Every story needs an antagonist, sometimes we love a good villain and sometimes they're created to be hated
Who first comes to mind when you think 'villain'? Maybe it's someone you know, a character from a Marvel movie or someone more iconic, timeless, someone from history. We often think of the Spidermans of the world, saving people and making a difference, but for every superhero comes a villain just as well-known. Come with us as we take a look at the very best historical fictional villains in literature.
What is a villain?
The answer to this can be quite subjective depending on the story, scenario or situation, but generally speaking the villain is the antagonist of any storyline. They create the 'challenge' for your lead character and are the main focus or threat posed to a story's protagonist. This can come in the form of getting in the way of what your main character is setting out to achieve, or creating the problem the main character needs to solve.
Why do we need villains?
This stems from the idea of how stories are created and how they develop and form. To write a book you need a goal, objective or something your main character tries to achieve, this is where the villain comes in. Villains often create problems that need to be solved, and voila, your storyline unfolds.
So... What makes a good villain?
Well, this can depend on a lot of things, but ultimately it's similar to what makes a great character in general. Can we understand them? Relate to them? See their motives? A villain always has a backstory, a reason they do what they do and it's important a reader sees these. Anti-villains are a fantastic way of building a connection between a reader and a villain, you can read more about them here. Villains need character and personality, making them unique is a bonus, having a niche and giving them something special can make them stand out from the crowd.
The best fictional villains through history
Personally, I love a good ol' Victorian villain. They've withstood the test of time and remain prominent in literature, feared throughout society and have become the stuff of legend. This era of literature has stood out as a key one in horror writing and is the perfect time to set ye olde' stories in. So without further ado, here are some of my favourite historical villains:
- Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the most iconic villains of all time. Feared by many, his tale has lived on over centuries. First appearing in Penny Dreadful: The String of Pearls, this evil character has been portrayed in musicals, movies and live re-enactments (namely still being a key feature of the London Dungeons!). Sweeney's story is simultaneously believable as it is ludicrous and absurd. His partner in crime, Mrs Lovett adds character and a dark shade of humour to Sweeney's story and their tale has been feared ever since. The genius character continues to live on as one of the most iconic villains of all time.
- Fagin- With a sightly less murderous backstory than Sweeney Todd, Fagin was the secondary villain in Charles Dickens' iconic Oliver Twist. Noticeably, Fagin is not the main antagonist in the story but is arguably more well-known for his role in kidnapping orphaned children and teaching them to be petty criminals in return for food and shelter. His main features are greed and manipulation which are shown and proven throughout the novel with the villain's actions. It's no question that Dickens is a fantastic writer, but his intricate storylines and characterisation of Fagin is key in connecting him with the audience and developing the story... Please Sir, can we have some more of that?
- Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde- Two for the price of one? This mystical character from Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an intriguing depiction of something that reflects reality. In the story we follow the genuine and honest efforts of Dr Jekyll to suppress evil and do good, but in turn we see him transform into the evil Mr Hyde. The direct comparison of this situation with the struggles of those with mental health disorders creates an intriguing characterisation of good and evil in the storyline and lets the reader do their own interpretations of what this means in the real world. We witness a genuine battle of a good person who wants to do good, but is sometimes bad. This in itself offers empathy and finds the reader sometimes rooting for the evil in this story, a genius idea from the author.
- Professor Moriarty- Moriarty took a peculiar journey through time. First appearing as Sherlock Holmes' enemy in The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle, the Professor only took a minor role in the book as he was only ever created as a means to kill off the main character. Since Moriarty's first appearance, he's developed in further cultural adaptations as an important character in the tales becoming more and more prominent. For example, in the recent BBC adaptation Sherlock, Moriarty presents as an important character and antagonist. This could be attributed to the changing face of story structure and the format they're presented in the modern-day, but his constant development and rise to relevance proves his importance as a super-villain of his time.
Writing villains can be a really hard task. As humans we don't often relate to them or root for them, so giving them character and personality can be difficult. Twisted Tales is the perfect opportunity to develop this skill by flipping the narrative and practising telling a story from the perspective of a villain. Can you make a reader sympathise with evil? Could you make a reader root for bad?
You can download free teaching resources to help students develop their writing skills on this challenging topic. If you're a young writer looking to develop your own skills, head here to find writing resources and more!
There are prizes up for grabs and work could be published into an anthology full of incredible villainous writing in the Twisted Tales book. Find out more here and how to enter today.