Difference between a villain and an antagonist
Most often, you’ll hear the terms protagonist and antagonist followed with the connotations of good and bad, respectively. When you write a story with a villain as your main character, though, what are they? Protagonists or antagonists?
Protagonists are described as leading characters, primary figures, and even champions of a cause.
Antagonists are described as adversaries or figures who get in the way of another.
Where in either of those definitions do you see “good guy” or “bad guy”? Ah, you saw the word “champion,” yes? Well, champion of a cause. Does that mean good or bad? Neither. There isn’t a defining adjective there, which means it’s open to interpretation.
Why does this matter?
When you think protagonist, you think good guy or hero. If your villain is the main character in your story and you only think of them as the antagonist, you’re still putting the hero at the forefront of the story arc. The hero still drives the story. If the hero drives the story, your villain might fall flat and you’ll have a two-dimensional character.
When you think of your villain as the protagonist, though, you will start the process of developing their purpose as their own hero. Again, protagonist doesn’t mean hero, but the connotation won’t leave just because you know the definition.
How is my villain a hero?
You might have heard the term “anti-hero,” but this isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye), Quentin Compson (The Sound and the Fury), Bone (Rule of the Bone), and Severus Snape (Harry Potter).
I’m talking about the characters who aren’t heroes, but they think they are. Anti-heroes are basically flawed heroes, and villains aren’t heroes at all. But, if you’re in their perspective, you can write them in a way that makes them seem like a type of anti-hero. You can write them as the protagonist they’re meant to be, which means they’ll be the main character in their story, because isn’t that why they’re your main character in the first place?I just learned my villain is my protagonist. Who woulda thunk? #amwriting #writing #writingtips… Click To Tweet
Your villain has a particular, flawed belief
Because I mentioned Harry Potter, let’s go to Voldemort. Voldemort saw half-bloods as disgusting. He hated muggles, and his disdain for them led his movement. If you can imagine something you don’t like, you can allow yourself to get in Voldemort’s head a bit. To hate something so much and see it as absolutely dirty—my first thought is a cockroach—brings on the thought of eradication. If you think something is beneath you, don’t you want to get rid of it? Why? What good will it do? Voldemort likely had great answers to those questions because his following was large, and whatever reason your villain has for their acts must be followed with a thorough belief that those acts are for the best.
Even if the villain loses, they must be convincing/persuasive
You might not want your readers to cheer for your protagonist (villain), in which case you don’t need to convince them that your villain’s way is the right way. If they’re your protagonist, however, this might be your main goal. If so, I’m talking to you.
Like any protagonist, you must ensure your reader falls in love with them. I’ve written about creating believable antagonists as they are defined to be villains, and I’ve also written about how to ensure your main character is well written here.
Both of those posts will help you flesh out your protagonist as a villain. The antagonist post leans more toward the villain as the secondary character; however, what is said in that post is something you’ll bring to the front of the story as opposed to the background where readers don’t see it.
In the end, your goal is to make your villain’s thoughts become your reader’s. It’s hard, but it’s possible. People are subjective and empathetic. If you appeal to that side of your reader, you can use it as it’s meant to be used with your main character. One insecurity or damaged part of your protagonist introduces a sense of humanity and realism to your readers, and they’ll keep reading to see if you fill in that gap with a solution. From there, you can add in the purpose and the ideas, and work your reader’s hopes into that story so you can create the protagonist you never thought you could create.
So my antagonist is my hero?
If your main character is your villain, yes. A hero can be an antagonist. They’re opposing the cause. You don’t need to try to make them bad guys, but you can make them who the villain thinks they are. Have you ever been in a classroom and if you weren’t this person, perhaps you remember the kid who was “too good”? This is a common thought. Kids see a teacher’s pet, innocent, good kid, etc. In most school societies, it’s kind of looked down on. The kid without experience. I know because I was that kid. This kid isn’t necessarily the hero, but there’s a certain goodness that’s either disgusting, annoying, insipid, pointless, useless, etc.
The villain will see the same thing. Certain types of goodness come from lack of experience, knowledge, or understanding. Does your villain see your hero as falling under any of these? Consider your villain’s perspective, and take it seriously. You don’t have to make your hero look bad to make them a good antagonist. Every Batman has a Joker, and sometimes you just wonder if the Joker won just once…
Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
P.S. I understand that the Batman and Joker bit doesn’t apply to everyone’s thoughts on the matter; however, it applies to mine and I wonder. Make up your own example and please let me know if you have any unanswered questions. I’ll gladly answer and add them to this post for others!
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