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What Makes An Antagonist A Villain?

Cast sizes vary in fiction. Some stories have multiple protagonists backed by a large ensemble of side characters. Others keep it to just a handful.

Regardless of the number of characters involved, if there is one with the same importance to a story as the protagonist, it's the antagonist.

Antagonists are often considered the bad guy, contributing to a conflict or even causing it themselves.

You may have also heard antagonists equated with villains. After all, they play the same role, right? Complicating the protagonist's life, adding conflict to the plot, other duties as assigned?

While antagonists certainly do these things, it's not always villainous.

"Villain" is, to me, a term that can sometimes be misused. It feels more like a subgenre, so to speak, the way the "boy next door" is when talking about a love interest. Not all love interests are of the boy next door ilk. You also have the childhood best friend, the rakes, the enemy-turned-lover.

And not all antagonists are villains.

So what distinguishes villains from antagonists? Where is that line?

I think it boils down to a few things, starting with intention.

When we think of villains, our minds might gravitate towards the cartoonish. Hand-wringing and snickering. Grandiose speeches. Elaborate schemes. Cracks of lightning behind maniacal laughter.

Or we might think of cold and manipulative characters who often leave a trail of devastation in their wake and may even take pleasure in making others miserable—or worse.

But that's not every antagonist.

Antagonists stand in the way of the protagonist's goal. This can be saving the world from an evil overlord antagonist's scheming, but it can also be much simpler than that.

The protagonist might be running for class president. They could volunteer at a community center on the brink of closure and are determined to raise the funds to keep it running. There is also the common example used when discussing character motivations in fiction of merely wanting a glass of water.

In each of these, there is likely an antagonist standing between the protagonist and their objective.

Using the class president example, the antagonist might be another candidate.

Here, the conflict is two characters vying for the same position in student government. There may be sabotage of campaign posters and rumors spread throughout the hallways as the election looms, but let's assume that neither candidate is setting out to purposefully do harm the other. Rather, the opposing candidate is standing in the way of the protagonist winning class president. They are a rival.

This makes them an antagonist, but not necessarily a villain.

Now let's take this example to an extreme.

Let's say your antagonist is determined to win the election because being class president would give her access to the science labs after school where she would be able to fulfill her true goal of synthesizing a chemical that would cause a reaction summoning a demon so they can enslave the human race and rule the world. And in order to win this election, she isn't going to shy away from taking out the competition by any means necessary—even if it means resorting to violence.

In this second hypothetical, the antagonist has gone far beyond mostly harmless pranks. She is out for world domination, posing threats, taking no prisoners, and doing a lot more than standing in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal.

Now we've got ourselves more of a villain.

Villains know what they are doing. Their dastardly deeds are not without some aim and awareness of the consequences.

They're out to do harm. And they know it.

What if the antagonist isn't aware of the damage their actions are causing? When they are so desperate to see their mission through to the end they become blind to the fallout? Or they simply don't know?

The difference between knowing full well what you're doing and lacking knowledge of how your actions impact those around you.

I personally find it harder to call an antagonist a villain when they truly don't know the scope of their actions.

Say you have an antagonist who is a thief who steals a few bags of money from a local bank, and he's done this because his father's running a crime ring and theft is what he equates with survival and worth as a person. He craves approval above all else.

Now say he learns that the money he took was donated and was to be used to buy toys for children spending Christmas in the local hospital.

Is he a villain? Not exactly.

Although he did a bad thing, he didn't know the full extent of what he was doing.

When he realizes this, he might feel conflicted about keeping the money. And if his heart is anything like that of the Grinch, he might end up returning every cent just in time to save Christmas. If this bad guy were a villain, he would have kept it all for himself and reveled in his newfound wealth.

A character might end up being an antagonist because of where they are positioned in relation to the central conflict. When the script is flipped, a protagonist could be viewed as an antagonist and vice versa, because that protagonist is standing in the way of the antagonist achieving their goals.

Being an antagonist is a state of being. Being a villain is a choice.

That's why henchmen and sidekicks are characters I don't consider villains because while they are committing acts that aren't so good, it's often at the behest of a villain. They're usually just an employee doing their job. It doesn't completely absolve them from responsibility, but it does make them more of an antagonist than a villain.

Antagonists play a vital role in any story. Without them, there is no conflict.

Villains are not always the ones playing the part. Instead, you might have antagonists who find themselves in that position merely because of circumstances that put them in the way of the protagonist's goals.

Only when do they intentionally, knowingly cause harm with little remorse do they step into the shoes of the nefarious. The devilish. The devious.

The villain.



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