The Philosophy of Villains

Depending on the fictional work, villains have different philosophies on the relationship between good and evil. Some villains are aware of the fact that heroes are willing to go to great lengths to ensure that the forces of good and justice prevail. Others can’t comprehend the idea of a hero sacrificing themselves for the sake of the greater good.

The Philosophy of Vilains

Photo by JD Hancock (Creative Commons). Adapted by The Write Practice

Villain Philosophy #1: Self-Preservation and Individuality

Many villains tend to believe that humanity should function in a way that encourages self-preservation and the interests of the individual above all things.

These villains tend to act in their own self-interest nine-eight percent of the time, because no one else is going to look out for them.

They often espouse the virtues of freedom, seeing “heroes” as enslaving people to an arbitrary system of rules and dogma.

Their henchmen are expendable if the situation requires it, and they nearly always have an escape route ready as a plan B.

These villains cannot understand the concept of goodness or generosity because there is no guaranteed return on that investment.

Examples of villains with this philosophy:

  • Satan from Paradise Lost
  • Voldemort from Harry Potter
  • Loki from The Avengers
  • The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Long John Silver in Treasure Island
  • Napoleon from Animal Farm
  • Captain Hook from Peter Pan
  • Sauron from Lord of the Rings
  • The Wicked Witch of the West from Lord of the Rings

Villain Philosophy #2: Anti-Social Tendencies

On the other side of the coin are the villains who have an understanding or belief that humans can act in a purely selfless capacity—they’ve just chosen not to follow this path themselves, or they use this understanding of humanity to manipulate and take advantage of others to advance their own agendas.

These villains fall towards more anti-social or sociopathic tendencies as opposed to purely self-motivated ones.

Alternatively, these villains can believe so strongly in the concept of good that they expect not only goodness from heroes, but compassion, regardless of the actual level of villainy that the bad guys have been involved in.

These villains believe that the heroes will be generous enough to them when and if they are apprehended that they can get away with pretty much anything and come away with the equivalent of a light slap on the wrist and a brief timeout.

Examples of villains with this philosophy:

  • Iago from Othello
  • Alec D’urberville from Tess of the D’urbervilles
  • Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes
  • Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • Randall Flagg from The Stand and The Dark Tower
  • Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs
  • The Joker from The Dark Knight
  • Patrick Bateman from American Psycho

What type of villain does your work require?

PRACTICE

Think about the world your protagonist inhabits, and the villain you’ve created for your story. What philosophy does your villain adhere to? Now write for fifteen minutes as though your villain embraced one of the other philosophies of villainy. How does that change your story and the actions of your villain? If you’re feeling brave, post your completed practice in the comments, and leave feedback for your fellow practicers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • Nick

    IMHO, there is also the villain whose philosophy would be to act for the ‘greater good’, a villain who would be the type who takes a ‘positive’ moral value to an extreme and demands that others adhere to that extreme standard.

    An example of such might be a utopian who demands that those who don’t support the ideals of the ‘utopia’ be executed; religious ‘fanatics’; political ‘fanatics’; my-country-right-or-wrong ‘fanatics’; a lover who eventually determines that his/her beloved is not worthy of such love and so the beloved must die or be punished or be ‘purified’; those who seek chaos in order for a new regime/order/value-standards to be implemented which will benefit ‘all’ in the future; etc.

    I am pretty sure there would be many other examples of this type of “positive moral taken to an extreme” but alas I need more morning coffee.

    😉

    • Good one, Nick! I definitely agree with you. I suppose you could lump that in with the Self-Preservation philosophy, except that instead of an individual, it’s the villain’s myopic group. That being said, I think you’re right that they need their own category. Thanks!

    • EndlessExposition

      A good example of what you’re talking about is Prince Nuada from Hellboy 2. He wants to kill the human race to save his own from extinction. Arguably, he’s not evil at all. In a different movie he might be the good guy. Personally this is my favorite kind of villain, because sometimes you find yourself agreeing with them. What’s art without a little moral ambiguity?

  • Bob

    The Wicked Witch of the West from Lord of the Rings

    ……I think there’s a typo?

  • Keontez George

    I hate the end of this and could use some revision, but here goes another rough one.

    Kayven stood looking at his older brother, Jadel, sit atop the high throne, drunk. He hated the sight of him sitting there as if he deserved it. He favored a luxuriously lavish life that Kayven saw as excess. The throne should pass its riches off to the people of the land, before waddling in its gold, like a pig in mud. As the brother of the king, nothing was owed to him that he didn’t need to earn himself. No arranged marriage, no land for him to lord over, or even a minor title. He felt that the throne should’ve belonged to him. There was plenty of people in the realm that echoed his thoughts and Kayven kindly downplayed each one, but deep in his soul he knew they were right.

    “You would make a wonderful king,” the people said. “You could rule the realm like your grandfather, and the lands and the people will prosper and our enemies will tremble at the thought of our might.”

    Kayven had all the makings of great king, except the curse of birth order. He was smarter, more courteous, and didn’t have the deformed shield arm that Jadel had the luck of having. Jadel on the other hand was a failure at most things he put his mind to, unless when you take into account when he would constantly embarrass Kayven.

    Guess we can’t have it all, Kayven thought to himself.The only good thing that he’d done for Kayven was taking him into his service as his personal bodyguard. Who better to trust than his own brother? The secret was that he did want it all. The throne, the kingdom, and he thought the kingdom would be better for it, instead of having this lout of king sit on the throne and mindlessly follow the advice of advisors and not think for himself. It was what the Kingdom deserved!

    But that was the law of the land and Kayven had read The Laws of Vermecides over and over again looking for loopholes. He realized, as the King’s personal bodyguard he would have the keys to his own success.

    Kayven would carefully bide his time, making sure that he sabotaged Jadel’s reign keeping him inebriated and advise him to listen to the worst advisors, bringing the kingdom on the edge of destruction just before saving it with his sword or his counsel. And when he realized the obstacle of an heir, Kayven made sure that the drops of Sourleaf extract were put into the queen’s evening tea, resulting in her giving birth to something more deformed than his brother.

    And now Kayven prepares for the biggest part of his plan, allowing for his brother to make a decision that will bring all of the nobles to exile their king, and allowing Kayven to take over in his place.

    • Susan W A

      I like this! Step by step I got a better understanding of Kayven, what his life must have been like until now, what his motivations and strategies are. I love that he scoured the Laws of Vermecides for loopholes! Looking forward to finding out how he actually gets that lout of a brother off the throne.

      • Keontez George

        Thanks, Susan!

  • Desirée

    I didn’t knew Frodo visited Oz….correct it pleace. Did Elphada made an aliance with Sauron?