Great Villains Aren’t Always Superhuman

a surprisingly powerful and human analysis of creating antagonists by David Gouldthorpe

I’ve been writing fiction for five years now, and of course reading for far longer than that. In my time, I’ve found that perhaps the most vital part of any story is the antagonist. Whether it’s a villain or nature or society, without a strong antagonist a story cannot sustain itself. Of course, out of the three I mentioned above… one of the most fun antagonists to write is the villain. Over the years I’ve read a lot of villains in books, watched a lot of villains in movies and television, and written a lot of villains in my own work. What are the elements I use? To begin, let me break down one villain that I draw inspiration from. He’s not a dark lord or an immortal being. He doesn’t command vast armies or feed on the blood of the innocent.

He’s merely an owlish, spectacled prison warden in Maine.

To be sure, Sauron or Darth Vader fit the villain aesthetic better. You have fire, lots of black, armies at their disposal. But their flashy aesthetic only goes surface deep. Warden Norton, from The Shawshank Redemption, eschews all the flash and grandeur to lay raw what a villain really needs to be evil.

First of all, a villain needs to have ability. If they are unable to pose a threat to the protagonist, then they’re useless. Norton most certainly possesses the ability to harm Andy Dufresne, the story’s hero, through several channels. First of all, Norton has formal authority over him; he’s the prison warden, and Andy’s a prisoner. He can (and does) have Andy detained in solitary confinement for weeks for merely speaking out of turn. Norton also works closely with Chief Hadley, the corrupt prison guard who beats a man to death within the first ten minutes of the film for crying. Norton has not only a legitimate hold over our characters’ lives, but his right hand man is willing to use illegal tactics to terrorize them, which can Norton can easily sweep under the rug. Within the confines of the prison, he commands incredible power.

Closely tied to ability is competence. It’s closely tied to ability, but I consider it separate because it’s incredible tricky to write. A villain may be very powerful, but if they’re not smarter than a fifth grader then their defeat will prompt eyerolls instead of cheers. Warden Norton shows that he is quite competent. His criminal scheme of extortion and kickbacks is run by a man that he keeps under firm control. He checks prisoners’ cells regularly, and keeps Andy close under his thumb. His machinations are only undone by a prominent banker (in other words, a well-educated man) who plots his escape for decades and has to crawl through “five football fields” of sewage pipes to escape. It’s difficult to write this kind of thing because of the great planning that has to go into how to defeat the villain, but the effort is well-spent. The added bonus is that it makes your protagonist also much stronger. Norton is smart; Andy just happens to be smarter.

The last ingredient is where things get fun: a villain needs to be actively evil. That is, not evil because people say he is, but because we the audience or reader can see it. Norton succeeds here on many levels. For example, take Tommy. Tommy is a young man who arrives in prison for theft, a non-violent crime. He wants to earn a high school equivalency so that he can go on the straight and narrow, to provide for his wife and daughter. Despite the trials, Andy tutors Tommy to a passing grade. But when Tommy reveals that he can prove Andy’s innocence, Norton has him murdered in the prison yard. Not only does it cut short a promising life, it also deals a blow to Andy. Then, Norton comes to Andy in solitary and taunts him over it. It’s a vile act that hits close to our protagonist.

On top of that though, the warden’s hypocrisy makes him more relatably evil. His demand for discipline and justice, while simultaneously running a criminal enterprise, makes him a double-talker. You might call it an “everyday evil.” Very few of us personally know a killer, but almost all of us can think of a person that preaches one thing and practices another. It’s something that we can connect to, and thus more easily gets under our skin. To look at another example, it’s the reason why Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge is more despised by fans than the main villain Voldemort. Very few people know a Voldemort in their lives, but almost everyone knows an Umbridge. It turns the abstract concrete. Of course Voldemort is still a good villain, because even though his evil actions aren’t necessarily as familiar, there’s still a certain shred left in there; losing a loved one, by any means, resonates with anyone who has suffered a loss.

Finally, and most important, a villain needs to have a rationality. Norton’s rationality is twofold: these men are prisoners, and deserve to be punished, so I can be as brutal as I want; I want to keep making money, so I need to keep Andy in line. Warden Norton wants something, and he does what he can to get it. Every villain has a purpose . Sauron wants to control Middle Earth, and will obtain whatever power necessary to achieve it. The Thenardiers want as much money as possible, and will pickpocket bodies and sell their children to obtain it. The rationality might even be to be as irrational as possible, like the Joker in The Dark Knight. A villain without a direction is not much of a threat; how can they run up against the protagonist if they have no reason to run up against anything at all?

Warden Norton may not have a horned helmet, a throne of skulls, or flowing black robes. Yet he’s a true villain in the simplest form. He’s powerful, he’s cunning, he’s evil in a very impactful and irritatingly familiar way, and he has a reason behind all of it. It creates a character with powerful screen presence, and when he’s finally defeated it’s a powerful catharsis that leaves the audience satisfied.


David Gouldthorpe is HR by day, author by night. He wrote fanfiction for five years before breaking into the world of original fiction. You can read his sci-fi/fantasy shorts, and learn about his upcoming thriller novel Fort Irving, by following his Twitter or by visiting his website at .