What’s the difference? How are they important in fiction?
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
To celebrate Halloween today, let’s talk about the scariest of fictional characters, antagonists and villains. An antagonist is a force opposing the protagonist. A villain is a character with malevolent intent or actions.
Aren’t those the same thing?
Nope! It’s true that in many stories, the antagonist is also a villain. It’s easy to identify them: Snow White’s stepmother, the Wicked Witch of the West, Dracula…
But that’s not always the case. To better demonstrate the difference, let’s focus on characters who are not both.
One thing that’s important to understand about an antagonist is that it is essential to the story. A protagonist without opposition isn’t doing anything. If you’re scientifically minded, think of literature as having its own version of Newton’s third laws of motion. For every action the protagonist takes, there is an opposite reaction by someone or something—the antagonist. There are a few different versions of non-villain antagonists.
Most people wouldn’t describe their friends and family as malevolent or evil, but often they are a protagonist’s biggest opposition. They mean well, but their desires happen to run counter to the main goal. Example: A boy wants to go to a party, but his mother grounds him for fighting with his brother. Though the mother does it for the boy’s own good, she is his antagonist.
Lovers and Future Friends
These are similar to the friends and family but less amiable. However, less amiable doesn’t mean malevolent. They could be potential lovers or rivals who become friends of the protagonist. Most romance novels use this type. The protagonist is avoiding love, but the antagonist is driving them toward a relationship, or vice versa. Again, the antagonist’s actions aren’t malevolent—they aren’t even necessarily intentional. In the case of a lover antagonist, they may thwart the protagonist’s desire to avoid love simply by existing.
Yes, you read that right. The protagonist can be their own antagonist. Although Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are a prime example, most protagonists who serve as their own antagonists aren’t quite so extreme. Someone who’s self-destructive or stands in their own way can be their greatest foe, but so can someone who’s simply battling their own weakness. Example: A man trying to be a good leader is fighting crippling shyness, and that aspect of himself is his antagonist.
A Force of Nature
An antagonist doesn’t need to be a person. An animal, the weather, or geography could all be the primary opposition to the protagonist. Survival or disaster stories make use of this most often, but it appears in all kinds of fiction. Example: To return home, a woman must cross a desert alone. The desert is the antagonist.
Every story needs a main antagonist, but did you know that each scene has its own antagonist as well? One difference is that scene antagonist may be opposing a main character rather than the protagonist if they are not in the scene. This character may be friendly or supportive for the rest of the story but acts as an opposing force in this one instance. Example: A man and his friend are planning an attack on the main antagonist. The man wants to charge their foe, but his friend thinks a sneak attack would be better and questions the plan. They debate and eventually reach a compromise. Though not truly the antagonist of the story, during this debate, the friend is functioning as one.
Unlike the antagonists, which can have neutral, benevolent, or non-existent intent, villains are defined by their malevolence. But why would a villain not be the driving force against a protagonist?
If the villain is the protagonist, then the antagonist is likely to be a hero. Dorian Gray is a classic example.
Substitute for the Antagonist
People love to root against a villain, but in a story where the antagonist cannot be a villain, such as with a force of nature, sometimes a villain will be placed in a story to soak up the hate that the audience can’t direct at inhuman force. This character doesn’t ever get in the protagonist’s way for long but is rude, mean or downright evil.
Sometimes stories don’t even use a substitute villain for their non-villainous antagonist. While an antagonist is an essential story element, a villain is not. It’s possible to have a story with no villain at all.
Why does it matter?
Because antagonists are necessary, and villains are not, knowing which is which can make or break a story. For writers, in striving for realism, villains are often discarded, but it’s important to not lose the antagonists as well, or the story will fall apart. For readers, being able to identify the antagonist without labeling them as a villain can lead to more honest and in-depth discussion or analysis of our favorite characters and their true roles.
Join us next week when we’ll look at their opposites: protagonists, main characters, and heroes.
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