A lot of the time, when we talk about stories, we use the terms “villain” and “antagonist” interchangeably. But while they’re often embodied in the same character, they’re not the same thing, and lumping them together doesn’t just have an aesthetic impact on the story, it also has an impact on how we view the world.
Antagonist Vs Villain
What is an antagonist and what is a villain?
Simply put, a villain is a morally bad person, while an antagonist is someone who stands in opposition to the protagonist.
The villain’s moral harm doesn’t need to be huge. It could be as small as selfishly trying to trick the romantic lead out of a healthy relationship, or as vast as trying to wipe out half the life in the universe. But by the moral standards of the story, and its implied perspective, that character is in the wrong.
An antagonist doesn’t have to be this. A well-intentioned character can stand in a protagonist’s way because their aims don’t match, they have different information, or someone’s been tricked. People can disagree without one of them being in the wrong.
Or can they?
Before we get into that question, I want to point out one more thing about this distinction. Being an antagonist means fulfilling a specific role within the mechanics of the story, obstructing the protagonist’s desires and creating tension. Being a villain doesn’t necessarily mean that. It’s a feature of the character, probably an important one, but it’s one they can have while filling all kinds of different roles in the story machine, from background colour to ally to, yes, antagonist.
You could think of villainy as an aesthetic, from a storytelling point of view (not a real world one! I’m not that guy), but as mechanically neutral. Antagonism, on the other hand, is aesthetically neutral—any style of character could be an antagonist—but has a mechanic.
Now, back to that question of disagreement…
Why Are Antagonists Often Villains?
Why bundle these concepts together?
Because protagonists are usually in the right, morally, and that works well when their opponents are in the wrong. This makes the protagonist more sympathetic, the conflict more satisfying, and the story’s moral outcome clearer. The good person was opposed by the bad person and the bad person lost. Order is restored. Reader is happy.
This is how things work in every single ghostwritten novel I’ve worked on. Those books aren’t meant to be challenging, so they use a familiar, comfortable dynamic. Readers follow and empathise with the protagonist, so that’s the hero. They want to see the hero focused on their conflict with the villain, so the villain is the antagonist. And of course, they want to see good beat evil, so this all fits nicely together.
Separating Antagonists and Villains
But the two don’t have to line up.
My new novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, features several characters who could be labelled as villains. The warlord Lorkas robs a temple and threatens its innocent priests. The ghost of his former opponent, Eras, prizes old feuds over the good of society. They are both, to borrow a technical term from moral philosophy, murderous arseholes. But while they are the antagonists of certain scenes, neither is the antagonist of the book.
The antagonist of the book is Adrana, a newly arrived priest who wants to smash the Eternal Abbey in order to destroy Eras. That wish puts her in opposition to the protagonist, Magdalisa, who wants to look after her people as best she can—people who rely on the abbey and its ghosts for guidance. Throughout the story, the two are in conflict over this, even as they work together. That conflict creates tension and expresses the central question of the book—how do you relate to tradition and the past?
Adrana isn’t a villain. Her “aesthetic” isn’t one of moral wrong. She and Magdalisa are both sympathetic in their own ways, both right about certain things, and there’s value in what both of them believe. But they’re opposed to each other, and the resolution of the story, the place where the satisfaction kicks in, comes from resolving that tension, not beating the villains.
So far, so good. Villains and antagonists don’t have to be the same thing. But why does that matter?
Stories express and shape how we see the world.
If all of our stories tell us that the people we disagree with—our antagonists—are also morally wrong—villains—then we’ll see the world that way. We’ll find it hard to accept that the person on the other side of a disagreement could be wrong. That’s problematic, to say the least, because none of us are right all the time, and sometimes it’s important to shift with what others say.
Stories where the antagonists are villains teach us the importance of struggling for what’s right, and that’s a good thing to learn.
Stories where the antagonists aren’t villains teach us that not everyone we struggle against is in the wrong, and that’s also a good thing to learn.
Especially right now, when there’s a lot of talk of polarisation within society, it’s important to recognise these two separate lessons, not to run our brains along the same tracks over and over again until we see every person with a different viewpoint as one who is wrong and must be opposed. We need varied stories to help us with that.
Mixing up the relationship between villains and antagonists isn’t just aesthetically satisfying. It’s also morally important.
Trust me, I’m the protagonist here.
If you’ve got thoughts on this, or you’ve got you own experiences of writing villains and antagonists to share, then why not find me on Mastodon or Twitter and tell me about them.
And if what you’ve read above has got you intrigued, or you want to help a poor struggling author so he can break out of ghostwriting and focus on more nuanced books, then you can buy Ashes of the Ancestors here:
Luna Press for physical books