Friday, February 12, 2010

Villain or Antagonist? The Semantics

This post originally featured on Eventide Unmasked in August of last year.

The terms villain and antagonist get bandied around quite a lot, and everyone means something a little different when they use them, but I realized recently that I hadn't defined what I mean when I use these two terms. Synonyms they may be, but synonyms only ever mean similar things, they never mean exactly the same thing.

Antagonists are not the same as villains.

The words can be interchanged (villain, antagonist, bad guy), and technically mean the same thing, but it's rather like talking about sex (making love, having sex, screwing). The terms all reference the same thing, 'a character who acts as an opposing force to the hero/protagonist/good guy', but each term carries subtle nuances conjuring up a different type of character. You may not consider them different words, but I'd be willing to bet you don't use the terms for precisely the same characters.

So, realizing my oversight, I sat down to try and nail down the difference between villains and antagonists in conversation with an old friend, Angela Sasser. Fairly quickly, we realized it wouldn't be so easy.

We could say, for example, that Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort is a villain, while Professor Snape is an antagonist, but that doesn't mean an antagonist is always an 'inferior' threat to the main villain. Nor does an antagonist have to wind up on the side of protagonist in the end. So what makes the difference? It certainly isn't depth of character or believability vs. caricature. Some of the finest villains I know are rich in depth and realism, yet they're through and through villains. Voldemort and Snape both boast dimension of character. Another old favourite, Billy (played by Thomas Jane) from Original Sin (2001), has great character complexity as well, but he's a villain for sure.

So what about conviction? I've read suggestions before, and wrestled with the prospect as well, that villains are the people who know they're doing bad, while antagonists hold a strong conviction in the rightness of their own (potentially horrible) actions. Now, I like this, I really like this. I think it captures part of the essence of the sort of villains and antagonists I write, but it still felt like something was missing. This view becomes a question of intent, an issue that came up a lot when I studied the philosophy of sexuality at university, so I will already say intent alone is no justification.

As one article said, everyone doing something does not make it morally right. Likewise, good moral conviction does not make a bad action good, regardless what the character thinks. As Angela pointed out while we hashed the issue through, society's view comes into play as well.

There are some acts we would expect almost anyone to know are morally, primally wrong (look at the reams of cultural taboos on cannibalism), and some acts simply cross over the reader's own moral threshold. No matter how convinced an individual character is of the rightness of an atrocity, the audience simply cannot abide by them, and those acts throw that antagonist far far into the realm of villainy, never to return. Conviction doesn't make something less villainous for the reader to experience.

So the antagonist's career lies somewhere in the grey area, where things may or may not be acceptable, and an explanation can make the difference in the audience's perception. Perhaps we're getting somewhere. Villains hold the stereotype of black and white, good vs. evil, high fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings where there's no question of whose side is right. Antagonists, then, get the grey areas, the murky depths, the low fantasy premises. Each type is equally worthy, but certainly different. Still, saying antagonists are grey is like saying food tastes good. What food? How does it taste? Why do you like it?

So what defines grey? Moral ambiguity, in this case. What makes someone morally ambiguous? I could say their realism (actual people are complex and ambiguous), or their conviction in something I think is wrong... but then we'd be going around in circles. Angela posited a scenario.

The main character, a daughter, struggles to overcome a father's abuse. If she wins and he just gets carted off to prison still believing it was his right, he's a villain. Now, what if he apologizes? If he comes to her at the end and repents for his treatment of her, does he change from a villain to an antagonist? Was he an antagonist all along?

Two conclusions emerged from this scenario. First, oppositional characters need not stay fixed in one state. Darth Vader does not remain a villain through the whole of the original Star Wars trilogy. In time, his role as villain is taken over by the Emperor, as he becomes an antagonist instead. The climax of Return of the Jedi heralds his final change. So, a villain is not always a villain, an antagonist is not always an antagonist, and honestly, a hero is not always a hero either, right? More importantly though, we begin to see the common thread here. Change.

A villain stands and falls by her convictions. Villains die, get locked away, tumble off buildings or into family-friendly Disney darkness still spitting their animosity. Billy's screen time in Original Sin ends with the belief he's about to win, he's finally going to get the reward for all his hard work and sacrifice, and then--*bang*

Antagonists change. When a character repents, switches sides, or a secret noble agenda is revealed, we confidently label them antagonists, because they weren't the villain.

Even if they don't join the protagonist's side, however, they are still antagonists. They are the grey characters because their views can change. Their potential for revising morals makes them morality ambiguous. While they may not side with good by the end of the story, they may have simply broken sides with evil, and chosen to look out for Number One. If Catwoman sides with Batman, it's only because it's in her own interests. In the next installment, she'll likely be the problem again.

Antagonists can change, like anyone else, which can make them sometimes seem lesser. They might one day become good guys, so they don't seem like true enemies.

Villains don't change, so they're not like anyone else, which makes them seem like caricatures. They can wind up straight and simple evil, without the depth and realism they deserve.

So, while I may glide between 'villain' and 'antagonist' to describe oppositional characters, often for the sake of typing fewer keystrokes, I hold the two terms in separate, distinct categories. Villain and antagonist are not synonymous, but neither are they permanent states. The lines are not clear cut, but the nuances remain.

Agree or disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts. What favourite villains and antagonists do you have, and what makes them one and not the other?

If analyzing the minutiae of writing and storytelling catches your fancy, stop by Eventide Unmasked for more discussions on craft, character, world-building, and folklore.


Stephanie said...

Loved this post!
I would suggest an antagonist could also be a "good guy." Real life example: Once morning I had to go to work when I found my dad had begun to change the oil in my car. By the time he had finished, I was late. Was he being a "bad guy"? No. Did he drive me crazy? Yes.
Another antagonist: weather / nature. A blizzard doesn't care if my car gets stuck in the ditch or not, but it might happen.

Helena said...

What an excellent treatise on villainy and antagonism, Hayley! You have introduced more nuances than I would have thought possible.

Don't know that I have a 'favourite' villain, but I know the scenarios that intrigued me from the westerns I watched as a kid were totally black and white (and I don't just mean cinematically!). The villain was a true villain: owned the town, had the sheriff in his back pocket, and yanked all the land he could from the little guys and the poor farmers, and wore a black hat! You couldn't mistake him for what he was, anymore than you would miss the mysterious man on the white horse, wearing a white hat when he rode into town and challenged the villain to a shootout.

Current TV crime shows seem to abound with villains who, when caught by the latest in crime lab wizardry, protest by declaring their logical (to them) rationale for their crimes. They are never seen to repent. Evil to the end. But they only have one hour to wrap it up. Not many nuances possible there!

I like Stephanie's analogy of the antagonist who is just someone or something getting in the way but is thwarting the plans of the hero or heroine nevertheless. Such are the degrees that you talked about, and when it is pointed out how detrimental their actions are, change can be effected.

These are very useful ideas for character development. We can give our characters more depth by thinking about who or what they really are and what intentions they bring to the action.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great points, Stephanie. That's another trait unique to antagonists that I'd say makes people picture them as less than true threats in a story, but it's also a great form of character... someone who straddles that line between ally and problem.

As for the weather, you've opened up a whole other ream of oppositional forces (man vs. nature) that crop up in literature. I'm hoping to touch on villains (in the broad sense of the term) a few more times in the coming weeks and flesh out both their nuances and their roles in romance. A lot of romances don't have direct opposition, but I think people overlook a lot of characters and forces (such as snowbound storms trapping together two people who hate each other) that do play antagonistic roles in a romance. Sorry, I'm just rambling now, I'll save the rest of this for later posts! :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thanks Helena, this is a topic that's very dear to me, so I'm always thrilled when I can get people thinking about it a bit more.

I used to watch a lot of classic westerns with my father-in-law, and we'd always laugh together about the predictable tropes, such as what their hats told us, when a horse was going to get tripped, or the token female character would be struck and then stare all hurt and accusing at the lead character.

A great twist on the classic westerns, though, are the ones with antihero characters who wind up being heroic more incidentally than intentionally. There are tons, but one of my favourites is A Fistful of Dollars, based off the Japanese film Yojimbo. Fabulous example of a character in it for himself working both sides of a conflict.

We've got two issues on villains and antagonists coming up in the SRW newsletter, so hopefully this will give people a sense of where both lie when we go to write our articles!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
You've obviously been thinking a lot about villains and antagonists! Thanks for the thoughtful ideas.

Romances are filled with "oppositional" characters. I love that term because it sums up so well what these characters are about. They oppose the goals of the hero and the heroine. They can be difficult family members, including teenage children who act out. The "other women" is an old chestnet pulled out every once in a while, as are ex-spouses. There are stubborn bosses, obnoxious neighbors and anyone else who stands in the way of the main characters getting what they want. These characters are often a lot of fun to write because they can say and do things that the main characters can't. They can be a little outrageous.

Great topic Hayley.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, that's a good way to sum these character up in romances, since a lot of romance readers and writers don't seem to consider villain/antagonist an appropriate term, perhaps because those ex-spouses don't have voluminous enough mustaches to seem actually villainous. It's all about opposition though, and if a character stays oppositional with no potential to change or shift, I'd still peg them as villains (if small ones). It may just be too loaded a word for the small scale of some stories :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Sorry I missed today, Hayley. I've been busy making cheesecakes for a youth fundraiser.

This looks like an excellent post. I haven't read it all but what I did, I could use. I'll come back to it later.

Thanks for posting it.