A well-written villain can make or break a story, because a hero is only as compelling as the villain he is fighting against. You're not going to feel too attached to or root that hard for a hero who's up against a club sandwich with a gun. But if the club sandwich is leading an uprising of all types of sandwiches against the human race for wiping out their kind…
As a hero has a darker counterpart in the anti-hero, the villain has a lighter counterpart in the anti-villain. Let's compare the two.
Good, Old Fashioned Villains
A straight villain is up to no good. Ever. These are the evil witches, mad scientists, two-faced politicians, wicked royals, and general sources of chaos and conflict. They also tend to trigger the plot.
Villains can be distinct in what lengths they will go to in their villainy, their lack of moral compass, their intelligence in creating their plot, or their sheer tenacity.
Classical villains pretty much are up to no good, and are rarely sympathetic.
Anti-Villains: Heroic Bad Guys
However, an anti-villain is a more curious study. An anti-villain might have heroic goals, but their means of achieving those goals are evil. Alternatively, they might have terrible goals, but will act completely above board and ethically in getting what they want. This does not make them less dangerous to our hero, however.
Generally, anti-villains are aware that they aren't winning any humanitarian awards with their designated plot, but they are self-aware enough to at least have good PR.
Examples of anti-villains include Inspector Javert from Les Miserables, who truly believes that he's doing the right thing in pursuing Jean Valjean; he just has a very black-and-white perspective on the criminal psyche. Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island also qualifies, since he's clearly a bad guy (you know, the whole pirate thing), but he's a bad guy who has his act together, and is fairly sympathetic.
Which do you prefer? Villains or Anti-Villains
Create a villain or anti-villain to combat your hero/anti-hero. Write for fifteen minutes and post your characterization in the comments. Make sure you leave feedback for your fellow writers!
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.