Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Villains and Antagonists: Defining a Villain

In this series, we're going to be discussing villains and antagonists (as the title says). I wasn't going to do this, I wasn't planning it. I was going to wait a bit and start on 10 Fun Facts as they pertained to upcoming Free Time, maybe do a few about Time to Kill since audiobook production is about to start.

But it was not to be. The other night, Adam and I were watching the final season of Game of Thrones, and recently I've been obsessing over Soulsborne, especially Bloodborne. In the book world, I've been reading original Lovecraft. So, sure, this might be better reserved for Halloween or something, but I think this is a great discussion to have while you're snowed into your lonely cabin in the woods *shifty eyes*

I didn't really intend this to be a huge, drawn-out thing, but I think it's going to turn out that way, so let's just dive right in.

Before we get to the villains and antagonists themselves, we are going to need to consider, what makes a villain a villain, or an antagonist? If you go looking, there was recently published a theory that all stories can be boiled down to nine major plotlines, of which he only approves of seven: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, Tragedy, Comedy, Rebirth, The Quest, Voyage and Return, and others.

However, before him, there was a long-standing hypothesis of a different set of reduced story structures:

  1. Man vs. Self

  2. Man vs. Man

  3. Man vs. Nature

  4. Man vs. God

  5. Man vs. Society

  6. Man in the Middle

  7. Man vs. The Unknown

Now, if you go looking, you'll find that this isn't the actual list, depending on who you ask. The final structure is sometimes listed as Man vs. Woman, though I have also seen Man vs. The Unknown. I find Man vs. Man to encompass the idea of Man vs. Woman just fine, and therefore personally prefer the seventh structure to be The Unknown.

I know that some people have a problem with either of these lists, claiming that they are too “reductionist” and that it discourages or even smothers creativity, saying that everything is going to turn out like every other thing. But I want to point out a curious difference between the two lists in that Booker's list focuses on plot type, where and how the story leads and progresses. Meanwhile, the good sir's list focuses more on the relationships of the characters. That, I believe, is more important and more relevant to the topic at hand, and these interpersonal struggles will form the basis of our discussion on villains and antagonists.

Similarly, I also believe that there is a limited number of motifs that villains and antagonists can follow. How these motifs are explored is what makes a great villain or antagonist and therefore a great story. And we are going to explore these motifs that I have observed in future installments.

First, we have to understand, what is the difference between a villain and an antagonist?

Why do we need to understand this difference? First of all, because they aren't the same thing, although they can overlap to some degree. When you are writing your villain or antagonist, you need to have certain boundaries in order to make them a believable character. If you call your antagonist a villain but he never operates as a villain within those bounds, you're only going to confuse and disappoint your audience.

Now, you may say that your casual audience doesn't know the difference, so why does it matter? And it's true that they may not understand the nuance, inasmuch as they can describe it and put it into words and pinpoint it, but they do understand the concepts presented to them. There is a certain concept of a villain and a certain concept of an antagonist. When you promote and describe your work to your audience, you are trying to sell a certain image. If you try to sell the image of a villain, and you deliver an antagonist, you've disappointed your audience.

According to Merriam-Webster, a villain is a character in a story, movie, etc., who does bad things; a person who does bad things; someone or something that is blamed for a particular problem or difficulty; a character in a story who opposes the hero; or a deliberate scoundrel or criminal.

Meanwhile, an antagonist (at least in the scope of our discussion) is a person who opposes another person.

So a villain is specifically named as being bad, where an antagonist is simply in opposition. This distinction is important. A villain antagonist automatically places the hero on the moral high ground. A simple antagonist just makes his life difficult.

While we're at it, what is the difference between a hero and a protagonist?

Again, according to Merriam-Webster, a hero is a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities; the chief character in a story, play, movie, etc.; one who shows great courage; the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work; the central figure in an event, period, or movement; or an object of extreme admiration and devotion.

The protagonist, however, is defined as being the main character in a novel, play, movie, etc.; or an important person who is involved in a competition, conflict, or cause.

In terms of black and white, only a villain is actually described in terms of good and evil, specifically mentioning that a villain does bad things. One might argue that a hero is a hero for doing good things, but going by strict definitions, can a villain not do brave acts or show courage? Can he not be a main character in a work or a central figure in an event or champion a cause? But we'll discuss heroes and protagonists at a later date in their own series.

So going back to the topic of boundaries, we have a few that we can begin to establish. First, a villain definitely does bad things, where an antagonist is merely in opposition.

How, then, do we define “bad things”? Burning down an orphanage with children trapped inside? Yeah, that's really bad, but you're not going to find such opportunities arising in every genre. In order to refine this part, we turn to another aspect of the definition of a villain which is that he is a deliberate scoundrel or criminal.

The key point here is “deliberate.” Deliberate, meaning, with intent. Running into someone and causing them to spill hot coffee on themselves isn't villainous if it isn't intentional. Careless, reckless, maybe, but hardly villainous. Walking up to someone and slapping that cup of coffee out of their hands, causing it to spill all down their front and give them second degree burns, well, that's something different.

But is it villainous?

When we're first introduced to the concept of “heroes” and “villains” when we're children, those villains tend to be the mustache-twirling, take-over-the-world-with-a-death-ray kind of villain. So does the mean coffee-slapper really qualify, even if it was a deliberate act of being a scoundrel? The litigious among us might even call it assault, which is a criminal act.

While not part of the official definition, I would posit that a villain is only a villain when he causes a major disruption in the lives of unaffiliated bystanders. Our coffee-slapper? A douchebag, but hardly a villain. Maybe there was a dispute between him and the unfortunate coffee drinker. Now, if he makes it a habit of hiding in the bushes outside the coffee shop, randomly slapping cups of coffee out of people's hands, causing them to experience second degree burns, that would be villainous because he is becoming a disruption to random bystanders who now have to fear leaving that coffee shop because their coffee may be randomly slapped out of their hands, causing them to be burned.

A person who breaks into someone's home and steals all the heirloom jewelry? Villain, because it was an intentional bad deed that disrupts not only the lives of his victims, but the rest of the neighborhood as they wonder if they'll be next.

A drunk guy who picks a fight and beats up a dude half his size and starts threatening the rest of the pub patrons? Maybe not a villain. People do dumb things when they drink, and few people go to a bar with the intent of beating up other people and possibly being arrested and spending time in jail. Those who do get drunk with the intent of causing harm, I would say fit the bill. The casual drinker who has a few too many and makes a bad decision, less so.

An elderly man who has dementia who chases kids off his lawn and thwacks them with his cane, I would not consider a villain because I don't believe he would be able to appreciate the consequences of his actions.

But wait, you say, what about unintentional villains who don't understand the consequences of their actions? And to that, I would respond that ignorance is not an excuse. Someone who is drunk or high or has dementia or maybe has some physical or mental affliction that prevents them from functioning normally may be in control of their actions to some extent, but they lack the cognitive ability to reason, thus also excluding prolonged revenge stories. The ability to reason and plan is key here.

What, then, does this mean for heroes who kill villains? As much as I would like to expand on this here, I feel like it would be better covered in another discussion about heroes, antiheroes, and the like.

So then, we can extrapolate that a villain is someone who is of sound mind who deliberately does bad or criminal acts such that it becomes a disruption within a larger sphere of influence.

So we've come up with some boundaries for a villain, but what about an antagonist? After all, the dictionary definition simply states that it is one person opposing another. Does that make every person with a differing opinion an antagonist? If you've got a group of six protagonists, and one of them disagrees with another, which one, if either, is the antagonist?

In this instance, I am going to start with my definition of an antagonist and then dissect. Actually, I have a few definitions, which I will present.

An antagonist is any character who, through difference or opposition of thought or action, intends to inspire growth and/or maturity in another character through challenge or conflict, or, through ill or no intent, causes these things to happen.

That was a lot, wasn't it? Let's break it down.

First, any character. This doesn't necessarily mean the mustache-twirling villain. You can have multiple characters on the same side who are, in fact, antagonists. A military drama might follow a new recruit in the army and his commanding officer may be an antagonist because he is crass, harsh, always yelling and insulting the grunts. In good depictions, this is to inspire growth and break them into the army. In conspiratorial depictions, the C.O. is intent on humiliating his charges. They're on the same side, but when operating on the same plane, they differ.

Second, difference or opposition of thought or action. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't mean they're suddenly the diametrical enemy. Some arguments can have many viewpoints. Rather that sitting at Da Vinci's Last Supper, with everyone in the same line, that is, the same line of thought and all in agreement, or at the interrogation table with two people facing each other, it may be more of a round table situation, with each person off just a little bit, just a little different angle. Or it may be direct opposition. Consider again the idea of an army situation, where an impending attack from the enemy demands action. Do they stay and fight? Retreat? Send for help? All the brass in the room is on the same side, but differing opinions coupled with clashing personalities and ego may turn the characters into antagonists. It doesn't necessarily make any of them bad; they're simply rubbing against each other.

Next, intends to inspire growth and/or maturity. This would apply to antagonists on the same side, those who want to present new ideas, or shape a way of thinking or doing things, hopefully without burning bridges and starting mini-wars. And this concept of growth and maturity is not always the warm, fuzzy feelings and sudden epiphany of an egotistical maniac suddenly becoming a kindhearted Samaritan. Sometimes it is simply the addition of knowledge and wisdom that shapes a character for future endeavors.

But if that doesn't work, there's always the part about challenge or conflict. It doesn't always mean violence, but it is letting someone know that there is a difference of opinion in the ranks. Or outside the ranks, as this can arise from an opposing side, which would be the ill intent portion of the definition.

This is where antagonist and villain can overlap, and it really does come down to intent, especially ill intent plus physical conflict. Remember, antagonist and villain are separate entities, but they are not mutually exclusive.

But what about that “through no intent” bit? What does that mean?

Let's say you're watching a movie about a plane that crashes in the mountains, and the lone survivor must make his way hundreds of miles to the nearest town through wretched conditions and a variety of situations involving weather and animal predators. There is no villain here, and the weather and wildlife are hardly expressing opposing viewpoints to the main character. Yet they are in opposition to his goal of survival and they do inspire character growth, that he must survive or die. There is no intent here. Weather gonna weather, wildlife gonna do what it does. So keep in mind that antagonists don't even have to be people or other character entities.

So now we have our two definitions to work with. And I'm not saying that these are absolute, concrete, immovable definitions, but I feel that they are fairly solid and can applied consistently to most situations.

We have our villain, who is of sound mind who deliberately does bad or criminal acts such that it becomes a disruption within a larger sphere of influence.

And we have our antagonist, who is any character who, through difference or opposition of thought or action, intends to inspire growth and/or maturity in another character through challenge or conflict, or, through ill or no intent, causes these things to happen.

A villain is always an antagonist, but an antagonist is not always a villain. Just like a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square. Furthermore, an antagonist can become a villain, which we will explore in greater detail later. Can a villain step down to mere antagonist level? I believe so, through significant character development, which will also be explored later on.

As I've stated, these are not meant to be the end-all of definitions, but I'd like to believe they're pretty thorough.

Now then, bringing this all back around to defining your villain or antagonist, selling an image, and then delivering. Going through the motifs in the future, you'll have a little clearer idea of what needs to be done, but for the moment, consider what boundaries you need to set for your villain or antagonist. What lines need to be drawn? What lines need to be respected, and which ones need to be crossed?

Regardless of whether you are trying to craft a villain or an antagonist, character development must still be respected and adhered to.

With all that in mind, we're going to go through different types of villains and antagonists in any kind of story, be it book, movie, or video game, and what makes them that way. Also, how to effectively portray them.

You'll remember the list from earlier, about Man vs. things, and that it only had seven structures. You will also notice that there are more than seven types of villains listed. That's because there is more than one way to portray each versus. The list focused on the relationships between characters, and now we're going to focus on the characters themselves.

Go Back