Discover the Secrets of an Enchanted World

What makes a villain?

Alien xenomorph vs. Darth Vader

Alien vs. Darth Vader. Image courtesy discussion boards.

A good villain is the embodiment of that which makes you feel helpless. 
With that in mind, three types of villains emerge:

Inhuman forces of nature

Shadows and hordes

Inhuman forces of nature that run rampant are always scary. A few examples include:

  • Alien
  • John Carpenter’s The Thing
  • Zombies
  • Various plagues, nanites, etc.

These types always make an unstoppable force to battle. It is the conflict which showcases the strengths and weaknesses of the human heroes.

More human is less iconic

A warning, though, the more you humanize a villain, the less iconic they become. Darth Vader is a good example. He was the looming, iconic dark father throughout the original trilogy. When we followed his backstory in the prequels, he became whiny and ineffective.

Consider this: if we were to learn about Sauron’s childhood trauma – that which made him turn to evil – his evil quotient would be greatly reduced. He would not be so menacing as the fiery eye above Mordor.

Subversions of human qualities

Human villains that subvert the nobility of humanity always stand in sharp contrast to the hero. Examples include:

  • Hannibal Lecter. He would not have been such a clear villain if the “hero” was a dirty cop.
  • The scorned woman. All she wants is love, right? But her desire for love transcends moral boundaries. Compared to her opposite (usually the unaware wife), she embodies the dark side of this emotion.
  • The charismatic cult leader. His effectiveness comes from his twisted faith, or at least his outward expressions of said faith.

Only by contrasting the villain and the hero can you highlight the darker, twisted aspects of humanity and see them clearly. When there is not a hero that demonstrates the good virtue to contrast the twisted virtue, the story gets muddy and the villain does not stand as clearly.

Takers of humanity

Picture a villain that takes away humanity from the hero or heroes. Got one? Good. This is actually an easy villain to spot.

This type of villain can take different faces. Examples include:

  • The Silence (from Doctor Who) that remove human memory.
  • Little gray aliens that remove conscious control, abduct, and do horrible experiments.
  • Horror masterminds that pit the heroes against each other in escalating puzzles that remove their humanity a piece at a time.
  • The Borg, which remove free will from those assimilated.

This villain type can also include predators. Those who prey on the weak, helpless, or fearful to inspire fear are always villains.

Darkness needs Light

Villains provide shadows to contrast the light of the heroes. Good storytelling comes from building a villain to inspire helplessness in people and then showing the hero standing against that dark shadow.

Do you have any favorite fictional villains? What made them powerful to you?

This post was inspired by “Who are the scariest science fiction and fantasy villains of all time?” on PJ Media.


4 responses

  1. I like the Disney villains, Cinderella’s stepmother (Lady Tremaine) was such a powerful villain to me even though she had no powers and was more emotionally damaging than actually physically dangerous to Cinderella.
    The villain characters from the old fairy tales always fascinate me, there motives often seem black and white but underneath what is written you can make up your own ideas of why they are doing what they are doing.
    In many ways I am annoyed by the recent trend to vilify the heroes and make the evil doers out to be the victims. It’s not necessary for every villain to have a back story of how they were done wrong. Some people are just wicked.

    The Wicked Witches of Oz and the Nome King were examples of beings who were wicked without a cause more often than not; but at the same time perhaps not truly evil.


    May 8, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, some characters simply are wicked. Sometimes it works better that way in the story. Our generation seems to be in the deconstruction mode for all storytelling. Many critics and storytellers are jaded and want something different. The deconstruction of good and the watering down of evil results in shadows being more gray, rather than clearly defined. Imagination is not as much a part of simple storytelling. I see part of this as the procedural forensic dramas where everything is detailed and explained.
      In the Hidden History of Oz stories, all of the Wicked Witches are characters, and they have their character arcs. They are not simply wicked as a plot device against the hero, they choose their actions, and they become the people they want to become. It just so happens that they don’t mind the appellation “Wicked Witch.”
      Note: I’m in the middle of Book 3 and some supplementary stories, so I have gotten to know these characters very well in this saga.


      May 8, 2014 at 3:32 PM

  2. Pingback: What makes a Hero? | The Hidden History of Oz

  3. Pingback: Who needs heroes? (I do) | The Hidden History of Oz

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