You’ve been told your story needs conflict. You’ve been told that each scene needs to have tension. You might have even been told you need to be writing villains, memorable antagonists that can supercharge your plot.
But unless you’re writing a fantasy novel, you might not be sure how to do this. You associate villains with Darth Vader and Jafar from Alladin.
What do bad guys look like in realistic literature?
Writing Villains Using the Villain Archetype
The villain, like the fool, is a classic archetype seen in almost every story from Shakespeare to Disney to films like 27 Dresses. However, unlike the fool, the villain has no consistent character traits. They are a shadow version of the hero, and their personality morphs based on the strengths and weaknesses of the hero.
What this means is that whoever your main character is, the villain is somehow the opposite. To begin our exploration of the villain, let’s go through some examples in literature and film. Then, we will make some general observations based on our examples:
1. The Ring from The Lord of the Rings
Yes, Sauron is the big villain in Lord of the Rings, but it’s interesting to look at each villain individually as a Shadow form of one of the main characters.
Frodo’s shadow and villain is the ring. It is power hungry and malicious compared to his cheerful, relaxed self.
2. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings
With this idea of the shadow in mind, who corresponds to Gollum, who is something of a minor villain (but obviously central to the story)?
At first I thought Frodo’s shadow was Gollum, but then I realized Gollum is actually Sam’s shadow (at least in The Lord of the Rings). That’s why Sam has so much conflict with Gollum later in the story.
3. Saruman from The Lord of the Rings
Gandalf, who consistently avoids recognition, finds his shadow in Saruman, who craves it.
4. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings
And Sauron, in the end, finds his hero in Aragorn, the king who does not seek his own kingdom but is given it, almost against his will.
5. Tess from 27 Dresses
In Katherine Heigel’s romantic comedy, the villain wasn’t obvious to me until I thought about Jane, played by Heigel. As I considered her responsible, shy, honest personality, I thought, Who was the character most opposite? Her sister Tess, of course.
Interestingly, Jane “defeats” her villain not by winning her fight with Tess over the man of her dreams. No, instead she wins by actually become more like Tess (and Tess wins by becoming more like Jane).
6 and 7. Dmitri and Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov
While Dostoevsky’s classic novel has only one hero, Alyosha, it actually has two villains, each representing a different shadow side of Alyosha. They are Dmitri, who thinks with his gut, and Ivan, who thinks with his head. Alyosha, on the other hand, thinks with his heart. Together they form a kind of trinity of archetypes, the Jester, the Mastermind, and the Saint.
8. The Ocean from Finding Nemo
There is no singlular villainous character in Finding Nemo. Technically, Marlin the clown fish’s antagonist is the entire ocean and all the obstacles in it. However, in reality the true villain is biggness. Out of fear, Marlin has become small, and his internal villain is anything resembling big.
9. Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises
Interestingly, the villain in Hemingway’s debut novel is actually the nicest guy in the novel, Robert Cohn. This is an interesting study because the seeming antagonist to Jake, the main character, is his own impotence which keeps him from the love of his life, Lady Brett Ashley. However, I would argue that Hemingway is more concerned with Jake’s moral impotence, and the only character who challenges Jake’s lack of morality is Cohn.
Can you think of any other examples?
General Observations About Writing Villains
After looking at those five examples, we can make some general observations about writing villains using villain archetype:
- Villains are not necessarily evil. Instead, they are opposite.
- There can sometimes be more than one villain per story.
- However, there is always only one internal villain (Dostoevsky broke the rules by having two), whether it is fear, lust for power, or control.
- This internal villain is projected onto a character or multiple characters.
- Thus, the villain is a shadow form of the character, and often the way to defeat the villain is by making peace with it.
I think this also enables us to make an observation about conflict itself:
Good external conflict always comes first from internal conflict (you might need to tweet that).
So what are your characters conflicted about? What are their weaknesses, their regions needing growth? Who is their shadow? Once you discover who their shadow is, it’s as simple as giving them a name and setting them loose.
Who is your favorite villain from books or film? Let us know in the comments section.
Describe two characters, your hero and your villain. Show how your villain is really a shadow version, an opposite, of your hero.
And if you practice, make sure to comment on someone else’s practice with your feedback.