Sauron, Darth Sidious, Thanos, the Mad Titan, the Joker, and Voldemort. We find villains in almost all of the stories we read and watch. They are figures of enmity, animosity and evil, opposing the heroes and imposing darkness or doom on the world. If protagonists (the main characters, typically good-aligned heroes) protect and preserve, villains work again them.

We find villains everywhere, in the stories we read and watch.

I’m not talking about the vast horde of orcs and goblins that lay siege to Helm’s Deep. Nor am I asking you to picture the faceless Stormtroopers, who work for the Empire in Star Wars. Villains aren’t the meaningless goons and thugs that Batman uses his CrossFit training on. They’re the evil masterminds. The tyrant who enslaves whole people groups. The terrifying monster waiting at the end of the dark tunnel. Villains seek to usher in an age of despair.

Four Archetypal Villains

They come in many shapes and sizes, achieve different things in their stories. Ultimately, they serve to push the heroes’ adventure forward, driving them towards brave feats of valour. Sometimes they serve as a foil to the hero, such as the strong and proud Boromir. At other times, they’re more sinister. We can identify four basic or archetypal villains. Each of them serve a distinct purpose in storytelling.

  1. The false friend usually poses as a benevolent figure. They provide short term solutions with long term drawbacks. Their methods are considered ‘good.’ However their ultimate goals are normally ‘evil.’
  2. The traitor deceives and manipulates in order to achieve his goals. Typically, they’re the inverse of a ‘false friend’ figure (above). For while their methods are usually ‘evil,’ their goals aren’t necessarily wrong.
  3. The beast seeks only to destroy. It is consumed with the lust for death and destruction.
  4. The authority is a figure who begins the narrative with a measure of power. But they crave more, often the total domination of their sphere (be it political, religious, mystical, corporate, etc.).

Villains are dangerous. They pose a real threat to the protagonists, and the potential success of their journey. Villains don’t merely embody vice, they have the means to exercise it, enjoying various forms of power or influence.

Villains don’t merely embody vice, they have the means to exercise it.

But what if villains posed a danger beyond the pages they were written on? What if they’re more than on-screen spectacles?

Complex Villains Can Confuse Us

Within some stories being told today, it’s becoming easier to forget that the villain is in fact the villain. Occasionally a villain is written with such a compelling portrayal that they garner our sympathy. We might even be tempted to shift our allegiance from the hero to the villain, cheering them on. This confusion can sometimes be deliberate on the part of the author, forcing the audience to engage with the story’s ethic and moral substance. Consider Thanos.

Are we forgetting what a villain is?

Thanos is a villain in the narrative of the Marvel Universe. He states his case that there simply aren’t enough resources to feed the universe and its inhabitants. Therefore half need to be wiped out, restoring balance and ensuring the future. Surely these goals are noble? Doesn’t Thanos desire what is ultimately good? However, his actions are nothing short of galactic genocide. Thus the heroes must slay Thanos. But Thanos doesn’t lack supporters. For many memes claim that he’s was right. Such support, genuine or otherwise, suggests we’re forgetting what a villain is.

Some Important Questions

When confronted by a villain in a work of literature, piece of television or film, it’s worth asking ourselves:

  • Why is this person(s) the villain? How do I know that?
  • What makes what they are doing wrong? If not their actions, then what?
  • What effect does this villain have on those around them?
  • What are the effects this villain has on me as a reader or viewer?

These questions are important not only because they will help us to properly understand fictional villains, but also because they remind us that villains aren’t only found in stories.

Know Your True Enemy

While, for certain, Sauron, Agent Smith, Voldemort, and Darth Vader are fictional, they represent a very real villain. This villain comes as a false friend, promising us our heart’s desires while they have every intention of betraying us.

Fictional villains represent a very real one.

There is a villain in the back of our minds that comes out in these stories, a villain so vicious he is described by the ancients as a prowling beast looking to devour the entire lives of men (1 Peter 5:8). He is so malicious his entire character is described as being a liar and a murderer from the very beginning of the story (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8). So ambitious and desirous of total dominion that even the companions of the hero describe him as a prince (Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4). He goes by various names, but we know this figure as Satan or the devil.

Know How His Story Ends

The final letter in the Bible describes him in an all-out-war against the hero (Revelation 20:7-10). He accuses the redeemed, seeking their destruction for no reason other than destruction (Revelation 12:10). He deceives the whole world with lies of comfort and truth (Genesis 3:5, Revelation 12:9). But, ultimately, he himself is subject to God’s judgment and destruction (Revelation 20:10).