Antagonists and villains are often used interchangeably. But they’re not identical. Though they’re both defined as an opponent, that’s where the similarities end.
A villain is deliberately and personally invested in thwarting the hero’s cause. An antagonist, however, is just doing his job, trying to survive, or pursuing a goal that happens to clash with the hero’s. That doesn’t mean he won’t engage in illegal activity. But he’s motivated by self-preservation rather than a desire to destroy the good side.
Villain and antagonist roles will look different in every story, but you can easily distinguish the two by measuring their capacity for redemption. Most villains are blackhearted (Hitler), whereas antagonists are grayer (two friends who have a crush on the same boy). The atrocities Hitler instigated can’t be justified, but we might feel sympathy for the youth who obeyed his orders because he brainwashed them with Nazi ideals. And maybe Aisha shouldn’t have lashed out at Monique, but they’re both attracted to Eric, and teenage hormones are running rampant.
As with Hitler and his thousands of followers, sometimes a bad-to-the-bone villain can’t serve the story’s purpose (or make history) alone. He might remain in the background until key moments, and the degree of his wickedness doesn’t inspire any emotions in readers except disgust or terror. A separate antagonist, on the other hand, can increase momentum and depth in three areas.
1. Ongoing Conflict
With most stories, the villain won’t cause trouble in every scene—especially if his identity or schemes are a secret. This adds a layer of mystery but not much action. If the protagonist floats along, wondering who her enemy is and what his next move will be, readers will eventually get bored.
In The Hunger Games, President Snow is the main villain. He enforces the games and maintains a reign of cruelty. But he’s in the Capitol, and Katniss is in the arena, with no opportunities for direct strife between them. In contrast, Cato trains with, competes against, and tries to hunt Katniss down.
Cato is detestable, but as far as readers know, he wasn’t violent before becoming a contestant in the Games. His behavior is a product of the environment and not villainy. He wants to stay alive but also gain the luxury awarded to Victors. Since Katniss is one of his biggest threats, he’s determined to eliminate her.
Depending upon your plot, the antagonist can either be a cohort to the villain or work solo. Regardless of the circumstances, though, give him a goal that’s distinct from the villain’s. Cato’s obsession with winning is unrelated to President Snow’s tyranny over the districts, as is Peter’s partnership with traitors throughout the Divergent series. Yet both men force the protagonists to fight danger from sources besides the main villain. If your villain will be absent a chunk of the time, consider inserting an antagonist to stimulate forward motion.
2. Continual Character Growth
Characters who don’t change will lose readers’ interest. As writers, we need to make sure that our novel’s cast experiences a mindset shift over the course of the story. The transformation might be positive or negative, but it must be visible. Antagonists can open the doors to this spiritual growth, self-discovery, or degradation.
In Divergent, Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews is out to kill Tris and the other Divergents. But she’s distant for most of the book, so Peter generates tension in the meantime. He constantly mocks Tris and is a hindrance during the Dauntless initiation. However, near the end, Tris has to decide whether to shoot him or let him join her group. In spite of her hatred for him, she spares his life, which brings her to the realization that she shouldn’t be ashamed to exhibit traits from multiple factions—including Abnegation, whose teachings she once scorned.
In Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands trilogy, Omar believes he’s a disappointment to his older brothers. He’s not a strong hunter or gifted doctor but an artist with no real value to contribute to society. Though his brothers genuinely care about him, they misunderstand his insecurities and have different opinions on how he should seek happiness. When Omar begins indulging in sin in a city where he feels respected, his brothers’ advice only alienates him and pushes him deeper into the corruption. Eventually he’s reduced to an addicted, infected castoff.
An antagonist, whether his intentions are honorable or not, can lead a story down compelling twists and turns. When confronted with an opposing worldview, the character will have to do some soul searching. Whether she changes for the better or for the worse affects the story’s direction. So explore the possibilities, keeping in mind that a character usually wavers between good and bad choices as she rides the rollercoaster of trials and triumphs.
3. Heightened Empathy
An author’s top goal is to evoke emotions and build connections with readers through characters. Antagonists can play a part in making a book memorable and impactful.
While most villains are pure evil, antagonists rarely are. We understand their motivations—we just disagree with their methods. I think everyone can see why Cato coveted the fame and fortune of being a Victor, why Peter feared being factionless, and why Omar’s brothers wanted him to embrace a certain lifestyle.
When readers empathize with a misguided character, questions will flood their minds. Do the ends justify the means? How far is too far? Could a situation have been handled differently? And are they capable of similar mistakes? They’ll begin to examine their own lives and feel as shaken up as the hero.
In The Inheritance Cycle, Murtagh is enslaved to King Galbatorix. Eragon struggles to determine whether Murtagh is merely a victim or guilty of the crimes he’s committing at the king’s command. Should he kill Murtagh if given the chance? Can he instead free Murtagh of Galbatorix’s control, and if so, will Murtagh answer for his misdeeds?
Prompting the hero to ask moral questions intensifies the scene’s emotion, helps readers relate to him and the antagonist, and strengthens the first two points on conflict and character growth, creating a well-rounded story.
More Than an Obnoxious Presence
Every character in your stories should have a purpose. Don’t clutter the pages with antagonists who are just there to shoot their mouths off every few chapters and let their hair blow majestically in the wind. An antagonist should be more than an annoyance—or a pretty face. Loki, anyone?
Use an antagonist to enhance and contrast the actions of the main villain, whether they’re conspiring together or not. Trap your hero between the two of them and laugh as he has to figure out how to escape. Or maybe don’t. Enough deranged authors slaughter poor characters already.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and son. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.