Ask a Writer: Villains vs. Antagonists vs. Antiheroes – What’s the Difference and Does it Matter?

Villains vs Antagonists vs Antiheroes

Copyright – Walt Disney
(More of an Essay than a Blog Post, so be Warned, :P)

As I’ve been rereading The Last Coffee Shop for the first time since I finished the initial draft, I quickly realized something interesting: There is no outright/major villain character in TLCS. Instead, it’s about the heroine dealing with lots of ambiguous antagonists and a hostile world. This is a first for me, as I usually have a distinct villain character, and I love to write them.

And speaking of writing great villains, I read several excellent posts on the subject a month ago, and it set the mental wheels turning. Tracey @ Adventure Awaits had a guest blog post on the 4 Elements of a Good Villain, Victoria Grace @ Wanderer’s Pen wrote two great posts – one on writing good Antiheroes and one on the importance of writing Good Vs Evil. Also, I recently read V. E. Schwab’s Vicious!

All of these posts made for great reading and discussions, and set me thinking – Antihero, Villain, Antagonist – all of those terms are used, sometimes interchangeably, out on the internet. And there are endless debates on the actually “villainy” of plenty of characters, from Loki (Marvel Universe) to Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal) to Saruman the White (Lord of the Rings). And in all of these discussions, there is a lot of confusion. So what’s a writer to do? Well, the best place to start is the dictionary!

I love words and definitions, so we’ll let Merriam Webster take this. According to the dictionary:

Villain:

1:  villein

2:  an uncouth person :  boor

3:  a deliberate scoundrel or criminal

4:  a character in a story or play who opposes the hero

5:  one blamed for a particular evil or difficulty

It’s actually not the most precise word, is it? Going on our modern definition of “villain,” or someone who does “wrong” things and opposes the story’s hero, a better word might be “malefactor.”

Malefactor:

1:  one who commits an offense against the law; especially :  felon

2:  one who does ill toward another

Middle English malefactour, from Latin malefactor, from malefacere- to do evil

A Malefactor – or someone who intentionally causes harm or evil, is what we’re usually meaning when we use the word “villain.”

Examples would be Sauron (LOTR), Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars), Voldemort (HP), Iago (Othello), or the Joker (Batman). These characters may or may not be nuanced, they may be tragic and even sympathetic, but at their root, they cause intentional evil to those around them. In other words, a true villain is a god unto themselves, a person who believes in no higher or more moral/spiritual authority than themselves and their own desires.

And I don’t mean believe in the “I believe chairs are real,” sense. I mean believe in the “believe/am convicted that this entity or idea outside of myself is greater/higher than me, and should be regarded when I make decisions.”

So what is an antagonist?

Antagonist:

one that contends with or opposes another :  adversary, opponent

From antagonize – Greek antagōnizesthai, from anti- +agōnizesthai to struggle, from agōn contest — more at agony

Rather different from a “villain,” isn’t it? Basically, an antagonist is someone who struggles against or opposes someone.

If we’re rewriting Star Wars with Darth Vader as the main character, then Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi are both antagonists. They contend with Vader, and directly oppose his point of view. So while an antagonist can be a villain, not every antagonist is evil.

Which brings us to antiheroes.

Antihero:

a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities

That’s a little vague, so let’s look at the root words – anti, or “against” from Middle English < Latin < Greek, prefix meaning “opposite”

Add this to hero – “man of superhuman strength or physical courage,” from Greek heros demi-god”, originally defender, protector,” from PIE root *ser- to watch over,protect (cf. Latin servare “to save, deliver, preserve, protect;” see observe).

So an antihero would basically be anyone who does the opposite of the “heroic” actions, or who (like our definition above), lacks the classical attributes of a hero (such as courage, selflessness, integrity, honesty, etc.)

However, in modern literature, this term also encompasses any nonstandard hero (including some characters that might be more properly categorized as villains). An antihero is always the hero/protagonist of their own story, which makes them the exact opposite of an antagonist. However, like antagonists, antiheroes are not necessarily evil.

Okay, now that we’ve looked at the technical differences between these terms, what makes a good villain, antagonist, or antihero? Let’s look at some examples.

In Star Wars, Emperor Palpatine may “believe” in the Jedi, the “Light Side of the Force,” and that those things are real – but he sees them as invalid. For him, whether the Jedi’s morals are right or wrong is unimportant – he is ruled only by himself and his perception of The Force. This makes him a classic villain, or malefactor – someone who sets himself up as the only right, and tramples others in his path.

Granted, Palpatine isn’t the most memorable or chilling villain, so here’s a second example. Wilson Fisk (Netflix Daredevil series) is one of the most terrifying and effective villains I’ve ever encountered. But what makes him such a good villain? Well, for starters, he’s a character, and his story is extremely important to the overall narrative.

(Disclaimer: the scene below is appropriate for all ages, but note that Daredevil is a mature show that isn’t suitable for all audiences)

https://youtu.be/ocm_f6VDI2E?t=2s

The voiceover is from an article that reporter Ben Urich was writing about Fisk, challenging Fisk to “step into the light,” and answer for his crimes. But there are a few serious problems.

For starters, Fisk has left no clues behind that will point to him. The atrocities he’s committed, and the terrible people he’s worked with, can’t be traced to him. Also, Fisk believes 100% that he’s right at this part in the narrative. He views himself as a hero, and Matt Murdock (Daredevil) as a villain who would destroy Hell’s Kitchen.

Fisk is convicted about the crime and decay of the city, he loves his girlfriend Vanessa deeply, he has an artistic soul, and his backstory is both tragic and sympathetic. But none of this excuses his behavior. He uses all sorts of criminals and gangs to do his work, keeping his hands “clean,” and there is no moral line he will not cross in his pursuit of his goal. To Fisk, as long as he wins, and reshapes Hell’s Kitchen in his own fashion, he will do anything.

That becomes a major difference between him and Matt, and a defining characteristic of the series. While Daredevil has doubts, trials, moral lines, and dilemmas, Fisk does not. He is a self-proclaimed deity in all but name, and he answers to no one but himself, regardless of who suffers the consequences. By the end of the series, Fisk is a true malefactor – or one who both commits crimes against and hurts others, in pursuit of his own desires.

When you’re writing a villain, whether he/she is the protagonist of your novel, or opposing the hero, you need to make sure that they’re as completely developed as the main character.

If you watched the Daredevil clip above, you’ll notice something very important to a truly terrifying villain: Fisk twists the truth and speaks it back, with an uncanny resemblance to what Ben (the reporter) was saying about him. Fisk is an “angel of light” villain, or someone who sounds/looks/seems good, but has depths of depravity/wickedness that aren’t visible at first. Fisk says all the right things, and in the public eye, does all the right things. He seems like a good man. But there’s a lot more to his character.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you’re developing your villain’s character:

  1. What do they want most, and how far will they go to get it?
  2. Why do they want it?
  3. How do they view the people around them?
  4. How do their goals influence how they treat the people around them?
  5. What truly puts them in conflict with the hero/protagonist?
  6. Does your character masquerade as (or believe he/she is) one of the good guys? Did they start with good intentions?
  7. Who is their ultimate authority?

Let’s move on to antagonists.

Antagonists are supporting characters that oppose the protagonist and move the story along, usually prodding the main character into action with their alternate viewpoints.

All of the villains mentioned above are antagonists as well, because they oppose the protagonists. Still, there are plenty of antagonists that are either morally superior to the protagonist, or at the very least, not evil. Some examples include the detective L (Death Note), the fairies in the Artemis Fowl series, both Captain America and Iron Man in the Civil War comic arc (Marvel), or Buzz Lightyear in the movie Toy Story.

In The Last Coffee Shop, my protagonist Mads is taken hostage by Luc the bounty hunter, who is the primary antagonist of the book. However clouded Luc’s motives are, he means no harm to Mads – he just gets in the way of her plans. And that’s another major function of the antagonist. They often provide frustration of the MC’s plans or prospects (like Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice).

Still, whether an antagonist is an outright villain or not depends on the story.  In many books and movies, a character who is an antagonist or villain will have a redemptive, positive character arc that results in their joining the hero’s side/making the correct decision. Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender), Itachi Uchiha (Naruto), or the original T 101 Terminator (Terminator), are all examples of this type of character. And speaking of Naruto, Pain-Nagato is a classic antagonist that fulfills both of these definitions.

(SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for Naruto Shippuden Season 8, or Chapters 413-453 of the manga from here on)

When you first meet Pain, he’s a godlike figure determined to fix the world by removing all ninja from it. This will kill a lot of people, but presumably stop all wars by doing so. Pain’s motives are good – he wants world peace – but his execution is terrible.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with Naruto, I’ll give you some context. Pain-Nagato has been the major antagonist (though the characters didn’t know this) for a loooong time now, sending people after Naruto and wreaking general havoc. However, the action finally comes to a head in a climactic confrontation between Pain-Nagato and the Konoha ninja. By this point in the story, Naruto has lost his mentor/father figure Jiraya (the Pervy Sage mentioned in the clip), and many of his friends to Pain-Nagato and his goons. So Naruto has reasons for revenge, but it’s very interesting how this plays out. Pain-Nagato and Naruto have a one-on-one conversation, and we see if all of Pain’s antagonism will cause Naruto to “fall” by choosing revenge and the normal “ninja route,”or will Naruto be able to find a different path?

Watch this pivotal scene from Naruto Shippuden, and you’ll see what I mean:

https://youtu.be/YfnI-6o9nFk

“Words of forgiveness come easy. Love does not.” Man, I love that line. But that’s beside the point – do you see how Pain-Nagato baits and plays Naruto, riling him (Naruto) up and egging him on?

(NARUTO SPOILERS END HERE :P)

A good antagonist always causes the Protagonist to move forward in the plot. Whether that means a “fall from grace” or a character progression really depends on the story. But a fully fledged antagonist has their own motives and complete character arc as well – and they are affected by the MC’s arc. (For example, in Naruto, Naruto’s final words and actions not only impact Pain-Nagato, but everyone around them).

For an antagonist to have impact – their choices have to be nearly equal or equal to the importance of those of the MC.

And this brings us to our last definition – The Antihero.

I won’t drone on as long about this character type (and you should definitely read Victoria’s excellent post), because most people are familiar with them. However, I will use two of my favorite examples: Light Yagami (Kira) from Death Note, and Dean Winchester from Supernatural.

These two young men couldn’t be more different, but they’re both antiheroes and (one of the) main protagonists of their respective series. We’ll start with Light.

Light is introduced as a morally upstanding, scholarly, brilliant student. He’s a model son, and he’s very sure of right and wrong. But when he finds the Death Note*, Light suddenly has power to change the world.

 *(The Death Note is a notebook that belongs to a "death god." If it falls into the human world, it belongs to the person who finds it, and any name they write in the note will cause the death of the named person)

Light, with his strong morals, feels that he is the perfect person to hold life and death in his hands, and he quickly begins to “execute” criminals by writing their names in the note.

Now you or I might see problems right off, but hang with me for a minute. Surprisingly, Light makes some very convincing arguments, and he has a lot of charisma. You find yourself hoping he won’t get caught almost as much as you hope he will get caught! However, this kind of godlike power quickly goes to Light’s head.

Image not mine – quotes from Death Note – found here

As detectives close in (particularly the sketchy, eccentric “L”), Light gets more and more corrupted and indiscriminate about the people he kills. And every time he takes a life, he become more immune to his actions. After all, he doesn’t have to actually deal with doing the deed himself. It’s all very neat and removed. So ultimately, though Light believes in right and wrong, and that evil should be punished, he is the ultimate moral authority on his own actions. But he’s still the protagonist of the series, making him an antihero (or a non-conventional hero). You’ll have to read the manga or watch the anime to see what happens, but it’s a very cleverly constructed story that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Dean Winchester, on the other hand, could not be more different from Light. Dean is rough-edged, violent, under educated, and frequently boorish. He has low tastes, and he is perfectly happy with himself (at least early on). He’s as far from the classic “hero mold” as you can get without having an outright malefactor. So what makes him an antihero? Despite all of the above, Dean frequently makes the moral choice when the going gets tough.

Image not mine, found here

If there is a child in danger, Dean will risk his life for them. If saving his brother means losing his own life, he’ll do it in a heartbeat. If stopping innocent deaths means doing something horrible like crawling into a ghoul nest or luring monsters to himself, Dean will do it with little hesitation. Even if he makes bad choices, or does terrible things, he is usually driven by his love for his brother (or his friends), and his desire to save others.

In a nutshell: regardless of Dean’s inclinations or motives, when he has to choose between doing the right (non self-serving) thing or walking away, he eventually chooses the right (harder) choice. This is what makes him an antihero – a non-conventional hero who does the right thing when it counts.

The one thing that villains, antagonists, and antiheroes all have in common is a strong, driving motivation, and a completely developed character.

While they may cross over into the same thing, they are distinct, different words. And ultimately, when crafting any character, you have to ensure that they have a complete arc that is pivotal to the story.

This is probably redundant, but I believe you can’t ask it enough: what does your opposing side/force/character want from the world, and how does that put them in the way of your protagonist?

As long as your characters are well-rounded characters first, with motives, stories, and consistency, then it doesn’t matter which role they play. I’m sure you’ll pull them off well 🙂

So what do you think makes a good villain, antagonist, or antihero? Do you think it’s important that we use precise language, or do you not really care about definitions? What are some of your favorite examples of these types of characters?

15 thoughts on “Ask a Writer: Villains vs. Antagonists vs. Antiheroes – What’s the Difference and Does it Matter?”

  1. I thought this post turned out great! But you already know I love this subject. 😉 I think another great example of an antagonist is Stitchface, the serial killer from “The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray” by Chris Wooding. It’s interesting, because while he is definitely the definition of a malefactor (and is never portrayed as anything less in the book), his role in the story is not as the main villain. He really is there to push the heroes towards their goals, and in the end he unintentionally helps them. Thus, he’s more of an antagonist.

    1. Yessss – Stitchface is one of the best examples of an antagonist who isn’t “the villain.” Actually, Chris Wooding is really big on those, overall. Thanks <3

  2. You have done your research! Great post, I love my antihero’s and antagonists, and of course a well crafted villain. I think you summed it all up nicely.

  3. *applauds Rebekah*

    This really is an awesome post on the topic. People might be tempted to lump villains and anti-heroes (and perhaps anti-heroes) in the same category, but there are subtle differences between all of them. I think it’s also helpful to remember that there might also be points in the story when the protagonist stands in the way of what the antagonist wants. Because, in a way, both characters are each other’s antagonists.

    It’s funny that you brought up this topic now. I finished revising Chapter 5 of TKC, and one of its scenes is a conversation between Eva and Prince Virik (remember the BP post I did on him a few months ago?). A day or so after I finished editing that chapter, I realized that I *still* don’t have Virik’s dialogue quite right. He comes across as a sneering, manipulative jerk who’s being a jerk for the fun of it – basically, a unsympathetic character. And that’s the exact opposite of what I was hoping to accomplish for Virik in Draft #3. So, the next time I sit down with TKC, I need to go back to that scene and fix it to better fit his true personality. And when I do, the question I need to pose is, “OK, Virik should still be angry, because Eva currently stands in his way of obtaining what he wants.* How does he express that anger in a way that doesn’t make him seem like a complete-and-total _______?**”

    *That bit about both characters being each other’s antagonists? That’s the case in this scene.

    ** You may use whichever word you’d like there.

    1. Thanks! I was worried that it was too long and that no one would read it, so thank you very much.
      Jerks are actually my specialty, lol (and that just sounds bad, but I assume you know what I mean). The balance can be really difficult though. How do you make an obnoxious character sympathetic, and all that. That’s where I think that Tom Hiddleston did such a good job with Loki in Thor/The Avengers. Loki is the sort of character that should have annoyed us all, but most people ended up loving him. Another good example is Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl is not evil or a villain, but he is a whiny, manipulative, cowardly jerk sometimes . . . and yet he’s always on those book-boyfriend/crush lists. Diana Wynne Jones actually was mystified by it – since she thought that no one would even want to be around him. So keep working at it. (Not that your aim is to make everyone want to date Virik, lol, just to make him understandable and/or someone we can at least sympathize with). But yes, it’s always important to remember that your hero is your antagonist’s antagonist 🙂

      Thanks again!

      1. Agree with you on Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki. He may be entertaining and unpredictable, but he’s also sympathetic and realistic. Even I can’t help but like him a teensy bit. 😉

        What’s funny about the Virik / Eva scene is that it didn’t need much editing in the end. I just needed to rethink Virik’s dialogue, tone of voice, and mannerisms. So now I’m happier with the latest version than I was with the previous version.

        1. Loki is just too hilarious, in the end. It’s really hard not to be at least *fond* of him.

          I’m glad you were able to work through that, and it’s great that it involved less work. Virik sounds like he could be a bit tricky, based on your description. And it’s always so easy to get sloppy with side characters/catalysts, in my opinion. It’s something I’m always on the lookout for in my own work while editing!

  4. Excellent post, Rebekah! One of the most thorough posts explaining the different types of “villains” that I’ve read yet!
    “Words of forgiveness come easy. Love does not.” It’s been so long since I watched that, I forgot that amazing line. That has to be one of the most important scenes in Naruto.

    I like it that TLCS doesn’t have an outright villain. Luc sounds like a fun character to follow through the story, even if he does cause trouble and get in Mags’ way. 😉

    In book one of my V.Chronicles the malefactor is more the environment and situation surrounding Cyrus, that she must struggle through, and a few people that get in the way. No outright villains yet. I do have antagonists that come up later throughout the series, and you’ve reminded me through this post that I need to make their stories more important, more crucial to the overall plot. *blushes* I like the examples with Fish and Pain you used.

    I wrote a post on villains early last year: “Make Your Villains Real” and it’s a fun topic to explore! Here’s the link if you’d like to take a look: https://rawlse.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/make-your-villains-real-6-tips/

    1. Yes – I’ll definitely go read that post 🙂
      Don’t you just love Naruto – he’s so precious – and of course, Kishimoto did such a good job when it comes to war and conflict.

      TLCS is really different for me in a lot of ways, and yet it is really more “me” than most things I’ve written. Personal, but in a really indirect way. I love exploring the everyday, mundane things in a really abnormal setting, I guess. Luc and Mads’ interactions/sparring is so fun to write, but they are *definitely* antagonists in the other’s eyes.

      Environment as the malefactor – fun! I always like those plots, but they don’t seem as common, so that’s cool that you’re doing it with the V. Chronicles.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

      1. Hearing that makes me like TLCS even more! I like the stories that authors are closest to, and I like exploring everyday things like you said. Something about simple life in odd environments appeals to me in a story.

        The first book’s malefactor is environment, but in later books the antagonists show up. 😉

        1. I would say that I’m someone who struggles with being content with “normal life,” as I’m very adventurous. So I’m NOTHING LIKE MADS, lol. Though I did incorporate a ton of my personal experiences into her character. It’s funny how that happens. TBH, I actually relate a lot more to Luc *personality-wise,* though his life is about as far from mine as you could get. So reworking the things I know and adding a little crazy is my way of balancing things, I think. When you look at everyday life, and pick out the humor or strange things that happen, you realize it isn’t quite as boring as you (i.e., me) thought, lol.

          1. I love the strange and funny things that happen in life, like you said. I think it’s fun that you resemble Luc. The bratty side of me resembles my sub antagonist, lol, at least he isn’t the main villain though or that’d be sad. XD

  5. Hearing that makes me like TLCS even more! I like the stories that authors are closest to, and I like exploring everyday things like you said. Something about simple life in odd environments appeals to me in a story.

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