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Character Archetypes: The Bad

Previously, we discussed what character archetypes are and some examples of good-aligned archetypes that are commonly seen in fiction. Here, we will focus on what constitutes a villain, and some examples of bad or evil-aligned archetypes.

Do we need a villain?

This may be a question you have wondered about at some point. The short answer is no, not every story needs a villain…but nearly every story will need an antagonistic force of some kind.

Villains or antagonists?

A villain is generally defined as a sentient being (usually a human or someone with thought processes similar to a human) whose goals oppose that of the protagonist’s. For the villain to achieve their quest, they must thwart the hero, and they are usually actively planning how to stop the hero from getting in their way. Think of the classic villain as the evil witch in many fairy tales – they ultimately wish to prevent the hero of the story, the princess, from finding her happily ever after.

Similar to villains, antagonists also go against the protagonist’s goals. However, an antagonist does not have to be a sentient being, but rather a force that is opposing what the protagonist is trying to achieve. Since they are not necessarily sentient, the antagonist may not even be aware of the protagonist and their goals. Consider this example:

Emily was building a sandcastle on the beach. She was nearly done, but just as she was about to put the finishing touches on the castle, a huge wave came and swept the entire sandcastle away.

Here, Emily’s goal was to build a sandcastle. However, an antagonistic force – the huge wave – kept her from achieving that goal. The wave isn’t exactly a villain that was plotting to keep Emily from building her castle, but just an antagonist that didn’t even know who Emily was or what she was trying to do.

For another example, think of the movie Finding Nemo. There are people in the story that prevent Nemo from reuniting with his father, but they aren’t exactly villains – those people do not knowingly try to thwart Nemo’s efforts, but they are hardly aware that their fishes have lives of their own, and as such, they act according to their own whims which tend to oppose Nemo’s goals most of the time.

Antagonistic conflict can exist between your main characters and a number of elements, some of which can be the following:

- Nature, e.g. natural disasters, weather, predators, gravity, eclipse

- Monsters (usually supernatural), e.g. man-eating machine, giant animals

- Fate or bad luck

- Society, e.g. societal constructs, tradition, rituals

In a nutshell, the main difference between villains and antagonists is that with the former, you actually have a character with their own goals and awareness of opposing the hero’s quest. With the latter, you only have something that opposes the hero, but not necessarily of their own volition or because they want to thwart the hero.

So if you’ve established that your story needs an explicit villain, it’s time to find a suitable archetype for your character.

Examples of Villainous Archetypes

While these archetypes are not necessarily just for evil characters, they tend to fit the mold of a “villain” somewhat better than, say, the archetypes usually used for good characters.

The Seductress (or Femme Fatale)

The Seductress is usually a female villain – although there is also a male equivalent, the Homme Fatale – that seduces people, usually those of the opposite sex, through her charms and sexual means and gets what she wants out of them. The Seductress usually looks and acts physically attractive and desirable to lure unsuspecting victims to her. Taken to the extreme, the Seductress is like a serial killer that lures rich men into marriage, kills them and leaves with the inheritance.

An example of the Femme Fatale archetype is Delilah from Samson and Delilah.

The Mastermind

The Mastermind likes to play games with the hero instead of outright thwarting them. Masterminds typically prefer to be the brains behind the operation and let others do the menial work, so they usually remain hidden behind other villains which initially appear to be the actual villains. The Mastermind is calculative and enjoys having control over how much information they allow the hero to know. Unlike most other villainous archetypes, the Mastermind is usually at the top level of the chain, the final boss, rather than somewhere down below.

An example of the Mastermind archetype is Darth Sidious from Star Wars.

The Vengeful

Somewhere, sometime in the past, someone wronged this character, but they have now grown up and are more capable of desiring retribution for their perceived injustice. The Vengeful is normally driven by resentment towards something they feel they got the short end of the stick for. They may be seen as an outright bully at times, or they may mask their vengeance well and appear to be a normal person, but secretly be plotting their next move behind everyone else’s backs. The Vengeful is normally manipulative but also insecure.

The Vengeful archetype can make for a good shadow of the hero’s character, desiring things the hero never wanted but received, and perhaps vying for things in the hero’s possession.

Examples of the Vengeful archetype are Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Syndrome from the Incredibles. Some horror movies also have their supernatural “ghost” villain as the Vengeful archetype.

The Outsider

The Outsider is somewhat like the good character archetype, the Orphan, in feeling like they do not belong. However, the Outsider yearns to return to their previous “family” and could go to drastic ends just to achieve their goals and prove themselves worthy of inclusion again. They seem decent on the outside and people tend to feel sorry that they are lonely, but they simply wish to be redeemed, possibly at the cost of their new friends.

The Outsider is not usually the type of villain that your audience will straight away identify as, “Hey, that’s a bad guy!” but rather only reveal their ill intentions towards the climax of the story.

An example of the Outsider archetype is Number Five in The Fall of Five from Lorien Legacies.

The Fanatic

The Fanatic is driven to their goal by a mindset, religious belief, ideology, or some other agenda. They usually take this to the extreme, such as believing that all persons of a certain race are evil and need to be eradicated from the Earth, or that they need to make certain demanding sacrifices to satisfy a deity’s hunger. The Fanatic typically believes so strongly in their goal that they plan to execute it without reckon for their own safety or wellbeing.

In real life, the Fanatic archetype is unfortunately seen in many killing-spree murderers and suicide bombers, who would sacrifice themselves just to fulfil their mission.

Redeeming Your Villain?

Villains can also have character arcs, and some character archetypes are easier to redeem than others. For each of the villainous archetypes discussed aboveCharacter Archetypes, think of a redeeming quality for them.

Why do you think some authors redeem their villains? 

Author: Kelly Felder

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