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Villains vs. Antagonists

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


If your English lit education was anything like mine, then at some point a teacher explained to you that narrative conflicts boil down into three broad types: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself. (If your teacher was more forward-thinking than mine, she might have phrased it as “person vs.” instead.) Most narratives nowadays, of course, contain a mix of the three: internal state (fears, desires) complicating the protagonist’s struggle against her situation and the people around her. In speculative fiction especially, you rarely find a story that’s purely about the hero/ine’s own psychological growth, and the only examples I can think of that might count as pure “vs. nature” tales are hard SF.

So most stories in our corner of the world have at their core a pretty solid helping of interpersonal conflict. Over time, I’ve come to realize a couple of things about this. First, I divide the individuals on the other side of the “vs.” into two categories: villains and antagonists. And second, I tend to write the latter much more than the former.

The distinction I see between the two is one of intent. They say, of course, that nobody’s a villain in their own mind, but I don’t think that’s quite true; some people acknowledge that they’re acting on selfish grounds. They just don’t see why they should do otherwise: I want this thing, and I have the power to take it, so that makes it mine. It’s not so much that they think it’s the right thing to do; they just don’t care.

Antagonists care, and they think they are doing the right thing. It’s just that circumstances put them and the protagonist at odds with one another. Maybe their priorities are different; they think the consequences of that revolution the heroine wants to start will be worse than living with the status quo. Maybe they’re misinformed; they wholeheartedly believe nuking another country is the only way to forestall an even bigger calamity, because they don’t know what the hero knows. Antagonists are opponents, instead of Bad Guys.

I tend to gravitate towards writing the antagonist category for several reasons, ranging from the philosophical to the practical. On the philosophical end of things, anthropology taught me to see the world through other points of view, which makes it hard to chalk something up to proper villainy; a character who fundamentally believes (say) Latinos are inferior to white people is of course a profound racist, and I don’t agree with him in the slightest, but I can see how that may lead him to view his actions as “the right thing to do.” A lot will depend on presentation and development, whether I view that character as a misguided antagonist I want to see fixed, or an irredeemable villain I look forward to seeing taken down. On a practical front, antagonists complicate things; villains you can kill off and not feel too bad about it, but non-evil opponents usually need a more nuanced approach. Sometimes there’s a chance that, if the heroine can bring them around to her point of view, they can work together to solve a larger problem. Of course, that can turn into just as much of a cliche as the shoot-’em-in-the-head approach, when everything boils down to an after-school special about how we really can just all get along.

All of this is me speaking as a writer, though. As a reader, I can happily chew on a nice bit of villainy. I just have a hard time putting it into my own narratives.