Antagonists vs Villains

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.

Meanwhile, villains:

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.

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21 thoughts on “Antagonists vs Villains”

  1. Does anyone remember In Conquest Born, by CS Friedman? Maybe this fits the criteria for antagonists? I remember loving the book, but not the exact circumstances.

  2. Not an SFF novel but still fantasy: Avatar the last Airbender. I’d argue Zuko starts out as antagonist (or at least one of a few) and Aang the protagonist. That changes by the end.

    Unrelated but, do you sign and mail any books to readers? Winter of Ice and Iron is one of my top 5 books of the last 10 years. I would love a signed copy. Willing to pay shipping and all associated costs of course.

  3. A villain doesn’t even have to work against your protagonist. There are villain protagonists, though I don’t like any I’ve read.

    I suppose you could also have the fight between the hero and the villain be the background on which your protagonist is just trying to survive.

  4. Y’know, I think you just helped me form the question I _should_ have been asking about a story I’m writing: Is she an antagonist or a villain? Because the answer to that question changes the ending of the story. So thanks for this timely post. Now I have some thinking to do . . .

  5. EC, glad to be helpful, and I vote for an antagonist!

    Mary Catelli, I love the idea of the hero and villain being the background against which the real story plays out. I’m going to have to remember that idea.

  6. EC, interesting, I do have at least the first part of Avatar on my unwatched DVD shelf. Knowing that makes me want to perhaps watch those episodes.

    And, yes, certainly, email me privately and I’d be delighted to make you a copy. Pretty sure I’ve got at least a couple hardcover copies still sitting around.

  7. Thinking about my favourite authors, they definitely all tend toward antagonists rather than villains. It’s one of the things I really enjoyed about the Griffin Mage Trilogy. (In fact, this is what I wrote in my review of it: “Neumeier’s trademark ability to create intense conflict without anyone being an actual villain, because everyone has such good reasons for what they’re doing.”)

    Curse of Chalion: de Jironal (sp??) is proud, greedy, manipulative, but he’s under the curse just as much as the king and he thinks he’s doing good; Cazaril worries that he might turn into the next de Jironal.

    Queen’s Thief series is full of antagonists turning into allies. The Medes are the Big Bad, but they’re just pursuing their own empire-building agenda, which seems right to them.

    Stray: they’re dealing with the consequences of past proud, greedy people’s actions; there isn’t anyone to defeat, really (except sort of at the end?); the conflict is trying to fix a broken world.

    Tanya Huff’s Valor series is military sci fi that does interesting things with ideas of enmity and war. Lots of battles and trying to defeat various groups, but everyone is just pursuing their own agenda, and once you figure out what they actually want, peace becomes a possibility.

    I still have to read Death of the Necromancer. (I tried starting with The Element of Fire, but bounced off it a couple of times, so maybe I’ll skip it.)

  8. I love Huff’s Valor series! Maybe this is partly why.

    Just skip Element of Fire. I’ve only ever read that once, and didn’t particularly like it. It’s not necessary at all for Death of the Necromancer.

  9. I think I don’t quite agree with these definitions.

    At the general “what’s the difference?” question, they’re… not even related? Antagonist is about the relationship with (or, well, against, as it is) the protagonist, regardless of personality, morals, reason, and other actions. Villain is about the actions/morals, regardless of the type (or existence) of relationship and interaction with the protagonist. There’s plenty of overlap but…

    More specifically on Villains, I’m also not sure I agree that the reasons/morality/personality of the villain are a criteria. It’s more what they do. A character can be evil without being a Villain, or be a Villain without being evil.

    If they do evil horrible things, they’re a Villain, regardless of how good a reason they think they had to do it. (It …may… be more fuzzy if the reason they have is objectively true in the story, at a level made explicitly clear to the reader, but that’s… relatively rare).
    They do good things all the time because it gets them the acclaim and power they crave, even though they actually don’t care at all about the people they help, and have gleeful fun seeing the suffering they always rush to alleviate? Well, they’re not exactly good people, at least to the reader, but they’re not Villains.

    If they don’t do really bad things (or do things as a part of a plan to let them later do explicitly bad things), they’re not a Villain, regardless of how selfish or self interested are their reasons to do it.
    They keep murdering lots of people in sadistic torturous ritualistic sacrifices, because they genuinely believe those deaths give the gods power to save the world from total destruction? They’re a Villain. Unless the author makes it very explicitly clear that they’re both right on all counts, and there isn’t any possible better alternative.

    As for Antagonists, I do think there need to be some sort of active and intentional attempt, real or imaginary, to stop/thwart the protagonist. Not all obstacles and challenges are automatically Antagonists. There has to be a purpose. Or, at least something has to to present as, or feel as, a purpose.

  10. Ah, and thanks for the tip to Kim re skipping Element of Fire.
    I haven’t got to it yet, so still relevant. It normally wouldn’t occur to me to skip books in a series or read them out of order (well, for anything that isn’t “Romance”, where the overwhelming majority of books in series are intentionally stand-alone). Since I do already have both, I’ll start with Death, and consider Element later.

  11. I don’t know, Yaron. I think it’s pretty typical to call storms and other such natural forces “antagonists.” I don’t think it can ever really feel like a storm is purposefully malevolent, or not in at all the same way as a person who is actively trying to hurt you. The protagonist or reader could think, “It’s AS THOUGH the storm were malevolent,” but that “as though” is really important, at least to me.

    Also, if the villain murders people in sadistic rituals for a very good reason and there’s no other choice … still a villain. Doesn’t matter how hard the character OR the author tries to justify that in moral terms OR in worldbuilding terms. That person is definitely a villain as far as I’m concerned. Motivation here would not matter one jot. I would say to both the villain AND the author, If you want that to be anything but a villain, find an alternative.

  12. I think that’ll work fine, Yaron. I’m sure of it, actually, because I read all the books set in that world out of order, with the Ile-Rien trilogy first, then Necromancer, then Element of Fire. Compared to the rest, Element of Fire is just not as good, imo.

  13. Element of Fire isn’t as good, true, but it is not actually bad. It’s just that the others are excellent, particularly Death of the Necromancer. That’s the one I’d read first. And I’d certainly watch the movie…

  14. Yaron, I like the distinctions you’re drawing, I think they work well. Also, the Teen looked over my shoulder and remarked that there is indeed a story – Naruto fanfiction – wherein the character does “keep murdering lots of people in sadistic torturous ritualistic sacrifices, because they genuinely believe those deaths give the gods power to save the world from total destruction? … Unless the author makes it very explicitly clear that they’re both right on all counts, and there isn’t any possible better alternative.” It was the only way to keep the world in one piece long enough for it to get fixed.

    Antagonists who come to work together out of manga/anime/movie Ruroni Kenshin’s characters of Saito Hajime and Aoshi (family name escapes me). They are antagonists in the past, and sometimes the present, but come together to take out the greater threat of Shishio Makoto.
    I’m sure CJC has some but I can’t … oh, the Russian stories, Kavi and Eveshka taking down Hwir.

    The Teen offers Seto Kaiba from Yu-Gi-Oh as an antagonist, not villain. And from Paolini’s series an antagonist who is not a villain, because magically enslaved to follow orders.

    From juvenile literature, Artemis Fowl. Villain in the first book, where he is the narrator. In the second book teams up with his previous victims to solve one of their problems, and get their help for one of his.

  15. Comedies of Manners usually have antagonists, not villains. Certainly true in A Civil Campaign; Richars was close to the line, but the other opponents are not.
    The Great Aunt in “Picts and Martyrs” by Arthu Ransome is an antagonist, despite Nancy’s belief otherwise. (Dorothy realizes this.)
    Similarly in Heyer, though I am not much a fsn of her, unlike many others here.

  16. Yaron’s idea of antagonists needing to have intent to thwart the protagonist reminds me that the usual translation for antagonist in Dutch is “tegenstander”, literally someone who stands against. The -er ending in this case signifies that it is a *person*, a human with the intention to thwart or block someone else from achieving something. Maybe in rare cases an animal, like a gladiator fighting a lion, but then using the word would give it a slight ironic tinge.
    Another English translation for “tegenstander” is opponent, which I think in English carries that same implication of personhood and intentionality.
    An impersonal opposing force could not be called a “tegenstander”, but in Dutch would have to be described in a different way, e.g. as an opposing force, or an obstacle, a threat, or a difficulty.

    Saying something like fighting or withstanding the implacable forces of nature is possible in Dutch, quite literally, and calling those the enemy is too (though it feels a bit overblown and oldfashioned to me, as a word choice, like a nature documentary voiceover talking about the volunteer species trying to grow on a recently erupted and still restive volcano). So apparently being enemies doesn’t require thought and intention, but being opponents or antagonists does, to a Dutch person, if one uses the dictionary translation of the words rather than the feel of them in this context.
    “Vijandige natuur” (“vijand” = enemy), meaning nature being/behaving like an enemy, is a good Dutch phrase, while something like ‘enmitous nature’ sounds really absurd in English.
    I guess the sea regularly trying to drown us all linguistically gave us a rather pointed view of nature possibly being a real enemy to be collectively (like an army) fought with all you’ve got, rather than a resistance to be (possibly singly) overcome.

    It just made me wonder how much these discussions and ideas are influenced by subconscious bagage brought along from our experience with other languages and cultures.

  17. Rachel, I actually think that the “as though” is perfectly fine here to make someone/something be an antagonist. It can be an intentional conflict, but it’s fine if it just feels like it’s intentional to the protagonist, or they at least make it personal in some way. Otherwise, well, there’s no “antagonism”, so not really an antagonist.

    The storm can cause a lot of hassle and trouble and risk for both the protagonist and the people around, but as long as there’s no actual intent behind the storm (it’s a regular natural one and not, say, some magical construct), and the protagonist is in the mindset that “this storm is really terrible and the situation sucks, but what can you do? It’s a storm, just have to survive it and handle it, it’s weather.” then the storm isn’t an antagonist.
    If the protagonist takes it personally, though, and gets mad at the storm for slowing them down or for the damage it does, curses the storm, even just especially annoyed at the terrible timing that the storm has in troubling them specifically at this time… then it would be enough to make the storm an antagonist.

    I’ve been trying to think of maybe an extreme example, to see how/if this logic holds up: Don Quixote, on a heroic quest, attacks a field of belligerent giant knights, only to hit his lance into a windmill.
    The windmills were an obstacle and a hindrance. They were in Don Quixote’s way. I mean, literally, since he crashed into one while trying to do something else like attack a giant. They caused him physical harm and injury. They destroyed his lance, which was a problem for a knight on a heroic journey. But the windmills are not antagonists. Not only did they not care (or were not set up by someone who cared) about Don Quixote, but he also didn’t care about them, and had no animosity to them either before or after the encounter.
    The giant knights, who riled him up with their threatening hand gestures, then disappeared to be replaced by windmills in the last minute, well, they are antagonists. Even though they aren’t technically real. Because there was genuine personal animosity/antagonism there on the part of Don Quixote, and as far as he’s concerned they were bad and an enemy, and in his way. They did try to rile him up, and did laugh at him, and did cause the fight in which he was injured and lost his lance.

    On the villain issue, I am sort of borderline on the “real” justification. Elaine T’s example is a good one, I think. The example I was thinking of when writing it was Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series. which is inspired by Aztec mythology. As the fourth world was destroyed, the gods sacrificed themselves to create the fifth world, which will be the last. But in order to keep the current/fifth world from being destroyed (and again, if this one is gone there will not be a remaking of a new world) the gods need the blood offered by the sacrifices to operate their magic and hold the world. So no blood sacrifices, the world will end and all life will perish. In the books the sacrifices are much softened from the historical Aztec/Mexica ones, but the real ones are fine as context for this consideration. In this setting, where in-story this situation is real, are the people running the sacrifices, keeping up the political situation where sacrifices happen, intentionally waging wars so there would be captured soldiers to sacrifice… villains? If there would be a story in this setting of a protagonist trying to stop the sacrifices (or, say, avenge the sacrifice of their young virgin sister, and try to prevent this from happening again) and toppling the king (or head religious priest) that holds the system in place, those king/priest are antagonists, but are they villains?

    This is why I’d separate the intent/morals of the characters, from those of the reader. It doesn’t matter, for this purpose, what the character believes. It matters what they do, through the window of what the reader believes/knows. The character can be doing the terrible stuff because they really do serve a much greater, and necessary, good, or they may be delusional who need some urgent psychiatric care, and will think themselves to be just as good and just either case. The reader, though, knows (in theory) what is real or isn’t real, and judges the characters by their own values. It doesn’t matter if the character tries to be good or evil, it matters if the reader thinks what the character does is good or evil.

    It also means, I guess, that for a reader with vastly different morals, the answer as to whether a character is a villain or not could honestly differ. Whether the author thinks someone is a villain, whether the “expected” reader will think they’re a villain, and whether any specific reader will think that, may not be the same. The criteria is the action the character does, but the reader places the moral value on those actions.

    Hanneke, that’s interesting. And I’d strongly agree that of course ideas and thoughts are affected by language. People express ideas, and think about ideas, in the language/s they have, so what the language has or doesn’t have, and does or does not make a distinction between, would to some extent affect what is easier or harder to think as/about.

  18. Really interesting discussion. This discussion of the concept words in Dutch is fascinating. Yaron, I agree, the reader’s take on whether the character is a villain or not is definitely going to differ and that’s perfectly legitimate. Another discussion topic: does the author’s opinion matter? IMO, not in something like this. The reader’s perspective determines whether a character is a villain, an antagonist, both, neither, something else …

  19. The author opinion doesn’t really matter on whether someone is a villain, though they can of course have a strong influence on that.
    The author has full control on what and how much the character does, and on the world and condition and situation in which it’s done, so they can tailor the story in advance to make someone likely to be perceived as more or less villainous (are all those killings really required to save the world? How much and how terrible are those killings, and do they go to a level more or less readers are likely to decide maybe the world isn’t worth saving at that cost? etc…).
    And of course the author can use style and phrasing and story emphasis to try and direct opinion. (Is it a “pretender” to the throne who raises an army and starts a bloody and devastating war against the “rightful” king, not caring how many die, starve, or lose their home in the process? Or is it the “true heir” who raises that army in order to unseat the “usurper”?).
    But ultimately, each reader would judge the actions (that they paid attention to), and their moral value (that they judged), on their own, and could very well reach different conclusions than the author.

    But the author’s opinion matters, almost overwhelmingly, on whether someone/something is an antagonist or not.
    We did have on this thread some edge cases of the definition of antagonist, as to how much intent, or appearance of intent, matters, so on those cases the author can’t control whether the definition used by the reader matches their own, sure. But these are rare cases where it may be unclear, and always borderline.
    Because the author always controls the existence of conflict and interaction between characters. And in any case an antagonist has to work against the protagonist, in at least some way.
    The doorman who sees the protagonist coming and greets them hello as they open the door are not an antagonist, by authorial decree, and that’s that. If the author didn’t give them anything else to do, there is no possible reader who will disagree. The doorman who sees the protagonist, curses, and starts shooting at them as they call for help… are an antagonist, again without any reader who could legitimately disagree.

    Villainy isn’t the author’s decision, because it’s a point of morals, how “bad”/”evil” is what they do and is there sufficient “good” justification for it? The author and reader can disagree, whether on main points of what is or isn’t evil, or on the extent and borders of what would stop/start becoming acceptable.
    But antagonists are a matter of action against the protagonist, which is pretty much all explicitly text, and so the author’s decision. It’s theoretically possible for the author to make things ambiguous, and unclear whether someone is helping or hindering, in which case the reader’s opinion may not match the author’s inner idea, but in that case it’s the author who intentionally decided to leave the decision open to the reader by outright not telling them the truth.

  20. I don’t know, Yaron. I know for certain that a fair number of readers perceive the king of Casmantium as a villain, for example, and that’s not at all as I see him. And in contrast, I can’t imagine that anyone doesn’t perceive Lilienne in The City in the Lake as a villain, regardless of her unknown motives.

  21. I haven’t read The City in the Lake yet, so unfortunately I can’t talk to that specifically.
    But there are plenty of real people who constantly justify or support things that would normally be considered properly villainous in fiction, so I figure that sadly some people could find almost any behavior to be acceptable, good, or at the very least understandably justifiable.

    Or possibly, being hard to understand and with unknown motives could make it harder to not see someone doing bad/evil/scary things as other than a villain, since it removes the reader’s potential ability to agree with the justification? People can come up with potential reasons to make pretty much anything justifiable in context, but without the reason and context for the action it’s not possible to match the morals of the reader and the character.

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