Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Heroes & Villains #1: Four Villain Archetypes, by Matthew MacNish

Here at Project Middle Grade Mayhem, we're starting an informal series focused on Heroes & Villains in Middle Grade Literature. We'll be sharing some of our favorite examples, maybe some poor examples (and why they didn't work), and writing about and discussing heroes and villains, and why they are so important to story, whose most important aspect has always been character.

Today is the first post in the series.

Villains and Antagonists have long been interwoven in the annals of fiction, and while they're not always the same thing, sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't, sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn't. Point is, they're awesome characters (or entities) and often play a pivotal role in that old muse-esque keystone: STORY.

Myth and tale and epic and adventure, what we really do, all of us, is tell stories. And what's the most important part of any story? Well, characters, obviously.

Carl Jung wrote a lot about archetypes in his studies of the human psyche, and of course the human psyche is tightly knotted up with the psychology of story, (and I covered some of his archetypes on my personal blog, reverse order search link). However, this post will be more about my own inventions, not based on any truly empirical study of the topic, but more on my own anecdotal experience as an avid reader.

And with that, here is an unofficial of the four most common (arche)types of villains I have found in (mostly) middle grade novels:
  • The False Villain (actually this one needs to come last, because it's the best)
  • The Sympathetic Humanized Antognist
  • The Beast
  • The Entity
So reversing that order, because it's becoming a theme at this point, let's get started with:


Tolkien's own Drawing of Sauron, creative commons license
Sauron does not technically come from a Middle Grade novel, and while there is some graphic violence portrayed in the film adapations, and the novels themselves are marketed as adult, I feel perfectly comfortable discussing The Lord of the Rings on PMGM, because I read it as a very young boy, and there is honestly nothing in the books that could outdo the imagination of a lad of ten (with the possible exception of Elves).

So, on to our (arche)type. Sauron has always represented to me a very universal example of evil, villainy, and antagonist-hood. He is the perfect non-character example of a villainous entity, because his presence permeates the books, even though he never really exists on page. I loved what he stood for as a boy, and I love it still, but now that I'm a professional writer, I'm begrudgingly willing to admit there is a certain weakness to this kind of villain.

For one thing, he's not a person. He's not even personified, beyond a minor (ahem) attempt at giving him an eye, but more importantly (and this somewhat more broadly applies to modern fiction than to its historical counterparts like Tolkien) he's never even given a chance to be sympathized with. This makes for far too simple reading in modern times (note that with some background research into Middle Earth, one discovers a bit more of Sauron's past and motivations, but one basically still hates him).



Tolkien's own Drawing of Smaug, also creative commons license
Not to spam this post with Tolkien examples (but I dare you to dare me to come up with one for all four of these archetypes), but I feel that Smaug makes a great example of a Beast type Villain/Antagonist. In an MFA literature sense, he doesn't make much of an antagonist, because he only shows up at the very end of the book, but in The Hobbit, I would argue he very much does make a great villain, because the threat of his presence permeates the entire narrative.

What makes him a Beast type? Well, technically Tolkien personified his most famous dragon in a lot of ways, giving him speech, giving him cunning, giving him even riddles, but Smaug never fully equates with the humanity of a human villain, because we never really sympathize with him to the level that we otherwise might.



Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Fiennes (pronounced Fine) as Voldy, another common license image
Okay, I get it, you maybe (probably) balk at that description of Lord Voldemort, and I understand that, because Ms. Rowling did a brilliant job of making us earn our right to hate him, but she also sprinkled in a lot of right to forgive him for his wrongs, if you read the Harry Potter series as carefully as I did.

He's a monster, to be sure, or at least he becomes one during the historical parts of the Harry Potter backstory, but he's also a human being, or starts out as one (a twisted, warped individual example perhaps, but a human being nonetheless).

Lord Voldemort is probably not the best example of a humanized Major Villain/Head Antagonist in children's lit, but he may be one of literature's best known examples anyway. And even if he isn't the quintessential case, his servant most certainly is:


Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (common license)

SPOILER ALERT: Snape dies at the end. SPOILER ALERT: Professor Severus Snape is not the bad guy. END SPOILERS. He does, however, serve as a great false villain (and sometimes as a great true antagonists--see the difference?) throughout the Harry Potter novels.

I would probably even argue that Snape is the greatest false villain ever written. At least in children's literature (Gollum or Darth Vader might give him a run for his money otherwise). He's perfect because he's nasty, and smelly, and he has greasy hair, but he's even better because especially on a second read through, you discover just how clever and wonderful he is.

Snape is motivated by love (and also a little by hate) but even with his love lost, he still has the loyal dedication to Dumbledore, a man he clearly also loves and respects, and it is this loyalty that drives him to assist Harry when he must, as tedious and annoying as it is for him.

< . . . >

Anyway, that's my little list. Sorry my selections only come from two authors, but those were the best examples that came to mind. Feel free to share your own examples in the comments!


  1. Yes, yes Snape as The False Villain.

  2. This is a really interesting post! My only point of contention would be the Entity concept. I think a character like Sauron can work very well--just not independently. Sauron is more atmosphere and context than character. If he were the *only* villain in the Lord of the Rings books, it would be a problem. But his existence, and the atmosphere of fear it creates, enhances other more developed villains, like Saruman.

    And I think what that indicates is that different villains have different functions. Sympathetic antagonists are great, and certainly more complex than beings of pure evil, but there's something to be said as well for a villain who is genuinely a monster. It depends on the story you're trying to tell.

    1. That's a good point, Harrison, and Saruman certainly could have replaced Voldemort in that example (though he's not technically "human" he is sympathetic to a certain degree.

      I think I made that point about entities not working, because as a writer who studies writing, we hear so often about the "rule" - make your antagonist sympathetic! Everyone is the hero of their own story! Etc.

      I totally agree that Sauron works wonderfully, though. And it proves that any rule can be broken, as long as it works.

  3. WONDERFUL POST, Matt!!! And a great beginning to the theme. In true form, a villain is most interesting when he's not painted in one colour. Snape was NOT a nice person and did bad things but was not a true villain. Voldemort cannot be excused, but his evil explained so we know why. It's great when there's more than meets the eye. An accidental villain, a fallen hero...I suppose as Aristotle lays out the perfect hero, we can consider what might be the perfect villain. THANKS for getting us thinking!!!

    1. You're most welcome! And yes, complex characters are usually best, especially if they're people.

  4. A Wrinkle in Time had an Entity as the villain, too. Just wanted to throw that out there.

    And Snape may be the perfect example of False Villain. Although, I have to say, I pegged him as a secret good guy pretty early in the series. (*buffs nails and looks smug*)

  5. Just working on a villain of my own so this post gives me lots to think about and play with. I am especially intrigued with villain as entity...kind of LOVE it. Thanks for this!

    1. Sauron is definitely one of the all time greats!

  6. The Eye of Sauron has inspired so many "meme" moments in my life. *Looking at someone and then saying, "I will follow you like the Eye of Sauron!"

    1. I "see" what you did there. It was awesome.

  7. Fantastic picks!!

  8. I prefer my villains with panache - Professor Moriarty comes to mind. :-)

  9. Love this break-down. I'll admit, I never thought of it like this. Lol! I'll probably be trying to classify all villains in the future :)

    1. Thanks, T! I never really thought of them as being categorizable either, until the idea for this post came to me.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!