Beyond the Evil Overlord: Three Dynamic Character Arcs for Villains

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hero in possession of reasonable talents and good looks must be in want of an arch nemesis.”Beyond_the_Evil_Overlord

Although the above statement is nothing more than a bad Jane Austen paraphrase, every writer knows that a story is vapid without a villain. Without darkness, how will the light shine through? No one can test, provoke, or push the hero to reach his full potential the way a villain can. In all likelihood, without the villain, the hero would still be a poor moisture farmer in a planetary backwoods.

But even though we recognize that a villain is essential to the success of a story, we tend to focus our efforts on fleshing out our protagonist’s motivation and personality. We may create the most unique and compelling character of the century, but if our main villain is a lazy, dark-lord-Sauron imitation, the story’s overall quality will be reduced.

A stagnant villain is a boring villain. With that in mind, let’s examine three dynamic character arcs villains can follow.

Arc #1: The RedemptionVillain_arc-1

This first arc is perfectly typified by Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. He is an earnest but troubled youth who abruptly falls to the dark side, serves as the terrifying face of the Empire, and finally undergoes a dramatic redemption several decades later. Regardless of the prequel movies’ faults, Anakin’s arc makes an excellent story, and it’s no wonder Darth Vader remains one of the most iconic film characters of the twentieth century.

Other characters that model this arc are Murtagh of The Inheritance Cycle and Regina Mills, the former Evil Queen in the TV series Once Upon a Time. The latter takes this arc to an even deeper level, as she survives her redemption process (unlike Darth Vader) and continues on to help the protagonists she was formerly devoted to exterminating.

This arc offers plenty of possibilities to further develop your story’s theme. What draws your villain back to the light? Friendship? Loneliness? Love? Is your villain even able to redeem himself on his own? As Christian authors, we have the incredible privilege of retelling God’s own redemption story and emphasizing what an undeserved gift it is.

Arc #2: The Unfaltering ArcVillain_arc-2

Most flat and undeveloped villains fall into this category. These antagonists are often evil from their first appearance and are obsessed with eradicating all joy and freedom from the face of the earth. The examples are numerous: Sauron, Morgoth, Morgarath (as much as I admire John Flanagan, he could have at least tried to pick a more unique name).

These villains can work for your story, but your audience will never relate to them. They will need to be supported by fleshed-out henchmen. For example, The Force Awakens gets away with revealing almost nothing about Supreme Leader Snoke, but only because the audience has the more prominent faces of Kylo Ren and General Hux to despise.

But this arc does not have to be entirely inert, nor is it limited to evil overlords. Consider Javert, the primary antagonist of Les Misérables who never broke the law. He was, as his author described him, “A compound of two sentiments, simple and good in themselves, but he made them almost evil by his exaggeration of them: respect for authority and hatred of rebellion.”

This fanatical, unrelenting devotion to the letter of French law caused Javert to continually pursue a reformed convict and prevent him from doing good. In a thrilling climax that forced him to confront his own flawed pharisaical worldview, he ultimately chose suicide over redemption.

Until that point, Javert illustrates that a villain can be a hero in his own mind, while also embodying the Christian struggle of balancing justice with mercy. Despite his unredeemed death, his final, intense struggle shakes up his otherwise unvarying arc, which inspires interest and suspense.

Rarely in life do we meet villains who practice evil for evil’s sake. Usually they are convinced their actions are right, or are the best they can do in a situation. Force your hero to combat your villain’s ideology and not just his army, and you will increase conflict and depth.

Arc #3: The Downward SpiralVillain_arc-3

Now we come to one of the most fascinating villain arcs: an honorable character who slowly embraces evil and never escapes it. While the Redemptive Arc beautifully symbolizes our salvation through Christ (e.g. Edmund from The Chronicles of Narnia), the Downward Spiral portrays the very real alternative. Without God’s direct intervention, each one of us will remain trapped in our sin and die in that state.

Lady Morgana from the BBC series Merlin is a prime example of this arc. She begins the story as an independent young woman who is kind to her servants and challenges her father’s harshness. “And [you think] killing things will mend your broken heart?” she says. But in the end she is reduced to a hate-consumed sorceress determined to murder her half-brother Arthur and seize the throne. “I want to put his head on a spike and watch as the crows feast on his eyes!” Honestly, it’s fantastic stuff.

The key to writing this arc well is carrying it out gradually. Morgana’s moral decline happened over the course of five seasons, which made it believable to the audience, as opposed to an overnight corruption. Furthermore, her close relationship with Arthur amplified the heinousness of her later deeds. Just imagine the creative possibilities (and, more importantly, the emotional havoc the writers caused the audience) that scenario provided.

Other examples of this arc include Saruman (Lord of the Rings), Massala (Ben-Hur), and even Saul of the Old Testament. The latter’s Downward Spiral contrasts against the Hero’s Journey of the shepherd boy David, which spans two full books of the Bible.

Which Arc to Choose?

Obviously all villains can’t be sorted into three tidy boxes, but these arcs can help you start fleshing out your villain’s story. A strong villain with his own arc gives the audience something to focus on in addition to the protagonists. Many viewers are just as interested in seeing the continuing story of antagonists Kylo Ren and Loki as they are about the heroes in upcoming movies. As long as the villain’s story doesn’t overshadow the protagonist, make it as dramatic and vivid as your pen will allow.

Infographic creation credit: Sierra Ret

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Sierra Ret is a homeschool student who spent nearly her entire childhood with her nose buried in a book, and consequently decided she wanted to write one of her own (preferably filled with dwarves and elves). Actually getting her thoughts down on paper regularly has proven to be a far greater challenge than she first thought, but Kingdom Pen was kind enough to step in and give her some much-needed deadlines by honouring her with a temporary spot on their writing team. When not hermiting behind a laptop screen, Sierra enjoys gallivanting across Canada and adventuring near her home in rural Ontario with her family. Currently her chief fantasies include making a living as a travel blogger and someday moving to New Zealand. But above all, her chief aim is to live a passionate and meaningful life for the glory of God.
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  1. Great article, Sierra! I love the reference to Morgarath’s name. XD I thought the exact same thing when I read Ranger’s Apprentice!
    And the graphic is awesome, Brianna. 😀

  2. Despise…Kylo ren??????????

    Well, besides that, wonderful article. Now I really want to write a downward spiral.

    • *sighs* He’s a villain. Who murdered his father. Who just happened to be Han Solo. Why is this even controversial…
      Glad you were still able to look past that and enjoy the rest of the article though 😀

      • Thank you for acknowledging that he’s a villain. Just thank you. Because he is and that’s not the question and some people think I don’t realize that. He is a villain and what he did was absolutely horrible. Which is why he’s so dynamic for me. Because that level of heartless cruelty existing in the same man who begged desperately to be shown the power of the Dark Side against the Light that was calling to him again just screams complexity.
        He is a villain. But I do not despise him. I pity him and hope for him and I will always hold that he should have been redeemed, whether the movie-makers realize that or not. *fierce scowl at said movie-makers*

        ANYWAY. Yes. I feel strongly about this, can you tell? ;P

    • *insane cackling in the background*

  3. *is shocked to tears* How can anyone despise Kylo Ren? *runs out of the room bawling*

    *cough* Yes. Ahem. Excuse the outburst. Fight me if you dare. ;P

    This is a great article though, really. I’ve something I’d like to add… maybe a different dimension of the unfaltering arc. I thought I had examples, but now they’ve slipped my mind… anyway, this arc can actually be really compelling I think. Not if it’s an evil overlord in all senses of the cliche, but if it’s a villain who’s evil and remains evil, it can still be really powerful. For the one fact that it is indeed unfaltering. If he’s constantly offered the opportunity to redeem himself; constantly exposed to other alternatives, and always chooses the dark path, that goes a long way to making him dynamic because the right path is SO OBVIOUS, but he never takes it, which means he’s secure in his beliefs. They’re wrong, but he’s secure in them.
    It’s kind of like the hero constantly resisting the villain’s worldview, only the other side of the coin.

    • Ah, Kate….I sort of….despise Kylo too.

      • Okay can I ask your MBTI type? Do you know? Because I have a theory. All the Thinkers I know can’t stand him. It’s only the Feelers that see anything in him at all, which actually makes a ton of sense.

        • Literally every time I take the test I end up with a different type, so I honestly have no clue what I am 😀 I see myself as a Thinker, but my sister says I’m totally a Feeler. All I know for sure is that I have no use for a tantrum-throwing emo patricide.
          Sorry Kate 😀 Though I am willing to grant that his arc is still in motion, so my opinion of him might change.

          • Okay. I could not disagree more, but okay. That’s… *dusts hands off* That’s… you have a right to your opinion. *takes several deep breaths* Yes. I refuse to blow up. Thank you for your opinion, Sierra.
            *stage aside in broken whisper* “‘Tantrum-throwing emo patricide’? What even—? How about ‘struggling human at war with himself and with the whole world against him’?”

          • Actually I don’t know because I haven’t seen those movies. 😛

          • Oops… that was for you about Loki, Sierra…

        • Erm…I hate to prove you wrong, Kate darling, but I’m a Thinker, and I like him too. Minus the Han Solo killing thingy. 😀

          • GOOD FOR YOU. *vigorously shakes your hand and liberally dispenses elvish stardust*

          • Just out of curiosity, how many of you Kylo admirers (or RAAs if you prefer) also have a tender spot for Loki? Or prefer him to Thor?

          • I haven’t seen Thor; Thor and Loki and whichever movie they’re in. I hear it’s great stuff though. So I couldn’t say, and I am a Kylo person. (Not quite as fiery about it as my sister tho. XD But I back her up.) But I’m purty certain @Ethryndal likes Loki better than Thor. *firm nod* What, do you not?

        • Sierra, once again, great article! Thanks for explaining the arcs! This really helps because I’m fascinated with creating/watching villains.
          Kate, I’m an ENFP and I honestly don’t know what I think about Kylo Ren. He intrigues me, but hero or not, conflicted person or not, I don’t like characters who kill people. Especially Han Solo. That’s just a no-no.

          • Exactly. I don’t excuse his actions and I totally think he should face the consequences. But he’s so much more than just a whiny brat.

    • *more insane background cackling*

  4. And yet again she proves her incredible mind, through fandoms. 😀 (You think you were subtle with that line about Kylo? We’ll speak of that later.) I’ve never seen a character arc broken down so brilliantly bang-on and still made so effortless so comprehend. You’ve done a truly amazing job of it. Thank you, Sierrs 🙂

  5. We shall indeed speak of it later. I stand by what I said. *checks pistol’s lock and flint*
    Kidding 😀 I don’t even know what your current position is on him. And thank you for your delicious writer-food in the form of compliments 🙂

  6. Excellent article, Sierra. I shan’t bring up the bit about Kylo Ren though, because I think you already have enough crazy fangirls on your tail. 😉

  7. This is great stuff. Developing a villain is /hard/ and confusing but you make it seem… simple? At least simpler. Thanks for the pointers!
    (Also, awesome graphics. You do those, or did you send that order over to the graphics people?)

    • Sierra gets full credit for creating the info graphics. All I did was slap our watermark on them in case a rebel spy tries to borrow (ahem, steal) them from our empire. 😛 Then I decided to make the post graphic coordinate with her focus on Star Wars. 😉

      • Focused… on Star Wars? *hides massive character encyclopedia, toy lightsaber, and a Lego Millennium Falcon behind my back* Whatever are you talking about?

    • Thanks, Brandon! That was my first attempt at graphic creation for articles, and I was rather pleased with how they turned out 😉

  8. thease are all so true! AWESOME!!

  9. Kaitlin Armstrong says:

    this is very useful, thanks. I like your use of characters from books, and movies. And for the record, I love Loki and Kylo Ren because of their struggles, and what happens to them.

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