Using Archetypes To Create Strong Villains
Antagonists, nemeses, and villains, oh my, creating the rival hero journey!
The first time I read Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers 3rd Edition, I felt like I had embarked on my own personal hero’s journey. That was in the 1990s. I own three copies of that book, including the 25th anniversary edition.
Not only was it a book about writing craft, it was a study in human psychology personifying the dynamics of the subconscious that manifests in us all.
I could see all the archetypes described in the book, all around me, in everyone, including myself. Life did not feel so mundane anymore.
It helped me understand the people I interacted with in a more objective observing way that help me navigate my world, or at least understand aspects and dynamics better.
An adage and cliché I love is “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
My writing improved a great deal, as did my ability to understand how stories work.
What are archetypes?
Archetypes represent a set of universally recognized behaviors, as suggested by Carl Jung’s study started back in 1947.
Archetypes are universal, inborn models of people, behaviors, and personalities that play a role in influencing human behavior. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory suggested that these archetypes were archaic forms of innate human knowledge passed down from our ancestors.
In Jungian psychology, these archetypes represent universal patterns and images that are part of the collective unconscious. Jung believed that we inherit these archetypes much in the way we inherit instinctive patterns of behavior. ~Kendra Cherry on the verywellmind.com.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell’s interpretation of myths or monomyths showed that mythic structure of human nature operated on four levels concurrently: the metaphysical (spiritual), cosmological, sociological, and psychological.
There are three stages in the hero’s journey: departure, initiation, and the return. There are also connections between Campbell and Carl Jung’s works made in this article.
Storytelling is the form humans created to show, share, and give voice to the human experience. It all started as pictographs on cave walls and evolved.
Our understanding today of storytelling and life is deeper, and more versatile as time passes.
You can see additional dimensions in how all these work when you read Joseph Campbell’s lifelong study and book, A Hero With A Thousand Faces. The graph below will give an idea at a glance.
Christopher Vogler based his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers 3rd Edition on Campbell’s works, The Hero’s Journey.
Vogler’s book goes in depth about character type and psyche, about the hero, mentor, ally, herald, trickster, shapeshifter, guardian, and shadow that populate all stories. ProWritingAid Article on Archetypes.
These character types manifest in all of us at different times in our lives, and so they should for your character as well. When I read the book, it helped me understand the people around and identify the part they played in my life in that moment in time.
So how do you use this archetype information to create villains?
Well, first, let’s look at the differences in rivals, bad guys, and arch-enemies.
What is the difference between antagonist, nemeses, and villains?
An antagonist can be anybody: friend, family, co-worker, sidekick, mentor, and so forth.
Often in romance, the two romantic characters also act as antagonists to each other throughout. The antagonist does not have to be a bad guy, or be even completely in the wrong.
Sometimes it is just the complication of opposing desires/wants/needs, or misunderstanding or misinterpretation that sets them at opposite purposes.
- Two boys in school sports and both want to win the medal.
- Two coworkers giving different versions of the same project vying to win the boss’s approval and the client contract for the firm.
Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, one of the most infamous and well-known bad guys is referred to as an overarching foe, or arch-villain, Professor Moriarty.
A nemesis is often an opponent on the opposite spectrum of the goal, need, or mission, vying for opposing results or control for their own nefarious purposes.
John Travolta’s character, Major Vic “Deak” Deakins, in the 1996 movie Broken Arrow, steals B83 nuclear bomb and ejects his partner from the stealth fighter they are flying during a practice exercise.
(Spoiler Alert) Here, Deak, the nemesis has sold the nuke for a lot of money. The goal is power and riches gained (greed) by betrayal of overlapping loyalties in an act of treason.
Another great villain, is Thrawn from the Star Wars expanded universe. He is an alien species who joined the Empire, rising in the ranks to become a scarier nemesis than Darth Vader, IMO.
Why? He has no superpower, just a superior intellect and the ability to predict flaws and weaknesses, as well as strengths, by studying the art of a culture. He is a military strategists and tactical genius. One of my all time favorite villains.
The nemesis in the form of Major Vic Deakins is mentor, friend, and trusted authority. Where Thrawn is an Admiral with his own fleet in the Empire vying to fill the power vacuum left by Emperor Palpatine.
Timothy Zahn is the creator of Thrawn. His first appearance in the Star Wars expanded universe book series occurred in the SW trilogy book one, Heir To the Empire. (Now called Star War Legacy Series.)
I am so psyched. My research just revealed that Thrawn will be in the Disney series, Ahsoka — tentative premiere date August 2023.
Dang, I hope they do him justice.
Holly Lisle says, “Villains act against that which is good, taking definitely evil actions that result in horrifying consequences that envelop the hero and others.” How To Write Villains.
Is your character evil or just misunderstood, or just a human whose views became skewed or twisted along the way?
What is an Arch-villain? From Your Dictionary:
A supreme villain; the most evil or powerful villain.
I tend to think of the Marvel types as Arch-Villains. Sherlock Holmes’s Moriarty is classified as an arch-villain because of his superior intellect and long standing rivalry.
There is something over the top about these characters, and they are relentless — hard to kill too.
Another example from Marvel is Mr. Glass who was introduce in the movie Unbreakable, and goes on to star in a sequel called, Mr. Glass.
Glass’s childhood is miserable because of his disease, Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta, his bones are brittle and break easily, but his battle with the disease his entire life shapes the man he becomes and his twisted perspective on the world around him. (See early life)
Batman’s The Joker. There are many versions of the Joker backstory. One of the most recent is the movie called, The Joker.
Seeing The Joker through his own warped perspective is fascinating, while making us understand how the child he was becomes the supervillain.
This character is very human, very flawed, and his perspective on life becomes very dark. We the audience get it because he is sad, misunderstood, and an underdog starting out. (A play on the save the cat moment?)
Video The Joker As A Character Study, Behind the Scenes-22 mins.
Why the villain/antagonist is equal to the hero’s role in the story?
A powerful story has a powerful antagonist or villain or at least one equal to the hero. This nemesis challenges and puts roadblocks in the hero’s way often because they want the same thing, but for different reasons or purposes.
Crafting a powerful villain makes a stronger hero because the antagonist becomes that invisible, immovable force the hero smashes and chafes against throughout the story, bringing the hero to a death moment. The dark night of the soul when all is lost, and it looks like the bad guy has won.
Again, I refer to Marvel for memorable villains, Thanos, Magneto, Emma Frost, and my favorite Loki.
We talk about these bigger than life villains but what about low key antagonists?
Dr. Charles Nichols, Kimble’s best friend, in the movie The Fugitive.
The ally or co-worker, Special Agent John Royce in the movie U. S. Marshalls.
Authority figure, mentor, like in Broken Arrow.
What about when the antagonist is not so obvious or a person, like in Charlotte’s Webb?
Wilber’s is happy living his life on the farm, until he finds out that the reason his life is so cushy is because he is being fattened up to be sold at the fair for the butchers block.
The antagonist here is life, the way of the world, and situational. It’s not even a person per say, but what happens to pigs living on a working farm.
So, which type of antagonist, nemesis, villain fits your story best?
The many masks of the archetypes of personality can be applied to the same character for a layered affect. According to Christopher Vogler, the most common character types are: hero, mentor, ally, herald, trickster, shapeshifter, guardian, and shadow.
One character can play many roles, or those roles can be used as masks to hide or disguise the villain.
The answer to the question for best fit is all of them, because people change, grow or regress, as their choices, situations, and circumstance change throughout life.
In early life, your villain may have been a hero or ally, later a mentor, guardian, or herald, who developed into the trickster, and/or shapeshifter to ultimately morph into the shadow character an amalgamation of all the dark sides.
In having a basic understanding of these roles in everyone’s lives and within ourselves, we can use them to shape believable villains that scare the crap out of people, and who the reader can also sympathize with despite abhorring their choices or hating what the antagonist has evolved into.
Want a cheat sheet? Click here to get my Villain Character Profile Cheat Sheet.
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