonist strongly disagrees. Jodi's example was Magneto from X-men: First Class; he's a likable character with an understandable motivation, but he's a villain because he wants to exterminate normal people (something I imagine most people would frown upon).

We (as in magical princesses) did later try to do this for our evil stepmother character. We decided she was our late mother's adopted sibling (heaven forbid we're related to her by blood!), jealous of our mother all her life, in love with our father, and basically out to take for herself everything her gorgeous, saintly sister ever had. Oh fine, I guess our attempts to bump her up to "sympathetic" wasn't all that successful, but we did try to give her some personality and motivation. (I think evil sorcerer remained irredeemably evil, though.)

Villains You Love to Hate
I think this might be where our poor evil stepmother ended up. These sorts of villains are dastardly, selfish characters who, through some twist of fortune, ended up with more power than is good for them to have, and then proceeded to annoy the heck out of everyone else. And you can't wait until this villain is defeated because he or she is just so despicable and pathetic. Not to mention rather useless once stripped of power. (I think they tend to be pretty wormy. You know, like Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings and Wormtail from Harry Potter. What is it about worms?)

These villains are probably best as irritants in the path of the hero and not as the Big Bad. I think I'd get pretty frustrated if the protagonist is fighting someone like that for an entire book. But maybe it's all in the execution?

Villains with Flair
These characters are not-very-nice people who become fascinating on the strength of their personality. Not a literary example, but I adored Regina George in Mean Girls. She's a lying, cheating, manipulative b— ah, witch who insulted and played everyone around her. But her confidence, charm, and determination to get what she wanted made her a lot more fascinating than Cady, the actual protagonist. (Plus, Rachel McAdams is gorgeous!)

Or take Artemis Fowl. He's a kidnapper who exploits the fairies for money and amusement. But because he's so brilliant, we can't wait to see what he has up his sleeves, even kind of hoping he'll succeed despite the fact that what he's doing is so wrong. It also helps that he's the main protagonist.

[*EDIT: Thanks to lovely comments from Mike and CanaryTheFirst, I think I'd put Artemis and their examples in a new category: Villains as Protagonist. What do you think?]

Villains can become attractive despite their moral flaws if they have personality traits the reader can admire. The danger with these villains is that they may steal the spotlight and become more interesting than the protagonist, so you'd have to make sure your protagonist is up to the challenge! I think it'd be a lot of fun to write such a character. :)

Villains that Give You Nightmares
These are the sadistic, genius serial killers of pure unadulterated evil. The crazed monster from the underworld who delights in bloodlust. The creepy clown, or alien predator, or that girl with the long hair crawling out of the TV... ok, I seriously need to stop before I scare myself witless.

Why? Because I am a total wimp. (I assure you, it pains me to admit it.) I avoid horror flicks and books as much as possible; even thrillers might be too much for me. I have an overactive imagination and do not appreciate having images of menacing evilness roaming my mind at night. So while others might love reading or writing about this sort of villain and enjoy the thrill of being thoroughly scared, I'm afraid (har, har) they're not for me.

Of course, not every book has to have a villain. Some stories have antagonists that are made of sunshine and loveliness, and so sweet you want to gag — except their goals happen to conflict with that of the protagonist. Or maybe the antagonist isn't quite that innocent, but more morally ambiguous than outright evil. A lot of antagonists fall into this category, but it's fun to think about evil characters once in a while and consider how to make them interesting to the reader.

What other types of villains can you think of, and which ones are your favorite?


  1. "Megamind" is a movie which made the villain the protagonist. Well, he's more like villain turned hero.

    Milady from Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" is an awesome villain in her ability to deceive and manipulate, especially in quick thinking situations. What she did to Felton was downright impressive, and I thoroughly enjoyed how Dumas unraveled that little arc.

    I hated Milady for her last evil act: not for the simple fact that she killed someone, but because her initial plan fell apart and the murder was a makeshift I-guess-this-will-do solution. It was so second nature to her, and she had quite a chilling fate to show for it. Perhaps she would be the villain with flair.

    Of the books I've read since 2009, Milady is the most memorable villain. But then again, it was the second most recent book I finished reading, and I forget things pretty easily.

  2. Great post, Linda! "Villains" are so much fun to work with. I have a character in my book riding the line between good and evil. I mean, he's nearing moral bankruptcy, but his words still hint at redemption. His character is so frustrating, but I love it. :)

  3. I wonder where that unnervingly bad hero-villain would fall. Right now, I'm thinking of Steven Brust's Agyar--the namesake in the story is equal parts unnerving and heroic. The story is told from his point of view in an offhand kind of way, so he's this decent kind of guy and the things he does (rape, murder, blackmail) are shrugged off within the narrative (he does it for love, after all!) and you're left nodding along until you look away from the page and realize, shi--

    He's a nasty sonovabitch. 

    None of the characters are very likeable, really. But they're damn good characters.

    Perhaps this would fall within the sympathetic villain category, but I did not sympathize with him. Not really. Not quite.

    Have you read Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward? It's a fun Fantasy take on inverting the villain-hero roles. The
    world is about to implode into a white nova of cheerful goodness, and it's up
    to a misfit group of villains (the only ones left in the world) to keep that from happening. It's a solid Not-A-Villain story.

  4. Hey Mike! :) I haven't seen Megamind or read The Three Musketeers. But Milady does sound like a fascinating villain. LOL about forgetting things easily. I find that I seem to have the same problem with books I read a while ago (unless it's a book I owned and liked, because I would read those over and over).

    Thanks for commenting. Hope you're doing well! :D

  5. Oh, neat! Yeah, I think complex characters are fascinating to read and write about. Great point that sometimes a little hint is enough to nudge a character away from being completely black and white. Thanks, Carrie! :)

  6. Ooh Agyar sounds really intriguing! Though a bit dark for me. I prefer to like the characters I'm reading about. :P Maybe I need to make Villains as Protagonists its own category? Then I can put Artemis Fowl, Mike's example of Megamind, and now your example of Agyar in there. (Sooo tempted to edit my post and put it in, haha. Maybe I'll do that later.)

    HAHAHA wow that Eve Forward book sounds awesome! Love the bit about "white nova of cheerful goodness." Thanks for the recommendation! :)

  7. You might not want to thank me yet. I just tagged you in that silly "panty meme" going around. :)

  8. @.@ did NOT just do that.

    I think I'm going to have to make a new page just for blog awards and memes. I don't think I want to inflict that meme on all my readers. ;)

  9. Hah! Well, I can't blame you there. ;)

  10. i thoroughly enjoyed this post - it's so interesting to think of villains in those different categories. i'm surprised you didn't mention Scar from The Lion King! think he's one of your favorites, if i'm not mistaken

  11. It's one of my favorite fantasy quick-reads. It's out of print, so the amazon prizes have been sky-rocketing. I also recently found out that the library copy has gone missing, leading my friend to say, "I am very sorry to hear that it’s lost, and that neither of us were the ones to ‘lose’ it."

    I wonder how the terms "anti-hero" and "villain-hero" duke it out in the scheme of things. 

    If you are intrigued by Eve Forward's book's blurb, I'd also recommend Anvil of the World by Kage Baker. 

  12. I like villains I can love to hate because life is easier when I can just wholeheartedly root for the good guys. That's not to say I want flat villains. No, they have to be interesting - be it with backstory or flair or realness. That said, I do enjoy a great sympathetic villain because that kind of villain has the ability to complicate my loyalties to the protagonists. There's so much angst when you kind of feel bad for the villain and wish they wouldn't turn to the dark side, but you know they inevitably will. :P

  13. Oops, I just realized that I'd mistakenly referred to you as TheFirstCanary instead of CanaryTheFirst in my post. Fixed!

    Hmm maybe anti-heroes have more moral grayness to them? Like they do bad things but usually for good reasons. I'd think a villain's motivation would be more evil. Interesting question though, and I'm not at all sure what the real answer is!

  14. Haha yeah it's so much easier to just root wholeheartedly for the protagonist. Definitely agree the villain should not be boring. And I also understand the appeal of desperately wishing the villain will be redeemed but knowing it won't happen. X-men: First Class made me so sad about Magneto!

    Basically, I agree with you about everything. :D

  15. I am so bad at creating interesting villains. At one point I realized I had created that villain who mocks the protagonist when they finally get in their fight at the end. It read like a really bad cartoon fight.

    I love moral ambiguity, though, and I'm fascinated with stories that describe why and how someone becomes villainous (like Magneto). I also seem to write a lot of villains who end up trying to corrupt the good guys, and usually succeed on some level at some point. Such sneaky and devious villains probably fall under "Love to Hate."

    I would love to make one who produces nightmares someday though!

  16. The Magneto story was so sad! I was like, WHY ERIK. JUST STAY FRIENDS WITH CHARLES! ;_;

  17. I bet that some variation on the selfish-selfless spectrum comes into play. All the noble, lovable, and heroic villains I can think of off the top of my head had a selfless streak in them that reared its head time to time, and a bunch of sacrifice piled on top of that. 

  18. Hahaha that doesn't sound too bad! It can be interesting if the mocking is super witty or hilarious or so bad it's good, you know? I mean, you know what kind of I think up, and yours sounds infinitely better! :)

    Huge YES to the moral ambiguity. I hated it when I was younger, but now that I'm more mature (or at least I'd like to think so :P) I find it so much more interesting than absolute black and white. Your villains that try to corrupt the good guys sound amazing! Even cooler that they kind of succeed. :D
    Best of luck with the nightmares one! You are so brave. (Unlike me, hehe.)

  19. Omg I knowwww!! :( But it's a prequel, it had to end like that. *sigh*

  20. Oooh, that's a really intriguing way of looking at it! So does that mean anti-heroes tend to be more on the selfish side of the spectrum? Maybe that's why I always found them kind of annoying. :P

  21. Wow, so many great comments.

    Every once in a while I love having a bad guy I can just hate. But then I just want there to be fight and be done with it. Generally, I think villains with reasons are the best. I like pausing to wonder if I'm cheering for the right guy. Even if I'm sure, though, it's nice for the antagonist to have a reason because it makes him human and the conflict more real.

  22. Well, the byronic heroes are usually very much self-absorbed in their own angsty turmoil. Anti-heroes in general, well, there's Batman who was driven by revenge and cleaning up the streets was a byproduct of that. Artemis Fowl is an anti-hero in the traditional sense, but he was likeable both for his cleverness and the revelation that all his wickedness was actually done for a selfless reason (his mother). Hathcliff from Wuthering Heights was plain annoying though--love as selfish? Perhaps it's also a matter of style of writing that makes the difference.

  23. I know! I feel so lucky to know so many insightful and brilliant readers. :)
    I SO agree with you about the motivation. Characters definitely need to want something and have a reason for it in order to seem real. Otherwise they come across as puppets being manipulated by the author just to bring about certain plot points.

    And yes, love it when super annoying baddies get killed off! Having it drag out would be too frustrating.

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