A villain (sometimes, the "heavy") is an "evil" character in a story, whether a historical narrative or, especially, a work of fiction. The villain usually is the antagonist, the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters. A female villain is sometimes called a villainess (often to differentiate her from a male villain). Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as "a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot. In an interview seen on the DVD release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Ricardo Montalban says that he realized early in his career that the best type of villain does not see himself as villainous. He may do villainous things, but the character feels that he is doing them for righteous reasons. Likewise, with heroes, Montalban said he always tried to find a flaw in the character because no one is completely good or completely evil. He then compared Khan to this, saying that while Khan had a rather distorted view of reality and therefore comes the villainous acts, he still feels that his acts of vengeance against Captain Kirk is a noble cause because of the death of his wife whom he loved dearly.

Word origin

The etymology of the word is probably Middle English villein from Old French villain, in turn from Late Latin villanus, meaning serf or peasant, someone who is bound to the soil of a villa, which is to say, worked on the equivalent of a plantation in late Antiquity, in Italy or Gaul. It meant a person of less than knightly status, and so came to mean a person who was not chivalrous; because many unchivalrous acts, such as treachery or rape, are villainous in the modern sense, and because the word was used as a term of abuse, it took on its modern meaning.

Folk and fairy tales

Vladimir Propp, in his analysis of the Russian fairy tales, concluded that a fairy tale had only eight dramatis personae, of which one was the villain, and his analysis has been widely applied to non-Russian tales. The actions that fell into a villain's sphere were:

  • a story-initiating villainy, where the villain caused harm to the hero or his family,
  • a conflict between the hero and the villain, either a fight or other competition
  • pursuing the hero after he has succeeded in winning the fight or obtaining something from the villain.

None of these acts must necessarily occur in a fairy tale, but when they occurred, the character that performed them was the villain. The villain therefore could appear twice: once in the opening of the story, and a second time as the person sought out by the hero.

When a character performed only these acts, the character was a pure villain. Various villains also perform other functions in a fairy tale; a witch who fought the hero and ran away, which let the hero follow her, was also performing the task of "guidance" and thus acting as a helper.

The functions could also be spread out among several characters. If a dragon acted as the villain but was killed by the hero, another character -- such as the dragon's sisters -- might take on the role of the villain and pursue the hero.

Two other characters could appear in roles that are villainous in the more general sense. One is the false hero; this character is always villainous, presenting a false claim to be the hero that must be rebutted for the happy ending. Among these characters are Cinderella's stepsisters, chopping off parts of their feet to fit on the shoe. Another character, the dispatcher, sends a hero on his quest. This may be an innocent request, to fulfill a legitimate need, but the dispatcher may also, villainously, lie to send a character on a quest in hopes of being rid of him.

The villainous foil

In fiction, villains commonly function in the dual role of adversary and foil to the story's heroes. In their role as adversary, the villain serves as an obstacle the hero must struggle to overcome. In their role as foil, the villain exemplifies characteristics that are diametrically opposed to those of the hero, creating a contrast distinguishing heroic traits from villainous ones.

Others point out that many acts of villains have a hint of wish-fulfillment fantasy, which makes some people identify with them as characters more strongly than with the heroes. Because of this, a convincing villain must be given a characterization that makes his or her motive for doing wrong convincing, as well as being a worthy adversary to the hero. As put by film critic Roger Ebert: "Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph."

The Evil Genius

The Evil Genius is an archetype or even a caricature that is a recurring staple in certain genres of fiction, particularly comic books, spy fiction, video games, action films and cartoons. The evil genius serves as a common adversary and foil of the hero.

Villain Archetypes

Note that, as mentioned above, a villain's disposition towards evil distinguishes them from an antagonist. For example, Javert in Les Miserables is an antagonist: he opposes the hero, but does so by such means and under such pretexts as not to become entirely odious to the reader. Note also that a villain may repent, be redeemed, or become in league with the hero. Sometimes, a villain may even appear as the protagonist of a story, while the hero who opposes them may be the antagonist.

See also


Further reading

  • Zawacki's humorous look at the concept of a villain:
    • Neil Zawacki So You've Decided to be Evil. Dark Sites. (2001). .
    • Neil Zawacki (2003). How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!!. Chronicle Books. ISBN 0811846660.
    • Neil Zawacki (2004). The Villain's Guide to Better Living. Chronicle Books. ISBN 0811856666.

Search another word or see villainon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature