Soviet folklorist Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp, in his analysis of the Russian fairy tales, concluded that a fairy tale had only eight dramatis personae, of which one was the villain, and his analysis has been widely applied to non-Russian tales. The actions that fell into a villain's sphere were:
- A story-initiating villainy, where the villain caused harm to the hero or his family,
- A conflict between the hero and the villain, either a fight or other competition
- Pursuing the hero after he has succeeding in winning the fight or obtaining something from the villain.
None of these acts must necessarily occur in a fairy tale, but when they occurred, the character that performed them was the villain. The villain therefore could appear twice: once in the opening of the story, and a second time as the person sought out by the hero.
When a character performed only these acts, the character was a pure villain. Various villains also perform other functions in a fairy tale; a witch who fought the hero and ran away, which let the hero follow her, was also performing the task of "guidance" and thus acting as a helper.
The functions could also be spread out among several characters. If a dragon acted as the villain but was killed by the hero, another character -- such as the dragon's sisters -- might take on the role of the villain and pursue the hero.
Two other characters could appear in roles that are villainous in the more general sense. One is the false hero; this character is always villainous, presenting a false claim to be the hero that must be rebutted for the happy ending. Among these characters are Cinderella's stepsisters, chopping off parts of their feet to fit in the shoe. Another character, the dispatcher, sends a hero on his quest. This may be an innocent request, to fulfill a legitimate need, but the dispatcher may also, villainously, lie to send a character on a quest in hopes of being rid of him.