So what exactly is a “villain” and how do you write one?
I’ve heard a lot of people discuss their favourite villains from books and films and television, even graphic novels.
What makes a villain interesting to read and what makes them just as compelling to write about?
I don’t particularly like villains.
‘Well of course,’ you might say, ‘they’re the bad guys’.
What I really mean when I say that is: I don’t like “villains” as much as “antagonists.”
‘Getting nit-picky with terms are we? Aren’t they the same thing?’
Not to me. In my mind, a villain is someone who is cruel/evil/malicious, set on harming the hero/the city/everyone who stands in their way.
Sounds cliché, right? Maybe I’ve been reading too many graphic novels but that’s the depiction I have in my head when I think of the word “villain.”
So why do I make the distinction and why do I like “antagonists” more?
It’s because sometimes writers really do think that they have to have a villain in their story. Don’t get me wrong, they’re on the right track. Villains provide great conflict and conflict makes the world go round, at least, it does in fiction. Conflict propels the story, makes it exciting and interesting. It gives the hero obstacles to struggle through and overcome.
The word “villain” makes me think “evil.” Some people like to write themes in their novels of “good v.s. evil” and that’s fine but I like to write something a little different.
An antagonist is different to a villain. Who is the antagonist? They are the character whose goal opposes the protagonist’s (hero’s) goal.
‘Still sounds like a villain to me.’
Let me elaborate. In a good v.s. evil story with a hero v.s. a villain, the hero wants to save the world and the villain wants to enslave it. So they already have conflicting goals. Like I said, a villain is an antagonist but an antagonist isn’t always a villain.
In another story, the protagonist (a word I also like more than “hero” because protagonists aren’t always out to save the day/the world) has to get a construction job done or he will lose his job and won’t be able to foot the bills/put his children through school/have his mother well cared for.
The antagonist is set against having a building constructed on his favourite park from his childhood and has started a campaign and petition against it.
‘Wait,’ you might say, ‘you’re confused. All the movies I’ve seen tell me that the construction worker is the bad guy and the tree huggers are the good guys.’
Kill that “good guy” and “bad guy” thinking for a moment. I’ve got my protagonist and my antagonist. So what makes my character with perfectly good intentions who is in no way “evil” my antagonist? It is because his goal opposes the protagonist’s goal.
Protagonist (who is the main character of the story)
Goal: To get construction done and save job.
Goal: To stop construction and save the park.
This time it is a little more complicated than the “hero v.s. villain” scenario. They both want to save something and both for a selfish reason but one that could still benefit other people. The park could be enjoyed by more families but the building could provide a workplace with more jobs.
One thing is for sure, the opposition between the two parties provides a lot of conflict. Also, the lack of distinction between “good” and “evil” allows for a lot of internal conflict for both men, thus fueling the story even more.
Not all antagonists are nice people, of course but that doesn't mean they are flat out evil and don't have their soft spots. It just means they are in opposition to the protagonist and are often out to thwart them, which means they are not always sympathetic to the reader who journeys with the protagonist through the story.
Also, villains are not automatically less complex or interesting.
So what are your thoughts? Do you like “villains” more or “antagonists?”
In that line of thought, do you like “heroes” or “protagonists?”
Which do you prefer to read about? Which would you rather write about?
Do you have any favourite villains/antagonists? Tell us who they are and why you like them!