In my last post, I spoke about 5 types of antagonist and how to keep them compelling. One of the types I discussed was the villain. So today I’d like to expand on that post by discussing 4 Types of Villain and how they can be used in your story.
It’s worth noting that, as I mentioned this type of antagonist is common in fantasy and superhero stories, it’s from these stories that I will draw most of my examples. They’re built for this kind of antagonist.
So, let’s get started.
1. The Overlord
A fantasy nation far away lives in fear, shackled by the oppressive rule of the King who commands the throne with cruelty and cares nothing for his citizens. To him, they are property, and their lives are worth no more than the taxes they pay.
In The Inheritance Cycle, Eragon must ultimately defeat the evil King Galbatorix. In The Hunger Games Katniss is determined to take down President Snow, who she blames for the pain she’s suffered. And, in Throne of Glass, while Celaena is promised eventual freedom by the king, she also quickly discovers that he’s not very pleasant.
This type of villain, already commanding a great deal of power when the story starts, is a great way of quickly creating the impression that they will be almost impossible to defeat, especially as protagonists are often peasants in the Overlord’s kingdom.
The Overlord is often presented as the “final boss” of a longer series, with the protagonist defeating a number of secondary antagonists—though, primary antagonists of their own story—in the multi-story journey to defeat them. This only furthers how powerful they seem, as they have a number of very strong allies on their side.
How is your lone protagonist going to defeat someone with so much power and so many strong allies? That question alone creates a great deal of the tension.
This type of villain does, however, have a drawback.
This is well exemplified by King Galbatorix, the Overlord which protagonist Eragon must ultimately defeat. He spends very little—very little—time actually present in the story, instead existing through reports of his actions. He’s off sitting on a throne. He leaves very little impact because, in the end, he has very little character.
Conversely, while President Snow is a distant figure for much of the first book, by the end of it Katniss has a small, and very unnerving, interaction with him. He continues to interact with Katniss throughout the second book. Even in small ways, this builds up his aura of threat and danger. A simple shake of the head from him tells us that Katniss is in trouble. These interactions allow Snow to be a character, instantly adding higher stakes to the question of whether or not Katniss will manage to kill him.
It’s also worth noting that Snow does very much get humanised through the scenes he shares with Katniss. While you might not want your readers to sympathise with your Overlord (because, you know, they’re evil) you do want them to be able to empathise.
2. The Ancient Being
This is another type very common to the fantasy genre. This villain is ancient, powerful, and nonhuman. Maybe it’s a demon, maybe it’s a god. One thing that your protagonist knows, though, is that they don’t see a way to defeat them. Doing so will be a long and difficult journey.
The Ancient Being, like the Overlord, is a villain often fought at the end of a long arc after a number of secondary antagonists have been defeated. It’s very similar to the Overlord in a number of ways, but there are a few differences.
As it is nonhuman, you don’t have to humanise the Ancient Being in the same way. Their motivation, however, should still be understandable, but it’s much more appropriate for the Ancient Being to be dwelling out of sight for a long period of time than it is for the Overlord.
The danger with this type of villain is that it might end up … well, OP. An ancient god or demon with a great deal of power might have too much power and this can actually kill belief and enjoyment for your reader. Because if this being really is that powerful, how the hell did the protagonist defeat them? Did they pull the power out of their ass?
As I said when I initially discussed the villain, you need to carefully consider what weaknesses your Ancient Being has, and how your protagonist can effectively exploit them. Besides, seeing a bit of cleverness from your protagonist—experiencing their thought process—is far more compelling than them having nothing but brute force on their side.
3. The Tycoon
They’ve got billions of dollars. They’ve got jets, they’ve got skyscrapers, and they’ve got the most advanced technology in the world. In fact, they could save the world.
But they choose not to.
This type of villain is out only for self-gain. For the most part, this takes the form of financial gain, adding billions to their billions. But perhaps it becomes more sinister, and they plan to blow up everything and create a continent that everyone will have to live on, thereby making everyone indebted to them. (Okay, so Lex Luthor has had some dumb plans, but you can write your Tycoon some better ones.)
To explain the Tycoon I’m going to use two examples, both from different versions of the same story.
The Once-ler is the narrator of Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, and in fact is a villain protagonist. Over the course of the story, he destroys the Truffula Tree forest as he cuts them down to expand his business.
Especially in the 1972 adaptation, he is heavily humanised despite still being condemned (and rightly so) for his actions. We know that he’s the reason that the forest is dead and the animals no longer have a home. However, he has a well-argued reason for every decision that he makes along the way, and we understand his thought process. Though, vitally, we still know that his decisions are what led to this disaster.
In the 2012 adaptation, his role is shifted to secondary antagonist/deuteragonist and our Tycoon is O’Hare, founder of O’Hare Air. His evil scheme is to sell air to people, hiding from them the fact that elsewhere it’s free. He isn’t humanised to nearly the same degree. And yes, we understand the motivation of “I sell air, I get money,” but he’s an empty shell. An evil capitalist cutout. There’s a reason that the Once-ler is the one Tumblr fell in love with.
When crafting a Tycoon, remember that this type of villain is human. So make them just that: Human.
4. The Mirror Image
This is a villain very happy in superhero stories. Essentially, this is your protagonist but evil. What would happen if someone with the same abilities as your protagonist used them for evil? What would happen if your protagonist used those abilities for evil?
If you watch Iron Man or either of the sequels you’ll see an abundance of Mirror Images. There’s also Yellowjacket in Ant-Man (who is, incidentally, also a Tycoon). It’s also common in many genres for the hero and villain to be presented as two sides of the same coin.
A Mirror Image is a great tool for exploring the themes and morals of your story as they show the opposite of your argument. If your hero must learn to be noble and heroic, your Mirror Image is using very similar abilities and qualities and being dishonourable and cowardly.
The danger with this type of villain is that they may come across as weak or lazy as if you’ve simply taken your hero and flipped them. The counter to this is to put more work into your Mirror than just giving them the same suit and making them do evil with it. Yes, I’m talking about Yellowjacket again. Yellowjacket might be a Mirror Image, but so is Lord Voldemort.
And, for those who’ve read the original antagonists post: An ally antagonist can also be an effective Mirror Image. Many antagonists can, but I do see it most often with villains.
Thank you so much for reading! Leave a comment below if you have any thoughts, and make sure to follow my Twitter for notes about writing, updates about this blog, and the occasional dumb joke.