Often, the terms antagonist and villain are used interchangeably. However, there is a difference between an antagonist and a villain.
Below I will answer some commonly asked questions, so you’ll know once and for all what the difference is between antagonists and villains is.
Are villains always antagonists?
While an antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain, a villain is always an antagonist.
A villain is an archetype of the antagonist—the embodiment of something evil. A villain is most commonly seen in action, crime, and thriller stories for that reason. This type of antagonist is bent on defeating the hero of the story.
What’s important to keep in mind as you’re creating your villain is that it’s clear within your story why the villain wants to defeat the hero. Usually, it’s because the hero has something they want or the hero is trying to stop them from getting what they want. And so, they need to defeat the hero. They’re in their way.
This thing the villain wants doesn’t have to be evil. It can be but doesn’t have to be.
For instance, Thanos in The Avengers wanted to save the planet from destruction, in a sense. But in his mind, the end justified the means, and it was okay to kill half the population.
It’s always important to realize that the villain is never the villain in their own story. They’re trying to do something, and this annoying pest of a hero is in their way. They will justify their actions in one way or another.
What is an antagonist?
So, now that we’ve determined what a villain is, what is then the overarching antagonist archetype?
Antagonists are characters who aren’t so much bend on destroying the hero. They are, however, opposites in some way to the hero. They possess qualities that are hidden or have been rejected by the hero. They can be assholes that antagonize the hero, such as Draco Malfoy and Snape in Harry Potter. But they can also be allies or love interests.
Antagonists in a love story can be the ones preventing the lovers from being together. In a performance story, they’re the ones the protagonist needs to beat.
I see very often in early manuscripts that while a lot of attention is given to the protagonist, the world, and other characters, the role of the antagonist is unclear. It’s unclear what they want and what they’re after. However, this is important to determine. When the role of the antagonist is unclear, what you often see is that the story starts to drag.
So, it’s important to think about what your antagonist wants. Do they want power? Immortality? The love interest? The promotion?
What are they then willing to do to get what they want? These will be part of the obstacles for the protagonist within your story.
If you’re struggling with the obstacles and not finding ones that are actually challenging, I suggest you read one or two books or watch a few movies in your genre and pay special attention to the role of the antagonist. What kinds of obstacles are they throwing toward the protagonist?
What are examples of antagonists?
Some examples of antagonists are:
- Darcy is the main antagonist of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice.
- The Capitol and what they represent is Katniss’ overall antagonist in the Hunger Games franchise (personified in President Snow).
- Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s main antagonist in Star Wars.
- Quirrell/Voldemort is the main antagonist in the first Harry Potter book.
- Sauron is the antagonist in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
- Javert is the antagonist for Valjean in Les Misérables.
- The sea is an antagonistic force in Robinson Crusoe.
- Holden is his own antagonist in The Cather in the Rye (his own obsessions and insecurities).
As you can see, an antagonist doesn’t even necessarily have to be a person. In some stories, it’s nature, an animal, or another type of force.
The protagonist can even be their own worst enemy if you’re writing a more internally focused story.
It’s also important to note that there can be more than one antagonist in a story. There is always one main antagonist who will be the main source of conflict in a story. But there can be other antagonists who add to the conflict within a story.
For instance, in Harry Potter, we also have Snape and Draco as antagonists. In Star Wars, there’s also Jabba the Hut and Darth Sidious. In Pride & Prejudice, you also have George Wickham and Lydia Bennet (who does cause a lot of conflict within the story).
Can the antagonist be a good guy?
Yes, as you’ve read above, the antagonist can be a good person. They can just be people who create conflict but aren’t necessarily bad people. They have goals that don’t align with the protagonist.
And remember: antagonists possess hidden qualities or have been rejected by the hero. These can be positive qualities that the hero lacks.
In Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Darcy ultimately helps Elizabeth understand that she’s been completely prejudiced and let those prejudices dictate her behavior toward Mr. Darcy and others. He’s created a great deal of conflict for Elizabeth (together with other forces, such as George Wickham) that were necessary for Elizabeth to come to this realization.
This type of antagonism within a story is quite common in a romance story. The love interest is often the antagonist, although the main antagonist can also be an opposing love interest.
Now you know the difference between antagonists and villains
As you now know, a villain is simply a type of antagonist—they constitute the dark sides within the protagonist.
However, an antagonist is merely a reflection of whatever the protagonist lacks. They’re the creators of conflict. They do not have to be bad people or even human.
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