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Four Types of Anti-Villains

anti-villain

Photo by Anomalous4

I don’t have a very big DVD collection, but one of the discs on my shelf is Catch Me If You Can. I really enjoy this movie, for a few reasons. I love anything that is based on a true story, plus you really can’t go wrong with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. Come on now.

By nature of the story content, you have a pair of characters who are on opposite sides of the law, but they’re both painted as sympathetic characters.

DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale, Jr. is clearly meant to be the one whom the audience sympathizes with, but Carl Hanratty, played by Hanks, is the man on the right side of the law. He’s clearly the anti-villain to DiCaprio’s anti-hero.

What other degrees of anti-villains are there?

The Levels of Anti-Villains

TVTropes, our resource for the levels of anti-hero, also has a good list of four types of anti-villains, which we’re looking at today.

1. Noble Anti-Villain

The Noble Anti-Villain knows that he’s the bad guy, and has made the decision to be evil, but he doesn’t do very well when it comes to pulling the trigger. He has an honor code that guides him, and he won’t compromise his code. This might mean he takes innocent human life into consideration before executing a plot instead of indiscriminately nuking all of Texas.

Maybe evil is just the day job, and he moonlights as a cowbell player in a Blue Oyster Cult cover band, which is his true passion. He’s still high on the evil scale because evil is a choice for him, but of all the types of anti-villains, this is often the one whose characterization changes the least. Other anti-villains have a reasonably good chance of turning to the good side.

A good number of Voldemort’s Death Eaters in the Harry Potter series fit this description, particularly Draco Malfoy and Regulus Black.

2. “Pity” Anti-Villain

TVTropes calls this type of anti-villain the “woobie” anti-villain, which they define as a character who makes you feel sorry for them.

This anti-villain has turned to villainy because of circumstances outside his control that tug on the audience’s heartstrings and make you want to just give him a hug. He clearly doesn’t want to be the bad guy, but he doesn’t see any other options open to him. He’s often suffering psychologically, and his surroundings have informed a lot of the choices he makes.

Benjamin Barker in the theatrical version of Sweeney Todd and Frankenstein’s monster are examples of this type of anti-villain.

3. Well-Intentioned Anti-Villain

This anti-villain has their heart in the right place, but good lord, their means to getting that end are skewed.

These anti-villains often share the same goal as the hero, but are much more ruthless and morally questionable in their actions to achieve that goal. They might not be aware of the fact that in trying to find that goodness, they’re making things worse.

Inspector Javert from Les Miserables is a great example of this type of anti-villain, since he is on the side of the law, but he is relentless in pursuing what he considers justice, and leaves no room for mercy or criminal reform.

4. Villain in Name Only

This anti-villain isn’t really evil, and has other reasons for fighting against our hero. If the story was told from his point of view, he’d probably be the hero.

These anti-villains can actually be the most dangerous to the hero, since the hero often encounters a moral dilemma when he needs to fight, and they tend to be much more highly trained and competent in a fight to make up for their lack of evil. After all, if you’re not going to punch below the belt, you need to be good with a sword.

Many of the criminals in the Sherlock Holmes can end up here because they’re often victims of circumstance, or taking arguably justified revenge on a jerk, so Holmes will often let them off the hook.

Of these four types of anti-villains, which is your favorite?

PRACTICE

Write a characterization of one of the above types of anti-villains.

After fifteen minutes, post your practice in the comments and leave notes for your writing compatriots.

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.

  • Tammy J Rizzo

    My antagonist is basically a Villain In Name Only. Her goal is to keep from discovery the purpose of a secret base that her people are using to try to overthrow their oppressive conquerors and win their freedom. My protagonist may have seen too much about this plan, and his death is the only way she knows to preserve the secret and keep countless of her own people from being killed. Only thing is, he’s the key to success for the plan, and she doesn’t know it.

  • My anti hero is kind of a pain in the butt sidekick. He is a rich prince and only cares about himself. He THINKS he doesn’t care if other people are dying and he treats those of a peasant status like dirt. At the same time, the story causes a clash with his values, pushing him to be a better person and abandon his terrible upbringing. Is this a type of anti-hero?

    • Sarah Lee

      Maybe he could have a twist of misfortune, such as becoming exiled. Reliant on the kindness of people he once looked down upon, he’s forced to re-evaluate his views on others.

      • Thanks and you are very close to what I’m thinking. He is the second son of a real A-Hole king. He leaves on a whim with a few adventures to get away from the castle (and peeve his father, though he doubts his father even cares). The adventure he goes on takes him through monstrous dangers and horrific scenes that make him think outside of himself. He also has a ego that is much bigger than his deeds. He is a big coward. This may change in time to.

        Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve really been wondering what type of character he is. He doesn’t seem to fit anyone description.

  • I went for a pity/well-intentioned anti-villain! I think one of my biggest problems is writing a believable and dimensional villain (it’s so easy to make a “rawr I’m so evil!!” villain… lot harder (but way more satisfying) to make a villain who perhaps doesn’t have bad motives, just bad ways of getting his/her goals).

    What have you done, children?

    I’m watching the stars, counting them silently as they blink in and out of view. Sometimes I can’t fathom how much our world has changed but things like the sky remain the same. Everything’s gone to hell but the stars still come out at night. It’s pretty comical, actually.

    It’s a warm summer night, the perfect evening for a party and tonight had every potential to be pleasant and enjoyable before I was called away “on business”. That’s the term we’ve coined for things that aren’t desirable. Upon hearing the situation, everyone at the party fell silent. Looked at me with varying expressions of panic, boredom, horror and some kind of sick interest: how would I handle this latest problem? I stood, smiled, purposefully set my napkin down on my chair and calmly walked out of view behind the terrace, stopping only to tap the soldier guarding the entrance on the shoulder. Silently, he fell in step behind me.

    As we walked up the stairs together, I thought of how nice it would be to one of the people still mingling downstairs – someone *not* in charge of the safety of remaining human race. I know there are the power hungry who are jealous of me – the power I wield, the authority and respect I command. But it all comes at a terrible price, I want to scream at them. It all falls on me because nobody else will accept the responsibility. That’s the true burden of leadership, I think. All of the blame when things go wrong, none of the credit when it doesn’t. The soldier I beckoned follows me obediently up to the third floor of the office building, where a window that overlooks main street has been broken out for a clear view. We have a panoramic view of the city, and can clearly see the two shadowy figures that are running hellbent for the front gate.

    The sniper takes his place next to me and crouches, waiting for his next order. The rifle in his grip is loosely trained on the two figures as they dart behind lampposts and garbage cans in what they must feel is a sly manner. One of them is clutching a package to their chest.

    That is when I realize they are children, no older than 11 or 12. I can feel the disapproval rolling off the marksman in waves; can practically hear him arguing with me already: they’re only children, what difference do those rations make? They’re just dumb kids, let’s just forget about them this time. My head is spinning, a bad combination of stress and alcohol; will he speak up? I want somebody else to make the decisions this time; I’m tired of always having to be the bad guy. Let somebody else be the target of the rebellion for a while, I just want to sleep.

    “Sir?”

    I can hardly let them live. That would be weakness. Which is as good as a death sentence out here. They can’t be allowed to open the gate, lest they let the monsters in. But the thought of putting a bullet in the back of a child seems monstrous – even for me. My thoughts flash to Jamie, my own son. Would I be the person I was today if he’d survived? Something whispers no, but almost instantly something else whispers back that it doesn’t matter. Jamie is gone, and no amount of begging, pleading, wishing or bartering will ever bring him back. Bile rises in my throat as I watch the girl – the older of the two – creep out from behind a car and motion to her younger brother. He hesitates, looks behind him – and I swear he looks right at us – then follows his sister. It is a clear run now to the front gate, they are in the wide open. Whatever I decide, it will have to be soon.

    It’s for the good of the group, I tell myself. That is how I sleep at night. It’s for the good of the group. My mantra. Every horrible thing I’ve done, every life I’ve taken. The few must die so the majority can survive. Isn’t that the lesson history has imparted upon us time and time again?

    I feel the soldier next to me stiffen slightly. He hates this as much as I do, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt. I want to close my eyes but know I’ll only see Jamie’s beaming face if I do, so instead I stare down the street. They are almost at the firewall when I tilt my chin upwards, barely imperceptible in the fading twilight.

    “Fire.”

    • Captivating. Though the predicament seems pretty common to me, it is told well. Fills the reader with several questions. Well done!

  • Renan Piccolo Colombini

    Sorry but… when was Regulus Black an anti-villain? I didn’t get that. For me he was a good guy since always

    • epbure

      Technically, Regulus counts as an anti-villain, because he was a believer in maintaining pureblood status, and joined the Death Eaters because of that alignment, but he disagreed with Voldemort’s methods.

      • Renan Piccolo Colombini

        Fair point, thank you for the enlightenment

  • Gabriel

    My protagonist is actually a ‘Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds’ or Pity Anti-Villain. He is a social-outcast who gets abducted by Thar-Khul soldiers (an alien race) who were on a scouting mission. After being put through several tests, the aliens discover that he is in fact a weilder of the Dark Soul, one of the elemental souls of the acient Alien and Human gods, which once fully developed can make one powerful enough to consume entire planets. At first he sides with the aliens so they don’t kill him, but the Dark Soul consumes him a little bit more every time he experiences emotions like Hate, Sorrow, Love and Envy; so he must do his best to become powerful enough to escape the Aliens and redeems himself before he reaches the depths of madness and becomes a complete monster. The fact that he hates society because he was severely abused by everyone in his childhood to the point of paranoia doesn’t make it any easier.

    He eventually falls to the Dark Soul and becomes the Incarnation of Lucifer, and the actual heroes must do what they can to stop him before he kills everyone and everything.

    • :^)

      Plagiarism: The Story

  • Andreu Storme

    I love the noble antivillian. Sasuke from the NARUTO series comes to mind. Great essay!

  • I can’t help but to think of Megamind.