Villains vs. Antiheroes

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I write Lord of the Rings fanfiction from Sauron’s point of view. I get fanmail, “You don’t get it, he’s one of the bad guys.” I got a fan letter recently which asked, “Why do you write about villains?” It made me stop and ask myself, “Hey, why do I write about villains?”

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I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in ninth grade. I was very upset when the Nazgul were swept away at the Ford of Bruinen.

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I remember watching Robin Hood on PBS’ Once Upon a Classic in the mid-1970’s and swooning over Prince John. I liked Richard III, too (the historical one, not Shakespeare’s version.) When his body was discovered under a parking lot by Greyfriars’ Friary in February 2013, and the sword cuts in his bones showed how his body had been abused after death, I walked around silent and upset for days.

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I liked Severus Snape immediately, from the very first Harry Potter book onward. I always regarded him as an antihero rather than a villain. And I’ve always liked Annakin better than Luke, even though Annakin killed the younglings, an unforgiveable deed. (I also like Han Solo better than Luke, but have never regarded Solo as a villain.)

On the other hand, there are villains I will never like. Hitler, for example. Of that whole crowd, I only cheer for the ones who tried to assassinate the fuhrer by smuggling a bomb in a briefcase. I also don’t care for Iago, Vlad the Impaler, or Snidley Whiplash from the Old West melodramas. So what makes the difference between a villain who’s likeable (an antihero) and one who is not?

It has to do with distance. There’s a joke about pirates in the Caribbean which goes, “In these very waters, bloodthirsty pirates seized an unsuspecting sailing vessel, killed everyone aboard, and threw their bodies in the sea.”  “Ooooh, how romantic! When did it happen?  “Last month.”


What Is A Villain?

A villain is a specific kind of adversary, one whose motive is impure or malicious.

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The basic dramatic structure of any story is this – The hero wants something. The hero pursues it until an obstacle gets in the way. The obstacle is due to adversarial forces.

Adversarial forces aren’t always people

  • In To Build A Fire by Jack London, the man must build a fire to survive, but the snow prevents him.
  • In The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the family is prevented from living their ordinary lives by the Great Depression.
  • In Cujo by Stephen King, the woman and her son want to go home, but are trapped in their car by a rabid Saint Bernard.

Adversarial people (adversaries)  aren’t always villains

  • An adversary could be a competitor. An Olympic athlete would see athletes on other teams as adversaries, but wouldn’t see them as evil.
  • An adversary could be a rival. A boy with a rival for a girl’s affections might be annoyed with the other, but while he wouldn’t like him, he wouldn’t usually think his rival was evil.
  • An adversary could be someone who’s unintentionally in the hero’s way. The slow-talking sloth in Zootopia impedes the heroes, without malicious intent of any kind.

Adversaries, from the hero’s point of view, commit bad acts. Knowingly or unknowingly, they do things that prevent the hero from reaching his goal.

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A villain is a special kind of adversary

A villain commits bad acts that cause problems for the hero, but more than that, a villain’s motives are ignoble – revenge, money, or the desire for power. A villain might enjoy cruelty, malice, or destruction for destruction’s sake. And pure villains are bad for their closest associates. In the opening scene of Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan, Lord Morgarath strikes a messenger in the face with a whip and leaves a bloody cut. There was no reason for that. Why would anyone agree to work for him?


Villains vs. Antiheroes

Villains are simple. They oppose the hero because they enjoy cruelty and destruction. Often they’re two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, and they aren’t likeable.

Antiheros are complex. They may commit bad deeds, but they do it for reasons that make sense, at least to themselves. And while their motives might be unsympathetic (revenge, money, survival at any cost) the reader will find them understandable.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort was a villain, Snape an antihero because one was motivated by the lust for power, the other by the desire to protect someone’s child. In Dark Shadows (the soap opera in the 1960s, not the movie) Barnabas Collins started out as a villain but quickly became an antihero when he showed remorse about being a vampire.

To turn a villain into an antihero:

Explain the character’s motives. The chief difference between a villain and an antihero is motive. It’s not what they do, it’s why they do it.

Give the character a few good traits. If the character is intelligent and brave and funny, the reader will be more able to admire him.

Use the usual author’s tricks to make character likeable. Have him suffer an unjust injury, or show him caring about something other than himself.

Set the brakes.  Limit what a character will do. Allow him to steal, but not kill. A villain, on the other hand, won’t hesitate to kill. A true villain won’t hesitate to do more damage than necessary to get the job done.

Make the character change for the better.  The character’s arc must be positive or the readers will stop liking him.

Make the character good by comparison. The character doesn’t have to be good, he just has to be better than his opponent. In The Silmarillion, Feanor should have been the villain. He tried to kill his good-natured brother, slew his kinsmen for their ships, and betrayed his own followers. However, he was cast as the hero instead of the villain, because his chief opponent was (modeled on) Lucifer. Likewise in Dexter, the hero is a serial killer who only kills other serial killers.

Give the character POV. When a character has POV, they become likeable for that reason alone.


Why I Like To Write About Villains

There are times in life when I’ve been a scapegoat, or falsely accused. I know what it’s like to be an outsider, and I think it fuels my identification with villains.

Mairon transformed

Tolkien called Sauron, “ruthless and wicked”, but he also made him intelligent and a fighter who possessed great courage. Sauron was a Fallen, but he fell because of loyalty to the first Dark Lord. He’s more than complex enough to make a satisfying antihero.


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