Much has been written and discussed about the Hero’s Journey, but little has been explored about the Villain’s Quest. I would like to do that now, as best I can.
Though it is true that all stories will have a Hero and that most Heroes go through the Hero’s Journey, not all stories have a definable Villain. In many ways, a Villain is the “anti-hero” and only exists, whether real or perceived by the Hero, in order to better define the Hero. Many stories make effective use of a simple Antagonists, to which I must now address.
Just as all good stories have Heroes, all good stories will have an antagonist. But an antagonist does not need to be a Villain at all. Antagonists can be monsters, having no feeling or plan (Jaws). Antagonists can be bullies, only existing so that there may be a means in which the Hero could fail (Biff in Back to the Future). Antagonists can be mentally insane, equating to a human “monster” (The Hills Have Eyes). Antagonists can be paranormal, acting only on the pursuit of evil (Duma Key). Antagonists can be metaphysical, outside circumstances that drive the Hero, as in time (The Butterfly Effect). Antagonists can be perceived Villains who are really Heroes in disguise (Snape in Harry Potter). And Antagonists can even be Heroes antagonizing each other (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).
Lastly, an Antagonist can be, what I call, a true Villain. That’s what this is about, the Quest of a true Villain and how that can be defined.
Some time ago I wrote on the Hero’s Journey, where I demonstrated a simplified 10 step process to fulfilling that journey. So, in conjunction with what I previously wrote, I will now give a 10 step Villain’s Quest, briefly explained and demonstrated through four movie Villains. Remember, these steps are incredibly subjective and just because your Villain does not fulfill them all it doesn’t make them a poor Villain. But most good Villains will, otherwise they are merely one of the above defined Antagonists. The movies covered here are the Princess Bride, X-Men, Phantom of the Opera, and Underworld. Here you will see three Villains and one perceived Villain, who is really a Hero in disguise. Warning… if you’ve never seen these movies, then you’ll encounter spoilers!
The Villain’s Quest
Inadequate life – The life of the villain can by vast and differ significantly from story to story. But one thing holds true for all, the villain feels wholly inadequate in his life.
- Princess Bride – Humperdink feels he is being cheated from the crown because of a law.
- X-Men – Magneto has been stripped of many of his basic rights as a human, even as early as childhood.
- Phantom of the Opera – The Phantom is scarred from childhood. He has been ostracized from society and has never known love.
- Underworld – Lucian has been hunted by vampires most of his life, and lost his true love to the vampires.
Need for Vindication – The villain makes a conscious decision to seek revenge, retribution, or justice for the wrongs done to him.
- PB – Humperdink decides he will do what is necessary to be King.
- XM – Magneto feels society will never except mutants, and that it is his duty to force society’s acceptance.
- PotO – The Phantom wants love from Christine, but when she does not reciprocate feels he must take her by force.
- UW – Lucian feels he needs to make the vampires pay for the loss of his true love.
The Plan – The villain makes a calculated plan to achieve Vindication.
- PB – Humperdink wants to start a war, based on the murder of his Bride… launching him not only into kingship, but perceived heroship from the kingdom.
- XM – Magneto builds a machine that will turn normal people into mutants.
- PotO – When Christine does not return his love, the Phantom writes an opera where he plans to participate and kidnap Christine.
- UW – Lucian plans to fuse Lycan and Vampire blood into a cross-breed, forcing a peace between vampires and Lycans.
The Flaw – The plan is flawed. Whether the Villain turns a blind eye to the Flaw, never realizes the Flaw, or the Hero is the unknown variable that causes the Flaw, it is still there.
- PB – Humperdink did not know about Westley, nor does he realize the power love has to conquer all.
- XM – Magneto fails to account for the actions of the X-Men.
- PotO – The Phantom fails to consider what would happen if Christine continued to refused his love or to consider the heroic actions of Raul.
- UW – Lucian’s archenemy, Viktor, has been awakened and he doesn’t know it.
The Deception – This is the Villain’s attempt to portray himself as the Hero, or as being just in his actions. This can be viewed as a subset of The Plan or as a passive attempt to attain Vindication without the need for The Great Sin. One notable instance where The Deception does not occur is in The Dark Knight, but one can also argue that the Joker does not meet the definition for a Villain, but rather a human “monster”.
- PB – Humperdink tries convince Buttercup that he is honorable.
- XM – Magneto is convinced that his plan is the only way to achieve peace.
- PotO – The Phantom has spent years being a musical mentor to Christine, hoping to win her love.
- UW – Lucian has convinced his fellow Lycans that he is in the right.
Minions – The villain surrounds himself with helpers in order to carry out the Plan.
- PB – Humperdink hires assassins at the beginning, and enlists the aide of Count Rugen later.
- XM – Magneto has lesser mutants to help him.
- PotO – The Phantom has an “insider” in the opera house who helps facilitate his plans.
- UW – Lucian is surrounded by fellow Lycans.
The Great Sin – The Villain seeks recognition and respect. He wants to define himself above and beyond his peers both villainous and heroic, usually leading to The Great Sin. In order to prove himself, he executes an action so vile as to leave no doubt of his ability. This can be the singular sin that defines his Plan, an escalated version of what he is already doing, such as a Mass Murder, or merely a precursor to prove he is capable of his Plan. Regardless, this Great Sin is something the Minions or other “bad guys” involved would hesitate to do. In smaller, less epic stories, this can simply mean “cheating”. Ultimately, this will define him as greater than any other so-called Villains, thus redefining them as merely Minions.
- PB – Humperdink “kills” Westley in the Pit of Dispair, going further than Count Rugen was willing.
- XM – Magneto kidnaps Rouge with the intention of sacrificing her “for the greater good”, and also the culmination of his plan can be seen as part of The Great Sin.
- PotO – The Phantom murders someone during a performance for everyone to see, and eventually demands that his opera be performed in recognition of his musical genius.
- UW – Lucian’s Plan in and of itself is The Great Sin. Mixing the blood of vampires and Lycans is an atrocity. By being successful he will assert himself greater than his archenemy.
Vindication – This is when the plan comes to fulfillment, or at least the perception of its eminent fulfillment. The Villain feels like he cannot be stopped, that he has succeeded, and that he has finally vindicated the inadequacies of his life.
- PB – The wedding is rushed through, and Humperdink thinks he has succeeded in becoming King.
- XM – Magneto’s machine is working, and the X-Men cannot stop him.
- PotO – The Phantom succeeds in kidnapping Christine and then trapping Raul.
- UW – Lucian succeeds in creating a hybrid.
Realization of Mortality – This is the point where the Villain recognizes the Flaw for what it is. It is where he realizes that he could fail. It often includes a desperate push to try to complete the plan, in which the Villain and Hero have an ultimate showdown before the Villain will admit defeat.
- PB – Westley returns and faces Humperdink.
- XM – the X-Men prove to be stronger than Magneto thinks.
- PotO – The Phantom realizes that Christine will never love him and tries to make her choose him to save Raul.
- UW – Lucian dies to see his Plan successful.
The Fall – The Villain’s plan fails. It may be in part or in whole, or it may be a lack of Vindication, though the Plan was executed to its end.
- PB – Humperdink tied up and the others escape.
- XM – Magneto’s machine destroyed.
- PotO – The Phantom releases Christine and Raul.
- UW – There is no Fall! Lucian succeeds and is proved to be a Hero in disguise! The real Villain is Viktor!