Know Thy Villain

Villains!  An-tag-on-ists!  Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew.  Lovely big enemies who thwart the hero at every turn.

Even literary fiction writers couldn’t say no to that.

Every story needs conflict, and conflict always comes from something or someone that directly opposes the protagonist.  It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is Bob, who just wants his sandwich– there will always be an antagonist.  They don’t have to be big and spiky and carry a war club; the antagonist could seem like a friend.  You could even go for the “at war with himself” bit.  The antagonist could be another person, the hero himself, the world, society, or anything you want– all it does is oppose the hero.

In fantasy, however, the antagonist is usually a person: big, spiky, carrying a war club, also known as evil incarnate.  This person is so much more powerful than the protagonist that it seems crazy to hope for victory.

How do you get an entire series out of a single antagonist, then, if the antagonist can squash the protagonist with a maleficent thumb?

That’s easy.  You throw the minions at the hero first.  The knife-throwing assassin who creeps through the window to poison a few drinks is fully capable of killing the hero– except that he left a green drop of poison on the rim of the cup, which was spotted just in time.  Next, the team of enormous monsters with bad eyes go nosing around the campsite.  They too could destroy the hero and company by sitting down in the wrong place– but one begins eating the pack horse, which doesn’t like it.  Fear, fire, foes, awake, and off the monsters hobble.  The hero fears these attackers, but his confidence grows with each failed attempt.  This infallibly leads to the question:


Of course, it isn’t– but the audience wonders.  Where is the villain?  Why doesn’t he come out and squash these puny humans?  It’s in his best interests, after all.  *gasp*  Could this be all the strength the villain has?  What if these monsters and assassins are actually more powerful than the villain?

It’s dangerous when the villain’s minions are more feared than the villain himself.  The villain has to stay aloof– else the hero would die on page two– but his minions are stealing the show.  What is to be done?

Brian Jacques did it easily.  Using his third-person omniscient style, he just showed the villain in counsel with his assassin before the dastardly deed.  It gave a sense of impending doom to the sequence as well.

For those of us struggling to contain stories within first-person or third-person limited styles, we need something less like that and more like the ending of political ads: “I am Mr. Evil and I approve this message.”  By tacking the villain’s name onto everything bad, the minions defer hate to the villain.  In Wall-E, the world is desolate and the human race contained, and everywhere we see the sign of the big corporation running everything.  We get the sense that it was all their fault.

The other option is Gandalf.  Someone has probably seen this assassin or breed of monsters before– they can probably point to the villain as the source of all this trouble.  But don’t fall into the trap of the old guy who’s seen everything just because it exists– try the young guy whose village was destroyed by these monsters (still really cliche, though) or the passing farmer who sees the body and says, “Why, that there badge is the sign of the Great Evil– my gramma used to tell me about ‘im.  Bad world we’re livin’ in, that’s sure as sure.”

One of the big changes they made to the Hobbit for the movie was the spread of antagonists.  In the book, Bilbo Baggins just explores the world, which seems determined to kill him because he’s short.  The movie brought out the growing evil in Mirkwood as the main antagonist, and all the smaller antagonists acted by his command.  (Except Azog– he’s sort of another entity altogether.  They deal with that like Brian Jacques did.)  The big change was the mountain trolls– Gandalf and Thorin talk about them travelling down from the mountains, which they haven’t done since the days of the great evil or whatever.  It coincides with the Necromancer’s return.  Even more obvious is the return of the Witch King of Angmar from the dead– that instantly points to the Necromancer.

Capricorn and Basta from Inkheart are the two main villains, but no one fears Capricorn half as much as Basta.  Basta seems real and present– his knives are always under our noses, threatening us, and he works independently of his master.  Unfortunately, that means that Capricorn doesn’t seem as nasty as he ought, especially since he’s the one burning books and kidnapping Mo.  Capricorn seems like a puppet villain– only there for show.

Similarly, Sauron sits atop his tower and does nothing while his orcs ravage Middle Earth.  We definitely get the sense that he’s powerful and evil, but did he ride out to the last battle at the Black Gate?  Nope.  He left that to his Nazgul, his orcs, and his trolls.  He sits far off and gazes, and there’s nothing evil about gazing.  Furthermore, we see the Ring corrupting Frodo constantly along his journey– we fear it much more than its source of evilness, Sauron.  We know that even if Sauron is defeated again, his spirit will live on in his Ring.  It isn’t as if we can blow him up and reduce the Ring to a meaningless piece of jewelry; it’s the other way around.  The Ring becomes the real villain instead of its master.

Villains are a dying breed, and you don’t want them to be eclipsed by their minions.  Make sure your audience knows their villain.


91 thoughts on “Know Thy Villain

  1. A wee point to make though – although you can’t engage your hugely powerful villain right from the off because he has way too much squishing potentiality, make sure he does dirty his hands here and there. It doesn’t have to be on-screen, just make him do SOMETHING so he has some manner of criminal act actuall to his name beyond sending others to do things for him. The cruel capricious leader who lets others do his work for him is a great archetype, but unless you set him up as such (perhaps through another character’s remark), the villain will just look like a lazy wuss.

      1. *thinkyface* Well, some of the Disney villains work well on that front – I might mention Frollo from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, who sends out the soldiers to do all the burning and pillaging, but who appears at the scene and is the one, literally, wielding the sword at the climax. Also Maleficent from “Sleeping Beauty” – she uses her magic and minions from a distance until the final fight scene, where she goes all fire-and-tongs-and-dragon-shaped.

      2. Yes, indeed. Good points. The same usually happens, now that I think of it, with lead-from-the-back type villains. All their minions charge in first and get killed, then they come in slaying and smiting.

      3. Indeed. Weaken the hero first, after all – less risk to you, and you get to have all the fun of finishing them off at the end.

      4. Absolutely. And for villains who don’t know anything about the hero’s strenght, it’s a good testing method. Y’know “Hmm, she took those well enough . . . let’s see what THESE do!”

      5. Of course, that’s assuming the hero makes it out of the smoke. There’s snakes in there, you know. And assassins. Sometimes both.

      6. Quite possibly. Evil has yet to comprehend the fact that the blinding smoke blinds their minions just as much as everyone else. And they haven’t gotten round to giving them goggles yet.

  2. Another post with great timing. I’ve been working on a villain most of the morning.

    But you have a good point. I did something like that in my latest book. My “big bad” villain doesn’t seem very evil and dangerous. In fact, it was another character who wasn’t even supposed to be evil who turned out to be the villain and was the source of the climax. Then again, she does seem to be a bigger threat throughout most of the book, so it fits. I like how it turned out, anyway.

    On the other hand, one of my other novels, the inciting incident happens because of what the villain does, not one of his minions. As of right now, he doesn’t even have any minions yet. I’m still planning the novel.

  3. Very interesting. I was just wondering where you’d disappeared to, Liam, by the way.

    I’m not fond of actual people as villains. I prefer the antagonist to be an antagonistic force instead. However, I’m learning how to write human antagonists right now because I know that just isn’t enough all the time. I just…hate antagonists. I mean, they’re people too. And I don’t like hurting my characters. So yeah.

    Nice post, though! Hopefully I’ve learned from it.

    1. I haven’t been gone a week. It’s hardly faking my own death.

      Emma Coats has great advice on thinking through villains so that you can write them correctly as well as evilly– imagine what would make that person do what they do. Why are they doing it? For instance, someone who’s really insulting and antagonistic could just be going through problems of her own at home or wherever. She might be a good person otherwise, but something has forced her to be worse than usual.

  4. Hm…You bring up some good points. Though, I do have to speak on Sauron’s behalf. I doubt it’s easy for a giant, glowing eye to ride out on a horse…

  5. The best villains are the ones that rarely use minions. Like in The Dark Knight, you barely see the Joker’s minions; in fact, the joker casually kills off five of them in the opening scene.

    Meanwhile, villains that rely on minions like Capricorn, The main villain from Transformers 2 (not sure why I bothered watching that train wreck of a movie, anyway), and Sauron are complete wimps.

    1. I think it depends on how the villain was portrayed, and in those cases—yes. Though, Sauron did have an excuse, I suppose.
      Transformers 2 was absolutely awful. I like the first one, but that one….ugh.

      1. Sure, I guess I can forgive Sauron, but not Saruman. And Transformers 2 was easily one of my least favorite movies of all time. It just failed in so many ways.

      2. I disagree that the best villains never use minions. If they’re brilliant enough, they can use as many minions as they want and I won’t mind.

      1. Just please don’t post anything that screams that my story needs a whole rewrite, though I’m not sure how you would intentionally do that. But I had wondered before if my villain was not as evil as her head shadow wraith. And if my characters got out of the “final battle” too easy(my Deus ex machina). So, thank you.
        Please! We begs you! We wants to query in mid-August or early September. DON’T MAKE US REWRITE IT!!! *GOLLUM, GOLLUM!*

      2. He does have a point, precious. If our novel is bad it will have to be rewritten. No, it doesn’t, precious. Yes, it does. *GOLLUM* No, precious, we is not writing our novel again. If it needs it we will, precious. NO! WE WILL NOT REWITE THE PRECIOUS! YES, WE WILL! This hobbit is not nice, no, precious. Look what he says in the capitals.

        You’re welcome. We likes to have inspired you. Writes post, now, will you?

      3. Why? We likes new posts.
        WAIT! WHAT IS WE SAYING, PRECIOUS?! WE DOES NOT WANT TO REWRITE THE PRECIOUS! *GOLLUM* We does not suppose you have a cough drop? Nasty coughses.

  6. I adore the beginning to this post! It made me laugh. 🙂 As for villains, I agree. I really need this post right now. I’ve been really worried about how to do my villian because I’m really bad at writing evil people.

  7. ‘The other option is Gandalf.’ I thought the other option was *always* Gandalf. I went into my English exam today thinking you could either answer Question One or Gandalf.
    I answered Gandalf.

      1. Nah, I can do that all by myself. Gandalf seemed pretty surprised to be answered, though. I don’t think he was very impressed with what I said to him.

      2. Maybe not, but that’s probably because he’s not half as fluent as he says he is. He just doesn’t like being shown up.

      3. You’ve answered your own question there — ‘common’. Gandalf was brought up by higher-middle class parents. They discouraged him from speaking anything but Elvish, though he obviously rebelled in his teenage years and didn’t learn his auxiliary verbs or past-perfect, let me tell you — shakes head —

      4. Wow. Maybe I should have spent less time asking him about the best way to make tea and more time asking him about *that*.
        Wait, if he’s immortal, why does he look so *old*?

      5. Perhaps it is, but in those days, there was nothing nicer than an elderly man walking along in dirty grey robes giving pyrotechnical displays wherever he went… Wait.

      6. Exactly. Come to think of it, maybe Gandalf’s misplaced auxiliary verbs were purposely misplaced in an act of creepiness alike to that of scratching a mysterious symbol on somebody else’s door.

  8. Yep, villains make stories. Heroes wouldn’t exist without them.

    …But, what if your protagonist was the bad guy? In my story, the villain is a crazed fanatic who wants to control people’s souls. She believes that by controlling them, she will be able to give her people freedom from their oppression. But she starts getting corrupted by her own powers, and slowly, her noble intentions get forgotten in her thirst to take over the world. She is the main character, but she’s the villain. The characters trying to stop her are the antagonists, but they’re the good guys.

    I know that the villains are supposed to seem unbeatable and all-powerful until the very end, when the hero destroys them. But in my story, my main character/villain is portrayed as human, with her own insecurities and imperfections in judgement and abilities, that make her seem far less…I dunno, scary? I want it that way. But it throws the entire formula on its head.

    My god, I don’t even think my question makes sense.

    Okay, in a nutshell: What do you do if your bad guy is your protagonist?

    (I hope my two paragraph long word-maze didn’t confuse you! o.O)

    1. Antagonist doesn’t mean bad guy. Protagonist doesn’t mean good guy. Protagonist and antagonist are relative terms; protagonist is defined by the dictionary I just looked up and forgot the name as the primary character in a fictional work; antagonist is anyone who opposes them. So how do you make your bad guy the protagonist? Easy, write the story from her perspective, as I think you are already doing. It doesn’t matter what her goals are as long as she is, by definition, a protagonist. Whoever tries to oppose her is the antagonist, and therefore the villain of this story. They can seem impossible to defeat just as much as she seems impossible to defeat to them.

      Example: Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo wants to stay home, but if he stayed home, what kind of a story would it be? He’s going opposite the true wishes of the audience, but he’s the protagonist and we root for him. Gandalf, however, wants him to leave home– he’s the antagonist, even though he’s barely antagonistic. Both of them are “good guys”, but they are protagonist and antagonist all the same. What’s more, the antagonist wins.

      1. I’m so sorry for not replying! For some reason, I didn’t get an alert on my email.

        Thanks for your answer. Am I to assume, then, that when the formulas are applied to make the plot, (for example, the ones that say that the villain should appear unbeatable until the very end), refers to the antagonists. The *good guys* should appear unbeatable until the end, and the bad guy, the protagonist, should seem overwhelmed…?

        Thanks for your answer again 🙂

      2. I suggest you simplify things and just refer to them as protagonist and antagonist. But yes, you’re correct. For instance, the protagonist could be a guy whose only wish is to bomb the world’s major cities. The antagonists, then, would be the people guarding the big red button. Then, and I’m not suggesting anyone write this, because I wouldn’t like it that much, the final battle would be for the big red button. Do you realize how much governments spend on homeland defense? That would be a formidable antagonist indeed.

      3. Alright. Thanks 🙂

        I’ve developed some new ideas for that story so let’s see if I can weave them in properly!

  9. Liam, can you think of and name any villains that don’t want power (or to maintain the power they have) or have revenge as their goal? I mean villain, not antagonist. The guys who don’t mind if others suffer in the process.

    1. They are rare indeed, but I shall try. Usually, since power-hunger and mindless fury tend to put people off, they’re chosen to make antagonists less appealing. Thus, you’re best off trying to find an ambiguous villain such as… Javert! Revenge? No. He’s just tracking Valjean because it’s his job. And yet, he doesn’t really care about people. Another option is the mindless villain, such as… the Green Death from How To Train Your Dragon (the movie). That big grey dragon (not really green, is he?) doesn’t want revenge or power– perhaps he wants to keep the power he has, an argument could be made for that. However, continuing on the same track, are orcs! Orcs don’t care about anything. They just obey, and yet they qualify according to your definition of villain. Similarly with cave trolls, the Nazguls’ mounts, and most mercenaries.

      1. Thank you. It has occured to me that my villain needs a goal that is not world domination. It doesn’t fit with what she’s trying to get.
        I thought of Javert, too. I also thought of Cruella De Vil. She wants a fur coat.

      2. I am not convinced of anything; I simply do not care whether or not I see it. If it presents itself readily, I shall pluck that fruit from the tree and enjoy it as I please. If it proves difficult to attain, I shall leave it for others to enjoy.

  10. What a wonderful post, I’m glad I wandered upon it. References to the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and Inkheart. Bravo.
    On a side note, though it is not at all the point of this post I understand, you should do a post about overused fantasy tropes…
    “don’t fall into the trap of the old guy who’s seen everything just because it exists– try the young guy whose village was destroyed by these monsters (still really cliche, though) ”
    It could be fun.

  11. This post has me thinking back to Power Rangers, of all things. In almost all seasons, the main villains would just sit in their base while feeding their minions piecemeal to the Rangers. Only after exhausting their armies would these villains attempt to fight the team themselves – usually immediately after the Rangers had acquired the skills needed to beat them.

    I suppose we did at least get to see these villains every episode, but they hardly seemed like a threat.

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