I am a firm believer in dynamic villains that “take your game to the next level”™. These are five villain archetypes that I use in most of my games and work the best for me. I will give examples of each and hope that you can find use of this. Now lets destroy some lives together!
1) Classic Evil
The Classic Evil archetype. All this character wants is to destroy and conquer for power alone. It can take any form, from a god to a simple politician. If you're crafty enough, even a farmer can fit the mold. This archetype will often use other types of evil to get what they want, only to dispose of them when their use has run out. This archetype will typically end up with no allies in the end and everyone against them, sometimes even making a lesser villain turned anti-hero. For example: think of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader from Star Wars. Palpatine wanted to conquer the galaxy, and he used Darth Vader to do it. Slowly corrupting his mind, he turned Anakin to evil and granted him the title of Darth. He executed “Order 66” to form the Galactic Empire, which ruled the galaxy with an iron fist. In the end, Darth Vader turned against him with the help of Luke. The Pure Evil villain isn't as fun as others in my personal opinion. However, it’s always a good one to fall back on when searching for the right villain for your game. It can fit in every game. The players are going to enjoy kicking their butt in the end, I can guarantee you that much.
2) The Fallen Hero
The Fallen Hero is an interesting archetype because you have a character that people loved, perhaps even worshiped, fall to the dark side. This is a common trope in most of media. WWE calls this a heel turn, where you have a character that is a hero in the eyes of the people and some event causes them to turn bad. Typically you will see this as the loss of a loved one, betrayals, or even when all the good they do amounts to nothing. These villains will almost always argue they are doing it for good reasons, but it’s often an excuse for them to bear the weight of what they are doing. The fallen hero usually becomes the evil they were fighting, due to losing faith in the good. Harvey Dent from Batman is a great example of a fallen hero.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
-Harvey Dent, The Dark knight
Harvey Dent wanted to save the people of Gotham from The Joker; he teamed up with Gordon and Batman to stop him, but ended up getting outplayed by his enemy. All of it left him horrifically scarred and his girlfriend dead. This is that heel turn moment I was talking about: the loss of a loved one made him snap and forced him to give into despair, becoming Two Face. The Joker uses this moment to convince him into taking revenge on those who he thought responsible for his wife's death. Harvey Dent started at the top and fell so far down he couldn't see the justification of doing things the right way anymore. That's what makes a great fallen hero.
3) The Anti-Villain
The anti-villain is someone who has a positive goal, though their means of doing such is evil. These types of villains are really good for testing the morals of the surrounding characters. Let's look at Max Payne from the good old Playstation era. To summarize his story: Max was a cop and his family was murdered by junkies high on a new drug called valkyr. He moved to the DEA to find where this drug came from, ultimately seeking revenge. One side says he's doing the city a favor by getting rid of crime, but Max doesn't follow the law and straight up murders people in cold blood. At one point in the game, he gets framed for the murder of his partner. This is where he starts doing the evil stuff to get good deeds done.
“Home, sweet home. Something in the night felt like a door had been opened, an echo of the past, an old monster snapping its eyes open in the depths of my brain. Closing your eyes forces you to look at the darkness inside.” – Max Payne 2
I picked Max Payne as an example because he knows what he's become. When they stop caring about the morality of the decisions they make, it can make for a very intimidating villain. They have nothing holding them back.
4) The Jester
Before I even go into this one: yes, it’s the Joker Archetype. The Jester is the insane mastermind; “Chaos” is their middle name. These villains like to play with their food, and as such they find ways to torture the hero and have fun doing it. They may be crazy, but the jester is dangerously cunning and always has a plan. A key feature of the Jester is that they usually don’t immediately have a hero in their way, allowing them to enact whatever madness they want. When the heroes start messing with their plans, you will see them progressively slip deeper into insanity as the hero continues to thwart them. They will start to do more insane and elaborate plans like destroying a whole city or worse. Ego destroys these characters. The more intricate the plan, there’s a larger chance of error. When an error happens they beat themselves up for the mistakes allowing the hero to slip in and do their work. Sometimes they get beaten so bad that impulse for insanity causes them to come out in the open. Now, I would talk about the Joker but I feel that the character is too obvious when talking about this type of villain. I’d rather talk about Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2.
"You see, this is what I don't get about you bad guys: You know the hero's gonna win, but you don't just die quickly. Example: This one guy in New Haven, right? City's burning, people are dying left and right, yadda, yadda, yadda... This jackhole rushes me with a spoon, A FRICKIN' SPOON! And I'm dying laughing, right? So I scoop out his stupid little eyeballs with it and his kids are all, 'WAAAAAAH!' And-ahahaha... I can't even... ahahahahah! He can't see where he's going, he's bumping into stuff and... I dunno, maybe you had to be there. The moral is: you're a total bitch." - Handsome Jack
The fun dynamic to Jack is that he sees himself as the hero that is going to save Pandora, the planet they are on. He wants to revive an ancient alien called the Warrior to restore peace and get rid of all the “bandits”. Jack is just an annoyance until about three quarters through the game, then he becomes the actual villain. He progressively becomes a dick throughout the game. He harasses you and tries to slow you down with random obstacles here and there. Jack would always make you laugh and feel like crap at the same time, he is really good at talking down to people and not caring at all. He loves torturing the heroes (Vault Hunters) until it got to the point of him trying to stop them. Handsome Jack is great. If you're a video game junky and have yet to play Borderlands 2, I suggest doing so. It's fantastic.
5) The Tragic Villain
I will admit, this is my favorite type of villain. If you're trying to get a lot of emotion out of your players at the end game, I would suggest trying this one. The Tragic Villain is aware of their evil deeds, though they don’t take pleasure in it most of the time. They are typically doing evil because of something that's either forcing their hand or another circumstance beyond their control. These villains correlate with the anti-hero and anti-villain archetype because they both are thematically evil and have some traumatic event happen to them. For example: Frankenstein’s Monster is a tragic villain from the original book. He wanted nothing more than to be accepted, but because of his appearance, all he got was rejection. Over time, he eventually finds out he was created. That was his turning point; he started killing those who rejected him, burned a cottage, strangled the brother of Dr. Frankenstein, and hanged his servant. The monster eventually asks Dr. Frankenstein for a mate, saying that humanity would never see him again if the doctor created one for him. Frankenstein agrees but right before giving life to his monster’s partner, he kills her. The monster kills Frankenstein's best friend and wife out of rage. The doctor swears vengeance against the monster and heads north, but dies of exhaustion. The monster shows up, and even though he has all this built up anger, feels nothing but remorse for his fallen father. Finally travelling all the way to the North Pole, he builds a pyre and then ends his own life upon it.
“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”
― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
It can be tough to place the right villain in your stories or games. These are the five I usually rely on because of how many examples there are of each archetype. Hopefully the examples and explanations help you form some ideas when writing up your next villain. If there is one piece of advice I can give you, it’s to use references.
Benjamin Witunsky, artist, writer and nerd savant. Cofounder of the NerdMantle Podcast available on Soundcloud, Itunes and Google Play Music.
Photo Credit: https://chroniccomplainerreviews.com/category/borderlands-series/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.