Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Difference Between Villains and Antagonists

Oftentimes, the words "villain" and "antagonist" are used interchangeably, and there's good reason for this (which I will talk about it just a moment). However, they do not mean the same thing, and this is where some writers get tripped up.
Image found at http://undertheivy.tumblr.com/page/44. It is not mine.
I had to figure out the difference for myself a while back, when I realized that while my main character (Mara) for Shadows and Light was a villain, she wasn't an antagonist. Likewise, her counterpart and new partner main character (Ace) was an antagonist, but not a villain. I'd like to explain how this is possible.
First, let's start with the google dictionary definitions of the two terms:

Look at those little highlighted phrases (Paint does such a nice, clear job, doesn't it?). Antagonists are characterized by simple opposition. An antagonist is not necessarily evil, he merely has opposing actions, thoughts, motives, etc. to (in a story) the protagonist. The term does not say anything at all about the actual personality of the character. It is simply a plot role.
Now villain, that's a little more intense. A villain has "evil actions or motives" and is "responsible for specified trouble, harm, or damage." A villain is bad. He may or may not actually oppose the main character - for all we know, he is the main character! "Villain" is not a plot role - it's a character type.
As I said before, the antagonist is often a villain and vice-versa. Think Voldemort of Harry Potter, Sauron of Lord of the Rings, Lord Sidious of Star Wars, the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Lady Tremaine of Cinderella. 
But sometimes, just sometimes, the two terms separate. 
Villains who aren't antagonists don't appear very often, but they exist. If they're not the antagonist, they're the protagonist (I can't think of anything where there's a villain just hanging out doing nothing towards the plot). I'm told by this post on the subject (at The Write Practice, an awesome blog) that Dexter of Dexter is such a character, along with Frank William Abagnale, Jr. of Catch Me If You Can and Megamind from Megamind. I also think of Maleficent from the recent Disney movie by the same name (she sort of starts out hero, dips into villain, and rises again, but for a time it was true) and Emperor Kuzco from The Emperor's New Groove. My own lovable Mara fits into this rare category. *cuddles her*
Also, there are antagonists who aren't villains. They oppose the protagonist, but they aren't evil. Marshall Gerard of The Fugitive, Elsa from Frozen, Shadow from Sonic X, Dr. Octopus from Spider-man 2, Doctor Curt Connors from The Amazing Spider-man, Bucky Barnes from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Inspector Javert from Les Miserables are a few examples. None of them are evil in their motives, but all provide a major conflict with the protagonist. A lot of these characters are brain-washed, manipulated, or enforcing the law. I have an antagonist like this: High General Keir Durjaya from Taken.
So to recap, villains are:
  1. Evil. They have evil motivation and evil actions to match.
  2. Aren't necessarily opposed to the protagonist. In fact, they can be a protagonist. 
  3. "Villain" is a character type, not a plot role. 
Antagonists are:
  1. Not necessarily evil. The can actually be really decent guys who just happen to have a conflicting agenda with the protagonist.
  2. Opposed to the protagonist. They cause conflict with the story's main character.
  3. "Antagonist" is a plot role and doesn't say anything about the character's personality or motivations.
I hope that helps anyone who was struggling with the definitions. This can all get very confusing! Especially when you start trying to disentangle villains from anti-villains, or tread into the murky ground surrounding protagonists, heroes, and anti-heroes! I'm going to tackle the difference between protagonists and heroes next, followed by anti-villains and anti-heroes, so stick around. I've also got a few more book reviews coming up, since I've actually had time to read since school ended. 

Have you had any confusing situations when a villain wasn't an antagonist or vise-versa? Who's your favorite villain/antagonist and why? 

40 comments:

  1. I love this! I've wanted to say something akin to this for a long time, but now I think I'll just reference this, because the explanation was what I was looking for. I love talking about villains, so I have to just appreciate everything about this post. XD Thank you!

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    1. I'm glad you love it! Ah, villains are much fun to discuss. *nods* Oftentimes more interesting that heroes.
      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Thank you for clearing this up! I've never understood the difference between villains and the antagonist and why they are often used interchangeably.

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    1. Yeah, it seems to be a very confused area of discussion. I'm glad this post helped!

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  3. This is a neat perspective. I've never thought about it this way. :)

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  4. Elsa is an Antagonist? I thought she was an Anti-Hero.

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    1. Elsa is a bit of a funny case. In a way she serves as an antagonist at times to Anna, but at the same time she's a protagonist. She's sort of both, I guess.

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    2. Huh. An Antagonist who is also a Protagonist? So, she's an Anti-Hero and an Anti-Villain? Or is she just a mix of protagonist and antagonist? *scratches head in confusion*

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    3. Probably. *scratches head with you* She's a sort of mix of everything. What a confusing gal.

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  5. I like that your distinction between the two terms involves plot role vs character types. Found your blog on Pinterest. Glad I did :)

    Bookieblogs.blogspot.com

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  6. A great movie franchise to watch for more insight to these characters is Prophecy (1995-2005) starring Christopher Walken, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz, and Viggo Mortensen.

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  7. So, just out of curiosity, what's the difference between villains and anti-villains and the difference between heroes and anti-heroes?

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    1. If you're interested I covered that in this post: http://writerandproud.blogspot.com/2015/06/blurring-lines-what-are-anti-heroes-and.html

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  8. I love this! I'm actually writing a story with a stereotypical villain as the main character, except she's also a hero, and another villain opposes her... whew. It's a mess. An epic literature mess, but still a mess. So thanks for this! It really helped me sort out my character ties. =D

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  9. Oof, I always find your posts entertaining and thought provoking, but this transparent blog theme is very difficult to read! It won't stop me from coming back, but something to consider :)

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    1. What platform are you using? I've gotten one other comment along similar lines, but most people seem to be able to read it fine. It is supposed to show up as black text on a white background down the middle, as long as you're on a computer and not a mobile device.

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  10. Great post! Clear and to the point. There's a lot of blurriness in the line between villain and antagonist, but there's definitely a difference. I cited this post in my recent blog post at http://vlnresearch.com/villains-vs-antagonists
    A few other examples of villains who are protags are Walter White from Breaking Bad and Hannibal from, well, Hannibal - Thomas Harris or NBC version. Also, Artemis Fowl from the Eoin Colfer books.
    As for my favorite villain...that's just too hard! I usually like the villain/antagonist most in any story. My favorite antagonist would be David Xanatos from Gargoyles. He's not evil, he's just an amoral trickster who enjoys "playing" with the gargoyles.

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    1. Oh thanks for the reference!
      Ah yes, I do love the villains myself. Unfortunately I've never seen/read any of those.

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    2. I'm confused now, LC. Can you explain why Walter White is a villain? I honestly never thought of him as a villain -- he does turn towards the end but (almost) always with good intentions (in his mind).

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    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.,I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job.

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  12. Right now I'm writing about a villain and a hero. My villain is a woman while the hero is a man. She is sort of a protagonist and an antagonist at the same time.

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    1. That sounds like what I'm currently doing with one of my projects. I have two main characters - one hero, one villain - and because they're both POV characters they're both protagonists, but because they oppose each other they're also both antagonists.

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  13. Now that's something interesting that i have been looking for :P
    can't even find that much interesting on DifferenceBetweens.com :D

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    1. Well I am glad my post gave you what you were looking for!

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