Out of all the character archetypes you could write, the villain archetype seems the most straightforward. You have a hero archetype (your protagonist or main character) and then you have the opposing character, the villain (or antagonist).
However, there’s a big difference between just writing this simplest of character archetypes and actually writing truly compelling villains.
Here’s what you need to know about this classic archetype and how to write great villains that hold your reader’s attention.
What is the villain archetype?
The villain archetype is an antagonistic character whose purpose is to act as the main character’s primary source of conflict. What makes the villain different from other antagonists is that the villain archetype intentionally stands in the way of the protagonist reaching their goals, and must be overcome in order for your story to reach a satisfying ending.
Villains are some of the most memorable characters in literature. When written poorly, they make an entire story seem flat and unrealistic; but when written well, their impact stays with us for a lifetime.
What’s the difference between a villain and an antagonist?
It’s worth noting that an antagonist and a villain archetype aren’t the same. A villain archetype is always an antagonist, but not all antagonists are villain archetypes.
An antagonist is someone or something who stands in the way of your main character. They might be a villain, but they don’t have to be. For example, an antagonist could be a well-meaning person, an organization, a force of nature, or an internal enemy like an addiction, weakness, or fear, all of which could stand in the way of your protagonist without being purposefully evil.
In contrast, a villain archetype stands in the way of your story’s hero archetype on purpose and with the sole aim of getting what they want through nefarious or evil methods. A villain archetype is always bad on some level, no matter how large or small.
How to write a compelling villain
Writing a villain can seem pretty straightforward. However, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of writing a villain that’s shallow and one-dimensional.
For villains to be convincing, they need greater purpose, motivation, and as much complexity as you give your main characters.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you begin formulating who your villain is and how they’re going to thwart your main character’s best efforts:
1. What does your villain want?
Most villains, both in fiction and real life, don’t simply want to stand in the way of the hero for fun. Typically, villains have a greater goal—just like every single other character in a story.
So, what does your villain want? What are their motivations?
Are they after money? Revenge? World domination? A long-lost love? Are they power hungry?
The best villains have their own independent goals and aspirations. It just so happens that your hero’s actions or mere existence stands in the way of the villain reaching that goal—and that’s why the animosity between villain and hero exists.
2. What’s your villain’s background?
Every great, well-rounded character has a background that informs their decisions and future goals. So, what happened in your villain’s past that makes them act the way they do?
Have they been rejected and criticized by women in the past, so now they see your female lead as a threat to their way of living?
Did they come from a rich background, so they don’t understand (or care) how their actions could affect those that are less privileged?
Did they grow up with a strong religious background that resulted in some kind of twisted sense of morals, and so now their motives are based on an extreme ideology?
Whatever the case may be, make sure your villain’s background is one that would convincingly influence their decisions, traits, characteristics, and strategies within your story’s plot.
3. What’s your villain’s superpower?
Heroes and villains often have superpowers, but not every villain needs the power of flight or the ability to shoot lightning bolts from their fingertips in order to have a convincing superpower. All they need is an ability, trait, or resource that gives them power over your hero.
Perhaps your main villain comes from a higher class than your hero, so they have wealth and influence at their back. Maybe your villain really does have some sort of superhuman ability or magical power that makes them a worthy threat.
Whatever you choose, your villain archetype must have something that makes it impossible for the hero to easily defeat them in a fight, with no effort.
4. Why is your villain the right villain for your hero?
There are annoying adversaries and foes everywhere, from your high school nemesis to your boss to the postal worker who keeps leaving your packages out in the rain.
So what elevates a character from mere annoyance in your main character’s life to a true villain?
Often, it’s a personal connection. There’s something tying your hero and villain together that can’t be ignored, and that increases the animosity even further.
Maybe your hero and villain are siblings, and they’re forced into close proximity by their parents; this connection and forced proximity mean it’s impossible for them to just avoid one another and go on with their lives.
Maybe the hero’s livelihood is entirely reliant on the villain’s decisions.
Maybe the villain knows a deadly secret from the hero’s past, which they could use to blackmail the hero.
A connection like this can make any ol’ villain the perfect villain for your hero specifically, ensuring this a conflict the hero can’t just simply walk away from. They have to go up against the villain at some point, in some way—probably at the climax of the story.
Types of villains
If you’re having difficulties creating a villain from scratch, you may want to start by building off one of the many popular types of villains that we see throughout media, from ancient fairy tales like Snow White to the latest blockbuster hits.
Take a great example from this list and try building stories based off archetypes that are primarily found in stories that you likely already know. Whether you think of a terrifying serial killer, a king trying to protect their own kingdom, or anti-villains and anti-heroes, you’ll likely be able to think of some well-known characters that fit these examples.
The intelligent mastermind
The intelligent mastermind, also known as the evil genius, uses their wildly superior intelligence as their superpower. They always seem to be one step ahead of your protagonist because of this. They’re a plotter and a conniver, an expert at working people and situations in their favor.
The evil incarnate villain
This villain, also sometimes called the ultimate enemy, has no limit and no morals. Whatever their backstory, whatever their motives, they’ll stop at nothing. No dirty work, no dastardly, evil deed is so evil that it’s beyond what they would do to get what they want.
The evil twin
This villain type holds up a mirror to your protagonist, showing them what they could be if their life had just turned out a little differently. They might share the same skills or internal conflict as your protagonist, but took a different path.
The femme fatale
One of the femme fatale’s main superpowers is their alluring nature. They use their looks and charm to seduce and, in turn, get what they want.
The corrupted’s backstory will play a large role in your story’s plot, as well as in the relationship between your villain and your hero. The corrupted was once good—maybe even great—but through the courses of life, they fell to the evil and dark side, and now find themselves in the villain role. This villain might overlap with the evil twin.
The dark knight
No, we’re not talking Batman. The dark knight is a type of evil character that has their own code, but that code often requires them to commit evil acts. They have their own ideology and, in their mind, what they’re doing either isn’t wrong at all or the ends justify the means.
This villain has a goal that most readers can relate with: to simply survive. Unfortunately, their survival doesn’t really mesh well with the rest of the universe.
For whatever reason—fate, war, a corrupt system, etc.—the survivor villain is at odds with your hero for one reason and one reason only: if they don’t go up against your hero, they won’t have any chance at all of survival. They’d rather risk being snuffed out at the hands of your hero than do nothing at all, because doing nothing guarantees their end.
The frenemy acts like your hero’s friend but is actually a villain through and through. They put on a great act and trick your hero, and maybe even your readers, throughout most of the plot, until the conflict comes to a head and the frenemy’s true colors are revealed.
Great examples of villains in literature
Let’s look at a few other examples of villains that have captured our attention.
Voldemort in the Harry Potter universe
Throughout both the Harry Potter book and film series, Voldemort acts as a classic example of a perfect villain to go up against our hero Harry. Voldemort boasts a background that makes his actions seem almost reasonable, a motive that ties into that background, and a connection with Harry that means neither Harry nor Voldemort can walk away from their conflict eventually coming to a head.
Cersei Lannister in the Game of Thrones universe
Similarly, whether you’ve read the books or watched the show, you’ve likely noticed how Cersei Lannister makes a mastermind villain. Plotting, conniving, and scheming her way through life, she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants… even if that means she has to do some unsavory things.
The White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
In this piece of classic children’s literature, The White Witch uses dark magic as her superpower to get her way throughout Narnia. She’s forced to go up against the book’s main characters, and the lion Aslan, as they pose a real and immediate threat to her power.
In the prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, readers learn more about The White Witch’s background and how that plays into her decisions in the later book.
Does every story need a villain?
No! As mentioned above, a villain and antagonist are not the same. While every story needs an antagonist (something or someone to give your main character conflict), not every story needs a villain.
You can have your protagonists go up against a major life change, an internal struggle, a natural disaster, a well-meaning parent or friend, and more, and all of that would be enough of a conflict for a great story—all without a true villain archetype.
Write your best villains yet
Writing villains can be extremely fun, especially when you go the extra mile to ensure your villains are fleshed-out, well-rounded, and full of reasons why your hero just can’t ignore them. If you need to up the tension and stakes in your story, upgrade your antagonist into a true villain, with all the fictional villainous fun that follows.