Monsters and Villains: What's the Distinction and When Do You Use Them?

Both villains and monsters are considered antagonists, but there are differences between the two. You want to choose which version of the antagonist to use based on the purpose and tone of your story.

The main difference between villains and monsters

You probably think this is easy. “Well, monsters are. . . monstrous. Villains aren't. "This is not entirely true. The focus in this statement is on looks. You are probably thinking about size, shape, and" otherness ". But there can be" monstrous looking "bad guys (for example, Two-Face) and humanoid monsters ( Sil, discussed later).

The main difference between villains and monsters is pretty simple: it all depends on motivation.

You probably think about motivation in your protagonist, but do you think so with your antagonist? You should. Otherwise, your antagonist is flat and uninteresting. Not to mention, it probably isn't really scary (if it's what you want it to be).

No matter what character you write (including B characters!), You should always and always understand their motivation.


The main difference between monsters and villains: motivation. What does your protagonist's enemy want?

The spectrum from monster versus villain

Look at a spectrum. On the left is a pure monster. The right side is a pure villain. In between there is a sliding scale.

I said it all depends on motivation, right? So your pure monster on the left has basic motivations like breeding, feeding and survival. There is no reasoning for a monster as it has no compassion for you. They are pure ID.

Examples: Jaws, The Blob, Alien. All of these monsters have a desire to eat and / or breed. You are a machine in that regard.

(A machine can also be an antagonist, by the way, but whether it's a monster or a villain depends on how it was created. For example, sentient AI would be more villain. A villain robot would be more monster.)

Note: Just because monsters have a simplified motivation doesn't mean you don't have to put work into their development. This post will teach you how to create great monsters.

Now let's look at the right side of the spectrum and consider the motivation of the pure bad guy. There is no right answer to a villain's motivation. A villain is (typically) humanoid and as such has a plethora of backstories, personality traits, and goals / desires. A bad guy is therefore more difficult to develop. You have to spend as much time thinking about them as you have about your protagonist.

Examples: Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, Nurse Ratched, Lex Luthor, the Joker, Darth Vader. . . I think you get the point. Villains are well-rounded characters with often relatable and / or personable traits. They are able to interact non-violently and can be thoughtful instead of careless. You are complicated.

The middle of the spectrum

So you have your pure monster on the left and your pure villain on the right. What's in the middle?

Let's look at Dracula. He's humanoid, but he's not human. Feeding is one of his motives, but that's not the only thing he wants. He's a complicated mix of monster and villain so he goes in the middle. I would place him to the right of center as his motivations (and looks) are more humanoid than monstrous.

Now let's take a look at Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King's It. He looks mostly inhuman (especially in the book), compulsively fearful, and feeding is definitely high on his priority list. These are ticks for the monster column.

However, he also loathes the group of friends, can communicate without being violent, and revenge plays a major role in motivating him to terrorize the main characters. These are evil properties. Pennywise goes in the middle of the spectrum as a nice mix of villain and monster.

Another example of someone in the middle: Sil from the movie Species. Sil is humanoid (her foreign DNA is linked to human DNA and is considered very beautiful), but her motivation is to survive so that she can reproduce.

While Sil has a personable background (she was made in a laboratory and her creators tried to kill her as a child), she is not in the least bit a personable character. She is determined and often unnecessarily violent.

Sil belongs in the middle, pretty close to the left / monster side of the spectrum, though it looks humanoid most of the time. See, not every monster looks monstrous.

When to use a monster

Since monsters have simplistic motivations, they add a threat to a story and your main characters. There is a lot of fear for monsters, so they're much more common in horror stories than anywhere else. Not that bad guys can't induce fear, but the nature of a monster makes fear a more natural state.

After all, monsters are "other" and less likable. It is easier for the protagonist to kill a monster.

A story in which a monster is used as an antagonist gives your protagonist plenty of room for character development. Use a monster when you want to concentrate heavily on your main character and their struggles.

There is very little way to explain a monster's backstory or worry about its motivations (because it tries to eat you). The focus is on the survival of the main characters and their character arcs.

The most common character arc here is the main character who switches from "weak" to "strong" in order to defeat the monster.

When to use a bad guy

Villains add tension to your story. Like monsters, they can also bring fear, but since their motivations are more cerebral and they tend to look human, pure fear is less common.

Your protagonist's character arc is directly influenced by the villain, as well as monsters, but in a more nuanced way. Protagonists can often be tempted or sympathized with villains in a way they cannot with monsters. Character arcs are also more interesting for your main characters when you are up against a villain.

Instead of focusing more on the survival of your main characters, you can look at morals, wit, devotion to ideals, and everything else.

What is the purpose of your story?

The purpose is where you should start each story. In other words, what is the motivation behind your story?

Are you going for a fear festival Would you like to point out problems with society? Do you want your main character to struggle with their own morals? Do you want to evolve a truly mind-blowing creature to let go of in a city?

What if it's a little bit of all of this? Then develop a monstrous villain or an evil monster!

Your antagonist in every situation is there to serve your story. Before you start writing, think about how they will serve your story and how best to get it into it, and you will be well on your way to making a great story!

Think of Frankenstein's monster. Where do you think he falls on the monster vs. Villain Spectrum? Let me know in the comments!


Today you are going to develop an antagonist. First, choose whether you want to evolve a monster or a villain. (If you decide to go with a monster, be sure to check out this post on building great monsters. If you go for a villain, you will need backstory, personality traits, etc.)

Then set a timer for fifteen minutes. Evolve your monster or your villain. In both cases, DON'T FORGET THE MOTIVATION!

When you're done, share your writing in the comments. Don't forget to comment on your colleagues' work!

Sarah Gribble

Sarah GribbleSarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that deal with awkward situations, fundamental fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She has just published Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.

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