Clichés Part 2: Villians

Top ten ways to spot the Evil, Power-Hungry Villain Cliché

Quick, read the following paragraph:

Evil High Lord Ruderon, eldest son of the half-demon Scythe, commands his chaotic army of Lizard Men, Killer Terriers and Cannibalistic Toads in a bid for world domination. Standing against him is a band of warriors serving the Path of Light, a sect of druids seeking balance in the cosmos.

Now answer the questions, or if you’re too lazy (boo!) scroll down to the answers:

Who is the villain?
Evil or good?
Proof of this?
What does he want?
Why does he want it?

*Final Jeopardy Music* Alright, pens down. Everyone ready with their answers?

Who is the villain? Evil High Lord Ruderon

Evil or good? Evil…it says so in the dude’s title!

Possible proof of this? Son of a demon, commands a ‘chaotic’ horde of bad things like killer terriers, opposes druids who seem to be good

What does he want? World domination

Why does he want it? Um, because…because…

And there we have it. The number 1 sign you have a cliché villain on your hands is the fact that there is no motivation for power (or for being evil in the first place). He just wants power and is evil. No reasoning needed–if it’s good enough for the author, it’s good enough for the reader, right? After all, those readers are pretty bright…and (duh) will know he’s the bad guy without me wasting time explaining why.

No, no, no. Everyone has a reason for what they do. Don’t skimp on the villain–he’s one of the most interesting characters in your story. If you don’t show us WHY he’s being evil/striving for power and glory, it hurts your story and screams cardboard character.

Other signs you need to stage a cliché intervention:

2. He paces a lot &/ drinks wine pretty much in every scene

What is it with the pacing and the wine? I mean seriously, too much wine and not even the most regimented of evil villains will be able to walk a straight line, much less command armies and take over the world. He needs AA, not a fine Merlot.

3. He kills his high ranking minions during fits of rage

This one really bugs me. I mean, not all minions are the sharpest tool in the shed, sure, but cream rises to the top (spotting the clichés, are you?), right? Those high-ranking officials are the best of the best. What villain would clamp his gauntleted hand over the throat of a general just because he was a little miffed that the Hero circumvented his latest nasty trap? I mean, please. Maybe he’d stomp on one of those cannibal toads, but murder a second-in-command just because? No way–the villain is way too smart to waste talent.

4. He rules with a crushing iron fist and treats all enemies/minions/underlings equally bad

Another annoyance. People can rule through fear–I get that. But ask yourself, how far would Hitler have gotten if he started sending his generals to the gas chamber just because the wifey was PMSing or he lost a wad of cash at the track? Villains can rule cruelly, but the followers have to get something out of it, or they’ll lose patience and overthrow him. This is (unfortunately) how it goes in real life, and fiction should be no different.

5. He makes a series of stupid mistakes, or one big one that leads to his downfall which even a Newbie Minion wouldn’t make

Villains are smart. Period. If they made loads of mistakes, they wouldn’t be in a situation to take over the world or lead minion armies. Even baddies like Freddy Kreuger or Jack the Ripper knew their stuff enough to keep sowing discord for a long, long, time. Sure, your villain will need to make a mistake sooner or later for your hero to win, but whatever happens, make sure the mistake is logical and character-consistent, not bone-headed.

6. He has no redeeming qualities

In this sense, a villain is just like any other main character. If he is so evil, so cruel that there is nothing about him that we can understand, recognize or feel within ourselves, the villain screams cliché. This ties in with the whole ‘want power for the sake of power/evil for the sake of evil’ thing. The best way for us to believe your villain is compelling is if he has a redeeming quality, something that humanizes him, just like your protag does.

Show us into his soul, just a little. If he has a goal, want or desire that we understand or have felt our self (the desire to protect family, the need to be accepted, the desire to see a world of equality and prosperity) then we understand his motivation to do what he does. We might disagree with his methods to get it, but we can see where he’s coming from.

If he is a product of abuse, poverty, illness, etc., the reader will feel some empathy and see how that upbringing has shaped him. Sometimes the best villains are the ones who have the same goal or desire as the Hero only their route to achieve it and their choices are different.

7. The final climatic scene shows a dialogue where the villain reveals his master plan to the hero in order to gloat

Oh wow–we’ve all seen this, haven’t we? In fact, I’ll say that it happens enough that it ‘can’ be pulled off, but if it’s done without skill, it feels cliché. This plot device, if used, should be a combination of the hero asking questions and the villain trying to clarify himself WITHOUT the element of gloating. Unless you’re very skilled, I’d avoid this one.

8. He allows the hero to reach his peak strength before ‘doing something about him’

Um, yeah, this makes sense. Let the hero gather his strength/create an army/weapon up/etc before the villain finally decides to take him out. Um, no. Just like the rest of us, Villains don’t like road bumps, they don’t want snags. Smooth and easy saves time, manpower and money.

9. They own a castle, on a barren landscape, frequented by lightning and darkness

Okay, let’s think about this logically. If you wanted to hide out, stay off the radar, amass an army, etc., I completely understand finding a place that’s out of the way with only gophers for company. That make sense. BUT, Don’t go too far off the beaten path. A fortress halfway up a mountains, out in the desert, smack dab in the middle of a bog…does it make sense to choose such a local?

Think about supplying those minions of yours–how are you going to find fresh water stuck in the Sahara? Too much darkness can lead to a vitamin D deficiency, a precursor to many diseases–doesn’t your villain want to enjoy those golden years? Then there’s stuff like Beaver Fever. Can you imagine the medicare costs? Oi. Now that will cut a big chunk out of the Evil Overlord budget.

Atmosphere is important, but don’t verge into the cliché to achieve it.

10. He has unexplained wealth and resources at his disposal

I can sort of understand this for a villain who has worked his way into an army of minions to steal from the populaces (it’s unexplained, but logically alluded to), but what about those villains who show up in a town half-dead and zip in their pockets because they had an early run-in with the hero that almost did them in? It seems like all they need to do is make a few connections and boom, guns, ammo, clothes, a place to stay. If you look at your psychotic killers who stake out seedy motels, how do they pay for their dry cleaning when Tide can’t get out the bloodstains? I have yet to read about Joe Chainsaw rifling through his victim’s pockets after delivering room service to #303, have you?

And your bonus reason (just because you’re all so special)…

11. Your villain has a name like Evil High Lord Ruderon

Um, yeah. Nuff said.

Villains can be evil. They can desire power. These things don’t have to be elements that make them into the cardboard villain cliché. Just treat Uncle Villain like any other character in your story and show the reader WHY he’s hungry for power, WHY he’s evil. Make us sympathize with him, or at least empathize where he’s coming from. Cardboard characters are ones with no motivations, no history, no personality facets. There is no room in good fiction for them.

Look for a fresh edge, a new way to present your villain. How would you describe them if they were the Hero, on the side of right? Remember, villains have their own story. Very few of them see themselves as ‘evil’ or as being in the wrong. In their eyes, the things they do are to achieve an end that has purpose and meaning. According to them, their actions are justified, and it is the writer’s job to show it. Use your imagination, and find your way out of the villain clichés.

Have another Villain cliché you see all the time? Feel free to post it in the comments!


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Characters, Cliches, Villains. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Clichés Part 2: Villians

  1. Mary Witzl says:

    Interesting, thoughtful post.

    Luc beat me to it: a villain is usually hideously ugly or stunningly attractive. Yaawwwn.

    My very favorite villain is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ ‘Woman in White.’ Fosco is incredibly charismatic, intelligent, and has wonderful talents and interesting qualities. He also has a loyal, rather icky wife who is a fascinating villain herself.

  2. Angela says:

    A list after my own heart!

    LOL, Brad–where do you think I got all these cliches from? humiliating, but I’ve done all of these at one time or another. The pacing, the wine, the secret base of operations in a swampy area (and on a mountain, both in the same MS!), the unlimited resources, evil for the sake of being evil, no thought as to providing food/water for the troops in unusual settings, the gloating that leads to the downfall…yep all me. I am guilty. I think the only one I haven’t done is # 3, killing a minion official in a fit of rage. BUT I’ve seen it happen in work that I critique, so I thought it belonged on the list, lol.

  3. Angela says:

    Keep those additions coming guys! Thanks for the imput!

    And Merc, thanks for stopping in–there are few writers that I know who love villains like you do, so getting the thumbs up is huge!

  4. Merc says:

    Loved the list, Angela! Great job. B-)

    We linked to the post on the TS. O:)


  5. Marian says:

    Great list. I especially like the comment about names. One reason I stopped reading Dean Koontz was because his villains had telegraph-their-evil names like Enoch Cain or Vladimir Laputa.

    What I never again want to read about regarding a villain :

    1. Villain is a pedophile
    2. Villain is related to the hero
    3. Villain uses science and technology (which are therefore evil) while the hero uses… no, make that coexists in harmony with and is helped by nature or natural forces.
    4. Villain is a religious fanatic who prays every day and rapes someone just as often
    5. Villain mistreats or hates his own family. I’ve seen this in Harry Potter fanfics where Lucius Malfoy beats his wife and abuses his son. Yes, there are people who do this in real life, but it’s usually portrayed in a bald, self-explanatory way in fiction. As in, “The guy beats his wife, so he’s evil. Evil!” This still doesn’t make a villain scary or original unless he comes up with a really creative way to manipulate the people who care about him.

  6. Luc2 says:

    LOL, Kate.
    Beldror in pink, that will be interesting to read.

  7. WordWrangler says:

    This made perfect sense to me! I’ve got some a villain in my mg mystery, but I don’t want him (or her) revealed until the end. Thanks for the head’s up. I’ll try not to have him pacing the floor, drinking a wine cooler while demanding his horde of mean middle schoolers beat up the 3rd graders.

    REally, really great blog you’ve got going here. You rock!!

  8. the Brad says:

    Ha! A list after my own heart! You need to check out my manny sometime, critique the villains and all.

    P.S. It’s really hard to find good minions these days. just can’t afford to provide them with health coverage, and gold ducats are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by.

  9. Creative A says:

    You really summed this up…I loved the one about how they always drink expensive wine. I read two books in a row where both villains were always lounging about their expensive, gothic-styled villas, sitting behind mahogany desks and drinking merlot from goblets. I was ready to scream.

    The only thing I think needs mentioning is megalomania…it’s a mental disease where basically, power gets to your head, and you go mad. This happened with pretty much every historical villain I can think of. I think that’s why it’s so easy for people to get caught up in these villain cliches.

    Great post!

  10. Angela says:

    LOL. Kate, how do you think I know the signs of cliche villians? I’d like to tell you that Becca’s work is filled with hollow, motavationaless bad guys, but sadly they take up residence in my own past novels…*shudders*

    *coughs* Let’s never speak of this again.

  11. Kate says:

    Good post, Angela. It made me cringe a bit when I think of my ‘baddy’. Luc will tell you, he’s a bit short on motivation (my baddy, that is, not Luc). He’ll be much better though, when I rewrite him in pink tights and a tutu! 🙂

  12. Angela says:

    Good ones, Luc! I agree with all of those. Definitely the ‘beautiful or hit-by-a-bus’ ugly is one that does happen quite frequently.

  13. Luc2 says:

    Oh, I’ve seen plenty of posts on this subject, but again this is an original take. Funny.

    Other cliches for villains:
    – they tend to cackle instead of laugh. Why?
    – the dark clothes. Dress ‘m up in pink, with plenty of lace and silk ribbons!
    – they’re either beautiful or ugly, with the obligatory scars. Why not make them plain looking and chubby, and thoroughly unimposing?

  14. Angela says:

    Good point, Courtney. I agree, something other than the usual abuse story needs to come to life. I was thinking of serial killers at the time, and how often what they do is a way to act out something they themselves experienced in their past(targeting & killing victims to ‘free’ them from a life altering circumstance–guilt, grief, betrayal, etc) or taking revenge on a certain type victim that fits the profile of a past attacker (abusive parantal figure, etc).

    *Hugs Freddy Kreuger* I had like six posters of the guy all over my walls growing up. Looking back, I can see why my parents were a bit disturbed…

  15. courtney says:

    LOVE this entry. It’s amazing how many people can confuse function for motivation (I hope what I said just made sense). The bad guy’s function is to be bad… but the why! The answers there are what opens him up. Imagine Snape without his motivation. *shudders* Cardboard cutout!

    And your whole list was brilliant and funny. Also I love this entry because you mentioned Freddy Kreuger! You’re totally right. They only tripped up because they got comfortable in their smarts, not because they were stupid from the get go.

    One thing I will say is that shaping a villain’s past out of poverty, abuse, illness et al–it is often successful but those kind of, some might say, authorial excuses to pardon the villain or to add dimension (I definitely don’t think they are always authorial excuses, as in every case, it depends on the execution), can easily become a cliche in itself. I am always looking for the interesting and empathetic side of a villain, but I must admit when I start reading about the broken homes or abusive past, I pause and cross my fingers that it’s in capable hands or that something new is going to be brought to the table.

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