Villains vs. Antagonists

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Every story needs a “bad guy,” someone or something that gets in the protagonist’s way and keeps making trouble for him or her.  For instance if my life were a novel, the “bad guy” would be an impossibly cute 3-year-old ginger cat, whose offenses include:

  • “Decorating” the living room with shredded articles of mail
  • Skulking atop the fridge and swatting at our heads as we pass by
  • Pouncing on and harassing the other feline inhabitants of the household, and…
  • Using the hand that feeds him as a chew toy.

The job of the antagonist is to make life difficult for the protagonist, and those difficulties occur because the antagonist becomes an obstacle blocking the protagonist from what he or she wants.  If heroine needs to escape from the tower, the antagonist is the dragon that blocks her way.  If sleuth wants to solve the crime, the antagonist is the criminal who’s masterminded the dastardly plot, making it (nearly) impossible to crack.  If the hero wants something as simple as a glass of water, the antagonist becomes the drought that keeps him parched.

But not every story has a villain, but regardless of style or genre, there is always an antagonist.  In fact, villains are a subcategory of antagonists so while all villains are antagonists, not all antagonists are villains.  Here’s a quick rundown on the difference between the two.

Antagonist

The antagonist is a force, entity or person that gets in the way of the character getting what he or she wants.  The antagonist does not have to be human, nor must it even be a sentient being.  Antagonists can be “bad guys” but they can also be natural disasters, an oppressive society or even the protagonist himself.  The antagonist is the protagonist’s worst enemy within the context of the story.  This means that someone or something that is an antagonist in the story may not necessarily be evil or even all that antagonizing in another context.  For instance, the storm in The Perfect Storm is the antagonist for the men on the boat, but for the people on shore, sure it’s a big scary storm but it’s not really an antagonist.

Another example is the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire in which the story of Oz is told through the point of view of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.  In the original story of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is the protagonist and the wicked witch is the antagonist.  In Wicked, Elphaba becomes the protagonist, the character we root for and the Wizard (among others) become the antagonists.

There are six basic types of antagonists.

Notice that of all these options, only the first one constitutes an actual villain as the antagonist.

  • Protagonist vs. Another Character (villain)
  • Protagonist vs. Nature
  • Protagonist vs. Society
  • Protagonist vs. Technology
  • Protagonist vs. Supernatural Forces
  • Protagonist vs. Self

Villain

The villain is a character who is at odds with the protagonist.  This character specifically wants to prevent the protagonist from getting what he or she wants.  While it’s tempting to paint villain characters as pure evil, it is far more compelling when a villain has a streak of good.  Even more so, when the author shows the motivation behind the villain’s actions, the reader is able to understand why the villain is in conflict with the protagonist.  Villains are not usually all-bad, they’re just misunderstood.

Just like the Bad Cat, whose behavior has vastly improved after some treats and playtime with the mouse-toy.

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