A post at Writers Helping Writers: An Antagonist vs a Villain: What’s the Difference?
I think this is pretty straightforward! Without reading the post, I would sum up the difference like this:
An antagonist is someone or something your protagonist needs to overcome.
A villain is a bad person working against your protagonist.
Let’s take a look at this post and see if that’s the fundamental difference they have in mind …
In literature and film, an antagonist is a character or force that actively works against the protagonist or main character. Think of them as a roadblock with a clear purpose and well-defined reasons for their choices and actions. The antagonist may be an institutional force, such as an oppressive government, or an individual, such as a villainous mentor or a romantic rival. Antagonists can also be nature itself, such as in the case of a severe drought or a hungry animal.
I don’t like this definition because the last two sentences contradict the first two sentences. A severe drought does not actively work against the protagonist and certainly does not have a purpose or a reason for its choices. All of that is nonsense when thinking of a force of nature (unless nature is thoroughly personified in your fantasy world). One word would fix this. That word is “also,” as in, “The antagonist may ALSO be an institutional force or nature itself.” But it’s simpler to say: the antagonist is someone or something the protagonist needs to overcome. That avoids the whole question of whether the antagonist is a person or a force of nature.
A villain is an amoral or evil character with little to no regard for the general welfare of others. They are driven by ambition, greed, lust, or a desire for power or revenge.
Yes, that’s the same as my quickie definition: a bad person working against your protagonist.
As a rule, I don’t like villains. I prefer antagonists. That is, for example, in the Griffin Mage trilogy —
Which is, I notice, on sale for $1.99 for the entire trilogy as I write this post.
You know what, that is an amazingly good deal and any of you who don’t already have this trilogy and do read on a Kindle ought to click through right this minute and pick it up. In fact, I myself bought this trilogy as a Kindle omnibus because I may have a zillion copies of the mass market paperback version sitting on shelves, but if I personally go back and read it, I’m going to want an ebook edition. And here it is, practically free.
Anyway, I don’t really know how readers feel about the king of Casmantium. He totally started a war out of sheer ambition because he thought he could win and that would be a fine thing. To me, however, he is not a villain. He’s an antagonist. Yes, he’s ambitious, but he’s really out to improve his own country’s prosperity and that makes him a good ruler in my book, provided he’s generally competent, which he is.
Or how about Beguchren, the cold mage? He and the other cold mages absolutely started a genocidal campaign to try to wipe out the griffins. They sure did. And they almost succeeded, too. Is Beguchren a villain? In the first book, pretty much! In the second book, not at all! I, as the author, knew from the beginning that Beguchren wasn’t really a villain even though he sure looked like a villain in the first book.
Why aren’t they villains? Because they are in fact striving to better the general welfare of their people. They aren’t amoral or evil, definitely not selfish or petty. Ambitious, yes. Mistaken, also yes — at least Beguchren was terribly mistaken. But not villains. The only villains in the trilogy are from Linularinum and we barely see them. I recall some reviews were like “villains were barely present and boring” or something in that general line, and well, yes, I wasn’t very interested in the villains. They were plot devices and largely offscreen. The antagonists, yes. They were very much more interesting and fun for me.
This isn’t to say that I’ve never featured a villain. I totally have. But I prefer really creepy, hard to understand villains such as Lillienne in The City in the Lake. She’s terrifying, or at least if I had to try to defeat her, I would certainly find her terrifying. But she’s not, let me see, what’s that string of adjectives …. driven by ambition, greed, lust, or a desire for power or revenge. We don’t know what’s driving Lillienne. She’s so removed from normal human experience that we can only guess that maybe she might be motivated by a desire for power. She definitely does seem amoral. But it’s hard to tell. She’s just really creepy.
Lorellan is, of course, a villain. He was actually fairly difficult to write. When I wrote Tuyo, I skipped over the initial meeting with him and everything in those chapters, moved ahead to the escape scene, wrote most of the rest of the book, and then finally went back and wrote those middle chapters with Lorellan later. I did that even though he’s so over the top evil that he wasn’t that hard. Ordinary banal evil and petty selfishness is quite a bit harder for me — I don’t think I’ve ever written an important character like that.
Come to think of it, Keziah’s story in Black Dog Stories II was also very difficult to write. Her terrible family is chock full of villains and that was really difficult. This was one of the slowest pieces of writing I’ve ever finished. I knew what I wanted to do with it, or I wouldn’t have finished it. In fact, if I hadn’t known what I wanted to do with it, I wouldn’t have started it in the first place.
Let me remind you that the Black Dog series is on sale through the 25th. This is a good chance to pick up these books if you don’t have them or add the story collections if you skipped over them or anything like that.
However, back to the main topic — antagonists and villains!
One of my very favorite tropes is the situation where there’s one important protagonist and one important antagonist and both of them are striving for mutually exclusive goals. They’re both good people, or could be seen that way; and they’re both self-sacrificing and determined and competent; but the situation forces them into opposition. And then the author cleverly forces them into alliance and they wind up both winning somehow. I realize this is seriously tricky for the author to pull off. But I love this situation. What are some SFF novels where we see this?
1) One could certainly view the third Griffin Mage book through this lens. I mentioned the Kindle omnibus is massively on sale, right?
2) The Death of a Necromancer, and of course this is a major reason I love this book and very particularly love the scenes with Nicholas and Ronsarde.
3) Your example here.
I know I have various other examples of this trope on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t think of them. So … what am I forgetting? Please drop suggestions in the comments.