The Villain’s Quest

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!

About Keven Newsome

Keven Newsome is an musician, theologian, and a bit of a nerd. He enjoys a variety of musical genres, from Christian rock to movie soundtracks to KPop. A former band director, he plays about a dozen instruments, given a couple of weeks to practice up. His theological work has included a book on multi-generational ministry and a thesis on the theology of communicating with the dead. As for his nerd-card, he enjoys the fandoms of The Legend of Zelda, Doctor Who, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Lord of the Rings. With a music degree from William Carey University and a theology degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Keven actively serves in ministry as both pastor and worship leader.

18 comments on “The Villain’s Quest

  1. Okay, seriously, you read my mind. I was JUST about to post a finished article on villains (albeit, not quite so compreshensive as yours) and use that exact same drawing to illustrate! XD

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a good chuckle.

  2. Great post and analysis of the oft-misunderstood (or at least badly executed) character which is the Villain. As a minor quibble, I would say that if you used Harvey Dent/Two Face as your starting point for The Dark Knight, he would meet each of these qualifications. Really, The Dark Knight’s beauty is that it gives us three major powers and then questions who true Villain and Hero is: Batman (just defender or crazy vigilante?), the Joker (morally corrupt or sagely honest?), and Two Face (selfless defender or selfish opportunist?)

    Also, there’s one other type of Villain, at least in bad fiction: the Villain who is in all ways written/acted better and more interesting than the Hero, the one who steals the show and whom you actually (at least secretly) like better. Eric of Phantom has shades of this type, but I think the real variety only exists in poorly executed stories (Eragon comes to mind).

    • Yes! Two-face! He absolutely fills the requirements of the Villain! And if you use my 10 steps of the Hero’s Journey Batman does fulfill the role of Hero.

      I do think that the Joker is so deficient in these steps (all we get are lies about his life, he does not define a need for Vindication, he never realizes his mortality, he doesn’t really have minions, and he never claims the deception), he fits best as simply a human “monster”. Two-face is the real Villain here.

      As for your last comment… isn’t this what makes Villains so great? Writers spend SO little time on the Villains it’s shameful. I think Phantom does a FANTASTIC job of defining its Villain. What you’re speaking of here, is really part of what I defined as The Deception. It’s done SO well, that the audience is even deceived. And when the Villain’s plan is to simply find love… wow, it really tugs the heart strings when he fails.

      And who said the Hero had to be the main focus character of the story? There are plenty of stories where the Villain is the one the audience loves and the Hero is the one that is hated!

      • Ah, now there’s an interesting quandry. Actually, Eric to me more exemplifies the tragic hero from classic drama: destroyed by a flaw that taints his quest and thus destroys it and him (most similary to Othello, since that’s also about love). These characters are often sympathetic, because we can see ourselves in them. For me they remind me that we’re all “Villains” before Christ. But to say you should love the Villain and hate the Hero, that’s a dangerous situation, because then ultimately what are we as the readers asking for?

        If you only use the terms Villain and Hero to symbolize flip sides of a coin or two necessary character types, fine (especially in a nebuolous conflict where neither side seems to be fighitng for “right”). But if they mean more, as in a Hero standing for truth or peace or righteousness, and a Villain craving the opposite (even if it’s with good intentions), then I think the author/director has done everyone a disservice by making the one more likeable/appealing than the other.

  3. With my two posts, what I have tried to do is provide a clinical defination of two commonly use types of characters, much like you would diagram a sentence by recognizing the characteristics of the subject and the predicate.

    I think we often have characters that are definable as the Hero, but are colored as a Villain… and vice versa. A defined Hero can be a real jerk, or a defined Villain can be a sympathetic Hero.

    My definitions are not to designate the “goodness” or “badness” of a character, but merely to provide a rubrik to defining the role of a character as they relate to the story.

    Be careful not to include all antagonists as definable villains (see my paragraph near the top). I think the T2 example may fit better as a monster instead of a villain.

    As far as Phantom goes… when using these two lists, we see that Eric falls far short of fulfilling the Hero’s Journey and fits well into the Villain’s Quest. Christine then becomes the ONLY character to actually fullfill the Hero’s Journey in its entirity.

  4. Keven,

    I was all prepared to totally disagree with you about Lucian from Underworld, and then you pulled that off at the end. Good job! But since Viktor was the real villian, why didn’t you follow him through the villain’s quest instead of Lucian? Just wondering. Either way, an excellent article!


    • I very well could have. But I wanted to give a demonstration of a Perceived Villain.

      The Hero’s Journey and the Villain’s Quest can often look the same. Underworld is a case where Viktor and Lucian are both following the Villain’s Quest, but only Viktor completes it (the Fall). Selene and Michael both follow the Hero’s Journey, but only Selene completes it (Death of the Mentor). Therefore, analytically you can discover that the real story for Underworld is the relationship between Selene and Viktor, though the movie skews it somewhat.

  5. It’s pretty simple (I haven’t seen the third installment), Selene consistently fills all the requirements of the Hero’s Journey above all other characters, including Michael. “Death of the Mentor” is a pretty non-negotiable element to the Hero’s Journey, and we see her consistently losing the people she looks up to.

    Viktor and Marcus both fit the Villain’s Quest. Kraven doesn’t, however, and is what I define as a “bully” or “minion” type antagonist. Not sure where to put Michael yet… but I’m leaning toward “Victim”, he certainly falls far short of the Hero’s Journey. I’m thinking of doing another similar article on definable “Victims”. And maybe an article on the different forms of Antagonists. But both of those are much more subjective than the Hero’s Journey and the Villain’s Quest.

  6. […] As I compare my Journeys to By Darkness Hid, I see that there is no character at all that fills the Villain’s Quest.  Also, neither of the main characters, Achen and Vrell, come close to completing the Hero’s […]

  7. […] In Avatar, everybody has a story. They may not all complete the hero’s journey, but they are on it. I can think of at least seven characters who DO complete the Hero’s Journey. And there are four who complete the Villain’s Quest. […]

  8. […] some research, I found basic elements of the Villains Quest outlined by Kevin Newsome at the New Author’s Fellowship to be a good starting point for this discussion.  I have borrowed from that post to develop the […]

  9. […] In Avatar, everybody has a story. They may not all complete the hero’s journey, but they are on it. I can think of at least seven characters who DO complete the Hero’s Journey. And there are four who complete the Villain’s Quest. […]

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