There’s nothing like a good villain, eh? After all, the quality of a villain can make or break a story. Some villains are utterly forgettable, while others are more famous than their corresponding heroes. Just look at the MCU. Everyone knows who Loki is—but if someone were to bring up the Marvel Villain “Ivan,” would that name prompt any flash of recognition? What about Malekeath? Yeah, that’s what we thought. So, what’s the deal here?
There are two ways that a villain can fail as a character. One, they can simply be the wrong villain for the story. (Looking at you here, Marvel. You ever noticed how so many Marvel heroes are just plotted against a random baddie, and so there’s not a lot of emotional drama when the hero finally triumphs? That’s because the purpose of a villain is to keep the hero from his goal, and if the villain has no connection to the hero’s goal, then the villain is pretty much…pointless.**) Reason Two: the villain in the story is the wrong type of villain and does not fit the story’s essence and overarching theme. Today, we’ll be discussing six types of villains, and how they can be best used in a story. Basically, we’re analyzing villains, and if you don’t think that is one of the most interesting things in the world to do, then there’s just got to be something wrong with you.
**A note from Hermione: If you find this interesting, definitely check out K.M. Weiland’s blog Helping Writers Become Authors, and specifically, her series The Do’s and Don’t of Storytelling According to Marvel. It’s an absolutely fascinating series, and as I love when people break apart and analyze films/books, I found it quite interesting to read K.M. Weiland’s dissections of the Marvel movies.
One quick note: We will be approaching these villains as complete characters in and of themselves. In essence, we won’t be making any references back to the actors who portray any of the villains we discuss. If one of our villains is a book character, then, of course, this won’t be an issue, but for villains like Loki—well, it’s obvious enough that Loki is Loki primarily because of Tom Hiddleston. If Loki had been played by someone like Nicholas Cage…um, things would be different. So we’ll be taking Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki for granted, as if Loki exists not as a character, but as an actual person whose actions does not rely on the “acting” of someone else. Make sense? Good.
*Benedict Cumberbatch Voice* And now it’s time…for our Study in Villains.
Hermione: These are the Umbridges, the villains who everyone hates, no matter what. You could even say that Umbridge is far eviler than Voldemort. Why, exactly? Umbridge is deemed a villain not only for who she is, but also for what she does. If Umbridge had some sort of Tragic Backstory, would any of us honestly care? The woman radiates arrogance and self-satisfaction, and she is maliciously underhanded, so much so that none of her actions are technically illegal. An Umbridge villain would never break the law, instead, they merely twist the law, or gain control of the law-making facilities so that they are never actually “wrong.” It’s so maddening, because on one level or another, everyone can relate this sort of villain to somebody they know.
Clara: With this sort of villain, you don’t care how tragic their backstory is or how attractive they are, you just want to STAB THEM AND SEE THEM BLEEEEEEEEED. Umbridge is also annoying because no matter one does to try and gain the upper hand, she always comes out on top. It becomes even more maddening when you look at the situation the kids at Hogwarts were in: openly opposing Umbridge meant getting expelled. Most of them were just forced to quietly exist under her tyranny in order to finish their schooling. Writing this kind of villain can be fun, but the writer has to make sure to give said villain creepy little quirks that make them even more infuriating…like Umbridge’s obsession with cats and the color pink. All those mewling china plates made her office one hundred times creepier.
Hermione: Yeah, Umbridge having those little “quirks” both humanized her and gave her this kind of “off” vibe that screamed “Sociopath! Stay Away From Me!”. Umbridges can be extraordinarily effective villians—if written well. It can be difficult to create a villain that is so purely evil and is fully sane (or at least gives a good appearance of being so). There are a good many series that definitely could have used a more Umbridge-like villain. I personally haven’t seen the Umbridge model for a villain come up in many books. Have you, Clara?
Clara: Nope. Most books seem to cater toward either a troubled villain or an anti-hero that’s called a villain, but maybe that’s just because I read too much YA. And I totally agree that writing a fully evil yet totally sane villain could be difficult. Which leads me to our next point…
Clara: I feel like insane villains are definitely the scariest to read about because they’re totally unpredictable. With sane villains, you can usually grasp some idea of what their plan is, but with the nutjobs, you never know. Probably one of the most iconic insane villains is the Joker. I will say here and now that The Dark Knight scares the crud out of me because you never know what the Joker’s about to do. I mean, he goes from having a friendly conversation with someone to stabbing their eyes out with his toothbrush in about three seconds.
I should also mention that Jared Leto’s Joker from Suicide Squad didn’t scare me very much. I think the directors took away some much needed scariness in order to make the joker desirable. Ew. This is the Joker—he’s an insane psychopath with a sliced up face, not a sex icon! Also, where are the new Joker’s scars???? It’s just wrong on multiple levels to take away a villain’s defining trait in order to usher in a relationship. And that’s another thing: in the comics, the Joker and Harley’s relationship is an abusive one to a T, so what’s the point trying to make it look all sweet and innocent? Okay, that was totally off topic, but as you can tell I have some issues with the Joker.
Hermione: Eh, I don’t care much for DC…but I will agree with you that the Insane Villain (especially when placed in a contemporary setting) is the most frightening brand of bad guy due to their utter unpredictability. The Joker is the Iconic Crackpot Villain who’s pretty much lost all touch with reality. There’s also “insane” villains like Moriarty (from the BBC’s Sherlock), who are able to “pass” as “normal” humans—but underneath their slick exterior, all is roweling chaos. It must be noted, though, that both the Joker and Moriarty are not insane to the point where they are vegetables stuck in some loony bin; both villains are intelligent, by varying degrees. The Joker is smart, but he can become almost spastic in his planning. Moriarty is definitely a psychopath and is very controlled and precise. Additionally, Moriarty is not afraid to play dirty, and use “emotional” leverage against Sherlock.
We’ll touch more on this later, but physical appearance is a very important factor when creating a villain. The Umbridges are classically ugly. The Insane Villian could be attractive, though doing so ultimately takes away some of the Insane’s Villains “evilness.” When a villain is attractive, there’s a much higher chance that the audience is going to want that villain to have some sort of emotional character arc and/or a tragic backstory. It sounds shallow, but it’s true. (Also, back to what you said, Clara—the fact that people even find the Suicide Squad Joker attractive is very disturbing to me…)
Clara: It would be interesting to read about a villain fresh out of a loony bin, but when the villain isn’t intelligent, they become less frightening. Moriarty is definitely smart (he is supposed to be Sherlock’s evil counterpart), but even when he’s playing normal, he has a weird vibe about him (“Honey, you should see me in a crown.”). The other thing I like about the character of Moriarty is that he’s attractive, but he’s unstable enough to where that really doesn’t matter, and your whole mentality is: “Oook I’m backing away now”. I’m also a fan of how he starts yelling at really random moments. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, never letting you fall into the rhythm of his speech.
Hermione: YOU FIND MORIARTY ATTRACTIVE???? Um, what. We need to talk, Clara…
Clara: What? He looks like a little lost puppy.
Clara: When someone says Tragic Villain, that first thing that pops into my head is LOKI. Aside from being the most iconic Tragic Villain, Loki has a fan base larger than all of the rest of the Avengers combined. Excluding Bucky. And yes, that is an actual statistic. I guess the main problem with Tragic Villains is that they don’t actually exist. A villain by their very nature is called to be villainous, evil, and unlikeable. When the majority of the people start to root for the villain, something has to be wrong. There is a large group of rabid Loki fangirls out there who actually view Thor as the villain in Loki’s story. I feel like that should be a warning flag to the MCU. Even though Tragic Villains don’t exist, anti-hero’s do, and it’s important to make the distinction.
Even Marvel, in both Thor movies and The Avengers, had a greater force of evil or destruction other than Loki driving the plot along (The Destroyer/the Frost Giants, The Dark Elves, The Chitari). Why was this necessary? Because Loki is so tragic and hot and precious, if he had been the only villain, Thor would have become the villain and Loki the hero. And I also don’t get why MARVEL won’t give Loki his own movie. It’s not like there wouldn’t be a fan base! I am sure I’m not the only person out there who only tolerates the presence of Thor is his own movies so that I can look at Loki.
Hermione: A Tragic Villain is a villain that is consumed by his backstory, so much so they that assume the position of the anti-hero. Like you said, Clara, Loki is the PERFECT example. A Tragic Villain is going to be attractive in a universally pleasing way (like, I’m sorry, but who DOESN’T find men with dark hair and gorgeous eyes to be attractive? Anyone?? That’s what I thought). They have also been wronged by the hero substantially enough that it lends validity to the Tragic Villain’s point of view. Tragic Villains typically seem to be Slytherins—they are manipulative loners who know how to twist reality to get what they want. I don’t have a problem with Tragic Villains, per se, but I think a lot of stories would work out better if the Tragic Villain was officially recognized as the anti-hero.
Back to Loki. Loki, as a Tragic Villain, did do some purely villainous things. He killed eighty people in two days, had no qualms about shooting down a defenseless old man, and injured countless others due to his actions in the battle of New York. Now, what if one of those eighty people that Loki killed had been your sister, your father, or your best friend…. would you still have cared about how Loki’s physical appearance? Most likely, you’d simply see him as a cruel murderer, and he’d lose any sort of appeal for you (hopefully, anyway. I presented this scenario to Clara and she said she wouldn’t care if Loki murdered ME, as long as she got to see him in person…. yeah, she has problems…). ANWAY, the point here is this: Loki still does villainous, cruel things, but only in his actions his villainy expressed. His person does not seem overly evil, and thus he has hordes and hordes of fangirls.**
**NOTE: We wrote the bulk of this post back in the August of 2017 (procrastination, much?), before we saw Thor: Ragnorak. Our writing on Loki is still quite relevant, especially as Ragorak seemed to embrace the role of Loki as an anti-hero rather than a villain. Let’s just hope that Infinity Wars keeps Loki redemption arc going, because the teaser trailer did not look very promising.
Clara: Loki is definitely the anti-hero in the Dark World because there is a clear villain other than him (aka Evil “Dark Elf” Legolas). Another tragic villain that I can think of is Gleb (from the Broadway musical Anastasia). Gleb is also more of an anti-hero because he isn’t genuinely evil. He is a poor, honorable lil’ communist trying to complete his father’s mission. Seriously, the only reason Gleb is the villain is because the story is told from Anastasia’s point of view. If it had been flipped, Anastasia would have been the villain and Gleb the hero trying to kill the evil Tsar’s daughter.
Hermione: The “Tragic” But Cruel Villains (long title, sorry!) are basically the Voldemort kind of villains. Does Voldemort have a tragic backstory? Yes, to some degree he does: Tom Riddle grew up alone and unloved, and this kind of turned him wonky. When Voldemort was a teenager, he was pretty attractive (we’re going off Hot Tom in the Chamber of the Secrets here, FYI, not off the little creep in the Half Blood Prince). And heck, maybe if Voldemort had stayed attractive, he could have turned out as the classic Tragic Villain/Anti-Hero. Alas, alas, he turns into a bald snake, and because of his appearance, the viewer really has no reason to feel empathy/compassion for Voldemort.
Then there’s the issue of what Voldemort does. Unlike Umbridge, who is evil in and of herself, Voldemort’s villainy is only truly expressed through his actions. After all, what is Voldemort but a personification of his cruelty? He has no true identity outside of his vile deeds. The reader/viewer hates Voldemort because he kills James and Lilly, because he poisoned families (like the Malfoys), because he gave to rise to a cult that propagated aggressive racism and bigotry. Voldemort Villains are not tragic because they are not consumed by their past (rather, their past is usually a motivator for their success). At the same time, they are not as Evil as the Umbridges—the very fact that Voldemort has a tragic backstory at all makes him the tiniest bit more human, and therefore, less formidable and “all-powerful.”
Clara: I think the main difference between Tom Riddle and Umbridge is that you can see Umbridge being a brat her whole life; her character isn’t someone she became, it’s just who she is. Voldemort, on the other hand, was once Tom Riddle. He was a Hogwarts prefect, for goodness sake! I suppose the thing that’s nice about Voldemort is that you can give him a tragic past…without making anyone want to fangirl over him. Because who wants to fangirl over Voldemort? #Yuck.
Going back to what Hermione said, 50% of the reason no one likes Voldemort is because he is a bald, snake-like creep. When I first watched Chamber of Secrets I was all “Oohhh, who’s that hot guy? Is he in the rest of the movies?” The friend I was watching it with was like, “Ermmm, yes, I guess?” And then I had to have my heart broken and realize that Hot Troubled Tom was actually a bald killer. I’m sorry, but appearances aside, it’s hard to like a murderer. I read somewhere (or maybe Hermione told me) that there are three ‘unforgivable sins’ that can make a character totally unlikeable. I think it was like, child abuse, pet abuse, and rape. I remember being disturbed that murder was not on this list, but then I guess you could forgive a killer if they had a really good reason. I don’t care how many excuses you have, abusing a child is just wrong on multiple levels.
Hermione: “Inhuman” villains are the best sort of villains for any sort of fantasy because they are evil incarnate. Their villainy is not filtered through any sort of human bias, and it makes them extremely powerful foes. This type of villain usually exists as a representation of Good vs. Evil, in which there are clearly drawn sides and something is either right or it is wrong. The most obvious example of this is Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings. I believe that Sauron is given some sort of backstory in all the additional writings that J.R.R. Tolkien did on Middle Earth, but as far the film trilogy is concerned, Sauron is everything that is wrong in Middle Earth, and defeating him is to defeat all the myriad little evils in the world. Of course, to ensure that it is actually possible for Frodo to defeat the ultimate, inhuman evil, there has to be a loophole in the Inhuman Force’s power, i.e., the One Ring.
If executed properly, this sort of villain/story-line is the perfect vehicle for the Hero’s Journey, in which the Hero has just enough strength to defeat the villain, and enough weakness to feed the story’s emotional arc. Of course, the Inhuman Force of Evil is only as strong as his/her loophole is. Some other examples of this type of villain that I can think of are the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia (her “loophole” being the prophecy and the Pevensie children), and then the Sith Lord from the Original Star Wars trilogy (ignoring the prequels here, as those movies show the Sith Lord’s physical transition from man to evil incarnate; in the OT he is merely the Ultimate Evil, sans backstory or explanation). The Sith Lord’s loophole would then be Darth Vader, or more accurately, the good in Darth Vader that Luke was able to draw out.
Clara: Having an all-powerful source of evil can also turn the spotlight back on the protagonists. This allows you to focus completely on the stories and chemistry of the Heroes without being bogged down by the villain’s backstory. Having an all-powerful evil certainly makes it easier to introduce anti-heroes that are clearly defined and not tossed into villain slump. For instance, Gollum is certainly not the main enemy in the LOTR, but he acts as one of Frodo’s obstacles that keep Frodo from his ultimate goal (and Gollum is also a clever foil to Frodo’s character, in that Gollum is what Frodo could become). Having a clear right/wrong distinction also makes it easier to give the characters internal struggles. Their struggle with resisting the pull of the darkness is based on the character’s morals and the darkness is clearly evil, so it’s obvious which side should win.
Hermione: Oh my goodness, it is so weird to think of Gollum as an anti-hero. Anti-heroes seem to usually be the dark, brooding Byronic types…and Gollum….he wears a LOIN-CLOTH for pity’s sake. He’s like the mutant version of Tarzan or something.
Clara: Imagine if you mixed Gollum with Jar-Jar Binks. MESA WANT THE PRECIOUS. MESA LIKE FLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESH.
Hermione: Okay, I’m just…not going to respond to that. ANYWAY, I hope y’all enjoyed our analyzation of the villain archetype.
What’s your favorite kind of villain to read/write/watch? How much do you think psychical appearance plays into the idea of villainy? Are there any major villains/types of villains that we missed? THE COMMENT BOX IS DEMANDING YOUR ANSWERS.