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Hero is a Four-Letter Word: The Villain

By Melanie Ann Phillips

Reader response has been overwhelming on this article series - impatiently awaiting our second installment. We're glad to present today:

Part Two

Equally well known as the Hero is the Villain. And just as the Hero is actually made up of several distinct qualities, so is the Villain. In fact, for every quality the Hero possesses, the Villain embodies a counterpart.

And, of course, just as there is a difference between being heroic and being a Hero type in a story, so too is there a difference between being villainous and being a classic dramatic Villain. In real life, we cast all kinds of people as Villains because they are mean, hurtful, or self-serving at the expense of others. But that is only one quality of the story Villain, who must fulfill other very specific dramatic functions as well.

In this article, we'll explore the make-up and nature of the Villain type, and define exact what qualities it must possess.

"Curses, foiled again!"

When we think of classic story Villains, it conjures up the image of the evil and sinister cad, with a black heart beneath his black clothing, taking perverse pleasure in the pain and suffering he can inflict on others. But that image is just a stereotype, focusing more on the personality of the character than its dramatic function.

In truth, the sadistic nature of such a character is not at all a necessary part of the dramatic Villain, just as being a "Do-Gooder" is not an essential part of the dramatic hero. To be sure, the Villain is a bad guy, since he either wishes to cause harm or to benefit himself even though it causes harm to other. But to revel in that pain - that is the mark of a Villain who has become melodramatic. In a similar manner, a Hero who is not just a Do-Gooder but carries it to the point of being a "Goodie-Two-Shoes" becomes a melodramatic Hero.

So, let's put the melodrama aside for the moment, and consider the Villain as a character with very specific functions in a story.

The Villain Breaks Down

So what is it, then, that defines the story Villain? No matter what other elements you may wish to include in that definition, there are four key elements that absolutely must be present. The dramatic Villain must be:

1. The Antagonist
2. The Influence Character
3. The Second Most Central Character
4. A "Bad Guy"

You are likely familiar with three of these four terms, but the concept of the Influence Characters may be new to you. In fact, though the other character types are commonly recognized by name, their qualities presented here might surprise you.

The Antagonist

The Antagonist has but one function - to prevent the Protagonist from achieving the goal. This might be accomplished by defeating the Protagonist, or just by beating him or her to the prize. There doesn't necessarily have to be any hatred involved, or even any emotion at all. The Antagonist might have the greatest respect for the Protagonist, but just not agree with what he is trying to achieve.

The Influence Character

The Villainous counterpart to the Hero's quality of being the Main Character is the Influence Character. While the audience or reader sees things from the Main Character's point of view, the Influence Character represents the opposing moral outlook, alternative view, or contrasting paradigm. In short, the crux of the message is argued between the Main Character and the Influence Character.

It is the function of the Influence Character to provide the strongest temptation for the Hero to change his point of view. Now, with stereotypical Heroes and Villains, the Main Character point of view held by the Hero will be the correct one, and the Influence Character point of view held by the Villain will be wrong. But this doesn't have to be the case and, in fact, it is often swapped around the other way.

For example, in Part One we looked at how the Protagonist and Main Character functions had been split into two characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Similarly, in that same story the Villain's functions as Antagonist and Influence Character are split.

To recap, Mockingbird's Atticus is the Protagonist, attempting to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. The Main Character, however, is Scout - Atticus' young daughter. The father of the white girl, Bob Ewell, is the Antagonist, doing everything he can to prevent Atticus from achieving the goal. But the Influence Character is Boo Radley, the mysterious Boogey Man who lives in a basement down the street.

Scout is prejudiced against Boo without ever meeting him because all the neighborhood legends cast him as a monster. But Boo is actually the children's protector. And in the end, it is through his actions that her prejudiced point of view is changed.

The Second Most Central Character

Sounds like a mouthful, but the Second Most Central Character is the star of the show, save for the Hero. Just as people rubber-neck at auto-accidents, their attention is often drawn to the potential for disaster interjected by the Villain. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to keep a particularly charismatic Villain from stealing the show from the Hero!

As with the Hero, the nature of being Central is partially created by the amount of Media Real Estate vested in that character, and the intensity with which it is drawn or portrayed.

A Bad Guy

Once again, being a Bad Guy doesn't necessarily mean the Villain wallows in the thrill, but simply that it is his or her intent to cause trouble for others or to benefit oneself at the expense of others. There can be an infinite number of reasons, motivations, or excuses for being bad, but the bottom line is not why the Villain does it, or even how he or she feels about it, but simply that this character is bad.

The Classic Villain

The classic story Villain, then, attempts to thwart the Protagonist, represents an alternative point of view and forces the Main Character to grapple with a moral dilemma. He or she is the second most memorable character and does damage to others, often for personal gain. This combination of qualities makes the Villain a formidable foe for the Hero. It also makes him or her truly melodramatic. That is because everything that opposes the Hero centers on this character, and all important counter-dynamics flow from it.

Study Exercises for Part Two: Villainous Qualities

1. List three well-known Villains you have come across in a book, movie, stage play, or television episode.

2. Explain why each qualifies as a Villain by being Antagonist, Influence Character, Second Most Central Character, and Bad Guy.

3. List three well-known characters who are villainous, but are not classic Villain types.

4. Explain why each is not a true story Villain, based on the material in the lesson.

5. List three characters that qualify as classic Villain types, but are not villainous in the popular sense of the word.

6. Describe the traits that make each of these dramatic Villains non-villainous in personality.

Writing Exercises for Part Two: Building Villains

1. Create a character who is an Antagonist, and explain why he or she fulfills that function.

2. Create a character who is an Influence Character, and explain why he or she fulfills that function.

3. Create a character and describe how you would make him or her the Second Most Central Character.

4. Create a character who is a Bad Guy and describe why.

5. Create a classic Villain type, and describe how he or she possesses all four essential qualities of a Villain.

6. Turn this Villain character you have created into a non-villainous person, while maintaining his dramatic function as a Villain.

Meet the Author: Melanie Ann Phillips