This article was originally published in the July 2008 issue of Illuminata, a newsletter of Tyrannosaurus Press. It has been slightly edited and updated.
Archetypes and the Villain: Towards more complex characterization
Rachel V. Olivier
Now just to pause a moment – archetypes are not stereotypes, though they can lapse into stereotypes. Archetypes are basic personalities that are so ingrained in the collective psyche that they occur in most stories written or acted out. The Hero, The Villain, the Damsel in Distress are three very general archetypes that are familiar to everyone. The Father, the Mother, and the Child are three that exist in every single culture around the world.
The first thing that popped into my morbid brain during the workshop was the following thought: Serial Killers must really be fractured (not integrated) personalities because they actively seek out and hunt the archetypes they have knee jerk reactions to. Of course I didn’t bring this up in the workshop, but I wrote it in my journal and got to thinking about all the different ways Villains (seeing as most Serial Killers are Villains, unless of course your name is Dexter…) behave and why. There are many books, films, RPGs, etc., where the Villain is simply the Villain. There is no explanation or analysis for why they are the way they are. They just are evil. That is the part – the archetype – they play. It works, but at best, it creates a two-dimensional character and at worst, it saps energy and tension from the story. If a writer is going to tell a tale with rich characterization the story will feel lopsided if they spend all their time showing why the Hero and his or her friends are the way they are and no time on why the Villain is the way s/he is. The writer needs to find out which archetypes the Villain is reacting to in his or her life, and why, thus creating a more complete and engaging character.
According to Tami Cowden (www.tamicowden.com), the author of The Complete Guide to Heroes and Heroines, there are at least 16 separate villain archetypes: Tyrant, Bastard, Devil, Traitor, Outcast, Evil Genius, Sadist, Terrorist, Bitch, Black Widow, Backstabber, Lunatic, Parasite, Schemer, Fanatic, and Matriarch. There are probably lots of others and a host of variables, but her list seemed a good place to start when looking at and understanding the Villain. Her descriptions are just 3-4 sentence explanations of what these Villains are and how they work. The Tyrant, for example, is a bully, craves power and hoards it, and will crush anyone who gets in his way. But why is he the way he is? Was he bullied? Was he powerless as a child, watching helplessly as his world was destroyed by the archetypes in his life (The Mother, the Father, the Bitch, the Traitor, etc)? This is an important part of not only making the story more rich and appealing, but also in showing how the Hero can overcome the Tyrant and in creating a more interesting plot. Typically, the seeds of the Villain’s downfall are found in how s/he became what they are.
A better example may be illustrated by Lex Luthor, Superman’s Nemesis. It may not be so obvious in the older Lex Luthor, but the younger one, as played by Michael Rosenbaum in the CW television show Smallville, paints a very complex character. This Lex is a Villain, no doubt about it. He’s a Devil: charming, charismatic, able to exploit the weaknesses he sees in others for his own ends. He not only is able to rationalize other people into compromising their views and seeing his side, but he’s also able to rationalize to himself why he does some of the things he does. He is also easily one of the more likable characters on the show. He is so good at justifying himself that it is easy find yourself conflicted when rooting for the “Hero” – Clark Kent – to win the day, because you almost, almost, want Lex Luthor to win the day. He just sounds so reasonable, which is a characteristic of the Devil Villain archetype.
Lex Luthor is a strong example of showing what can happen when writers choose to show what the Villain reacts to, why the Villain is the way s/he is. The writers have actively demonstrated the ambivalent relationship that Lex has with his father, both seeking his approval and competing against him. In fact, in every relationship Lex Luthor has had that a normal child would learn love and trust from, he has been betrayed in. Being the “good” son that he is, he has done his best to not only survive, but thrive, in the competitive environment his father keeps him in. Thus, the engaging Devil character who is able to charm and manipulate allies and foes alike becomes the engaging Villain that the audience now has sympathy for. The emotional conflict hooks the audience, pulling them through the story to the final outcome.
Some writers turn this idea on its head by creating an Anti-hero – the Villain as Hero, in effect. Some examples are the protagonists of Dexter, House, or the short-lived series Profit. Stephen Donaldson did it with his protagonist in the Thomas Covenant Chronicles. George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has many characters that walk the line between Anti-hero and Villain. These people are not nice people. They are NOT “Hero” material. In fact, they are distinctively, disturbingly, unlikable people. The trick is, again, to explain why they are the way they are so that the audience has some sympathy for them. They are no better than the Villain, but having been put in the role of protagonist the audience wants some reason to think they might be redeemable. So, what archetypes were in the lives of such Anti-heroes? What archetypes from their past are they reacting to in such a way that they have become the inimical characters they are now? As the writer explores the whys and wherefores behind these questions, they are better able to plot a story that is engaging, strong, and very readable. One that will grab the reader by the throat and pull them through to the end.