Villains are a great storytelling tool. Not only do they usually fulfill the role of antagonist, the opposing force to the protagonist, they also serve as a source of bad or evil in the world they inhabit. Without a villain, our hero’s morals would never be tested.
Because I’m so interested by villains, and also because I feel my own villains could use more edge, I’ll be exploring this key storytelling figure in a few (at least two) parts on this blog.
Today is Part I: The Archetypes. Specifically, what are the main kinds of villains we see represented in pop culture, be it books, film, comic books, TV, and so on. Although I offer several of my favorites, this is by no means a definitive list. Also, many villains are made up of a variety of archetypes and sub-types and defy being pigeonholed.
Spoiler warning: As villains are occasionally not revealed until big plot twists, this post will have a few spoilers, specifically for Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords and The Hand of Thrawn Series. Read at your own peril.
Note: I owe a lot of my research for this particular post to TVTropes.org. It’s a great site, and if you have any interest in researching pop culture tropes you should check it out.
A favorite of mine, the mastermind is a schemer. She has a plan, has the resources, and knows how to follow through. The hero often plays a detective role against the mastermind, spending most the story arc trying to figure out what the evil plan is, only to discover they’ve been aiding the mastermind all along! The mastermind’s a master manipulator of the strings that hold the universe together.
A few examples of masterminds would be Chancellor Palpatine from Star Wars, The Joker from The Dark Knight (even if he denies it), Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, and Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes novels and the BBC Sherlock TV series.
The monster is bad. That’s it. In their stories, they’re not presented with any redeeming qualities, any complexities, or any sense of sadness or remorse for their many crimes. Monster’s commonly commit genocide, destroy planets, kick dogs, and yes, even eat babies. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings is a monster, as is Joffrey from A Song of Ice and Fire, Goneril and Regan from King Lear, and Major Arnold Toht from Raiders of the Lost Arc. Generally speaking, if a Nazi is in a story, chances are good they’ll be a monster (but not always).
The Classic Villain (AKA The Disney Villain)
In general this is the simplest, but occasionally the most fun, of villain archetypes. The classic villain has schemes that always fail (unless the story’s hero needs a reason for growth, in which case the classic villain will achieve a small victory). In musicals, they usually have the best songs. Classic villains have great laughs, bumbling minions, and often some sort of fortress of evil. They are rarely written complexly, but they can develop their own fan following.
A few classic villains would be Jafar from Aladdin, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Frollo from The Hunchback of Notredame, and Apophis from Stargate: Sg-1.
The trickster is evil for the fun of it. They don’t want people to die, but if a person or two is gored to death when they unleash a rhinoceros in the middle of a preschool for a laugh, so be it. Tricksters are the most prone to ardent fan followings, which makes sense. They love their job. They’re one of the few villains that’s not only allowed to make the hero look silly occasionally, but can look silly themselves without losing their power. Tricksters also have a great range, able to be no more than an occasional nuisance to our hero all the way up to a full-blown arch-nemesis. The original Joker from the Batman Comics was a classic trickster. Q from Star Trek ranks as one of that universe’s greatest villains/supporting characters, and there’s the Norse god Loki (not to be confused with the Marvel character, who is a villain, but not always a trickster character).
There are a few paths an anti-villain might take. They may have an evil goal, but a moral compass and a set of standards. Inversely, they may have a good goal, but do bad things to achieve it. Anti-villains tend to be written sympathetically and with many complexities in their characterization. The difference between an anti-hero and anti-villain is minute and often dependent on perspective.
Joss Whedon loves anti-villains, so it’s no surprise that topping examples of great anti-villains are Jubal Early from Firefly and The Operative from Serenity. Other great anti-villains include Grand Admiral Thrawn for The Hand of Thrawn series, Elsa from Frozen (your opinion may vary on this one), and Richard III from, well, Richard III.
So, I’m dying to know if you guys can come up with more categories. I know they’re out there, but for some reason my brain was sticking to these five. Also, do you have any favorite villains?
5 responses to “Villains Part I: The Archetypes”
Oh man, this is the kind of topic where I just want to sit down and hash it out for an hour+ over a beer. I like your categories, though I don’t know if I’m in full agreement with everything here, especially in the anti-villain category (I don’t believe Elsa is portrayed as a villain, though interestingly she WAS an outright villain in early development of the story). I have SO many favorite villains (they’re the best part!), but since I believe female villains get exceedingly short shrift (apart from Disney films–URSULA 4EVA): Kuvira, Mrs. Coulter, Cruella deVille, Mrs. Danvers, Lady Macbeth, Livia Drusilla (from the TV play and book, not the actual historical person). It’s difficult to say Dolores Umbridge is a FAVORITE, but I’ve certainly rarely hated a villain more.
I’m excited for Part II!! Must we wait an entire week for Part II?
I like to think of Elsa as the villain because it’s such an interesting line of thought. She’s certainly makes for a great anti-heroic figure as well. But if we see her as the source of conflict in the story, the driving force that puts Ana on her journey, she’s definitely in the antagonist category. Of course, I would never call her evil, but I’m of the opinion that a villain doesn’t have to be always evil, so to speak.
Not all monsters are villains…the Creature in “Frankenstein” is not a villain…Mary Shelley portrays him as an innocent, betrayed by science and humanity, a large child in incredible pain who has to live with knowledge and loneliness. In John Gardner’s “Grendel”, the monster is less a villain than Unferth, a human who betrays his king and culture. There are stories like “Paradise Lost”, where the supposed villain becomes so intriguing, that, to many critics, he becomes the hero…ah, the fascination of the abomination…😊
I get what you’re saying, but I’m not trying to say all monsters are villains. I agree that the monster in Frankenstein is not really the story’s villain. I guess I’m just trying to say that there is a kind of villain that I would call a monster. I suppose I could have picked a different word. I’ll think about this.
I also can’t wait for part 2 🙂 One of my favorite villains is Roger from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series. Probably because I have loved those books for such a long time… and he is a pretty great villain, spanning over 4 books. He probably falls under the mastermind category as (spoilers!) he tricks everyone but the heroine into liking him and he even manages to manipulate people while being dead and then come back in time for the grand finale 🙂 I love me some necromancy. (end of spoilers)
I also like Jareth from Labyrinth (mastermind + classic + ambiguous morality?) and the Master from DW (trickster?)
I like your categories, and now I’m thinking of all my favorite villains and seeing what they fall under. I’ll let you know if I think of any other categories. FYI totally agree about Elsa, and I find it unique (as Disney goes) that she’s not the only villain-type character in that movie as Ana’s douchey boyfriend is another (and less complex as he is just a straight up manipulative villain, if I remember correctly).