Most of us are familiar with the old bit of writing advice that reminds us villains don’t typically think of themselves as villains, but rather as the heroes of their own story. While I think this advice is well intentioned, it often ends up being a bit reductionist. How many times, for instance, have you seen a story in which the villain’s terrible actions are explained by some tragic backstory or extenuating circumstance? It’s a step up from the mustache-twirling villain of old, the guy who simply does evil things because the plot tells him to, but if you’re not careful, this approach can nevertheless churn out some boring and unconvincing villains.
That’s because it still treats characters like “villains” rather than “antagonists.”
A villain is a trope. It’s the bad guy/girl who does bad things because… well, because the author says they have to in order to make the story move forward. Oh sure, maybe they have a plausible motivation for their nefarious behavior, but that’s just a justification to make sure we accept said behavior as believable. Villains are identifiable. We know who they are and what narrative purpose they serve almost immediately. Whatever their goals, they’re ultimately defined by their inherent “villainy.”
An antagonist, however, is a more complex character. Every villain may be an antagonist by the strict definition of the term, but not every antagonist is a villain. Fundamentally, they just want something different than the story’s protagonist, which is what produces and drives conflict. In order to understand the antagonist’s motivations and desires, though, we need to know quite a bit about them as fully realized characters. Whereas villains are defined by their “backstory,” antagonists are defined by their sense of identity, by “who they are” as a person.
Don’t get me wrong, villains can be great. I mean, who doesn’t love Darth Vader, the Joker, or Agent Smith? Fiction is replete with memorable villains, but a well-constructed, believable antagonist can elevate a story to another realm entirely. Take, for example, Jamie Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. When readers first encounter Jamie, he’s clearly a bad guy and seems to fit the profile of a classic villain. Eventually, however, Martin reveals his motivations and internal struggles, which puts his actions into a totally new context. Even his worst transgressions suddenly seem understandable, even excusable, because we see the thought process behind those decisions.
Now, you could argue that this is a veiled “bait and switch”, that Martin tricked readers into thinking Jamie was a villain only to later convince them that they were wrong about him. But that’s not quite right. What Martin really did was give readers a complex antagonist rather than a simplistic villain. Once readers got to know Jamie better and realized why he did the things he did, they both understood his motivations and found him to be a more sympathetic character. A well-conceived antagonist is effective because it creates complications for the reader. While we’re culturally conditioned to relate to the protagonist/hero, a good antagonist forces us to pull back and consider where our real sympathies should lie.
What happens when you get the unsettling impression that character you thought of as the “bad guy” is actually in the right? Or when you find yourself agreeing with a character’s terrible actions because they seem to “make sense” from a certain perspective? Closeted fascists aside, not many people actually think that Darth Vader is in the right, that his iron fisted view of power is good for the people of the galaxy. That’s because he’s just a villain waiting for a hero to defeat him. It’s why the attempts to provide him with a compelling origin story in the Star Wars prequels largely fell flat. Compare that, for example, to an actual fascist, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith from The Man in the High Castle. You could argue that Smith is actually a more reprehensible character than Vader, and yet there are moments when he is an incredibly sympathetic figure precisely because we understand what motivates him to do such terrible things. Although he seems like a typical villain from the onset, each scene does more to reveal his undeniable humanity. He’s not just a bad man in a uniform; he feels genuine, like a living, breathing person capable of experiencing love, fear, and hatred.
A good antagonist forces us to make uncomfortable value judgments, including that most indicting of all literary questions: Would we behave any differently in that character’s shoes? They bring an entirely different dimension to narrative conflict, forcing readers/viewers to ask difficult questions about their own beliefs and values. Villains certainly have their time, place, and uses, but it’s antagonists who really have the ability breath life into conflicts between characters.
So don’t worry if you find yourself sympathizing more and more with that character you thought would make everybody sick to their stomach. Chances are you’re dealing with an antagonist rather than a villain.
You should be so lucky…