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A stereotypical villain. Note the formal black clothes, exquisitely neat facial hair, and maniacal demeanour. This stereotype was common in early 20th century silent films,

A villain is a bad person, especially in fiction. Villains are the fictional characters, or perhaps fictionalized characters, in drama and melodrama who do evil deliberately and work against the hero. As such, villains are an almost inevitable plot device, and more than the heroes, the villains are the crucial elements upon which plots turn.


Word origin

The etymology of the word is from Old French villein, 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. Poverty was equated with moral turpitude; villains had to work their way up the social ladder. Thus usually the word villain suggests that the villain's schemes stem from their own moral indifference or perversity of character. Supervillains are found in the melodramatic environs of superhero comic books, where an evil person with super powers is needed to be a realistic foil for the mighty heroes. These supervillains usually have recurring roles; some villains in more down to earth literature have become so popular that they have been reused in later works as well.


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The egotistical and envious Villain.--From a Miniature in "Proverbes et Adages, &c.," Manuscript of the La Vallière Fund, in the National Library of Paris, with this legend:

"Attrapez y sont les plus fins:
Qui trop embrasse mal estraint."<p>("The cleverest burn their fingers at it,
And those who grasp all may lose all.")

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The covetous and avaricious Villain.--From a Miniature in "Proverbes et Adages, &c," Manuscript in the National Library of Paris, with this legend:<p>"Je suis icy levant les yeulx
Eu ce haut lieu des attendens,
En convoitant pour avoir mieulx
Prendre la lune avec les dens."<p>("Even on this lofty height
We yet look higher,
As nothing will satisfy us
But to clutch the moon.")


There are many villain stereotypes. A caricature of a common cliché villain can be seen at the right of this page. In the era before sound in motion pictures villains had to appear very "visually" sinister, and thus many villain stereotypes were born. The Rocky and Bullwinkle characters Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, and Snidely Whiplash, as well as the Hanna-Barbera character Dick Dastardly, are well known parodies of this kind of character archetype.

These stereotypes include black clothing (often quite formal - capes, top hats, etc), facial hair, sharp features, and a perpetually "angry" facial expression. Other non-visual villainous stereotypes include a habit of "evil laughter," a snooty or smarmy voice, and a haughty overconfidence that leads to the unnecessary explanation of one's sinister plans. This exposition, of course, is a fairly transparent plot device. There is an opposing stereotype of the beautiful villain who looks like a hero, but his/her personality and attitudes betray a diabolical nature. This especially came well known after World War II when the Holocaust was exposed which led to the popular villain who reflects the Nazi blond and blue eyed ideal, but that beauty hides an arrogant sense of his/her superiority and foul ambitions to make his/her "inferiors" suffer.

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Villains before going to Work receiving their Lord's Orders.--Miniature in the "Propriétaire des Choses."--Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century (Library of the Arsenal, in Paris).

The necessary villain

Are villains inherently more interesting than the heroes who oppose them? They are at least as indispensable to the stories they appear in, probably more so. Those who stand on the side of righteousness and goodness seldom have much choice but to respond, and little choice in how; for villains, all paths are wide open. Many believe that Satan, for Christians perhaps the ultimate villain, is the most interesting character in John Milton's Paradise Lost, for all that he is the embodiment of evil. Perhaps in the nefarious acts of many villains there is more than a hint of wish-fulfilment fantasy, which makes some people identify with them as characters more strongly than they do the heroes. Still, the writer's task in creating a villain is not an easy or a trivial one; a convincing villain must be given a characterization that makes his motive for doing wrong somewhat more convincing than Mephisto's gleeful but seemingly pointless mischief.

Yet what makes the villain really indispensable in many works of fiction, including virtually all modern action movies, is that he provides an impeccable excuse for sadistic pleasure. The standard action story invariably begins by demonizing the villain—i.e., showing that he is so evil that he ceases to be a human being and becomes a monster; so that making him suffer is only necessary justice and most commendable. From then on, the reader or viewer can enjoy the sadistic pleasure of watching someone being beaten, burned, chopped, impaled, blown to bits, etc. etc.; and can identify himself with the hero who is doing all that — all with a clean conscience.


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