Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fairy Tale Villains

Article by Ty Hulse

Every fairy, vampire, or ghost that ever inspired us to feel dread when we were alone comes from fairy tales. 

Fairy tales and the stories inspired by them have given us many of our most memorable villains – from the iconic Disney villains to the terrifying monsters of grisly horrors, or the dark Lords such as ‘He Who Shall Not Be Named’ a title that is also very much in line with the fear of saying the name of certain evils and dangers of the world from fairy lore. 

Fairy tales were the stories of peasants, who could do little to fight the evil in their lives. Little to stave off sickness or prevent a famine, nor did they have any control over the whims of the kings and nobles who ruled their lives. This is perhaps why, while heroes in myths could defeat their enemies with swords, the heroes in fairy tales could do little to fight their villains, but had to resort to clever tricks, luck, hard work kindness, and the help of magical beings. 

It is the powerlessness that the protagonists of fairy tales suffer in the face of giants, dragons, wicked stepmothers, and even the devil that make these figures so terrifying. Yet as memorable and horrifying as fairy tale villains and the characters based on them are, they are all very one dimensional. 

The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood may want to eat the protagonist of that story, but more than this he wants to corrupt her, to destroy her emotionally. In many of the tales he doesn’t just devour her on the spot, in the forest. No, after eating Little Red’s grandmother he uses a disguise to trick her into eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood as well. 

The fear, bile, and anger that the fairy tale villain evokes is that of a child’s terror. Spitz states that “Fairy tale carries us back to this primordial kind of attention, the attention we gave the world when everything was “for the first time.” This is largely through their dreamlike, or sometimes nightmarelike quality and the villains are no exception. For Fairy tales are at their best when the villains in them make us as angry at bullies as we were as a child or as terrified of the dark as when we hid under our blankets or crawled with tear filled eyes into our parents’ beds. This is done with one dimensional villains, for children tend to see the world in one dimensional terms. 

Because of their one dimensionality it is possible to break down a majority – although not all – of the fairy tale villains into a number of archetypes.

Types of Fairy Tale Villains

The False Donor
Perhaps the most fun of all the villains "The false donor" is a trickster figure, for example the sly fox in "The Gingerbread Man" who tricks the Gingerbread Man into riding on his head so that he can eat him, or Rumpelstiltskin who helps a poor girl in order to take her baby from her. Many vampires and similar figures fall into this category. In “The Fiend” for example, a vampire pretends to be a kind young man to get a lady to fall in love with her, only to begin feeding on her family, and threatening to kill her. At some point in the story the false donor will use the people's desires against them, tricking them into making a deal so that the false donor can obtain some nefarious objective.

Most Disney Villains are False Donor's
at some point  in the story.
We tend to love clever villains, in stories at least, and their moments of guile in part because these allow for some very interesting character actions. This is perhaps why many Disney villains are false donors, and they tend to have the best songs. One advantage to such clever villains is that the audience doesn't need to see the villain's complex emotions to appreciate or enjoy them. The desire for power, beauty, or revenge is often the only real motivation a villain needs for us as the readers of a story to appreciate them. Indeed Rumpelstiltskin, one of the most famous villains doesn't have an easily discernible motivation, yet many people love him.

One false donor type I feel hasn't been played to their full potential are those which trick parents into giving away their children. Certainly, Rumpelstiltskin has been played up, but there are a number of devils or other beings which convince traveling fathers to give up their child through trickery. This child must than go on an adventure to escape the bargain their parent made with the devil. The story in this case than is about the child going on an adventure to avoid some terrible fate.

The unicorn in "The Valiant Little Tailor"
was defeated because he was so
enraged he ran into a tree.
Rampaging Villain
Wild and completely over the top, rampaging villains can be terrifying, funny, and or the bases for a good adventure story. Think for example of Cruella de Vil who rampages about like a maniac in her car, slaps her dull-witted henchmen, and generally acts in a way that's so wicked it's funny. This is not to say that all rampaging villains are funny, there is nothing funny about werewolves that shred the people of a village. Rampaging villains can be the most horrifying of all the villain archetypes because of their ability to cause wanton destruction, to kill with impunity.

Vampires were commonly this type of villain. They would slaughter villages and those they once loved with no discernable goal. 

In fairy tales rampaging villains ultimately defeat themselves by focusing so intensely on their destructive goals that they end up destroying themselves. For example, the unicorn in "The Valiant Little Tailor" was defeated because he was so enraged he ran into a tree.

In “The Two Corpses” there are two vampire like monsters which chase down a soldier and then fight over who gets to eat him as their rampaging turns them against each other until the sun comes up.

Going back to Cruella de Vil we see that she ultimately crashes her car while driving in her furious rage and so is defeated.

The Deceived Villain
An often larger than life villain who the hero is able to overcome through trickery by playing off of their pride, greed and or evil. These are Kings, lords, powerful wizards that can’t be defeated but which make a stupid, often comical, mistake. In the fairy tale"Puss and Boots" Puss is able to trick an ogre who is the king of a realm by pretending to believe that the ogre can't change into a mouse. The ogre, offended that Puss thinks so little of him changes into a mouse to prove his power and being a cat Puss eats him the moment he does.

Giants often fall into this category, for their only purpose in many stories is to be tricked by a protagonist. The Tsar of Russia was a deceived villain in an interesting Komi tale in which a man tricks the tsar into thinking a member of his family murdered his grandmother, so that the tsar will have to pay recompense. As this last story shows, deceived villains often existed as a way to allow the audience of fairy tales to laugh and poke fun of the things they feared and the people in power. 

The Devil
Devils, like false donors, offer people something they want in return for something nefarious. The difference is that devils are up front about their desires. They let the character know from the beginning what they want in return for their help. This means that stories with devils are from the beginning about characters trying to figure out how to get out of the bargain they just made. Such stories include “The Dragon and the Three Soldiers” about three soldiers who make a bargain with the devil or dragon that offers to help them become rich and escape the military in return for their souls.

Rude and Lazy Villain
Bullies more than purely evil villains, the purpose of the Rude and Lazy Villain is to act as a contrast to the protagonist's qualities, to show how good the protagonist is. In stories like “Cinderella” the wicked step sisters are ugly and likely lazy bullies, whereas Cinderella is; beautiful and hard working. 

Typically, in fairy tales Rude and Lazy Villains are defeated by a magical being they are rude to. After all in magical worlds where curses are real, being rude, lazy or attempting to bully others eventually leads to being cursed. For Example in “The Girl in the Well”  the Rude and Lazy Sister of the Heroine refuses to work for the people of the magical world and so rather than being rewarded with wealth she is cursed with thousands of defecating insects.

In one story Baba Yaga is the protagonists aunt
who forces her to clean, or do other impossible
household choirs.
Evil Stepmother and The Domestic Witch
Because fairy tales are about heroes who must often find success through mundane tasks, many villains are those who give them impossible or overwhelming amounts of work. In many stories the protagonist is sent off to a witch named Baba Yaga, who gives them choirs to do, threatening to eat them if they fail. 

Many of these villains, such as the wicked Stepmother are like false donors in that they promise to be one thing – such as a good and kind wife or husband – but turn out to be something else entirely. 

They often do, however, give the protagonist a gift by accident. Hard work in the fairy tale world, after all, is one of the greatest sources of success, so by forcing the protagonist to labor night and day the Evil Stepmother or Domestic Witch sets them up to get magical gifts and or help. In the story of "The Three Little Men in the Woods" for example the heroine is made nicer by her stepmothers cruel treatment and so shares her food with three magical fairy beings who in return give her the gifts of wealth, beauty and the perfect marriage.

Old article
I love villains, not real ones of course, but the villains from fairy tales and fantasy stories. I would say that it's just me but I've heard a lot of people say that the villain is their favorite character in a number of stories.  And indeed villains are often a lot more fun than heroes. They are ridiculous, over the top and full of strange but interesting quarks.

Fairy tales tend as a rule not to have as well rounded characters as other forms of literature, instead they are filled with archetypes and what many would deride as stereotypical, flat characters. However the fact that the characters are archetypes means that to some extent they are understood from the beginning. This allows people's imaginations to fill in their personality gaps the way they fill in the details of how the characters look. In other words by using flat archetypes fairy tales allow us each to create our own perfect characters for each story.

 In more complex stories based of fairy tales the villains themselves typically go through metamorphism of sorts, changing from one character archetype to another. Jafar from Disney's "Aladdin" for example goes from being a 'false donor' to being a 'deceived villain' after a short stint of rampaging about. This is possible because of the longer format of these stories, and such a transformation allows heroes to defeat villains they otherwise would not be able to.

Ultimately the key to understanding fairy tale villains is that they each have a weakness the form of a desire which blinds them to all else. It is this desire which made them become a villain, such desires have commonly been things like beauty, money, power, to terrify people, a baby, to advance their own children over the needs of another, wild wanton destruction, etc.  Whatever the case it is usually the villains desire which leads to their downfall when the villains fail (though in some stories they ultimately win).

When writing a fairy tale than it's important to determine what it is the villain wants, from this will come the villains actions, and their means of their ultimate downfall.

Learn more about fairy tale archetypes at


Gypsy Thornton said...

I love this break down of villain types. (And the complimentary Hero post is great too). I'm going to share this on my blog (with all credits and links to you of course) so people can be inspired. Thank you for your wonderful posts! I really enjoy getting a few minutes to sit and read here.

Gypsy Thornton said...

I love this break down of villain types. (And the complimentary Hero post is great too). I'm going to share this on my blog (with all credits and links to you of course) so people can be inspired. Thank you for your wonderful posts! I really enjoy getting a few minutes to sit and read here.

Nukiuk said...

Thank you very much, it's nice to have you say this as I love reading your blog a lot as well.

Nukiuk said...

I've posted a new article on Fairy Tale Heroes at