You’ve likely heard the term “anti-hero” (and if you haven’t heard the term used in a literary setting, maybe you’ve at least heard of it due to Taylor Swift’s super popular song by the same name). The anti-hero is someone who doesn’t necessarily present heroic traits all the time, but that does end up doing the right thing in the end.
But what about anti-villains? If a villain is the opposite of a hero, then you can expect an anti-villain to likewise be the opposite of an anti-hero. Let’s take a deeper look at the types of anti-villains you’ll find in literature, and how to incorporate them into your own story.
What is an anti-villain?
An anti-villain is a character who displays empathetic, relatable, or traditionally heroic qualities while filling the role of the villain within a story. For example, an anti-villain may have an ultimate goal that readers can understand and even support, but they take their crusade too far and use evil tactics to achieve it.
If the anti-hero character acts a little like a villain, but does the right thing in the end, then the anti-villain is a character who has some redeeming or relatable qualities, but that still ends up making the wrong choices and doing the villainous thing.
Unlike a traditional villain who’s bad through and through, this character usually has a soft side, and cares for or even loves some of the other characters. They might have an end goal that’s honorable, but they’re willing to behave deviously in order to reach that end goal. To this character, the end usually justifies the means.
Unlike a traditional baddie, these villains are relatable. Even if they do bad things, the reader can, begrudgingly, understand why.
There are many reasons why you might want to incorporate an anti-villain into your cast of characters. In addition to adding conflict to your plot, they can also add suspense and intrigue. They’ll surprise you with their moral decisions and reasoning, because they’re neither 100% good or 100% bad (kind of like real human beings).
They’re the perfect conduit for a great plot twist that no one saw coming, and their unique blends of morals make them layered, nuanced characters that are both fun to write and fun to read.
Are anti-villains the same as anti-heroes?
But if an anti-hero puts their bad side front and center but still ends up doing the right thing, and an anti-villain puts their good traits at the forefront but still ends up doing the wrong thing, doesn’t that mean there are some instances where villains and anti-heroes overlap? Yes, definitely.
There are many instances throughout literature, television, and other mediums wherein the villains and heroes switch roles constantly. Characters are just like people, after all, and morality is a big gray space, so it’s perfectly reasonable for plot points to come up and change your characters’ roles time and again.
Let’s say you know you have a morally gray character in your story, but you’re not entirely sure if they’re an anti-villain or an anti-hero. So what do you have on your hands?
When deciding between the two for your story’s purposes, regardless of actions within the plot, it’ll all come down to: firstly, what happens at the end, and secondly, what other role your character is playing within the story.
In literature, the protagonist, regardless of how good or bad, will usually be a hero or an anti-hero. This is because most character arcs end with the main character learning something and improving upon themselves and their situation.
The antagonist, meanwhile, may end up making a wrong choice and losing the battle they’re fighting—making them the anti-villain who, despite their good characteristics, ultimately succumbs to their evil.
Of course, there are instances (though rare) where a main character/protagonist exhibits a negative character arc, wherein they end up worse off than where they started at the beginning of the story or book. The Godfather is a good example of this inverted journey. In these cases, you’d have an anti-villain as your main character.
Additionally, it’s totally possible to have a multi-point-of-view book that gives both the protagonist and the antagonist equal page space, in which case, you can have both types of characters sharing the spotlight.
For the purposes of this article, though, we’re focusing on those characters that, though ultimately villainous, do have some good qualities that muddy the waters and pull at your readers’ heart strings.
Types of anti-villains in literature
Anti-villains are divided into subcategories based on their motives and the way they behave in the story.
The end-justifies-the-means, or well-intentioned extremist anti-villain
This well-intentioned extremist has good intentions and redeeming qualities. They want to do the right thing. Their goal is noble (in their eyes)… it’s just that their plan for how to get there is a bit evil. For instance, maybe they want to avenge the death of a loved one—but they’re planning on killing some other people in order to make that happen.
This character can often be very relatable to your readers, because they usually have a sympathetic motive or backstory. You can understand why they’re acting the way they are, and their pain, because they often share pains that the reader will understand—grief over the loss of a loved one, persecution, et cetera. It’s just that they’ve taken those feelings and pains too far, to the detriment of others (sometimes the entire human race!).
Examples of this type of character are rife within the Marvel universe, and include Thanos, Loki, and Erik Killmonger.
The sad anti-villain
Similarly, the sad anti-villain is one that the reader can usually relate to or sympathize with. This character has only turned to evil because they’ve been pushed into it. They’re not truly evil at their core.
Instead, their madness and methods can all be blamed on some tragedy in their past. They weren’t originally evil. The world made them that way. Maybe they were horrifically bullied as a child or betrayed by a spouse (bullying is frequently used as a motive for this type of character).
While this character type—like the end-justifies-the-means extremist—has something dark in their past, they’re not necessarily out to get anyone because of it. Instead, they’re just fueled by their pain.
Examples of this archetype include the Penguin from the Batman franchise, as well as Voldemort and other villains from the Harry Potter universe.
The by-the-book or noble anti-villain
Noble anti-villains have a code. They have a set of standards. They have morals (even if those morals are questionable). This character may behave badly on occasion, but they always have certain lines that they just won’t cross.
You can spot the noble anti-villain often in gang or mafia-focused media, but they also show up in just about any fiction where there’s a shady group of goal-oriented individuals. This might be a cult, society, or, if we look at Harry Potter again, the Death Eaters.
The necessary anti-villain
Lastly, there’s the villain in name only, who truly is only a villain to your hero and your hero alone. They were just the poor good guy who ended up with the villain label slapped on their chest, because someone had to be the bad guy.
Yes, they present some obstacle to your hero and they’re making their life hard, acting as the antagonist. However, they’re not really a traditional villain, per se. They’re not out there trying to slaughter the masses or take over the world. They’re just standing in your hero’s way.
Some great examples of the necessary anti-villain are the other Hunger Games contestants that go up against Katniss Everdeen. They might be considered villains because they’re actively fighting against the hero, even trying to kill her at some points, but they’re only doing the same thing she is: trying to survive in an unfair world that’s pitted them against one another.
Anti-villain examples in literature
To better understand what this character looks like on the page, let’s look at a few anti-villain examples from popular literature. You’ll find that some of the most popular series and authors employ this archetype, and for good reason. Readers love a layered villain who’s more than just a clichéd bad guy.
Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones
To be honest, nearly the entire cast of characters from Game of Thrones could be considered some type of anti-villain. There’s hardly anyone in the books or show who’s truly 100% evil or truly 100% good.
That’s part of what makes this series so interesting. There’s no black or white; just a lot of morally grey area.
When it comes to Tywin Lannister, though, while evil, he’s doing things with the goal of protecting his family. He’s an end-justifies-the-means, or well-intentioned extremist.
Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones
Similarly, Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones is also an anti-villain. She starts out as one of the good guys. However, as you read through the books or watch the show, you find that Daenerys’s attitude changes and she becomes more and more willing to be violent and dramatic in the name of accomplishing what she feels is right or justified.
Because of this, she would be considered a good example of an end-justifies-the-means, or well-intentioned, anti-villain.
Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter universe
Draco Malfoy is, at first glance, a bad person. He’s a snotty, bratty little kid who thinks he’s better than everyone else. However, over the course of the Harry Potter books, we get to know Draco’s nuances and learn he’s more of an anti-villain than a true villain.
Some consider Draco to be an example of a by-the-book anti-villain, as he’s just trying to do what his father would like, following all the Death Eater rules and their moral code. However, he does struggle with this, showing positive traits from time to time (like when he can’t actually kill Dumbledore and fails under true pressure).
Voldemort from the Harry Potter universe
Similarly, Voldemort starts out within the Harry Potter books as just one of those regular villains. There’s nothing layered about him. He’s out to be evil to some kids, do some bad things for selfish reasons, and there’s nothing redeeming or pity-worthy.
However, as we read further, we learn more details about Voldemort’s past. He had a tough childhood and that childhood, combined with the cruel world, helped form a hardened villain.
For this reason, Voldemort could be considered a sad, pitiable anti-villain. While you might not be able to justify his actions, you can probably feel a little sorry for him.
How to write the perfect anti-villain
So you want to write one of these bad guys into your next story?
You can set out to write this type of character from the start, when you begin planning or outlining, or you might find that one of your characters turns into an anti-villain as you draft. Or, you might decide during revisions to turn your villain into an anti-villain, just to make things more interesting.
Whatever your method, here are a few things to consider as you create this character.
Decide if your character is an anti-villain from the start
Sometimes, as we see in the examples from Harry Potter above, the anti-villain looks like just a plain ol’ villain in the beginning of the story. Then, the villain turns into an anti-villain later on.
Writing a character this way allows you to add in surprising details later on in the plot—details that will not only make your reader think differently about this character, but also make your protagonist potentially think differently about this character, too.
For example, if you have a hero who’s fighting against your anti-villain with everything they’ve got to prevent the ultimate evil from taking over the world. What happens if they find out that the evildoer is actually a sad anti-villain to be pitied? They might hesitate the next time they go up against them—which could spell disaster for your hero, furthering your plot.
Flesh out your anti-villain’s backstory
Whether or not you make your anti-villain one of the sad ones to be pitied, they’ll still have some sort of backstory. They were not born evil.
What makes your well-intentioned anti-villain so desperate for their end goal that they’re willing to cut others down in order to reach it? Where did your by-the-book villain get their moral code (which most people do have, even though they vary enormously)? What put your necessary anti-villain into the exact right spot at the exact right time to find themselves acting as an opposite and attracting force against the protagonist?
All of these details are vital to establishing interesting, believable anti-villains.
Consider your anti-villain’s main motive
If you’re struggling to come up with the perfect anti-villain backstory, you might want to start with their motive. If you can nail down your character’s motive to a single word (yes, it’s totally possible), then you can begin building a backstory that would support that motive.
Popular anti-villain motives include:
Lust (for power or anything else)
Look at parallels between your anti-villain and your hero
The relationship between protagonist and antagonist is an interesting one, and not one to be thrown together heedlessly. While the circumstances that pushed your protagonist and antagonist together may seem random, you can make their relationship even more complicated and ripe for drama by creating parallels and shared struggles.
For example, if you have a sad anti-villain who has become villainous due to life’s circumstances, perhaps you give your hero similar circumstances in their past—but it was your hero who managed to overcome those circumstances without becoming tainted. Making your hero and villain foils of each other is a great way to do this. This positions your protagonist as a mirror image of your villain: same, but different.
Anti-villains: just the perfect villain?
Many will argue that an anti-villain is the perfect type of villain, and for good reason. Compared to caricature-like villains with no depth, anti-villains are more human and relatable.
If you’ve been struggling to add more character depth to your latest story, consider adding an anti-villain into the mix. You may just find that giving your villains a little more nuance could improve not only that singular character, but also your main character’s motives, the plot, and the tension as well, in a domino effect that benefits the entire story.