My Villain Manifesto: Reflections on Antagonists in Fiction

Back in my old theater days, I was typecast as the villain. I played Cinderella’s stepmother (twice), Shere Khan in the Jungle Book, and—one of my favorites—Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. I’ll admit, it feels rather empowering to be the bad guy, gliding across the stage, robed in black, the other actors trembling before you…

Me as Maleficent, 2014

I’ve always appreciated a cool and threatening villain. As a kid, I tended to like the villains more than the heroes. Back then, Shego was way cooler than Kim Possible, Slytherin was appealing, and Bowser was my favorite Mario character. Nowadays, I’m definitely on the heroes’ side, though I do see the importance in crafting compelling villains.

I also recognize the strange trend in our current culture to separate evil from villains, to make them dangerously relatable or, at times, romanticize them. Certainly, to some extent, villains do need to be relatable. We need to be able to see ourselves in them, to be warned of the dangers of becoming like them. (Or at least, the Hero does.) It’s part of the moral struggle, the themes of the story. But there’s a difference for a healthy appreciation of a well-crafted villain and obsession or idolization of villains. We should fear villains, not fall in love with them. Evil shouldn’t be attractive to us, and we shouldn’t seek to excuse villains’ evilness or brush it off as justified.

A few examples to illustrate what I’m talking about: Maleficent, Cruella, and Thanos. The films that rewrite Maleficent’s backstory to paint her as misunderstood and the victim are, in some ways, intriguing, but also completely gut the meaning of her evil portrayal in the original Sleeping Beauty. Cruella attempts to do something similar, though to be honest, that film left me more confused about the character and what we’re supposed to make of her. As far as Thanos goes, Infinity War centers around Thanos, essentially making him the protagonist (or main character; different than the Hero) of the plot. It gives him background that paints his actions as justified because we’re made to understand where he’s coming from, even if we disagree with his plan morally. In a way, we’re encouraged to sympathize with him—and perhaps some of us do. Which is an unsettling thought.

Evil shouldn’t make sense to us. It shouldn’t be justified. Humanizing villains is fine, and in many cases necessary. But not every villain needs a tragic backstory to explain their evilness. Not every antagonist needs to be justified in their actions. Some villains should just be evil for evil’s sake, to show us as the audience the dangers of giving into the darker side, into our sin nature, if you will. That’s why I like stories like The Lord of the Rings, where the big bad is evil without a backstory. Sauron is evil because he is. It’s scary. We feel the threat of Sauron’s malice. We cling to the hope that our heroes Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn provide. We cry when Frodo gives into the Ring, because we fear Sauron (and therefore evil) has won. We see the cost of Frodo’s quest in the end, when he is no longer to live in the Shire peacefully. There is a cost to evil that is tangible and visible. Voldemort in Harry Potter is a slightly more complicated example of this, too. While Voldemort does have a backstory that explains why he is the way that he is, his hatred still seems so senseless. He’s frightening because he’s given into evil completely. Seeking answers about Voldemort’s history is not about making him sympathetic, but rather a way Harry and Dumbledore make a plan of action to stop him. They need to understand Voldemort only to understand his Horcruxes, not to color him as a tragic villain.

We should hate the villain. We should fear them. We should reject the evil they represent.

But—plot twist—we should also have compassion for them.

Before you call me out for contradicting myself, hear me out. Compassion is different from empathy. The root of my issue with humanizing villains is this: we shouldn’t seek to understand where these characters are coming from as much as grieving the choices they make. In other words, how we respond to villains should remind us to love our enemies, as Jesus commands, and stir us to reflect upon our own evil, our own sin.

To turn this conversation to a personal example from my writing, thinking about my problems with modern day villains and their perception has prompted me to think more deeply about my own villains. My own antagonists have backstories. A few started off as good, but fell. A few were wounded and driven to wickedness. A few eagerly gave into the darkness and delight in their own evil. Regardless of their history, I feel for them. Not because I want to be them. Not because I empathize with them. But because it reminds me of how I should feel towards those who hate me. Toward those who are far from God. Toward my own enemies. It gives me a glimpse into the heart of our Heavenly Father, similar to what I expressed in a previous blog post years ago.

This sweatshirt has always given off a villainous vibe to me…

Beyond that, writing my villains also prompts self-reflection of my own failings. A couple of my villains are eerily relatable, and that gives me pause. I see glimpses of my own sin reflected in the lives of my fictional villains, and that reminds me I am no better than anyone else. It’s a humbling experience when I realize I could turn out just like my fictional villains, if I were in their situation. It makes me more grateful that I am saved by the grace of Jesus.

Speaking of salvation and related to villains, redemption arcs are an interesting motif to include in this conversation. Redeeming bad guys seems to be very important for modern readers. It’s interesting to see calls from fans for certain antagonistic characters, like Azula from The Last Airbender and Draco Malfoy, get a true redemption story. This isn’t surprising. After all, redemption stories are a part of what drives us, what we all crave.

Yet redemption arcs and villains aren’t always that simple. While it is true that everyone can repent and find freedom from past sin, it is also true that some will choose not to. In writing, believability and thematic meaning matter with redemption arcs. Not everyone in fiction will be redeemed, both because of plausibility and/or to point us to particular themes. On the other hand, redemption arcs are sometimes the more powerful storytelling and thematic option.

This is something I’m currently weighing with my own writing projects and villains. How we end a villain’s story can matter just as much as the hero’s. Personally, I struggle more with how to end a villain’s story, because, in my compassion and love for them, I want them to be redeemed. But sometimes, they don’t want that for themselves. Finding that balance between redemption and believability is an issue I’m actively contemplating.

The bottom line is this: we shouldn’t seek to separate villains from evil. We need reminders in fiction of the real world struggle against evil and the sin without ourselves, and villains are a useful method of pointing it out. When we undermine the vileness of antagonists, we miss out on opportunities to learn from them and the warning they offer to us. We forget the terrible power of evil and minimize the hope that overcomes it.