Of Villains and Antiheroes, Part Two

Christian Fantasy Fairy Tales Fantasy Films

While antiheroes have strong potential for redemption and often arouse reader sympathy, true villains have seared consciences and don’t engage our compassion in the same way. They damage people and even worlds in a premeditated manner and plan to continue in their path of destruction.

Often the fulfillment of their desires will cause others to suffer–and they either want bring about this suffering or they simply don’t care about the fate of those around them.

Our lack of sympathy also springs from the fact that the villain usually takes the antagonist role (although not all antagonists are villains). Since he’s working to oppose and harm our protagonist, we’re predisposed to desire his failure, just as we want the protagonist to succeed.

Although it can be a fine line between villain and antihero, their placement in the story and their inner workings reveal their leaning. As the story progresses, we know if we’re dealing with a villain or antihero as they make their final choices, and their paths are set.

Despite the evil of their deeds, it’s possible to relate to villains as we see what turned them toward wrongdoing. Yet even if we understand their motivations, we see their full commitment to depravity and can’t feel strong commiseration.

They reject every opportunity for change, and they’re apparently satisfied with their condition, whereas antiheroes often desire good (whether or not they will admit it). Most often, the villain feels justified in their malicious behavior and convinced their wrongdoing is right.

This occurs in Once Upon a Time, where the Evil Queen feels that she deserves to enact her revenge on those around her. When she first appears, we witness her power and her determination to destroy others. As the series progresses (not in chronological order), we find that she suffered a serious loss. For a moment, we feel sympathy, but any hope of redemption quickly vanishes. In that moment, the storytellers could have chosen to turn her character toward that of an antihero, but instead they cemented her position as a villain.

The Evil Queen has many opportunities to turn around, but she hardens her heart to pursue her course of corruption. Over and over, she makes choices that allow evil to consume her until nothing remains of the once innocent girl.

Her happy ending–the one she dreams of for years–is  the destruction the happiness of everyone else. Although her motivation is clear, we can’t feel lasting sympathy since her evil grows unchecked until she’s willing to murder the one person she still loves (her father) in order to gain the power to achieve her dream.

With the Evil Queen we’re given understanding of what led to her moral downfall, yet other villains appear unbroken in their evil and we’re not shown why they chose this course. It’s almost implied that it’s part of their natures. They display unbroken cruelty and a lust for dark power, as with Sauron in Lord of the Rings. His course was set long ago, and we’re not shown the reasons for it (aside from bits of backstory in The Silmarillion).  We rejoice in his downfall, because we know Middle-Earth would remain in danger as long as he lived.

When antiheroes turn around, we feel satisfaction, but with true villains we experience relief when they’re conquered and the threat of their presence removed. In this outcome there’s also echo of truth, because we know that a time will come when the ultimate enemy of our world will see lasting defeat.

In your opinion, what makes a a well-drawn, realistic villain? Has any fictional villain made a lasting impression on you? And does a villain ever “steal” your sympathy despite the impossibility of his transformation?


  • Bethany A. Jennings
    June 15, 2012 - 8:50 pm · Reply

    I am really enjoying this short series, Sarah! It’s fun to see the differences between villains and antiheroes spelled out, and little clarifications (like the one about how not all antagonists are villains) are fun tidbits to remember.

    At the moment I can’t think of any villains which have made an impression on me, although I will say that it is immensely unsatisfying when the storyteller tries to turn a villain *into* an antihero without clear advance notice. “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets” did this. Right near the end, during the climactic action scenes of the film, they started playing up the villain’s sympathetic side more the way you would use an antihero’s. His motivation was to be remembered in history books, which is a decent villain motivation, but they turned him into an antihero through various heroic moments…and then completely redeemed him by having him sacrifice himself for the lives of the progatonists. It was SO emotionally confusing, as a viewer, to have the person you were rooting against all the way be a hero in the end! I thought it was poorly done, and it made me vow never to do that. If they’re an antihero, redeem them for sure – but if they’re an outright villain most of the story through, readers will probably be very unsatisfied if they don’t get their just desserts. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 20, 2012 - 12:51 pm · Reply

      I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it, Bethany! I like playing around with different character types, and I’ve enjoyed exploring them on the blog–plus all the responses have added some great food for thought.

      Like your point about turning a villain into an antihero/hero without building up to it throughout the story. I think it feels contrived that way, not to mention annoying. It robs the ending of power, due to the emotional confusion you mentioned. We all want to see a true villain defeated. 🙂

  • Kessie
    June 15, 2012 - 9:26 pm · Reply

    Well the latest villain I’ve encountered was the villain in N.D. Wilson’s The Dragon’s Tooth. The villain is Dr. Phoenix/Mr. Ashes, a sort of modern Dr. Frankenstein gone genetic engineer. He had a tragic childhood and all that jazz … but so did the heroes. There’s a small grain of sympathy for him, but it makes him scarier. Dr. Phoenix chose evil, but in his mind, he’s doing everyone a favor by helping them transcend their lowly human boundaries. He’s terrifying. I can’t wait for the next book.

    You know what villains still scare the crap out of me? The ones in That Hideous Strength. Wither and Frost and the Fairy and those guys. My GOSH. I get the heebie-jeebies whenever I read it because of them.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 20, 2012 - 12:58 pm · Reply

      Kessie, I love the villains you mentioned…well, I actually don’t love them, but I think they’re perfect examples of great villains. 🙂

      Dr. Phoenix was truly scary, and a worthy opponent. I like it when the heroes are up against what seems like impossible odds. And Dr. Phoenix also illustrates an important principle–everyone is a hero in their own story, convinced of they’re right, even when they’re completely corrupt.

      I still remember scenes from That Hideous Strength that give me a shiver. CS Lewis was pretty brilliant. 🙂

  • Skadi meic Beorh
    June 15, 2012 - 10:00 pm · Reply

    Guess I should admit that Heath Ledger’s ‘Joker’ is a villain instead of an anti-hero. It’s this character’s charisma that draws me, and I believe many others, to him. He definitely steals my sympathy, though his conscience is seared.

    I guess this makes King Nebuchadnezzar and Esau anti-heroes, and Jezebel and Delilah villains. The Bible is full of both, as well as heroes.

    What is the reason that these three kinds of people exist? Why is it important that we talk about all three in our stories? Will a day come, in American culture, when the hero is more interesting than the anti-hero or the villain? What kind of hero do we need to see to set our souls on fire? Batman didn’t make the grade either in light of the last Joker characterization. I found myself rooting for the bad guy.

    Another of my favorite villains? Bill the Butcher from ‘Gangs of New York.’ Claiming himself to be rightwise, he became as a fool instead.

    Thanks for letting me ramble on, Sarah. I really like your blog.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 20, 2012 - 1:01 pm · Reply

      I like the questions you brought up as well as the Scriptural examples. The Bible is a study of fascinating characters, and they’re all the more interesting because they’re real. I think of Jonah as an antihero type, and the ending of his story is left ambiguous. I’ve always wondered what happened next, and I hope I get to know one day.

      What kind of hero do we need to see to set our souls on fire?

      All of your questions are worthy of consideration (perhaps I’ll explore them in a future post once I’ve sorted out my thoughts), but this one really stood out to me. As you said, without a strong hero, we might find ourselves more sympathetic toward the villain–or apathetic about the whole thing. Yet the hero that moves one reader might not touch another. When I think of compelling heroes, Gandalf and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings come to mind (as well as several others in that story). I know not everyone connected with them, but the books and the heroes within have stood the test of time.

      But where are the Christian writers creating heroes who will engage the culture of our time? I pray that they come soon.

      And you’re welcome to ramble any time!

  • Evangeline Denmark
    June 16, 2012 - 9:51 am · Reply

    This post made me think of Loki. We recently saw The Avengers and last night my boys watched Thor. Loki is a favorite character of mine in these movies because it’s easy to feel sympathy for him and his character is complex. His story arc in Thor from trouble-maker to confused and hurting antihero makes gives the movie depth that, frankly, it needed.
    I put an antihero in my most recent novel and really grew to love his character. As I’m working on my next novel, a dystopian/Steampunk I plan to have a true villain because the genre calls for it, I think. But the fun part of creating that villian is exploring the part of his story in which he is still an antihero. I’m looking forward to developing his character just as much as I’m looking forward to creating my heroes and heroine.

    • Skadi meic Beorh
      June 16, 2012 - 10:43 am · Reply

      I love that! “Exploring the part of his story in which he is still an antihero.” How many tales do this? Who was Jezebel as a little girl, or a young woman? Delilah? Backstory seems to be what we all want in our stories today. I think this may be because there are so few readers anymore. Backstory was unnecessary for the most part for those who attended plays or read a short Grimm’s faerytale to their children. But readers, true readers, want all they can get, and for Fantasy readers in our time, we can thank Tolkien for that.

      • Sarah Sawyer
        June 20, 2012 - 1:04 pm · Reply

        Skadi, I also enjoy backstory in certain forms…not in overwhelming info dumps, but those little glimpses at how a character developed over the years. It enriches the story

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 20, 2012 - 1:03 pm · Reply

      Loki was a fascinating character, and one I could sympathize with, especially in Thor. By the time of The Avengers, he’d moved into more villainous territory, and it was interesting to see how his character slowly spiraled downward. Redemption doesn’t seem impossible, but quite unlikely in his case, since he’s been offered numerous opportunities to change and turned aside from them all.

      A steampunk story with Christian elements…this I’d like to see. Currently, it’s a rare beast–at least to my knowledge. 🙂 Is it YA or adult?

      I think the investment of time in creating a villain and exploring his time as an antihero (very well-put!) ultimately makes the whole story stronger.

  • Jennifer Hallmark
    June 16, 2012 - 11:04 am · Reply

    Okay, what about the classic villian, Darth Vader? He is redeemed at the end so does that make him an anti hero? He does unforgiveable things like kill children. What think ye?

    • Skadi meic Beorh
      June 16, 2012 - 4:04 pm · Reply

      First, I never knew Darth Vader is redeemed. Not much of a fan, I guess. However, my answer is that anyone is redeemable. St. Paul was a murderer, and he is a primary reason we are all Christians today.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 20, 2012 - 2:29 pm · Reply

      Jennifer, it’s been so long since I’ve seen Star Wars that I can’t remember his progression (plus I only saw the original trilogy). I do remember his redemption, and I didn’t feel cheated by it, so it seems like there must have been something to hint at it beforehand. Also, if I remember correctly, he was serving a more evil master. So we still have the sense of evil meeting defeat.

      That raises a good question, though. How evil can a character become before readers dislike the idea of his redemption? I do think a true villain can be redeemed occasionally, but it has to be done just right or it raises the issue that Bethany addressed in her comment.

Leave a Comment