Heroes and Villains

Heroes and villains–they’re of course at opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of characters, but they share more than might be obvious at first glance, and if you’re in the business of writing fiction and creating such characters, it can be useful to think about those things.

Of course, the principal element that heroes and villains have in common is their function in terms of the story: it is their interaction which determines the main action of the plot. At its most basic, it is either that the hero is being specifically targeted by the villain, or the villain has general nefarious plots which the hero sets out to foil.

But a common function in the plot isn’t the only thing these two extreme types of characters share. They are leaders, not followers, and they also share high doses of intelligence, imagination and determination, all of which are neutral qualities to be used for either good or bad. (I’m talking here about major, central heroic or villainous figures, not the minor characters, good and bad, who line up behind them). And I also think of heroes and villains as blowing hot or cold. What I mean by that is that I think major heroes and villains can be each basically divided into two broad sub-categories, Type Hot and Type Cold. Of course these are only very broad generalisations; traits will often bleed into each other. But basically:

*Type Hot Hero: impulsive, brave, sometimes foolhardy, generous, often impatient, gregarious or solitary, prone to wild temper, pride and defiance but also with a basic sweetness to them: a good character who struggles to be good, it doesn’t come easily. They are often immediately or soon attractive to other good characters, as they have a certain charisma. Can be momentarily tempted out of a hero’s trajectory by a clever villain of either type, playing on their impulsiveness;

*Type Cold, or more attractively, Cool, Hero: reserved, thoughtful, often solitary, self-controlled, ironic, stoical, brave, but without the impulsiveness of the ‘hot’ type.  Or else, much less commonly, they can be sweet, dependable, kind, apparently accepting but inwardly resisting. This type of hero often emerges unexpectedly and has less outward charisma than the ‘hot’ type. A ‘cool’ type hero is a good character whose inner integrity really grounds them, they are less easily tempted, but the results when they are tend to be worse than for the ‘hot’ type.

*Type Hot Villain: impulsive, reckless, ruthless, violent, arrogant (the extreme end of pride), physically intimidatory, often bullying, yet calculating. A fearsome opponent, but out in the open: the wolf in wolf’s clothing, if you like. This sort of villain is not to be thought of as stupid: real villains are always intelligent, in books, unless they are minor villains of the henchman type. They often attract hordes of followers as they have a certain violent, dark charisma. Usually defeated by clever heroes of the ‘cool’ type, or less often, the ‘hot’ sort who have learned self-control.

*Type Cold Villain: self-controlled, calculating, deceitful, manipulative, ironic, cruel, ruthless. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing: for my money, the most frightening enemy. They are highly intelligent and imaginative and often emerge unexpectedly, and though they often have fanatically devoted followers, they generally do not have obvious charisma. But a villain of the ‘cold’ type can sometimes masquerade behind the mask of an apparently warm and charismatic heroic type—and this can be one of the worst of all!

So, there’s quite a bit in common in terms of those hot and cold qualities, for a different emphasis on say, anger or pride, can lead to very different results depending on whether the character is hero or villain. But of course there’s two very big differences: and that is self-centredness and the will to power. Both of these things are the absolute essence of true major villains, but are absent from true, major heroes. It does not mean that heroes don’t sometimes act selfishly or foolishly, or that villains aren’t capable of being brave or even merciful (when it suits them!). It doesn’t mean either that heroes don’t know how to exercise power or that villains are always obviously powerful. What it means is, simply, that villains seek power for its own sake and to exercise it over others and their actions are motivated by their own interests. Contrary-wise, as Lewis Carroll would say, heroes do not seek power for themselves, but for the good of others(and often walk away from it or reject at the end, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, for instance). And their actions are motivated not only in the cause of defending themselves, but also, and crucially, defending others, often at the risk of their lives.

That’s why I think it’s so difficult to write a really good and satisfying novel based on the villain’s point of view, though of course it has been done, and successfully too, by a few people. The main problem with seeing it from a villain’s point of view is that fundamentally a real villain is not interested in other people except as pawns or obstacles, even when they are observant and understand of others’ motives. If the villain is perceptive and has a sense of humour, it can work, but the villain’s point of view runs the risk of being chillingly detached and thus not engaging to readers. Mind you, I think the too-good hero is also a turn-off to readers and that sort rarely features as a point of view narrator; much more engaging is the kind who you feel could be tempted, and who struggles with their calling. The flawed, reluctant hero may be common in literature, but that’s because he or she resonates strongly with readers, expressing deep human longings and hopes.


About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.


  1. says

    Super cool article, Sophie! I especially liked your commentary on the “Cold/Cool Villain”. I agree that they are typically the most frightening. It’s like when you are a kid and you get into trouble but mom or dad doesn’t yell…they just get REALLY quiet. That’s when you know you’re in real trouble…

  2. says

    Great piece, Sophie! I’m just at the point in my WIP of crafting the villain and he’s cold/cool and immensely fun to write. Will go share it now.

  3. says

    Great post! I’ll be sharing this with my critique partner. She’s currently working on an awesome new book that includes a really evil villain. I was going to mention in my next critique a piece of advice I heard somewhere: about the villain being matched to the hero. And the villain being the hero in his own story. I think I also read somewhere that your story is as strong as the villain? Anyway, good stuff!

  4. says

    A good summary of hero/villain traits! The most compelling kind of villain for me to write has been the hot/cold villain who pursues good ends (or ends he perceives to be good and the reader can at least sympathize with) by evil means. This is a case of Truth in Fiction; eco-terrorists are a classic example, and there are many high-minded ideologies that can support lethal fanaticism. A hot or cold villain, minus the selfishness, makes a believably motivated foil for the hero, and gives the hero a chance to have second thoughts about his own position or even see himself mirrored in the villain he is fighting.

  5. says

    I agree with Marion. In terms of villains, I too like the ones who see themselves as the good guys. Not heroes, neccesarily, but people who are willing to make the sacrifices the “heroes” aren’t willing to make.

    A lot of people write in terms of good/bad, which clearly defined ideas of what’s good and what’s bad. I think the problem with that is that people, real people, have grey areas. You could be a wonderful father, who plays with his kids as much as he can and gives them all the attention they need, and also cheat on your wife.

    Grey is where humans reside. Sure, we generally strive to do the right thing in any given circumstance, but it’s hard. So we compromise, or we make excuses, or we truly don’t think what we’re doing is bad. We make our own moral compass.

    Heroes and villains are people too, unless they’re aliens or something. I think they should be written as such, without too much consideration as to what mold they fit in or role they fill.

  6. says

    Great post, and I love the parallels you’ve drawn here. “Good” villains are always the most interesting to me. And what I like to remember when I’m writing is that no one thinks they are the villain. We are all the heroes of our own stories. So try to see things from the flipside, the “bad” side. What’s that pesky “hero” doing to stop you from getting what you want and/or making the world a better place?

  7. says

    This post really made me think about villains. I’d never considered that a villain needed to be a leader, but it makes perfect sense. Some of the weakest ones I’ve read/seen weren’t leaders, and barely qualified on the thug scale.

  8. says

    Great blog post! I really enjoyed it. I like how you separated heroes and villains into hot vs. cold. Though I’ve found that sometimes they fall in between, which also leads to some really neat characters.

  9. says

    Thank you for providing an enlightening way of analysing the heroes and villains. Comparing them in this way could provide the writer with insights on their individual behaviour, and also insights on how they interact. I shall try your method out on my WIP.

  10. says

    Wonderful post, Sophie. Your description of the ‘Types’ made me much more aware of the juxteposition of opposites in characters than ever before – the Cold Villian vs. the Hot Hero and vice versa, their internal conflicts and outward push/pull of their personalities.

    I love this post!

  11. says

    I love the description of hot vs. cold for both heroes and villains, and that effective villains need to be leaders, too. After all, if they’re spineless followers, they don’t exactly incite a lot of fear, other than perhaps as minor bumps along the way to peace or the real bad guy.

    However, this part raises a few questions:

    “What it means is, simply, that villains seek power for its own sake and to exercise it over others and their actions are motivated by their own interests. ”

    Does this have to be so? It seems a bit simplistic. Some villains legitimately think they are doing the right thing for their followers, and are only classified as villains because they are in opposition to the hero of the story. Others seek good ends through dastardly means. They’re not necessarily only looking out for themselves. I think Marion and Jack above me questioned this for the same reasons. Of course, maybe in these situations we simply shouldn’t call them villains, just antagonists.