I am of the opinion that a villain is more important than a hero. That opinion is slightly void in recent YA with the rise of teenage fans falling in love with characters through different fan-created mediums (plot? What plot?), but still — a story is a problem. And very often, the problem is a villain.
The best villains create complexity for heroes — make them doubt and question and hurt. For that, the villains have to be complex themselves. But, this isn’t about complex villains. If your villain is worth their salt, they will be complex. But, diverse? Let’s talk.
With diverse characters overall, it can be so easy to spill in offensive stereotypes, and villains of any marginalized or minority or simply unknown group double that.
All the Bad Ones
Before I get into the meat of this piece, here are some quick tropes you should avoid for your cisgender, heterosexual, white antagonists.
My work-in-progress’ main antagonist is a LGBTQ+ person of color. It being low fantasy, I found it would be irresponsible of me to eliminate homophobia, so that was touched upon in context of race and community as well. My antagonist had a lot on their plate alongside evil-doing.
Having my gender non-conforming Hindu character turn out to possess a dark and mystical form, I realized, years after I started writing them, could be harmful. It wasn’t my intention to feed into stereotypes or demonize my own religion, and at the end of the day, I don’t think I did, not with my main character being Hindu and two others heroes being gender non-conforming, but it still scared me then.
I found myself wondering: is what I’m doing fine? They’re a villain with layers of motivation — they’re smart, they’re emotional, they, like everyone else, are trying their best, but still.
My spirit-monster villain seemed to fall into every Disney no-no category; all evil and visibly LGBTQ+, with a panache to rival Cruella de Vil, a dissolution of gender-barriers to put Ursula (who was, offensively enough, based on a real-life drag queen) to shame, incredible step-on-me vibes, perhaps all the harmful demonization the LGBTQ+ community can’t stand. And that’s scary — I never wanted to write what I hated. My original course of action was to let some of that incredible proud nature go because those one liners I loved so much could wait.
And that was proper stupid of me. Here’s what makes, in my opinion, and through my research, my antagonist different.
Paithoon, the character deserves those lines, deserves to be a monarch in their own right. Their queerness is as much a part of them as their villainy, while still being allowed to be separate from it. And they’re explicitly gender non-conforming, which is part of what separates them from the fear-mongering queercoded Disney villains.
The religion part was a bit tougher. Earlier this year, a few of the kids in class were saying rude things about Kali Maa, an important Hindu goddess, and it hurt. It hurt like having to hear nails on a chalkboard in a loop. They were demonizing the religion, talking about how it was probably going to die out “like all the other polytheistic religions" and how “it was just their opinion.”
And, it got me thinking about this demonization of Hinduism. Was it really necessary to make this antagonist Hindu? Their villainy had been decided long before their ethnicity, and couldn’t I just change that? No one would blink an eye at a “normal” character ascending to magical villainy (normal being cis, white, and raised in some nice, calm branch of Christianity), but a brown villain? Who was allowed to be connected to their roots, allowed to wear traditional clothing while still being undeniably evil?
As far as queercoded villains go, the example that makes me sickest is Ursula — a butch antagonist based off of a drag queen who literally wanted to steal Ariel’s feminine voice. Maybe it was unintentional, but it’s there, isn’t it? Painting femme-presenting AMAB people as some sort of threat?
Times have changed, but I couldn’t let that be Paithoon. I considered changing Paithoon’s gender, omitting any examples of vaguely religious upbringing, but it felt so wrong. It didn’t feel true to them. But what felt true to my characters had the potential to hurt others.
I said that all a villain really needs to have is complexity, and well, queercoded Disney villains didn’t really have that, did they? The effeminate Jafar was a lust for power, Ursula was plain evil, and Scar was just plain jealous. I mean, yes, these are kids movies, but none of these characters have backstories or slices of good.
What saved my antagonist is the fact that my heroes were also nearly all LGBTQ+ and people of color. Having a main character of the same ethnicity as my antagonist meant that they couldn’t be used to demonize Hinduism or their home country. Since an important character in my work in progress was also a drag queen, it showed that there was nothing wrong or evil about breaking gender boundaries, just showed that a villain had as much right to feel comfortable in their own skin, their own clothes as anyone else.
And, ya know what? I think that’s pretty cool of me.
is a high school freshman in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.