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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Villains and Antagonists: Villains and Antagonists

In this installment of the Villains and Antagonists series, we're going to look at some villains and antagonists who decide to swap roles.

First we're going to take the step up, when an antagonist becomes a villain. This could be for a variety of reasons and is not an exclusive motif by any means. It could be that a minor nuisance antagonist has something happen offscreen that transforms him into a villain. Maybe it's something to do with home life. Maybe he just decides he no longer likes the protagonist, more than his typical dislike. Maybe he always had the makings of a villain, but the protagonist just kept brushing him off. For whatever reason, which may or may not be explored to some length, this annoyance has become a real problem.

The thing about taking your antagonist to the next level is that it has to be done in increments when it's onscreen. Not everything has to be obvious, as subtlety and foreshadowing is a beautiful art, but if your protagonist's schoolyard bully suddenly turns into a villain hellbent on killing everyone on the winning side, it should feel like a natural, if tragic, progression of events based on clues and cues dropped here and there that treachery may be afoot. If such events occur offscreen, it should at least be believable, plausible within the plot. The annoying bully from elementary school turns out to be an evil dictator in a third world country? O...kay...but...why? What progression of events a) turned the bully into an evil third-world dictator, and b) brought said dictator and your protagonist together again after all these years (by all accounts, highly improbable)?

For our first example, we'll take a look at Star Trek: Nemesis. Of the TNG movies, this one is my favorite.

Now, you might be quick to point out that Shin-Zon doesn't exactly hide himself or his actions. It is made clear early on that he assassinated the Romulan Senate in a coup d'etat and installed himself as the first Reman Praetor. He tells Picard to test his blood and confirm that he is a clone.

But who here is going to believe that the Romulans were noble, when the Federation itself has been at war with them and meddled in their affairs for years? And the Remans aren't exactly first-class citizens to the Romulans. It is a cold, calculated move, one done of villainy, yet I would contend that it is not especially surprising. Consider this, that if it were a major move within Romulan and Reman politics, the Federation wouldn't send the Enterprise—a galaxy-class starship with regular civilians onboard—to go investigate, at least they wouldn't send it alone. There would be backup waiting at the border, just ready to bust in and save the day. (This does happen eventually, but not right away,) So while I don't condone mass murder and coup d'etat—nor do I believe it entirely unnecessary at times—considering the relationship of the action with the story at hand, I don't actually think it quite rises to the level of villainy in this context.

So Shin-Zon is a tough guy who lures Picard to Romulus and explains that he is a clone. They have dinner one evening where we learn of his time as a slave in the mines, once his usefulness as a clone was called into question and he was discarded. He claims to want an alliance, but it will be a difficult path. At this point, there is no villainy, just antagonism based on pre-existing politics.

A later conversation between Picard and Crusher reveals that Shin-Zon's cells were equipped with a temporal sequence to be activated at a certain time so that he could reach Picard's age more quickly and infiltrate the Federation. When that didn't happen, his cells began to break down and he is now dying. Picard's blood will save him.

Honestly, we all know he's the bad guy. Any idiot can see the dynamic here, where Picard must face himself as the final villain of his career. But as far as the movie goes, he hasn't really done anything wrong. He is the antagonist in the sense that he is a brand new political player bursting onto the scene between the Federation and the Romulans, but it wasn't as though he went out and attacked a Pacifist colony in order to start a war or something. There was no initial conflict here.

It isn't until later that he not only gets violent and kidnaps Picard, but he also moves onto death ground once Picard escapes. He knows he is going to die, but he's determined to take Picard with him.

To be fair, it could be argued that all villains start out as antagonists, because a good villain never does more than he has to in order to achieve his goals. Why send an army to burn a city to the ground when he can manipulate a few key people—politicians or not—and get them to burn the city for him? Why use force when he can use finesse? Saves time, money, resources, and he doesn't have to show his full hand.

So this I do understand. The purpose of this installment, however, is primarily progression.

Moving on to our second example, you're probably by now pulling your hair out, shouting, “Jeez, lady, get over your Dark Souls obsession already!”

And to you, I say, “Return from whence thou cam'st.”

Yes, Sister Friede is my next example of an Antagonist to Villain progression. Now, you may be quick to point out that it is because of her that Ariandel is rotting away. She is actively preventing the Painter from painting a new world and is content to let everyone die. However, as you talk to various NPCs and gather clues, there may be more than one side to the story, and some might be okay with rotting away. Find a sweetly rotting bed to lie upon. For those who, on the outside, are going for the End of Fire or Lord of Hollows ending, could you not be accused of doing the same? Just something to think about (and yes, I am a Lord of Hollows).

When you first meet Friede, she is kind, polite, gives you a souvenir for your trouble, and politely lets you walk away. Ariandel is completely optional. She is an optional boss. You can still access the Dreg Heap and the Ringed City from the Kiln later on.

But as you start to root around Ariandel and dig things up (perhaps going from antagonist to villain in her eyes as well, that you are interfering in their affairs), she sends Sir Vilhelm after you to stop you. You kill him, free the Painter, open up the secret vault that leads to Father Ariandel, and still she will ask you to leave. Until you physically go down and talk to Father Ariandel and initiate the boss fight, Friede will remain in her chair, asking you to leave, to return from whence thou cam'st.

Then it's a quick three-phase progression from, “Oh, wow, this is a tough boss fight” to “Holy crap, now I have to fight them both?” to “Whelp, might as well just stand here and let her kill me because I am in so far over my head.”

An important thing to keep in mind when taking an antagonist and forming him or her into a villain, it shouldn't be done in a vacuum. One of the smartest things you can do is take the opportunity to develop the relationship between hero and villain. A villain shouldn't, you know, level up “just because.” He shouldn't go from zero to serial killer in two-point-four weeks in a vacuum “just because” you want some epic showdown between him and his goody two-shoes twin brother who happens to be the detective on the case. There should be some reasoning behind it, clues, foreshadowing, something to look back on. Take a page from my bit on hero-villains.

And hero and villain don't need to have an intimate relationship for an antagonist to turn into a villain. Take The Oath by Frank Peretti as an example. The timeline of the story is only about a week long, but it's been building up over a century. In the present narrative, it begins with a couple out camping. They are attacked in the night, the husband half-eaten by a whoknowswhat, the wife escaping and half-crazed.

As it turns out, the husband was having an affair with one of the women in the nearby town of Hyde River. The same night that he is killed, the woman is thrown out onto the street by her husband who found out about the affair. No one will take her in, knowing what comes next.

The brother of the man who was killed, a wildlife professor named Steve, comes to investigate and track down the “bear” that supposedly attacked the camp. Everyone in the town swears it's a bear, even have one picked out for him. But clues don't add up, and he sticks around a little.

Then the woman of the affair equation turns up dead, and rumors start circulating about a dragon living on the mountain. Another man goes missing, and then another. All the while, the biggest businessman in town swears that nothing is wrong. The outsider just needs to leave and everything will go back to normal. The town crazy says that it will not, and that they've lost control of something they never truly had control over in the first place. That thing? A dragon that lives on the mountain which overlooks the town.

As Steve digs deeper, he uncovers the truth about this thing called the Oath.

Hyde River used to be one of many towns on the gold rush trail, famous for its taverns and brothels and raucous lifestyle. One day, a preacher showed up in town, calling out the sins of the people, defying the businessmen in charge, and calling for reform and repentance. The businessman at the top of it all, Benjamin Hyde, has the preacher lynched, as well as anyone who ever spoke favorably of his sermons, and ended up killing or burning down half the town. Then he and the survivors signed the Oath, a pact among themselves that swore them and their children and all future generations to secrecy and almost total seclusion from the outside world, with the sealing phrase, If This Be Sin, Let Sin Be Served.

To make a point of it, Ben Hyde took his posse to the river and conjured up what, at the time, appeared to be little more than a snake from the water. But the snake would devour men, anyone that Ben Hyde told it to.

The Oath passed down through the generations, and the connection to the serpent remained with the Hyde family. Eventually, the serpent grew until it could devour men in pieces. Then whole. Then it sprouted legs and wings. Then it began to breathe fire. In the present narrative, it is described as being approximately forty-five feet long. Every generation of the Hyde family eventually disappeared when they went to pray to the dragon.

Harold, in the present narrative, is no different. He's amiable enough to any stranger he thinks he can make a buck from. He talks to Steve, tells him it was a bear attack that killed his brother. Leave it at that. When Steve doesn't leave it at that, Harold starts getting passive aggressive, then more aggressive, as he threatens Steve, goes after his friends and family, and then starts ordering various murders, all of it to keep his link to the dragon in tact.

But the dragon isn't listening anymore, and it's starting to cash in on the sins of the town, scoring the hearts of the residents and manipulating them to do its bidding. Harold sends his men out to murder and pillage, just as Ben Hyde had done so many decades before, to cement his authority over the town and the dragon. Quickly it devolves and no one is listening to anyone but himself while the town burns and people are dying.

Personally, I think the present day narrative could have been a little more drawn out. Going from zero to anarchy in about a week is a bit much for me. Maybe it was two weeks, but still. I understand that, factoring in all the history from the 1800's, the point was that things were moving more rapidly and the dragon's appetite was growing. However, while the dragon's progression is explored and logical, the social aspect of it was less so, bridging the gap between Ben Hyde and present day Hyde River. But that's another subject.

 

The Villain Who Becomes an Antagonist (Step Down)

 

It's rare in any media that a villain is successfully stepped down to a mere antagonist. Most often, this is done by taking the villain in part one and making him a reluctant ally in part two. This isn't bad, and sometimes it is necessary and makes sense, but when done for its own sake, it can get old and feel very cheesy, more like fanfiction than natural progression.

Sometimes, it is possible to turn a villain into an antagonist without ever changing the role, and my first example comes from, you guessed it, Dark Souls III. This time we're looking at the reclusive lord of the Profaned Capital, Yhorm the Giant.

In order to understand why Yhorm, who we learn precious little about and encounter only once, moves from villain to antagonist, we have to understand a few things, again trying to condense so much backstory into a few paragraphs.

First of all, in the Dark Souls world, giants are not treated well. Almost all of them that you come across are bound in chains of some form, sometimes left to rot in their own filth.

It would stand to reason that Yhorm was treated no differently in principle, as he was originally subjugated by the people of the Profaned Capital. This is significant because he is a descendant of a great conqueror, believed to be High Lord Wolnir who ground the crowns of the other lords to dust and made himself the singular lord of his time. Yhorm is said to have been a one man vanguard on the field of battle. It is also mentioned that after he failed the one he wished to protect, he forsook his shield and notched his machete to use it two-handed, something that defined his later years.

The second thing that must be understood is the nature of the Profaned Capital and the Profaned Flame. The Profaned Flame was developed by witches and sorcerers, trying to solve the problem of the First Flame going out while working on the issues of the Chaos Flame that was its failed predecessor. Like the Chaos Flame, however, the Profaned Flame, while it indeed never goes out, is a force of evil and corruption and causes madness.

At some point, the citizens of the Profaned Capital lost their leader, and they chose Yhorm as their new lord. Through clues, we learn that this was not an honorable choosing. The people were insincere in their admiration of Yhorm. It may have been that they hoped he would fail in some fashion, or that it was a cover for other goings on. As time passed, they grew fearful of Yhorm, perhaps worried that he would use his power against them as High Lord Wolnir did in his time.

To that end, Yhorm gifted the people a sword called Storm Ruler, the only weapon capable of defeating him (in theory). If the people ever believed it necessary to remove him from power, they should use Storm Ruler against him.

Yhorm knew the people did not respect him, and he volunteered to become a Lord of Cinder, sacrificing himself to link the Fire, abandoning the Profaned Flame entirely, indeed, trying to put it to rest. Before he sacrificed himself, however, he gave a second Storm Ruler to his best friend Siegward of Catarina. If ever he returned at the behest of the bell and failed to do his duty, use the Storm Ruler to kill him again and take his cinders to the Fire.

One sword was given to Siegward, and this he uses in the fight, if you choose to go that route. But the first Storm Ruler was given to the people. Yet when you arrive in Yhorm's throne room to fight him, you discover that Storm Ruler near his throne on a corpse, suggesting that someone did try to stop him and was unsuccessful.

Personally, I would also posit that the destruction of the Profaned Capital was as recent as Yhorm's return, as it is largely uninhabited except for a few toxic swamp creatures, some handmaidens, and a handful of gargoyles. It would not make sense for one man to remain, especially since the Profaned Flame destroys aught but human flesh, nor for the corpse and the sword to remain for so long afterwards. I think that when Yhorm returned, the people, afraid of him already and knowing that he needed to be killed in order to link the Flame, rallied and tried to do just that, and he, with his great machete and power of fire, destroyed the city. Perhaps he thought this would also destroy the Profaned Flame, or perhaps it is what corrupted him further.

And while I know that there are speedrunners out there who can probably complete the game in under an hour as a naked, no-hit, fists-only run, looking at it from a slightly realistic perspective, we have no idea how much time has passed since the bell tolled to wake the Lords of Cinder and the Unkindled, and when your particular Unkindled self was raised, not to mention a more realistic timeline of events would take far longer than a hop, skip, and jump between kingdoms. Realistically, there could very well be weeks or months between when Yhorm returns to the Profaned Capital and when you show up.

Yhorm's unwillingness to link the Flame a second time seems to come more from apathy than malice. He lost the one he wished to protect, he failed to extinguish the Profaned Flame, his people tried to kill him the second he set foot in the city, and now his best friend Siegward is here to try to kill him, too, and drag him or his cinders back to link the Fire once more, something which is not unreasonable to think is an excruciating event.

It begs the question of whether he is of sound mind, which is one of the criteria to be classified as a villain. Even apathy requires some cognitive reasoning, especially under the circumstances just described. However, his red eyes are indicative of those who have either gone Hollow or been corrupted by the Abyss. If this is the case, then he is merely going on base survival instincts. He knows where home is, so he returns there. People start attacking, so he defends himself. He knows that linking the Fire is painful, so he avoids it. This is someone who willingly endured this pain the first time, I believe, out of depression, and is now avoiding that pain as many creatures are wont to do. If he were still apathetic and depressed, I don't think he would have fled. Consider the Abyss Watchers who still believe in their sworn duty to contain the Abyss, Aldrich who never wanted to serve the gods and link the Fire in the first place, and Prince Lothric who is content to let everything die. In this event, I don't consider Yhorm to be of sound mind and he really cannot necessarily be considered a true villain.

How, then, does he go from being a villain to an antagonist, if he was never a villain to begin with? For one, the definitions discussed in the first installment aren't meant to be the rigid, end-all of definitions. For two, at least in this sense, it kind of has to do with how you intend to play the game.

Pretending that my speculation is anywhere near correct, Yhorm destroyed an entire city, or he had a part in it. Plus, abandoning his throne disrupts the whole process of linking the Flame which has devastating consequences for the whole world. Both of these point toward villainy. And yet, his difference of opinion, his thought that he doesn't want to link the Flame, that it's a bad idea, and challenging you for the rights to his soul, speaks more to an antagonist as you continue on your quest to link the First Flame or not. If you want to link or usurp the First Flame, you need his soul. If you want to see the end of Fire, in all reality, you don't need it. Or any of the lords. But that would make for a pretty short game.

So I think Yhorm is kind of unique in that regard, that his status as villain or antagonist can actually change depending on the intentions of the player. Personally, I love him. I love his boss fight. It's tied for my favorite along with the Abyss Watchers and Gael.

Of course, not all stories have the luxury of such open interpretations. Most tend to be fairly linear in their presentation.

Consider Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean. In the first movie, he is the cut-and-dry bad guy. Marooned Jack and left him to die, kidnapped Elizabeth, attacked the Royal Navy, all the fun stuff. Resurrected at the end of the second movie, he enters the third movie as the reluctant ally, though no less an antagonist. The pirates want to be free of Davy Jones and the Royal Navy, especially with the former now working for the latter.

Everyone seems to have different ideas of how to go about it, however. Do they go to war, or do they flee? Do they release Calypso, or do they kill her?

As I mentioned in another installment, you can have antagonists on the same side of a conflict. Even Davy Jones and the Royal Navy are antagonists to each other, and I don't believe that their interests are fully overlapped either.

So even though Barbossa may be considered a protagonist in the third Pirates movie, he is still very antagonistic towards Jack and Will, asserting himself as captain through humorous and serious ways, and dealing with dissent in appropriate fashion. He's quite willing to help find the pirate lords and beat back their foe, but at the end of the day, he is still a self-serving pirate.

What about the other movies, you ask? Well...here's my personal opinion. First movie was fantastic and fun and everything that got the franchise started. The second two were fun expansions as new plots and ideas were explored. Fourth movie was, to me, more like a fanfiction brought to life. Anything after that is milking a dead cow.

As for Barbossa's role, he goes from pirate to nobility with very little explanation except to make the story happen. This does not mean that he is any less of an antagonist, however, and I don't know that he ever rises to the level of villainy that he was in the first movie. He's pretending to work for the British Crown, is out for revenge, helps Jack, hurts Jack, and doesn't really accomplish much except as the familiar face that can be plastered on whatever side Jack is competing against. It's a tragic waste of a character (and a franchise), and I think the best progression comes in the first three movies.

I also want to briefly explore the idea of a hero-villain becoming an antagonist from the viewpoint of a minor character (sort of similar to what I said about you and Friede in part one). For this, I would like to use Tsu'tey from Avatar.

To jog your memory, Tsu'tey is the chief's successor who is supposed to marry Neytiri and they rule together. His whole job is to be a warrior and protect the People. In his eyes, Jake and the rest of the humans are the villains. He has no love for Jake when he first walks into Hometree and is accepted as a sort of training pet experiment thing. He has no problem with stringing him up when Jake admits to basically leading an attack party on Hometree, betraying the People, and so on. For the Na'vi, this is villainy.

Yes, Jake becomes Toruk Makto and leads the People to victory in the end. In the extended version, there is a scene where a dying Tsu'tey accepts Jake. That's all fine and dandy, but I think it was more that the love triangle demanded Tsu'tey's death. If he had lived, what would have been his place? And I have little doubt that there would eventually be some tension between the two over Neytiri. And if you didn't see the extended version, then you never get to see that bond, and the two remain simply as warriors with a common cause.

So that's a bit of an inverted look at a villain becoming an antagonist from someone else's point of view.

As for the Timekeeper Chronicles, it wouldn't be fair or accurate to simply say yes, there is progression one way or another, and there is and will be. But because these are, in fact, progressions, and not necessarily motifs, it doesn't say a whole lot.

In the next installment, we'll get back into the motifs, exploring the next two on the list: The Perspective Antagonist, and the Hive Mind.

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