The Villain Test (part 1)

(In this post, I'll mostly be talking about villains (which is a certain type of antagonist) but The Villain Rule can be applied to any antagonist.) 

We all know that there are a lot of villains out there that majorly suck. (It's gotten to the point where I want to gorge my eyes out whenever I see a particularly cliché villain.) You know the type. They live in dark castles/caves/other top secret lairs, have disfigurements or other scary physical features, plot against the hero while wearing dark, dramatic clothing and want to destroy or rule the world for pretty much no reason. They also enjoy kidnapping the movie's Pretty Love Interest and monologuing so the hero can save the day while foiling the bad guy's stupid plan. 

Granted, Nero from Star Trek (2009) doesn't kidnap the love
interest but he lives in a big scary spaceship, wears dark,
scary clothes, has scary tattoos, wants nothing more than to
destroy the world for revenge... Source

These bad guys make me want to cry. 

Antagonists could be so cool! People who think differently to others are really interesting to explore, and villains are a prime example of this. Who else would be crazy enough to do something that's morally wrong? Do they even think it's wrong? If they know it's wrong then how are they justifying it? Do they need a justification? Do they like doing something evil? Bad guys are just so interesting, but, in my opinion, they're never given the characterization they deserve. They're usually reduced to plotting some evil plot in their evil lair with their evil clothes because evil. A lot of the time, this is because the writers either a) couldn't be bothered to do some proper characterization, b) needed something to drive the plot or c) thought that going with the "pure evil" or "evil because of one tragic thing in antagonist's past" thing was good enough. 

If you go with this, your story is going to suffer. When I say "The Dark Knight" one of the first things you think of is the Joker. Why? Because he was a villain who rocked. Moriarty in Sherlock. Loki. Magneto. These weren't bad guys. They were characters and people loved them. (Can I just take a second to say how awesome Magneto is? He's a bad guy who actually makes some sense, while occasionally Professor X gets it wrong. Sure, his goal of destroying all humans is kinda evil, but he's just looking out for his people. And besides, humans started it!) 

Magneto is just so darn cool. Source.

At this point, I'd like to introduce part one of my Villain Test. This was inspired by Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor 2: The Dark World. Basically, it goes along these lines:

If you can swap your antagonist for another from another story (especially one of your own) and have no effect on the story, then you're doing it wrong.

Let's use Marvel as an example (because Marvel is still pretty cool, even if most of their antagonists only exist to drive the plot). 


Exhibit A: Ronan, the Plot Driver. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Ronan wants to destroy Xandar because his grandfather and his father were killed by Xandarians. I would tell you more than that, but I don't know much else. I know he's evil because he lives in a big, dark, scary spaceship and he kills an innocent good guy within the first minute of being introduced. Yeah, if that didn't quite hit home the point that he was the bad guy, he then kills a bunch of people in a different spaceship who had nothing to do with the fight between Ronan and the good guys. 

xhibit B: Malekith, the Plot Driver. Malekith is the antagonist in Thor 2: The Dark World and he wants to bring the universe back into darkness. Why? Oh, um, stop talking and enjoy the explosions. Later, he wants to destroy the universe and get revenge on Thor. Once again, he lives in a big, dark, scary spaceship and kills his own people within the first minute of being introduced. Once again, if that didn't quite hit home the point that he was the bad guy, he also kills a semi-important character. 

In case you weren't seeing the similarities, they were both introduced as "evil", then their characters were left alone because look! Handsome heroes! Pretty girls! Explosions! Science! Fighting! 

Both of these characters would fail The Villain Test because they could swap movies and nothing would happen to the plot. This is an extreme case, of course, because they're both aliens in the same universe so they're bound to have similarities. However, excluding that fact, if you look at their personalities and motivations they're exactly the same. Sure, slightly different circumstances. But they're both driven to kill innocent people because of revenge. 

If you have an antagonist in your story that could be swapped with a bad guy from another story without any major plot repercussions, then something's wrong. This is especially true if you have written more than one book and all or any of your villains could be changed out for each other. 

This isn't terribly hard to fix. Spend some time with your villain. Discover his/her past, and all of it. Not just "Lizzy's parents were killed by the good guy's team when she was five and now she wants to kill the good guy", but everything. Does she get along with her aunt that she was sent to live with? Did she want to become a musician because it reminded her of her parents? Does she do well in school? Did someone break her heart? Is she an introvert or an extrovert? 

Next week, I'll reveal part 2 of The Villain Test which will be super fun because I love blabbering about villains. (Except when my villains fail the test. *sigh* Back to the drawing board.) Who are your favourite villains? Do your bad guys fail or pass part one of The Villain Test? 


  1. Great post! I often find the scariest/creepiest/best villains are the ones who would pass the villain test. They feel more believable. Personally, though, I struggle to write good villains. Because it takes work. And sometimes, work and I don't get along.

    1. Yeah, the best villains are the ones who are just right enough to make the hero doubt themselves. Believable villains make me want to hide under my bed. I know, villains are so hard to write!!! They have to be human enough to be believable but not human enough to be too sympathetic. I agree. Villains are super hard work. It totally pays off in the end, though. Good luck with your writing endeavours!

  2. Favourite villain would definitely be Moriarty from Sherlock! He is just so darn cool, and he would pass the test.

    1. YES MORIARTY IS JUST AWESOME!!! *high fives*

  3. Awesome post! I definitely think that villains sometimes need more attention, they do become one of the foundations in novels and a bad villain just ruins some story lines. Personally I think plankton (from spongebob) is pretty awesome, granted he isn't what you would call a very successful villain but he's definitely a very well developed one :)

    1. Villains totally make or break a story. *cough* Guardians of the Galaxy/Thor 2/every Marvel movie ever *cough*. Well, I've never really seen Spongebob, but I'll take your word for it :)

  4. I have to agree that the villain is always the most important character of any series, although I'm not so sure that it's as simple as being completely unique to a story. I mean, you're obviously talking about the actions related to villainness—Ronan doesn't have the grudge or the magic power or the knowledge to be a viable villain in Thor, and Malekith would kill everyone and wouldn't have time for such creatures of light in Guardians of the Galaxy; you essentially wouldn't have either of the movies without them. However, they do have the similar plot lines you mentioned: Evil! Handsome heroes! Pretty girls! Explosions! Science! Fighting! Which is true, except Star Wars, James Bond (all of them), Kingsman, LOTR and the Hobbit (science being magic and explosions being up for debate),certain Star Trek episodes, the Bourne movies, V for Vendetta, Firefly; Wild, Wild West; The Matrix, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen all have the same basic concepts, as well. And sure, while you might be able to swap a Bond Villain and Kingsman's Valentine, you wouldn't be able to swap V or Darth Vader because V is a freedom fighter opposed to oppressive government whereas Darth Vader is the face of the oppressive government. Yes, they're both masked villains with a significant moral base who have Natalie Portman as their main romantic interest and live in sci-fi/sci-fantasy worlds, master fighters who cause big explosions, and who are eventually defeated by handsomer faces... But despite their similar core, they aren't pieces that can be easily swapped one-for-another, you know? And I feel like it's the same with Malekith and Ronan, just because neither movie would happen without them. *pauses* I'm definitely interested to see what part two of your test is like, just to see how you continue to refine the concept. It's an interesting idea, although I'm not sure I agree with you just yet!

    1. Alright, I see where you're coming from. (And yes, villains are totally important to the story!) I don't think they have to be completely unique to a story because there's only so many different variations of a morally gray character you can have. However, so many stories use a cardboard villain, and that's what I was trying to get at more.

      Granted, Ronan wouldn't be a great villain in Thor because of his villian-y skills but IF he had Malekith's skills they would be pretty darn close. I'm not familiar with V for Vendetta (I'll have to go watch it, I actually thought V was the good guy) but it sounds like a different situation, like you said. From what I'm understanding Darth Vader has a totally different motivation from V. Darth Vader became evil out of love for Padmé then became twisted and dark out of his actions (killing younglings, anyone?) and his anger and fear. As you said, V wants freedom from an oppressive government. Granted, they may look the same and live in sci-fi worlds but they have different motivations and different goals. It wouldn't make any sense if they switched stories. However, another example is that you could switch Voldemort and Sauron. Totally different situations but they both basically want power over whatever world they live in. They do have different backstories and stuff but at their core they just want power and the expense of all the good little hobbits and wizards.

      (And as a side note, yes, the movies wouldn't happen without the villains (and I get the genre thing; villains just seem to appear in the superhero movies). I do get frustrated though because some villains just appear to get a story going. Malekith and Ronan had not relation to the heroes until the heroes appeared. In Iron Man 3 (and while Killian isn't my *favourite* villain) I liked how Tony actually created the villain through his own flaws and weaknesses. Anyways.)

      So in summary, I was trying to say that each villain needs to have some element of uniqueness, personality, depth and backstory. Without that, you can swap villains from story to story and it's especially noticeable if all of your stories (if you were in Marvel's situation or you had a series going on, for example).

      Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment! Unfortunately, I'll be moving away from the idea of swapping villains next week because I didn't really have too much more to say on the matter. But thanks for reading! (And I know you're big into villains so I was excited to see what you had to say on the matter, and I wasn't disappointed!)

    2. Mm, I see where you're going there, and yes, cardboard villains can be frustrating. Usually when I think of them, though I think of the Evil Stepmother trope, something that's obviously been overused.

      Hm, I guess I'm just not convinced that Malekith and Ronan are so the same. I think from a mythological perspective Malekith resembles the constant battle between dark and light that is so often present in our old tales and cultural stories, and is sort of a foil to Odin in particular because they're both soldiers who have conquered and fought and suffered for it, but Odin fights war to gain peace whereas Malekith fights war to eat everything up until there's nothing left. And I can see how it would look like Ronan would likewise want that as he tries to spread his fanatical religion and culture, sort of putting his own darkness out in the world, but it's a lot harder for me to think of it like that because things like the Christian Church and Europeans and Americans have been driven by conversions and elements of manifest destiny for a really long time. And so yes... like I get it in that they both are conquerors who are portrayed as dark and stuff, but at the same time I feel like Ronan doesn't contrast Odin enough to be a viable Thor villain and Malekith isn't as much a political figure but a moral figure.

      So, I guess I respect your interpretation but it's very hard for me to see sort of what you see. But, y'know, I also could be wrong and their skill switch might end up being similar. *shrugs* INTERPRETATION IS SO FUN EH?

      And V is actually the protagonist, but I consider him a good villain... Because I mean, he is a terrorist. Just a dreamy terrorist. And, I guess what I was really getting at with the comparison is that V and Darth Vader both share a very similar profile, which is what I thought you were basing your comparison off of in your post since you were analyzing personal characteristics instead of character motivations (or, at least not explicitly).

      I guess the way I'm seeing our conversation going is that I don't think we're understanding what it means to switch villains in the same way. And I guess I'm still not really sure what your idea is since I'm not really finding your thread of thought from the post to down here, but I guess we may just have to agree to disagree this time. ;)

      Also, I would point out that Malekith isn't really "Thor's villain" per se, but again, it relates back to mythology. His grandfather fought Malekith (I think; it was a family member, yes?) and in such old-timey traditions in some ways the spirit of Thor's family is running in his own blood. There's a cyclical nature of Malekith's villainness and that's just so cool. As for Ronan? *shrugs* Eh. I mean, yeah, he really doesn't have a relationship. But I guess it's good there are people who step in when random bad guys show up?

      (Oh, and yes. Killian is so much fun. :D HE WAS SCARY.)

      *nods* I can agree with you on the last point, though. There does need to be uniqueness. Maybe I just argue for unique things that aren't actually there. XD Anyway, thanks for responding to that. I do so love to have convos like these. :)

    3. Yep, gotta love interpretation. And to be honest, I didn't even think of it like that. Man, when you analyse you sure cover all your bases. You have changed my perspective of the movies, Heather. I take my hat off to you. *takes hat off*

      Ah, that makes sense. One of *those* protagonists. I must watch that movie...

      And fair enough, I think there's just been a little miscommunication on my part for not explaining my idea 100% clearly, so I'm good with agreeing to disagree.

      Yeah, I suppose so, but in my personal books Thor didn't have anything to do with Malekith before he showed up. Like, yes, his grandfather or whatever fought him so there's been that running animosity but I guess I think that it doesn't matter who your grandfather fought. You can make your own enemies and your own friends. But that's my opinion and I know a lot of people don't see it that way (especially in stories, at least). And yep, it is pretty cool when random good guys step up to random bad guys (like Batman and the Joker which was just done amazingly) but I think it always adds an extra something when the good guy and the bad guy have a personal relationship or if they "created" each other.

      Yes, thanks for bringing up such excellent points! I love long discussions about villains :) Thank you!


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