Writers are fascinated by anti-heroes- people who fight for the good guys without being a great person themselves. If they’re intrigued by a sliding scale of heroes’ morality, it only follows that they should be just as interested in many shades of villain.
And that’s what anti-villains are for.
Anti-villains are like anti-heroes, but come from the other side. The website TV Tropes defines them as “a villain with heroic goals, personality traits, and/or virtues.” Here are five anti-villains, and what make them so great.
1. Javert- Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Javert is the quintessential anti-villain. He refuses to forgive and he consistently opposes Jean Valjean, the hero. However, he does this because he puts so much faith in the law. And it’s heartbreaking how he’s unable to accept grace, even for himself.
In a different setting, you wouldn’t see him as a bad person. In some cases, his unbending ethics could make him a hero. But his inability to look beyond the strict laws of the time places him at odds with Jean Valjean.
2. V- V for Vendetta
V almost straddles the line between anti-hero and anti-villain. His end goal is, mostly, a noble one, but his means of getting there are evil- terrorist bombings, assassinations, torturing Evie…
While Evie was ‘born’ from rain and love, he came from fire and rage. The heroes fight for his cause, but remain a step apart from him. It’s fitting that, in the end, he doesn’t become a part of the society he fought so hard for.
3. Nancy- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Nancy is on the villains’ ‘side,’ and even kidnaps Oliver at one point. But then she helps him escape and spies for his friends. After that, though, she goes back to Bill Sikes.
She has her own goals and moralities, and only partially aligns with Oliver or Fagin. She’s a fascinating character because of her ambiguity, and she’s my favorite in the book.
4. Ethan Nakamura- Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
This guy was my third favorite character in that series (after Luke and Nico, of course). He willingly allies himself with Kronos and tries (multiple times) to kill Percy. But all he wants is justice for the minor gods.
Ethan’s closer to the villain side of the scale than, say, Javert, but his end goals are admirable ones- ones that Percy himself ends up supporting. He just tries to achieve them the wrong way, and from the side of the villains.
5. Punisher- Daredevil
He’s another one with a decent end goal- ridding the world of villainy. But he goes about it in an, um, questionable way- killing villains, bad people, and people who might be bad.
This often puts him at odds with the heroes, but they also know they can go to him for help… if they can keep him under control.
Something surprised me while making this post. While the term ‘anti-villain’ is a fairly new one (compared to archetypes like ‘hero’ and ‘mentor’), classic books are filled with them. Even on this list, two of the five are from the 1800s.
There’s also a lot of overlap between anti-villains and anti-heroes, especially throughout a series or with multiple adaptations.
Anti-villains are a great character to have- because they have some admirable traits, they’re often harder to fight, like V. They can add complexity to a tale, like Nancy does. They’re also very flexible- they can be the main antagonist (like Javert), help the biggest baddie (like Ethan), or play their own game (like Punisher).
Who are some of your favorite anti-villains?