A couple months ago I wrote a post about the use of animals in writing. It focused mostly on the ‘good’ aspects as animals and how they can be used to develop characters. This post focuses on the opposite – how they can used to portray villains. Remember, these posts are about using animals as foils for characters, not as characters themselves (although sometimes they go hand in hand).
Unlike ‘good’ animals, ‘villainous’ animals really don’t need to develop that much in certain cases, nor are they often used to develop villains to the depth that protagonists have with their animals. The most noticeable aspect when linking animals with villains is that they’re almost always from a core group of creatures historically deemed as infamous: Venomous creatures (snakes, spiders), ruthless killers (cats, wolves), and vermin (rats). Since many of these animals have already been labelled as ‘villains’ of the animal kingdom thanks in part to history dating back to biblical times, there’s really no point in communicating to the audience why these creatures are considered evil – to most audiences, it’s already implied due to cultural association. Once you show the animal, or even a symbol of the animal, one can already assume the creature is a villain or somehow connected to treachery. And of course, showing your main antagonist with the animal conveys the strongest link of that animal to villainy, and your character to that animal. It’s quite synergistic, thus nullifying the need to show your villain physically connecting to the animal as a protagonist might through an action such as nurturing.
One way around this often involves creatures who need a bit more depth as to ‘why’ they’re villains. Sometimes it’s portrayed in the way the animals act, or rather, trained. Dogs are often written as kind and benevolent creatures, but at times can act as the antagonist. Unfortunately this is sometimes due to breed reputations (pit bulls, Dobermans), but more often than not is the result of human intervention. This is one way to represent a truly malevolent person through the use of an animal. Since most animals can be trained by humans to some extent, they can be trained to be ruthless to any who oppose your main villain – after all, what crueler act is there than imposing your villain’s behavior on a creature that really doesn’t know any better, and only doing what may get them a tasty treat or pat on the head?
There is one major obstacle that often gets in the way of animal villain portrayal – the ‘cute’ factor. I mentioned cats and wolves as ‘ruthless killers’ commonly portrayed as villainous or representing villains, but who can resist a curious kitten or playful puppy? Indeed, using a ‘cute’ animal as a villain associate takes probably the most development and may not ultimately be the best choice, but is not impossible to write. When using these ‘cute’ animals, it’s vital to establish that animal’s role either in itself or in its connection to the villain right away, and then keep it consistent throughout the story. This is also important to keep in mind when using ‘cute neutral’ animals, such as horses or birds of prey.
To be honest, I did consider one more aspect of making a character a villain through the use of animals – animal abuse from your main antagonist. However, since I absolutely abhor this act, I’m not even touching upon it. And although this is one of the most emotional ways to develop a villain, I think it would ultimately turn more people away from your writing than towards it, simply because it’s unnecessary to go to such an extreme to prove your antagonist. After all, even the most evil villains who had animal companions were very doting to the animals they kept, and more often than not those animals were quite loyal to their keepers. They had that relationship not out of cruelty, but out of companionship, even if their core intentions were not virtuous or altruistic.