To complement our Hero Cliches post, we have put together some of the worst offending cliches that come up time and again when writing about villains. Villains help to drive the conflict in your story, and they play a big part in you story’s success or failure. You want your villains to be remembered because they were great characters, not because they were just another cliche.
The Evil Ruler
It doesn’t matter if it’s an evil Queen or an evil King or maybe they’ve just overtaken the MCs Kingdom and is now ruling in their stead. If it’s a fantasy you can pretty much guarantee whoever is on the throne is the bad guy. Very often in these cases the evil ruler is just an ominous presence with very little development of their own, for example in the Throne of Glass series all we really know of the King is that Celaena is afraid of him, but beyond that we don’t even know his name. It is important that your ruler/villain is more than just an archetype.
The villain in every dystopia is always the evil government. Usually there is someone at the head of the government, such as President Snow in the Hunger Games and Jeanine in Divergent. And in every single story the rebels are trying to overthrow them, this even stretches far back enough to be the plot of Star Wars. There is very little flexibility in how this storyline is approached and we suggest when tackling your evil government, to find novel ways to approach it.
Wanting to “Make the World a Better Place.”
Too many villains tuck their motivations behind a shroud of ‘I’m going to die to make the world a better place’. Sure your villain needs to believe in what they’re doing, but that doesn’t mean they think killing hundreds of people will make the world a better place. An example would be Valentine from Kingsman: the Secret Service. Your villain might think they’re doing the right thing, but it doesn’t exactly need to be extreme.
The ‘Misunderstood’ Villain
This trope has become more common in later days, so much so that it’s become a cliche, particularly after Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recent Loki. The villain is a lonely, unloved person who is severely damaged inside and at the end of the day all they really need is a hug. This villain probably has daddy issues and competition with siblings or colleagues. Since when did it become wrong for a villain just to be evil?
Revenge is too frequent a motivator, whether it is for the hero or the villain. “X killed my brother so I’m going to kill the world.” Where is the logic in that? It’s even more common that the revenge is due to a character (almost always female) being ‘refrigerated’. There are a lot of examples of villains who follow this path; Syndrome from the Incredibles, Silva from Skyfall, Harvey Dent from the Dark Knight, and Harry Osborne both in Spiderman 3 and the Amazing Spiderman 2.
A character who takes pleasure in killing just for the sake of it. There is no other motivation influencing him, they don’t have an end game other than to cause as much destruction as possible. They take a ridiculous amount of pleasure in torturing their lackeys, to the point you have to ask why would anyone even follow them? Sure your villain can be cruel and vindictive, but don’t forget they need a motivation as well.
The Religious Nut
This is the villain who thinks that they are purging society. They might be trying to rid the world of LGBT, colour or diversity (and in many of these cases the hero will follow the White Saviour premise, usually being straight, white and male). A key example of this would be Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have the religious nut with their sacrificial rituals and practice of cannibalism. Where are the villains who are religious but also respect other people’s beliefs? Where religion is a part of their character, but not the source of their evil?
The Villain Being Gay, POC or Disabled
Let’s be honest here, we shouldn’t even have to list this one but unfortunately it’s still a thing. Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine in Kingsman (lisp, POC), Silva in Skyfall (gay), Nadia in the Demonata series (albino). It’s more common that a minority character of a different sexual orientation, ethnic background or who is disabled will be portrayed as the villain or the hero (and in the case of the hero there is the risk of ableism eg. Jake Sully in Avatar). We’re not saying your villain can’t be any of those things, just be cautious of how it’s approached. Your villain shouldn’t be evil just because of his disability/orientation/ethnicity.
If you find yourself falling into one of these traps, ask yourself if there’s a way to put an imaginative spin on the concept. Be careful and considerate and truly think about the motivations of your villain. Your villain deserves to be as well developed as your hero, so don’t just pick a cliched personality because it’s easier for the villain to be that way, spend time understanding your villain and your story will be a lot better for it.
-Nadia and Elizabeth