The role of the villain is archetypal. That means that villains have certain attributes, no matter what genre of literature they appear in. They’re likely to take hold of something the protagonist cares about and threaten it in some way, commit heinous crimes, have a disregard for morals, and more.
Traditionally, villains were men or women who had specific characteristics. But today, villains can be far more complicated and even find some redemption at the end of the story. It’s not uncommon to find novels written from the perspective of a villain or with a narrator who feels sympathetic towards their character.
Villain pronunciation: vill-ahn
Explore the Villain
A villain is a negative, harmful character in a book, short story, novel, film, or play. They exhibit characteristics that should make the audience dislike them and root for their defeat.
This might be exhibiting cruelty towards other characters, stealing, murdering, or in any way harming other people, animals, or even the environment. There are a few different types of villains one might come across in literature. They are explored below.
Types of Villains
Below are a few of the possible types of villains one might come across in literature.
- Tyrant: a leader who shows no mercy and enacts policies and rules that are cruel and harmful.
- Devil: true evil without a conscience. This villain is irredeemable.
- Head of the family: someone who may see themselves as the matriarch or patriarch of a family.
- Judas: a traitor, someone who betrays the main character or hero, perhaps to the latter’s surprise.
- Lunatic: someone who exhibits “crazy” characteristics and doesn’t have any real motivation for what they’re doing.
Examples of Villains in Literature
Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Hannibal Lecter is one of the best-loved and darkest villains in literature. He appears throughout Tomas Harris’s novels, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. He’s also featured in several films and television spin-offs. He’s an interesting villain because, at times, he comes across as charming and is incredibly intelligent. But, he’s also a cannibal, incarcerated for an array of terrible crimes. When speaking about God, Hannibal says:
I collect church collapses, recreationally. Did you see the recent one in Sicily? Marvelous! The facade fell on sixty-five grandmothers at a special mass. Was that evil? If so, who did it? If he’s up there, he just loves it, Officer Starling. Typhoid and swans – it all comes from the same place.
Hannibal can’t help be delve into the minds of those he finds interesting, including the protagonist and hero of the story, Officer Clarice Starling.
Voldemort in the Harry Potter Series by J.K Rowling
Voldemort is a classic villain that exhibits many of the characteristics one would expect. He’s seemingly without a conscience. He commits murder without regard for human life and is willing to destroy good and happiness wherever it is found. His biggest weakness is also the protagonist’s biggest strength—love. Here is a famous quote:
I’m going to kill you, Harry Potter. I’m going to destroy you. After tonight, no one will ever again question my power. After tonight if they speak of you, they’ll only speak of how you begged for death. And how I being a merciful Lord… obliged.
These lines appear in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Randall Flagg from The Stand by Stephen King
Stephen King’s The Stand is a classic of the horror/post-apocalyptic genre. The villain of the novel, Randall Flagg, is a dark and menacing one. When describing Flagg, one of the characters says:
He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He’s always outside. He came out of time. He doesn’t know himself.
He’s often described as “The Black Man” and as someone entirely without conscience. He says at one point:
As for the end of the universe…I say let it come as it will, in ice, fire, or darkness. What did the universe ever do for me that I should mind its welfare?
Some other words one might use to describe the villain are: antagonist, tyrant, lawbreaker, lowlife, outlaw, sinner, convict.
Villains are usually convinced that they are the good guys. They may have likable qualities but lack a moral conscience. Villains are worthy opponents to the heroes of the story. They are clever and not easily defeated.
The villain is likely to be described with foreboding language. Writers often use creepy language when writing about them. One might also describe the fear that the main characters feel when this person is around.
An antagonist is the opponent of the main character or the hero. Sometimes they exhibit classic “villain” characteristics but not always. They usually have a few opposite character traits to the protagonist.
Related Literary Terms
- Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
- Watch: What makes a hero?
- Read: 50 Greatest Action Heroes of All Time
- Watch: Top Terrifying Villains in Literature