By Nicholas Barham
Everyone loves a good villain, without them most stories would not work. There needs to be someone or something for the hero to fight against. I myself am only an amateur fiction writer; I hope to one day achieve the ultimate goal of publishing a novel of my own. That being said, I have spent my life immersed in the world of fiction, both onscreen and on the page, so I feel like I have some expertise on the types of villains and what makes them tick. In this blog post I will discuss some of my own thoughts, my own observations, of four common types of villains, and what makes them work so well.
The Types of Villains and Why They Work So Well
There are many different types of villains out there, here I present to you four common types. I will explain what they are and how they work as narrative tools.
1. The Chaotic Villain
This is a character that has an obscure or non-rational reason for their actions, for example: The Joker, from the world of Batman. He is for all intents and purposes a psychopath, he seeks no fame, no political goal, no ultimate goal to work towards. He does not act in the world to achieve some end, instead The Joker causes destruction and mayhem for its own sake.
This type of villain can make a story exciting and unpredictable, even shocking. The reader has no idea what is next in store for the hero, as the chaotic villain keeps the reader, and our protagonist guessing as they work behind the scenes on their next scheme to cause carnage and destruction.
The New 52 version of the Joker is a good example of this type of unpredictability in the chaotic villain. Stories containing this incarnation go through many unexpected twists and turns, ranging from the macabre, to the sadistic, to the outright strange.
During this run of DC Comics The Joker has the Dollmaker surgically remove his face to create a literal skin mask, giving The Joker a terrifying new look. The Joker then schemes to go after the extended Bat-family, creating an elaborate plot that is exciting and unpredictable. I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice to say the narrative truly shows the strength of this particular type of villain.
2. The Ideologue
To contrast against the chaotic villain, the ideologue has clear motives for their actions within the story. In essence, the ideologue is following their own twisted world view that runs counter to our hero. An example of this villain is Red Skull (real name: Johann Shmidt) a character within the Marvel universe. This character has had many different incarnations and interpretations, but I will stick with the Marvel cinematic universe for this example.
The creators of this villain took some inspiration from the real world, mainly the dark chapter in 20th century history that saw the rise of Nazism. Red Skull was ideologically predisposed to a strange form of Nazism mixed with occult views. He was the leader of an organization known as Hydra, which sought to dominate the world.
Red Skull rejected the racial ideology of Nazism which promoted the idea of an Aryan master race, and instead believed that a new race would arise, an artificially created super-human race. He sought to defeat both the allies and to take over the German war machine, and would attempt this through the creation of new technologies and weapons made possible by the unearthing of an artifact known as the tesseract.
The strength of the ideologue as a tool for storytelling is obvious: it gives the reader a clear understanding of the motives of the villain. In creating this villain it is important that the hero of the story is a mirror of the villain, by which I mean that the hero should have his own ideological motives. Which is exactly what Marvel did when they created Red Skull: Captain America is Red Skull’s counterpart, a hero who fights alongside America and the allies, against both the Nazi threat, and the threat of Hydra and Red Skull.
Captain America is an ideological mirror image of Red Skull, a hero and supporter of ideals like democracy and freedom. This paradigm gives us both a clearly defined villain to rail against, and a sympathetic hero to cheer for. It is thus a very powerful literary tool when used well.
3. The Anti-Villain
The anti-villain is a character that crosses the bounds of the black-and-white, good-and-evil nature of a lot of fictional worlds. It is a character that has some redeeming traits such as their motives, origin, goals, or virtues. They harness ideologies that make the reader somewhat sympathetic towards them, but ultimately they remain villainous.
Maybe the character has noble intentions for the evil acts that they commit. Or maybe they were once of noble character but some fate befell them which turned them to the dark side.
Magneto (real name: Max Eisenhardt) is a great example of an anti-villain, and his story begins in a very dark place. Just like with Red Skull, the brains behind this Marvel villain took some measure of inspiration from the dark history of the 20th century. Magneto grew up in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, and as a Jew he was persecuted by society at large and found himself a prisoner inside Auschwitz.
He survived the Holocaust but his troubles did not end there, because Magneto was a mutant, and as a mutant he would find himself a target of persecution yet again later on in his life.
For those not as geeky as myself, in the Marvel universe a mutant is simply an evolutionary development within the homo sapiens species.
A mutant carries a genetic trait know as, the X-gene, which sets them apart from other humans. The X-gene gifts mutants with super-human powers and abilities, case in point: Magneto can control and manipulate metal. A mutant is a member of a new sub-species called Homo sapiens superior, a concept which is seen as threatening to many ordinary humans within the Marvel universe.
Right enough babbling, back to the point. Magneto, seeing his fellow mutants persecuted, seeks to secure mutant liberation.
I know what you are thinking, so far he sounds pretty sympathetic, right? Exactly, this is the anti-villain: sympathetic motives, a tragic backstory etc. The problem is… Magneto seeks any means necessary to secure his main goal of mutant liberation, even if that means the death of thousands, or in the case of the film X-Men 2 where he attempts to get a brainwashed Professor X to use Cerebro to kill every non-mutant on the planet, billions of innocent humans.
The anti-villain can make for a much more complex and realistic villain. After all, in the real world villains are often people who have had a tragic past themselves, some kind of fall from grace, or they seek a noble goal but go about it in evil ways.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, X-Men is basically an analogy of the struggle for civil rights within American history. Magneto is often compared to Malcolm X, a man who was more aggressive and more willing to use violence than his counterpart… Martin Luthor King (who Professor X, the more pacifistic mutant-rights activist, is often compared to).
Magneto is therefore the perfect example of the anti-villain, we the reader cannot completely hate him, perhaps we even in some way pity him. But ultimately it is his evil acts, and his opposition to the heroes of the story, that make him villainous.
4. The Mastermind
A villain who uses brains instead of brawn. Who concocts complex master-plans in order to defeat our noble hero. This villain cannot be taken out by strength alone, and instead demands an opponent who can match them on an equal or greater field of intelligence.
A perfect example of the mastermind would be Riddler, from the world of DC Comics.
This particular villain is part of The Rogues Gallery, the top-tier villains that have faced Batman over his long career as the caped crusader. Riddler (real name: Edward Nigma) possesses extraordinary intellectual aptitude, an attribute which seeps into the very nature of his criminal activities. He frequently employs riddles, puzzles, and traps in his criminal schemes.
What makes Riddler such an interesting villain within Batman stories, is that he poses more of an intellectual threat than a physical one. The stories he appears in are filled with interesting twists and turns in the form of riddles, codes, and the like, that our hero Batman has to solve. He thus truly challenges Batman’s title of “world’s greatest detective”, and is one of the few villains within The Rogue Gallery who can face Batman on an equal level of intellect.
The strength of this particular villain is the ability to create stories that rely more on convoluted master-plans, riddles, and puzzles for the hero to solve. The usual fast paced action and over the top fights are replaced instead by a story filled with mystery and suspense.
When well-executed, stories involving the mastermind villain test the intellect of the reader themselves, pulling us into the story and world, causing us to constantly question what the next move of the villain will be.
Well if you are still here, thanks for reading! I hope I have given you some ideas on the types of villains and what makes them work so well.
I have covered only a small set of the types of villains you may come across, and even some of the architypes I have discussed have even more sub-types. One could create a whole book dedicated to explaining the myriad types of villains that exist within fiction, as just like in the real world, the fictional world has a vast diversity of villainous characters with all kinds of motives, goals, and personality traits driving them.
I hope this has given some budding writers out there some inspiration and guidance, and I hope that any bookworms reading this have some knowledge about how the world within the page (or on the screen) ticks.