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Villain Clichés to Avoid

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Fri Nov 27, 2009 2:11 am
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Elinor says...

Who would Batman be without the Joker, or Harry Potter without Lord Voldemort? There would be no conflict for Batman or Harry Potter to overcome, and thus no interesting tale. This is because the core of every strong story lies in its antagonists.
If the opposing force that the protagonist has to fight isn’t strong enough, then we don’t feel threatened or scared. It’s easy to create a great and memorable antagonist, as long as your character doesn’t fall into the pit holes of some of the most irritating villain clichés of all time.

1. “The Emperor of Evil”
The Emperor of Evil; this cliché is quite possibly the most annoying out of everything. These villains usually appear in fantasy stories. They are generally older males, torturing their henchmen just for the sake of it. They often call themselves evil, ruling large empires, which, more often than not, were formally republics. They hunt down the protagonist just for the sake of it, and their main motive usually is taking over the world.
Why this is a cliché: To quote George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, “No one who is evil thinks of themselves as evil.” Over time, I have generally found this to be true. John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln, believed he was doing America a favor. He expected, much like his idol, Brutus, to be saluted as a hero. In Episode III of Star Wars, Darth Vader believed he was slaughtering the Jedi and the Separatist Leaders for two reasons – 1) To save his beloved wife and 2) to bring peace to the Republic. Generally, someone who actually calls themselves evil is just annoying and unrealistic.
How to avoid this cliché: There is not much I can say about this section. A villain can still be typical, yet terrifying, such as the Joker. Just find a way to keep the villain interesting by adding memorable quirks, scenes, or motives. In the case of the Joker, it’s just the terror that you feel when he’s around. His motives are kept a secret, and that keeps everything juicy and interesting.

2. “But I’m A Hero”
Ah yes, this old cliché. Those who fit this cliché can take any form; female or male, rich or poor, young or old. They may try to be nice to the protagonist, or genuinely like him or her. The main motive of the “But I’m A Hero” villain is usually to cleanse or make the world better, but the way they go about achieving it involves some other sort of catastrophe.
Why this is a Cliché: They are interesting types of villains, except they are written about way too often. As with everything, too much of something is bad. In addition, the more this cliché happens, the less realistic the whole thing seems. I mean, it’s pretty hard to swallow the fact that tons and tons of antagonists believe that wiping out cities or dropping atomic bombs will make the world a better place. They often target “bad” towns (Ra’s Al Guhl from Batman Begins) but fail to realize that they will be killing millions of people. It’s even more annoying when the protagonist confronts the antagonist about it, to which the antagonist simply replies, “Their sacrifices are needed.”
How to avoid this cliché: If you truly want your antagonist to have these primary motives, you could always have them second guess things. For example, say that they are a 0serial killer. They’ve just been employed to take out their little brother, who has recently been arrested for drug trafficking. Your antagonist believes that he is a threat to society, but at the same time, the antagonist is very close to him. Just don’t make it so your antagonist is so blind and ignorant to the consequences of their actions.

3. “I Hate the World”
Whenever I see a villain who fits this cliché, it makes me want to throw the book across the room. Those who fit this cliché can take on all shapes or forms. They may be in disguise, and more often than not is looking for the protagonist’s pity. These villains usually have dark and tragic pasts, and have often lost love ones in their lives. As such, they seek revenge, deciding to kill off everyone in the world. At first, they may appear to be a protagonist.
Why this is a cliché: It’s unrealistic and annoying. Since most of these antagonists are grown men and women, it just seems a little silly that they don’t understand their dead partner would most likely hate them if they knew what was going on.
How to avoid this cliché: I suppose the major factor is expanding upon motives. This can include anything, but as always, make sure to keep things juicy and interesting.

In a bag, those are the three most irritating clichés that you should stay away from at all costs. If you do that, you follow authors like Bob Kane and J.K Rowling by creating believable antagonists such as Lord Voldemort and the Joker. After all, didn't both Nicholson and Ledger steal the show?
Last edited by Elinor on Sat Dec 19, 2009 2:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Tue Dec 08, 2009 8:27 pm
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romance otaku says...


Good, I'm safe ^-^.

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Sat Mar 13, 2010 7:34 am
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AspiringAuthorA..M. says...

Unfortunately a villain of mine fits the second category. :(
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Mon Mar 15, 2010 12:23 am
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imapoemperson says...

I just realized that I don't have villain. 0.o
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Mon Mar 15, 2010 6:04 pm
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Mr.Knightley says...

Great article, Brynn!
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Tue Mar 16, 2010 5:14 pm
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Kelcia says...

Okay, two things:

1) in the "But I'm a Hero" category, does this apply if it is well written? For example, Terry Pratchett's character the Wintersmith from, well, "Wintersmith". He's the bad guy, sure, but I can't call him a villian.

2) If a vilian does all the opposites a vilian should do - not gloat before killing the prisoners, not giving the said prisoners time to escape, not executing them publically where they could be rescued, etc, - is that tacky? Or does it depend on how it's handled?
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Mon Apr 05, 2010 9:33 am
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LookUpThere says...

Give it up for the two greatest villains of all time! Magneto and... the Big Bad Wolf from LRRH(LittleRedRidingHood)!

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Wed May 26, 2010 10:41 pm
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Absinthe13 says...

I think what bothers me most about villains is that they are remarkably stupid for being remarkably smart. You ever notice that villains build really inaccessable fortresses, or tell the hero of thier master plan before killing them. Or telling the hero of thier master plan, the deciding that they are too good to simply kill the hero simply, and devise some weird game/comtraption/have someone else do it that allows for a small chance for the hero to escape? Our heros don't need to be smart, just lucky, and if you look at most childrens fantasy/sci-fi/or some drama, the kid hero just manages to be lucky, rather than skilled? can we have smart villains! With smart plans! that are not exposed through gloating!

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Sat Apr 28, 2012 2:33 pm
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magicalme says...

I like your article, but just wondering, is the third category really that bad? Like a Villain who's "evil" because of something that happened to him/her in the past? If so, what should one do in this case?

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Sat Apr 28, 2012 3:08 pm
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Rosendorn says...

The cliche is only a cliche when people use that as the only justification for a villain. He was a really nice guy, one, single (maybe a handful, tops) bad event happened to him, and suddenly he's Evil To The Core.

It's just not believable on the surface.

As Eli said at the beginning of the article, on how to avoid it, make the motives (the reason a character wants to be evil and start his villainous plot) believable. Also, make his reaction tie into how he got to be evil in the first place.

One story that I find does this well is a friend's parody of evil overlords. The villain was a nice guy that grew up in a bad situation, and felt he had to become evil to survive. And, in that world, evil people (especially in nobility) are supposed to act a certain way. Hence, he is a rather typical evil overlord on the surface.

It's all about rationalizing it. Cliches are popular because they work, and the way to not make them look cliche is to add an extra little twist, or think the idea through completely. Then you have a fiction convention, not a cliche.
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Thu Feb 28, 2013 3:36 am
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CowLogic says...

When you think about it, a villain who is evil for the sake of being evil, while it may be cliche, is always welcome and usually believable.

Think about it, people raised in dark situations, who have or develop mental problems as a result of wacky upbringings or brainwashing, can often act purely out of fear, anger and contempt, lashing out at everyone and everything.

Their only motive may be evil, sure, but it's an evil we feel almost sympathy for, while still hating the villain for his/her pure evilness.

The Joker can be described as an example of this. When questioned on his motives, he replies that he is an agent of chaos, he is merely in it for the guns and gasoline, as he tells a dumbstruck mob boss, symbolically burning millions of dollars like it is nothing. As Alfred says, "Some men just like to watch the world burn."

His credentials and past aren't really shown, and the only snippets are from the stories he tells about how he got the scars, which are not entirely true. but you know that guy definitely had some messed up stuff happen to him.

Having a pure evil character sells well, it lets you identify more with the protagonist, and it allows the bad guy to be more scary, especially when the villain is either constantly successful or extremely chaotic (or both).

Food for thought.

PS: The type of villain cloche that I personally can't stand is the Friendly Giant one: This is where they find out at the end that the villain, who already committed all these atrocities, etc, is really just misunderstood and persecuted, which led to him/her carrying out these horrible deeds. Think Super 8.
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Tue Mar 12, 2013 1:31 pm
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ArahAkachi1 says...

Thanks for this. I was actually using a combination of these, but haven't actually wrote it. I will now think of a better way of using my villian.

Once again, thanks Elinor.
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Tue Mar 26, 2013 12:31 pm
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sekangel88 says...

My villain doesn't seem to be doing any of those. Yes he does really horrible things but he is doing it because underneath everything he believes if he removes all the threats, nothing else would happen to his family who had been hurt so much. Their mother died when he and his brothers were young, their dad was a dead beat, and they still didn't have anybody because a lot of their family at that time were gone. It didn't help what he did though and his younger brother tries to stop him, even creating a rebellion against him as much as the younger brother hates it but it's only to stop the villain and try to change his way of thinking. Instead they end up losing more. This idea doesn't sound cliche does it?

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TakeThatYouFiend says...

You didn't mention Dr. Evil.
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Lunarlitgend says...

AspiringAuthorA..M. wrote:Unfortunately a villain of mine fits the second category. :(

Same D:

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