A good story has a protagonist, goals, and opposition. Opposition includes obstacles and forces of nature, but typically opposition also takes the form of a character. Sometimes the opposition is another protagonist, leaving the audience to choose who they want to root for, but many stories include at least one villain, a character that is definitively “wrong”. Villains can be narrative or mechanical.
Narrative & Mechanical Villains
Narrative villains are as complex as the protagonist, and can function as a dark mirror or foil for the protagonist. They have goals and motives, and often believe what they are doing is right or “for the greater good”. Narrative villains explore the dark ideas that people secretly think, but refuse to practice. For example, sacrificing a few for the sake of many, in contrast with those who choose to make a sacrifice themselves.
Mechanical villains are simple and easily understood, without complex motives or reasons. It’s simply their nature. They create a sense of urgency and danger. They motivate the character to act, or justify their actions. Often times the narrative villain has numerous mechanical villains around as “support staff”.
Human villains are understandable and carry the hope of redemption. They believe what they are doing is “for the greater good”. They may show kindness and benevolence towards certain people in their lives. They can demonstrate manners, civility, and a code of ethics that the audience does not support, but can understand. However, none of this can ever excuse their crimes. The audience may feel sympathy for a villain, but they are still a villain.
Monsters represent the other, something that has no place in our world. Some are a force or entity that is simply too powerful, but often monsters are rooted in very human flaws, taken to unacceptable extremes. For example, vampires can be interpreted as an exaggeration of appetite and lust, or self-preservation, the idea that “I will survive”, regardless of the price others may pay. Robots, golems, and zombies can be interpreted as an exaggeration of apathy, advancing towards their goals without regard for anything else.
During the Communist era many Americans feared infiltration by spies, manifesting in many stories about aliens and shape changers with the ability to mimic “us”. In the wake of the atomic bomb, Japanese stories began exploring science gone awry; weapons and monsters created by science advancing too quickly, before humanity was ready to properly wield such power.
Some monsters frighten us because they are truly and completely alien, something easily identified, but difficult to understand, but I find that many of the monsters that most frighten and disturb us are those that are familiar. Some, like zombies and vampires, literally wear the faces of friends and family, while others, like trolls or goblins, bear no concrete resemblance to us, but they are symbols of our own fears and darker impulses.
People tend to think in “us” vs “them” mentalities. Monsters represent the classic “out group”, those who are “not one of us” and “not on our side”. They are a threat, and because they are monsters it’s easier to dehumanize and fight them, but once “they” start to resemble “us”, it becomes harder to blindly dismiss and fight them. The idea that “we” could become “one of the monsters” is one of the oldest fears.
What distinguishes between a villain and a monster?
This isn’t to say that a villain can’t also be a monster, but there is a distinction. What separates a villain from a hero is choice. A hero and a villain have the same abilities (potentially), but a hero subscribes to a moral code, while a villain does not.
A monster, in contrast, has abilities beyond what the hero can do. It may be that they are stronger or faster than any human could ever be, they might be harder to kill, they might change their shape, or manipulate the world around them using some form of energy (psychic or magical). In some way, the monster is not bound to the same rules and limitations that govern the normal world, but these powers come with a price.
Just as the monster can do things that are beyond the hero’s abilities, there are also often rules that circumscribe the monster more than the hero. Some are specific; the inability to cross certain barriers, or enter a structure, others can be a simple vulnerability to fire, water, sunlight, or certain types of metal.
The monster represents a unique challenge for the hero. At first the monster’s powers can be awe inspiring and terrifying, but once the hero overcomes their initial reaction, they are challenged to solve the mystery, and discover the monster’s weaknesses.
Where Do Monsters Come From