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The Flip Side: Writing Villain Protagonists

Villain Protagonist

Photo by Christopher Stadler

We’re used to rooting for our protagonists. The easiest way to get an audience behind your character is to give them a moral compass that consistently points toward good. But what happens if your main character’s moral compass points in the opposite direction? Or if they have no moral compass at all?

Welcome to the world of the villain protagonist.

What is a Villain Protagonist?

Villain protagonists are exactly what they sound like: characters who exhibit the traits of villains, but who are the central characters of the story. It can be a writer’s experiment in examining the other side of the traditional hero-villain dynamic (as in Wicked), or maybe the writer has decided that whatever the protagonist is fighting is even worse than their main character. Either way, the protagonist is generally not a character that the reader would invite over for dinner anytime soon.

Sometimes the villain protagonist undergoes a personal transformation during the course of the story, bringing them to the side of good. The Grinch of Dr. Seuss fame is probably the most well-known example of this archetype, but it also appears in Megamind and Catch Me If You Can.

Famous examples of traditional villain protagonists at work include the Godfather trilogy, The Usual Suspects, American PsychoA Clockwork Orange, and Dexter. It’s not easy to write a sympathetic serial killer, but it can make for an interesting experiment.

How about you? Who are your favorite villain protagonists?

PRACTICE

Create your own villain protagonist. It can either be a unique character, or a villain from an existing story. Tell their story for fifteen minutes, and post your practice in the comments. Don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers. Good luck!

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.

  • Suzzle

    The children were playing outside again. Raquel sucked her bottom lip and
    furiously typed her 81st Skype message of the day; reassuring the
    hot new developer that the reason he was single was most likely because he just hadn’t met the right person.

    Raquel detested children, not in the conventional ‘oh they’re a handful aren’t they’
    way, but with a deep set loathing that bubbled up from a volcano of disgust within
    and practically caused her to froth at the mouth. She couldn’t fathom why, on
    an already uncomfortably over populated planet, people continued to churn them
    out. She groaned loudly, instantly causing Veronica and Sandy to jump to
    attention in their seats and feign their most concerned expressions. ‘You alright?’
    probed Sandy, the same way one might placate a Pit Bull. “It’s these shitty
    kids!” Raquel replied, rolling her eyes and clutching a hand to her head. Sandy
    and Veronica exchanged looks. Raquel knew that they were just humouring her because she was the bosses’ girlfriend, but she didn’t care. Who the hell were these bitches anyway; Sandy who acted shy but really considered herself above
    everyone, and Veronica who was just loud, crass and utterly oblivious to how loud
    and crass she was.

    Antony was taking her to Brazil in 3 days to ‘meet a client’ and she was currently too preoccupied with the dilemma of what dress to order for the flight over. “I can’t f’ing concentrate on these accounts!” she barked. “Damn kids eh!” Veronica laughed, a little bit too loudly.

    • Magdalena

      I like this. I was immediatley drawn to the story and I want to know more about Raquel. I was a little confused, though. The setting isnt very clear and its not clear whether there are kids distracting her at the moment or whether she’s talking about them in an abstract way.

      • Suzzle

        Hi thanks! It’s not very developed tbh as it’s based on a real experience haha! A certain person just sprung to mind when i thought of a villain protagonist, but in retrospect I realise it was probably a bit unclear to the outsider. First time here and I couldn’t resist, next time I will try and set the scene more.

  • Magdalena

    Monty waited until she went into the kitchen before he opened her purse. It was a cluttered mess of crumpled tissues, lipsticks, tons of folded up pamphlets, her wallet, a heavy set of keys with a ridiculous amount of keychains and, of course, cash. The insode of her purse smelled kind of nice, like a girl.

    He grabbed the loose bills and opened her wallet. There were more. Grabbing them and pocketing the change, too, he tried not to move the keys too much for fear of noise. He paused at her credit card and quickly decided against it, stuffing the wallet back in and pushing the purse to where it had been.

    Monty stood and hollered towards the kitchen, “I’m gonna take off now!”
    She mumbled something but he didnt wait to hear what it was, letting the screen door slam behind him.

    Once he was safely off the porch Monty jogged down the side walk to where he knew he wanted to go.

    The phone in his sweatshirt pocket vibrated and a momentary panic seized him.
    He read the text. It wasnt her. It was Dundy. Relief swept through him. Perfect timing.

    Can you hook me up? It read.

    As soon as I get it. Monty typed and hit send.
    This was going to be a good day…

    • Puja

      Nice intro, right in the middle of the action. I’m interested to read more!

  • Puja

    Daniel held a warm hand over hers, pressing it into the wine-red tablecloth.

    “I’ve never met anyone like you, Eva,” he said.

    Eva shook her head. Her pale curls caught the chandelier lights. “I bet you’ve used that line before.”

    He had, too. She could read it in the loosening of his grip, the slight dilation of his pupils. She wondered if there was even a sliver of genuineness in human interaction anymore. If lacing your fingers with another’s meant affection or a controlling nature. If a rich laugh meant delight at a joke or just a means to your bed.

    “Stay a little longer. You can book your room for one more night, right?”His grip was tight again.

    “I don’t know, Daniel. I need to get back to D.C. and see to—”

    “The AIDS kids, I know, I know.” His tone was definitely grumbling, as if African children born with HIV were responsible for climate change.

    “Daniel,” she reproached in her soft voice. Soft, Daniel thought, but with a hint of iron in it. It was probably what made her a good businesswoman and charity director.

    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Look, I’ll make it up to you. I care about your work, really, and I care about you. One more night, huh? I’ll even pay for it.” In the background, silverware and china clinked, piano music curling around the restaurant.

    Eva looked like she was trying not to roll her eyes. “You just throw your money at everything, don’t you?” His hand had stolen to her waist now, fingers between the hem of her silk blouse and the top her skirt. She hoped he wouldn’t find the safety pin holding it closed.

    Daniel grinned lazily over at her. His other hand smoothed her ringlets from her face. “Everything.”

    **

    A man sitting at the wheel of a truck looked up as a woman climbed in. “Got it?”

    “Yeah, yeah, it’s made out to the Henderson AIDS Foundation,” the blonde woman said, her voice edged with a Southern accent now.

    “Took you long enough. We’ll cash it before he wakes up and then back to Georgi—”

    He realized she wasn’t listening. Beth’s blonde head was turned away from him, towards the doors of the hotel.

    “What?” he asked impatiently.

    She hurriedly turned back, a slight flush in her face. “Nothing. Let’s go.”

  • I and many others are not like villains, but one would not ha movie without villains.

  • GuesD

    I’m really sorry (to those who might be offended) for using a bit of “bad” language … I just thought that the character wouldn’t be complete without them…:-

    “Good evening, customers. Today we have a 30% off on cereals down on the 6th aisle, so hurry and grab as many boxes as you can!”

    “Bloody hell,” Jack Nugget said “if living in this godforsaken-two bit-no good town isn’t enough, the freakin’ supermarket announcements are like the one’s on Sesame Street.”

    He scratched his chin with his overgrown nails, and in the process rid his enormous face of a smudge of ketchup that had stuck and solidified there since lunch. He heaved his 200 pound body off the chair (which groaned a sigh of relief) as he saw an aged woman coming towards the cashing counter.

    “Get off your fat ass & greet the customers with a smile, you fat shit” he mimed, “Asshole manager!”

    He plastered a fake smile on his face that instead of making the timid old lady feel welcomed, scared her off to choose the adjacent lane.

    “Yeah, that’s right, you old piece of shit, run away…bitch!” he said under his breath.

    He sat back and the chair groaned a plea.

    “22 years! 22 years I’ve been stuck at this idiotic place. I can’t believe how screwed my life is!”

    He glanced at the clock on the wall and exclaimed “4, at last!”

    Jack, once again, heaved himself off the chair and shuffled towards the changing room, where he threw his sapphire jacket and hat on the floor. He quickly pulled his faded khaki jacket onto himself and made for the open. Out in the open, he grimaced at the beautiful evening and continued walking out the back street.

    As Jack emerged onto the main street, he saw the old lady from the supermarket putting the 2 bags of her shopping into the car’s passenger seat. He moved towards her and knowingly nudged her in a bit hard.

    He smirked as he heard the old lady’s cry of plea behind him. Jack quickened his pace to scamper as fast as possible, and after a while slowing down, he took out his mobile, plugged the earphones in and started listening to “Fear of the Dark” by Iron Maiden. Next, he checked his messages and let out a groan as he read his mom’s message – “Brng a lof o’ bred”

    “Whore!” he muttered, just as the blaring horn of a truck came dangerously close and he looked up, seeing nothing but darkness.

  • themagicviolinist

    Ha! I was JUST talking about this (on the same day, actually) and I didn’t even know there was a post here about it! Another one of my favorite villain protagonists is Wreck-It Ralph, though he wasn’t THAT much of a villain.

  • Megan Rose Tennenbaum

    The seat of my despised, worn black school pants grows increasingly damp as I sit
    on the ground, which is still moist from the rain the night before. A towering maple tree, its leaves rich with Autumn’s changing colors, provides a cool shelter beneath the sun’s furious glare.

    Just across the street she walks by, tears streaming down her pale cheeks, leaving glistening trails down her beautiful face. Her golden blonde hair is done up in a perfect french twist; her frilly white dress immaculate.

    “Gisela,” another girl yells as she runs, trying to catch up with the first. “Gisela, please wait!” Her raven black hair, braided neatly into pigtails and finished off with black satin ribbons, flies behind her. The skirt of her black velvet dress flaps around her knees. “Please, I am sorry! I swear I did not mean it!”

    Gisela spins around, sky blue eyes flashing, “Mean what?” she asks in a trembling voice, trying to sound fierce while barely keeping the tears back. “You did not mean that I was a filthy liar? That I was just trying to get attention? You did not mean that I was merely the headmaster’s worthless daughter?” The tears begin to flow anew.

    The another girls steps forward and wraps her arms protectively around her, “Gisella, I am so sorry. I was just trying to get Johannes to leave me alone…”

    Anger bubbles up inside of me, rising close to the surface as I watch Gisela push the other girl away. “How dare you blame everything on Johannes!” As soon as she finishes that one sentence I feel my anger quickly vanish as a warm bubbly feeling fills my chest.

    “I-I’m sorry,” the girl stutters, falling silent. Eyes downcast she lets a few moments pass by before she continues. “ Gisela…” Her voice is drowned out by the sound of a deafening explosion as I pull the trigger. The Jew will die today. Then no one, no one will ever be able to take my Gisela from me again!

    A bloodcurdling scream rises up and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I watch as Gisela crumples to the ground, blood spreading from the wound in her neck, staining her golden blonde hair and her white dress. My hearts tops and I want to scream and shout as the other girl, the Jew, drops to the ground beside Gisela and tries to pick her up. “Gisela! Gisela, please, I am so sorry. I take it back. Please, please forgive me! I did not mean it. I promise!” she yells. “I will tell Johannes the truth tomorrow, I swear. Just please wake up!”

    Tears well up in my eyes and threaten to overflow and I feel as if my heart will break. Yet I wait patiently until I see the girl, Rivka, run away before I walk towards my fallen love. I collapse on the ground and grasp her hand, stroking her face. As the sun moves behind a cloud her sapphire encrusted, gold cross catches my eyes. I yank it off from her neck and plant a gentle kiss on her lips before running
    away, cradling the necklace in my hands.

    Rain begins to fall.

  • George McNeese

    Mr. Freeze and Doctor Octopus come to mind when I think of villain protagonists in movies. In “Batman and Robin,” Fries has a noble goal, to find a cure for his wife, Nora, and because of an accident, has to keep his body temperature at subzero conditions. To do so, he has to steal diamonds and hatches a plan to ransom Gotham to fund his research for a cure.

    In the case of Dr. Octavius, in “Spider-Man 2,” his goal is to provide a new source of energy for the city. He created his “Octo-Suit” so he can work on the project. Something goes wrong, and the “arms” start to control him rather than the other way around.

    In both examples, they were scientists with lofty and noble goals. And because of circumstance, they become villains, and thus lose their sense of humanity. In the examples, that is not the case. They just go about achieving their goals the opposite of what they intended.

  • Patrick Marchand

    The wings of certain insects can catch the light of the sun and reflect its beautiful power in a million colours, and such as the bright light that transformed into those wonderful colours, those insects would transform from a lesser state into a more intense state, from light to colour, from caterpilar to butterfly, from reality to magic.

    Dante thought about this divine sublimation as he watched the thick, red liquid flow from the husk that layed on the ground. The womans dark hair was spread out into the darkness, a look of extasy on her visage, he had made her transform. From a sad, desperate woman, anchored down by the petty troubles of her life, he had elevated her to a new level of beauty, and now they would dare take that away from him? He who was greater than any man? He who had saw the truth about life? Detective Kendral thought he could stop him, but he would show him!

    Suddenly he heard a knock on the door, lifting his head he suddenly remembered that he had an appointment, he placed the cadaver back into the crevasse and closed the trapdoor, getting up, he llooked at his hand, there was some blood on them. « I will be there in as second! » he said to the intruder, he then walked to the bathroom and washed his hands in the cold water of the sink. Dante then ewalked toward the door , opened it wide, and said: « Ahh Detective Kendral, how nice to see you, supper is already ready. »

  • Erik

    The short time he had spent in this small little town in the middle of nowhere proved to be his undoing. His life has slowly spiraled out of control, to the point where he’s been left wifeless, jobless, and soon homeless.

    His rage built to a deafening crescendo, a roaring shriek of hatred and agony. Why had this happened to him? Why was HE of all people being put through this torture?

    As his depression continued to ravage him, he turned his attention to the television set and flipped through the channels. Stories about thieves, murderers, and rapists occupied the news, warfare and acts of inhumanity were what political pundits discussed, and the question of whether or not to buy an expensive purse plagued the stars of reality TV shows.

    The images of today’s society fueled his anger, and he soon found within him not a single shred of empathy or compassion for his fellow man. Instead, he found a thirst for blood, a desire for vengeance, a call to wreak absolute havoc against his own species.

    Resisting the dark urge was futile. It consumed him, the shadow that had been cast over his life swallowed him the way the ocean would swallow a drowning man. And with this new-found desire, he slowly built a plan. A plan to kill, to send as many to the grave as he can. And if there is a Hell, he’d surely be placed on a one-way trip to there once he himself was killed. Being caught was no option!

    Fast forward to the end of the week, the day the police came to kick him out of his house because of his missing payments. Little did they realize that within the home, they would meet their end. Little did anyone on Earth realize that Death incarnate was readying his weapons to begin a crusade of death and destruction, an event so brutal and merciless that it would cause chills to those who even mentioned it years from now.

    As the police approached the porch, the door opened…

  • Kyle Whitehead

    My personal favourite villain protagonists are Walter White and Michael Corleone. They are well fleshed out characters that you have empathy with. You start out liking them and rooting for them. They gradually begin doing worse deeds until they are just shadows of who they used to be. Yet even at the character’s lowest points, the viewer or reader is conflicted because the person the character used to be was one they liked.

    Characters like Scarface start out in the story as villains so I personally have trouble investing in those characters. Walter White and Michael Corleone both have noble reasons for their entrances into lives of crime and that serves as a sort of anchor to keep us rooting for them until they finally plunge into the depths of darkness.