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What Makes a Villain?

What Makes a Villain?

I was talking with a reader and she asked me, point-blank, if one of the characters in Slapshot! was going to become a villain. She said she felt like he just wasn’t a good guy. Oddly enough, this wasn’t the character I had singled out as being my primary antagonist through this story arc, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t become a villain.
But that set me to thinking: What makes a villain?

Dictionary Definitions

Traditionally, the villain is “a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.” Merriam-Webster’s says a villain is a character “who does bad things,” while the Cambridge English Dictionary defines a villain as “a bad person who harms other people or breaks the law.”
While those last two definitions are a little looser, let’s go back to the first definition: a character with evil motives or who acts evilly. That’s typically what we think of when we say “villain”: We’re thinking of “the Big Bad,” a Snidely Whiplash character who does “bad” or “evil” things because they think it’s fun. A villain sometimes has a good motive, but most stereotypical villains have no real reason for doing what they do. It seems like being evil is simply fun.

Complicating Good vs. Evil

What exactly makes an action evil or not hinges on a larger debate about what “evil” actually is. Is evil something inherently, universally wrong? Is it harming other people? Or is it harming other people with malicious intent or getting joy out of doing so?
Most of us would say “evil” only applies when someone repeatedly engages in an action that harms other people and seems to derive some kind of pleasure or satisfaction from it. We’d also likely point to some “universal” standards about what kind of behavior qualifies as evil. Murder’s a pretty obvious one.
But what about a character who has no malicious intent? What about a character who commits an “evil” act, but has a good reason for it? What about the character who later feels remorse? Is he or she evil? Does that character qualify as a villain?

Not Necessarily a “Villain”

The term “antagonist” is much more readily applied than “villain” in most contemporary fiction, precisely because we don’t like stereotypical, cardboard cut-out villains. Snidely Whiplash is 2D in more ways than one. Most readers prefer characters to have a little more complexity.
An antagonist isn’t necessarily “evil” and doesn’t necessarily find what he or she does “bad.” Very often, an antagonist is a character who just has different goals or motives from the main character. That precipitates conflict between the two. The antagonist is allowed to be more richly complexified than the villain. The antagonist can have reasons for doing what he or she does, for believing what he or she believes in. And the antagonist can feel guilt, remorse, or even anger about what he or she does. The antagonist doesn’t delight in suffering like the villain does.
Of course, both the villain and the antagonist are the “bad guys” and they’re often drivers of plot. Conflict moves characters forward. But just as there aren’t Snidely Whiplash-style villains in our everyday lives, so there aren’t many “true” villains in contemporary fiction. We’re much more likely to encounter an antagonist—just like we are in real life.

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