Villains vs. antagonists

If your English lit education was anything like mine, then at some point a teacher explained to you that narrative conflicts boil down into three broad types: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself. (If your teacher was more forward-thinking than mine, she might have phrased it as “person vs.” instead.) Most narratives nowadays, of course, contain a mix of the three: internal state (fears, desires) complicating the protagonist’s struggle against her situation and the people around her. In speculative fiction especially, you rarely find a story that’s purely about the hero/ine’s own psychological growth, and the only examples I can think of that might count as pure “vs. nature” tales are hard SF.

So most stories in our corner of the world have at their core a pretty solid helping of interpersonal conflict. Over time, I’ve come to realize a couple of things about this. First, I divide the individuals on the other side of the “vs.” into two categories: villains and antagonists. And second, I tend to write the latter much more than the former.

The distinction I see between the two is one of intent. They say, of course, that nobody’s a villain in their own mind, but I don’t think that’s quite true; some people acknowledge that they’re acting on selfish grounds. They just don’t see why they should do otherwise: I want this thing, and I have the power to take it, so that makes it mine. It’s not so much that they think it’s the right thing to do; they just don’t care.

Antagonists care, and they think they are doing the right thing. It’s just that circumstances put them and the protagonist at odds with one another. Maybe their priorities are different; they think the consequences of that revolution the heroine wants to start will be worse than living with the status quo. Maybe they’re misinformed; they wholeheartedly believe nuking another country is the only way to forestall an even bigger calamity, because they don’t know what the hero knows. Antagonists are opponents, instead of Bad Guys.

I tend to gravitate towards writing the antagonist category for several reasons, ranging from the philosophical to the practical. On the philosophical end of things, anthropology taught me to see the world through other points of view, which makes it hard to chalk something up to proper villainy; a character who fundamentally believes (say) Latinos are inferior to white people is of course a profound racist, and I don’t agree with him in the slightest, but I can see how that may lead him to view his actions as “the right thing to do.” A lot will depend on presentation and development, whether I view that character as a misguided antagonist I want to see fixed, or an irredeemable villain I look forward to seeing taken down. On a practical front, antagonists complicate things; villains you can kill off and not feel too bad about it, but non-evil opponents usually need a more nuanced approach. Sometimes there’s a chance that, if the heroine can bring them around to her point of view, they can work together to solve a larger problem. Of course, that can turn into just as much of a cliche as the shoot-’em-in-the-head approach, when everything boils down to an after-school special about how we really can just all get along.

All of this is me speaking as a writer, though. As a reader, I can happily chew on a nice bit of villainy. I just have a hard time putting it into my own narratives. What are some of your favorite examples of each type? And do you grativate towards one or the other?

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  1. 1. Joseph

    I also tend to write “antagonists” but I think I prefer to consume “villains.” Villains are fun by virtue of their simple, straightforward villainy. They get the best lines and can do anything at all.

    Antagonists make everything gray, make you stop and think about which side you are on, and I think it takes some of the wind out of your sails (on your voyage to victory) when you have to keep considering the bad guy’s point of view, and finding it reasonable.

  2. 2. Lydia Sharp

    How eerily ironic that you posted this. I just left Ben Bova’s site where I had been musing over his writing tips. Number five is “No Villains.” He says that in the real world there are no villains, no one actually sets out to do evil just for the sake of doing evil–they have a purpose (even if it is purely selfish), a problem to solve, and feel that their course of action will ultimately result in the best possible solution–and that believable fiction mirrors that real-life view.

    For me, both in reading and writing, antagonists add the emotional element that keeps me invested in the story. I love the internal struggle of the protagonist, knowing that the antagonist is wrong in their thinking, but at the same time feeling they can help the person get back on the right path…if they would only listen…

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Joseph — sometimes that greyness makes people uncomfortable, too. Which may be less popcorn-eating fun, but can be thought-provoking if done well.

    Lydia — if you define “villain” as “purposeless evil,” then I absolutely agree with Bova. Everyone has a purpose, even if it’s just to entertain themselves. I like your point about the emotional investment, too; I can get invested in a hero taking down a bad guy, but if it’s an opponent instead, my investment may be present on both sides of the conflict.

  4. 4. S. Megan Payne

    I prefer villains when I don’t want a heartbreaker. Antagonists usually get my heart going. And while that’s great and all, I already read enough angst as it is! (Okay, so your kind of writing is still my favorite and I devour every post of yours, but still…) Sometimes I just get full up with feeling for the ones that have the crappy ending and never do learn that there’s a better way.

    But all the same, I usually write antagonists. Though I have acquired a few villains… Hmm… Kind of depends on the story.

  5. 5. John Dunkelberg

    I like your classification. I’ve often said that I prefer “noble villains”, but I think that the term antagonist is better since these types are not necessarily noble. I think it’s very rewarding when you can flip the PoV and have the reader sympathize with the hero/ine’s opponent. A good example from recent reading is Jaime Lannister from GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, who can be quite sympathetic.

    Flipping the tables entirely is the non-noble or unsympathetic hero. I think that Walter Jon Williams “Days of Atonement” is interesting here – I have friends who could get into it since the protagonist is a right bastard. The BBC TV series “The Sandbaggers” also comes to mind, though there we develop the lead character over time such that we understand and sympathize with why he’s such an absolute bastard in many ways.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Megan — nothing wrong with wanting the occasional bit of black-and-white popcorn-eating fun. :-)

    John — damn Martin to heck for making me like Jaime. <g> As for protagonists, I rarely deal well with stories where they’re truly unsympathetic; Burnside (to use your Sandbaggers example) is undoubtedly a bastard, but it’s never really in doubt that he does those things because he is ruthlessly practical in his pursuit of the greater good. It’s the ones where the greater good doesn’t figure in that I check out — I detested Death of a Salesman in high school because I hated Willie Loman so much (along with every other character in that play), and There Will Be Blood provoked a similar reaction from me.

  7. 7. Daemon

    There is a third category – the Monster. The difference between being Villainous and being Monstrous is fairly significant.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Monsters are different, true. I don’t think I’ve ever really written one, though — it’s not the kind of fantasy I tend to do.

  9. 9. green_knight

    It appears that this site is eating comments :-(

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    I saw yours had vanished before I could reply to it — not sure what happened. The site was down for a while the other night, so it appears there are some technical issues at the moment. :-( Sorry!

  11. 11. amanda

    I came to this site in trying to figure out how to write something I don’t know (something that’s not really recomended for writers) a truely fundamentally bad person. I liked the article & the comments listed but I really believe it’s a cop-out to say that if an antagonist’s motivations aren’t explained then the reader can’t get invested in them & thus they’re a villain. Think Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs; he’s frightening in a way that is almost unexplainable but does that make him a villain? No. As well I know that there are plenty of people in prison right now who claim innocence of their crimes even though they’ve given no explanation of motive & the hard evidence against them is incontravertable. Maybe because there is no motive. & I think it’s only comfortable for us to say that someone did something because of such-and-such thing happened in their past.


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Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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