What is a Villain?

After reading many stories and playing many games I’ve noticed a recurring theme of a nameless character becoming a valiant figure after defiantly defeating evil. But what I’ve wondered is what is evil? Is evil morally wrong or is it a subjective label based on the viewpoint of the victor? While I don’t doubt there are many villains in novels that are malicious and or cruel,can a villain truly be summed up by one single word? What makes a character evil? How does a villain differ from an antagonist? In this post I will attempt to answer these questions.
Evil as defined by Merriam-Webster is something morally reprehensible or something that causes discomfort, repulsion, and/or harm. For something to be considered evil it must cause harm or break a moral code.Now whose moral code it does not say. In some cases morality may be subjective.This entails right and wrong and assumes that the character being applied the trait of evil subscribes to the same morals. Does a character know they are evil? If they do they must be the best case of evil for they are conscious of their wrong doings. For example Darth Vader a character that was once the hero of his own story turned into an amoral antagonist. Was he evil? Based on what was previously stated  no he was not evil he was tricked and twisted by strange powers on the promise that he’d be able to protect his wife and the rest of the world. Similar to Dracula, a once proud prince of Wallachia he took a corrupting power to protect his  people at the cost of his own sanity and is now driven to create the family he lost again. I believe what makes evil is the conscious choice to do wrong. A character that goes against a moral code they know of for a want not a need but specifically a want. A character that puts their wants above the wellbeing of others that is Evil.

Grendel as seen in the Poem of Beowulf is a large monster pained by the noise of Hrothgar and his men’s merrymaking descends upon them and kills many of them while they sleep. While the story does not describe Grendel very thoroughly it does call him evil. But is that exactly the case? Yes Grendel does eat and kill many men is he truly conscious of what he is doing as right or wrong. It does however show that Grendel’s actions are a reaction to being pained by the rejoicing. The poem does not show whether Grendel has a moral compass or is even conscious of whether he is doing right or wrong. It does however mention Grendel being known as a man-eater as later in the poem he eats what he kills.So is Grendel murdering the thegns or is he hunting them. Based on that assumption that Grendel isn’t murdering but killing to eat I would say he is an antagonist instead of a villain.

Which brings us to one of our questions. How does a villain differ from an antagonist? Yet again Merriam-Webster describes a villain as the opposition to a hero and also a deliberate scoundrel/criminal. Which means a Villain has to be conscious of their decision to do wrong. Merriam-Webster describes an antagonist as one who contends with another. An antagonist does not need to be “evil” ; they just have to oppose the protagonist. Which leads into defining whether a character is an antagonist or a villain. Grendel is a being that consumes men by nature as he is referred to as a man-eater. From Grendel’s perspective he is just eating and is responding to the pain caused to him and Beowulf to Grendel’s story in the antagonist as Beowulf opposes Grendel’s  eating of the thegns and vice versa. So unlike a villain who regardless of perspective is actively doing evil. An antagonist is entirely subjective and depends on the point of view. A story that displays this well is the Disney movie Brother Bear as the main character sees a bear that steals their fish and causes the death of his brother only to later hear the story retold from the cubs point  of view as them being hunted down by the brothers.

Now to apply it to what we have read so far. The Green Knight is he a villain or is he an antagonist? Well there are a couple things to take into account. Firstly is the green knight conscious in making his decisions? No he is not as we later find at the end of the story that he was being controlled by Morgan Le Fay (who we will talk about later). As he is not conscious he cannot be evil nor a villain which means in the end the green knight is an antagonist. Now Morgan Le Fay while more of a background character in this story choses  to enchant Bertilak (The Green Knight) in order to scare Guinevere to death thus making her a Villain as she chooses to do something wrong.

To fully take beowulf’s story into account lets talk about Grendel’s mother who responding to the death of her son kills a warrior known as Aeschere out of vengeance and later enters combat with Beowulf. Based on the description despite  being a “Monster” she attacks out of grief whether this makes here a villain I would say no as she could be considered both clouded with grief and possibly observe similar morals to her son. Thus I believe her to only be an antagonist. Finally the Dragon who attacks due to having  treasure taken from him but instead off merely attacking for the treasure the dragon decides to scorch everything  in sight which leads to my point that the dragon actively made the choice  to do something above its nature it isn’t slaughtering to eat or protect itself like Grendel and his mother but slaughtering because that is what it wants to do and deems worthy as a response. Therefore making the dragon the sole villain of the story at least as far as I see.

In conclusion, antagonists and  villains are extremely different and the differences heavily affect both the tone and moral of the tales they are in. I thoroughly enjoyed  the literature we went over and was quite excited when inspired by the poem of Beowulf to think on what makes characters evil and villains. It has inspired me to look at other stories and look into the structure of the characters and how their characterization affects the actual outcome of the story. Should I dislike a  character simply because they are an antagonist or should I look further into their story and come to an understanding of why they did their actions?


Antagonist Definition & Meaning. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/antagonist

Evil Definition & Meaning. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evil

Grady, C. (2021, July 29). The magic, sex, and violence of the 14th-century poem behind The Green Knight. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/culture/22583668/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-medieval-poem-explained

Slade, B. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://heorot.dk/beo-intro-rede.html

Villain Definition & Meaning. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/villain

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Assistant Prof @PlymouthState. Excited by Teaching, Shakespearing, Gaming. (they/them) #neurodivergent, #ActuallyAutistic.

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