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Bad Guys: Antagonist or Villain?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

commodoreIf a story has an antagonist, is the antagonist always a “bad guy” or villain?

Most of us like clearly defined roles for characters in movies or TV—or at least, I do. As I mentioned yesterday, there are shows I’ve stopped watching when the morality of the protagonists started “going gray” or becoming ambiguous and they started becoming anti-heroes. (I think it’s harder for me to stick with a character who’s shown that he has the capacity for doing good things, who knows he has that capacity and has been working for good for a while, who then willfully turns around and does very bad things than it is for me to stick with a character who starts off bad/dark who then comes around to at least a place of partial redemption—whether it’s giving up his treacherous ways or sacrificing himself to save the hero/heroine.)

Then there’s the role of the antagonist-who-isn’t-the-villain. As I’ve already discussed at length, an antagonist needs to be someone (or something) whose presence is necessary to try to thwart the protagonist from attaining his goal for the story.

So let’s look at the antagonist I’ve already subliminally gotten you thinking about: Commodore James Norrington from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. When the first film starts, Norrington is set up as the “bad guy”—as the character whose purpose and motivations are in direct conflict with our heroes’ goals. norrington1He’s a Royal Navy officer who is tasked with hunting down all the pirates and removing their kind from the Caribbean. (Hmm . . . that sounds really familiar. Where else is there a story about a Royal Navy officer who’s been tasked with sailing to the Caribbean to hunt down pirates? 😉 )

But even though Norrington is set up in opposition to Captain Jack, Will, and Elizabeth, we can tell he’s not truly a “bad” person—he doesn’t have malevolent intentions toward them . . . well, once Jack steals his ship there may be a touch of malevolence in Norrington’s attitude. But we can tell that he’s a man whose heart is in his job—that he’s a man loyal to his king and to the Royal Navy and that he takes his sworn duties seriously. And we can actually start to like him for that. Especially once the real villains of the story are introduced and Norrington helps our heroes fight them.

It’s at the end of the first film, though, that we really get to see that Norrington is an antagonist and not a villain: when he decides to give Captain Jack a head start and lets Will and Elizabeth off the hook.

NorringtonThis would have been a great character arc for him had no other movies been made. But there were two more movies. And I must admit, Norrington became my favorite character in the series by the turns his character took in the second and third films. We get to see the consequences of his making this good-faith (good-guy) decision: he loses his command, his commission, basically everything he’d worked for in his life. He’s a man without a home, a sailor without a ship/port, (insert your metaphor here). His character’s journey becomes the most interesting in the film series because he is the one who has already lost everything, and we get to see just what effect that has on someone who’s already been in opposition to the main characters once. Though Norrington does try to act like a bad guy and tries to thwart Captain Jack/Will/Elizabeth to gain what he needs to secure his own future, the innate goodness in him ultimately leads him to do the quintessential good-guy thing: sacrifice himself to save the others. Yet even though he does make this ultimate sacrifice, we can still look at his overall character’s journey and label him as an antagonist—because at each step along the way, his goals and motivations were directly opposite of the goals and motivations of the protagonists.

According to Jessica Page Morrell in Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, the job of an antagonist is five-fold. A good antagonist should:

  • make the reader/audience feel sympathy for the protagonist by thwarting the protagonist’s ability to reach his goals.
  • help create the conflict that drives the plot of the story.
  • reveal the protagonist’s ability to deal with conflict/adversity.
  • push the protagonist out of his comfort zone into new and character-testing situations—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.
  • prove to be a threat to the protagonist, whether physically or emotionally. Possibly a threat of physical or emotional pain, or a threat to his/her freedom or relationships or job, etc.

The antagonist’s main job is to raise the question in the reader’s/viewer’s mind of whether or not the protagonist is going to be able to do what he’s set out to do—whether it’s save the world or win the girl.

In Stand-In Groom, the antagonist is Cliff Ballantine—even though he’s not physically present for the majority of the book, it’s Anne’s past relationship with him (i.e., the memory of him) that acts as the antagonist for her relationship with George (that, and the little fact that she believes she’s planning George’s wedding). In Menu for Romance, there are two main antagonists: Ward Breaux and Beverly O’Hara. Though in and of themselves, they’re good people, they both stand in the way of Meredith and Major’s relationship. In Ransome’s Honor, however, we’re going more into the territory of villains—because of the motivation behind the actions taken against Julia.

Morrell gives a list of different types of antagonists in fiction—those who aren’t villains but who stand a chance of thwarting the protagonists. These types include:

  • Adulterer
  • Bad Boss
  • Betrayer
  • Bully
  • Cad/Femme Fatale
  • Control Freak
  • Mommy/Daddy Dearest
  • Gossip/Liar
  • Love Interest
  • Mentally Ill
  • Narcissist
  • Power Hungry
  • Frenemy (i.e., the Pseudo-Friend)
  • Snoop
  • User
  • Weakling

For Discussion
Reviewing this list of antagonist types, see how many you can come up with examples of from your own writing or from books/movies/TV. Some may be obvious, some may be a little more obscure. And just because I feel like giving away a book today, I’ll draw a name at random from today’s comments (every comment on today’s post counts!!!—but every comment should add to the discussion.) to receive a signed copy of Stand-In Groom, Menu for Romance, or Ransome’s Honor OR be put at the top of the list to receive a signed copy of A Case for Love when it comes out next February. I’ll draw the name at noon (Central) tomorrow!

  1. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:20 pm

    Right now {in just finishing up the book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning}, I would DEFINITELY say her father was an antagonist character in her life – and that of her family. While all appearances were that he was ‘protecting’ his family and sheltering them, the man was off his proverbial rocker.

    Essentially he was a bully but portrayed himself as the caring father looking out for his children’s best interests. Not allowing them to be married. Witholding from them if they went against his wishes. Cutting them off without another word if they defied his wishes.

    It took Elizabeth 40 years to realize to a small degree how ridiculous their family situation was. After leaving home she took the burden of the guilt, believing the breach in her relationship with her father and family was entirely her fault…but her father was truly the ‘bad guy’ in the entire family situation.


    • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 3:33 pm

      That’s an antagonist that probably hits home to a lot of people—the parent-antagonist. As teenagers, I’m sure that at one point or another, we all felt that our parents were the antagonist to our hero-role. As we grow older, those of us who are truly blessed with the parents we have learned that they aren’t out to thwart us but were trying to protect us. However, when that protection comes directly into opposition with what we feel we’re called to do with our lives, it is definitely putting them into that antagonist role—because their intentions are good, just not in our best interests.

      I’ve played off of that situation in A Case for Love, in which Forbes is pitted against his parents’ company in the law suit. I’ve got antagonists and a villain in that book!


      • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 7:10 pm

        Which I still need to read…And can’t wait to do so! 🙂


  2. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:25 pm

    Enjoying this series, Kaye. It’s timely too. I’m in the process of plotting a new historical, and don’t want my antagonist to be an all-out evil villain. I rarely write those types and much prefer a character who has reasonably understandable goals that stand in opposition to the protagonist’s goals.

    In my WIP, the antagonist is a former love interest of the protagonist, who no longer wants her, but wants her land, and feels he has every right to take it from her. I’ve been working to give him believable reasons for justifying his actions, based on what’s happened in his life. He’s become a brutal man through war and atrocities committed against his family.

    But you know what they say, adversity and trials don’t make us, they only squeeze out what’s already inside, like a soaked sponge. Every character in this WIP has suffered loss and damage through war and the class of frontier cultures. Some of them turn around and inflict similar loss and damage, while others seek to nurture and heal, and some simply to survive.

    Anyhoo, I much prefer to read stories where the antagonist is convinced he’s the hero of the tale, and where at some point in the story the author surprises me by making me understand how the antagonist might think so, and even against my will see their point, or feel some sympathy.


    • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:28 pm

      That should be “clash of frontier cultures.” Where are my glasses….?


    • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 3:36 pm

      Hmmm . . . should I count this as two entries? 😉

      “I much prefer to read stories where the antagonist is convinced he’s the hero of the tale, and where at some point in the story the author surprises me by making me understand how the antagonist might think so, and even against my will see their point, or feel some sympathy.”

      We’re all heroes in our own minds, aren’t we? I agree, the best-drawn antagonists/villains in fiction are those whose motivations show that there is some depth to them, that in their own mind, they’re doing what they believe is right—or at least expedient for getting what they want based on their own worldview of what is “right.” But there are going to be some who are just out-and-out evil, and they can be fun, too—but even more creepy, because there’s nothing to identify with. Although, I don’t know but what those we can identify with are more creepy than just the out-and-out evil ones. Something to ponder . . .


  3. Hope Nobel permalink
    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 2:24 pm

    lol, you’re getting comments from me on all sides 🙂 but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to comment on Norrington. And an opportunity to receive one of your books – for free, no less! – is just as alluring.
    I’ve never really considered before what the difference is between a villain and a protagonist. I think I would have defined them as:
    a person making sinful choices – with consequences to the main character(s)
    a person whose choices may not be wrong, but whose goals are at variance with those of the main character(s)

    Hmmm…maybe that’s an oversimplification, in light of your blog.


    • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 3:44 pm

      That is one side of the difference between the two, but the greatest difference between antagonists and villains all comes down to intent. An antagonist isn’t always a villain, but a villain is always an antagonist. An antagonist may not even be thinking about the hero when they’re in the process of thwarting them. The villain is definitely thinking about thwarting the hero when they’re doing whatever nefarious things they’re doing.

      Try to think of My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Wedding Planner from the fiancees’ points of view. For Cameron Diaz’s character (Kimberly) in MBFW, Julia Roberts (Julianne) was a villain—because Julianne intentionally set about to break up Kimberly and Michael’s engagement (even though she redeems herself in the end). In The Wedding Planner, Jennifer Lopez’s character (Mary) was an antagonist for Bridget Wilson’s character (Fran), because Mary was trying her hardest not to break up Fran & Steve’s engagement. See the difference?


  4. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 2:43 pm

    Ok, I think this is where my fave bad guy, Captain Dietrich comes in. Technically he’s the bad guy…he’s the Nazi and he’s out to get the Rat Patrol. But like you said above, he keeps making the good-duy decisions…letting the RP go, rescuing someone at his own risk…etc.


    • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 3:48 pm

      I’ve never seen The Rat Patrol, but it sounds to me like Captain Dietrich may be an “anti-hero.” He’s not a villain, and he’s definitely an antagonist to the heroes, but he’s heroic in his own bumbling way.


      • DJ Brumby permalink
        Thursday, May 5, 2011 10:27 am

        Actually, you might want to watch an episode or two some day. Dietrich is a very interesting character for the time period in which the series was made (1966-1968). He was not a Nazi; he was simply a German army officer doing his job as part of the Afrika corps. Even today many people don’t realize that all German military personnel during WWII were not Nazis, or that that designation more properly belongs to the SS (who WERE Nazis). Far from”bumbling”, Dietrich was a good officer who behaved as one, including keeping his word when he gave it to a member of opposing military forces and acting humanely in regard to civilians.


  5. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 3:17 pm

    As much as I’m embarrassed to admit it as a writer and as a grown up, I have embraced the Twilight saga…so Jacob Black is the antagonist who comes to mind. As Bella’s best friend and the natural enemy of Edward, he is not a bad guy but he is an antagonist because of the way the strength of his and Bella’s love for each other stands between Bella and Edward.


    • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 3:50 pm

      Great example, Becky. And don’t be embarrassed to admit it. I enjoyed the movie (but when I picked up the book and thumbed through it, decided I’d best not make the attempt if I wanted to continue enjoying the movies). I’m a huge Harry Potter fan—despite the fact that they’re “young adult” novels, despite the fact that they’re not written with the strongest craft. A good story is a good story when it resonates with us.


  6. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 5:25 pm

    Here’s the antagonists I could think off from the recent books I’ve read/movies I’ve seen!

    Jenna – Mattie Evans’s sister in Snow Melts in Spring by Deborah Vogts
    She tries to seduce Gil (the hero) away from Mattie (the heroine). She’s not bad…just troubled by circumstances in her life

    Jacob Black- Twilight series! He’s not bad but like Becky pointed out, he wants Bella’s affection too.

    Bertha (Jane Eyre)- she’s not bad…just mentally ill but she stands between Jane and Mr. Rochester (man i love the 2006 version of this…i’m watching it tonight!!) Mrs. Reed and her children (part of it, I think was because they were all jealous of Mr. Reed’s affection for her), the parson at the beginning (his name is slipping my mind!!) etc

    These are all that I could think of but James Norrington is probably one of my favorites! I absolutely HATED him in the first movie but ended up crying when he died in Pirates 3!!!


  7. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 8:49 pm

    Would the doctor on Fireproof be an antagonist, because he is actually trying to thwart the plans of the husband to get back together with his wife? He’s in the back ground make problems and when confronted he leaves the scene.

    I’ve read Ransome’s Honor…so hopefully I can win one of your other books.


  8. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 9:45 pm

    Ugh! I’ve been completely overwhelmed this last week that I haven’t visited hardly anyone’s blogs, which is frustrating because I’ve REALLY looked forward to your posts on villains. Am bookmarking to come back later and consume. I’m struggling with my current villain, and I think your insight will help greatly!


    • Tuesday, August 25, 2009 9:47 pm

      THAT’s what I forgot to do earlier today—start putting the links to this series on the Writing Series Index page.

      Praying everything goes well tomorrow. Call me if you need anything!


  9. Tuesday, August 25, 2009 11:06 pm

    Here’s my list:

    * Adulterer – Axel Breckenridge, Evergreen (WIP by me)
    * Bad Boss – Mr. Shepherd, Alice’s father, A Man Most Worthy (Ruth Axtell Morren)
    * Betrayer – Mr. Borland, The Red Siren (M. L. Tyndall)
    * Bully – Paul, Redeeming Love (Francine Rivers)
    * Cad/Femme Fatale – Dr. Miles Howland, Resurection in the Cotswolds (WIP by me)
    * Control Freak – Uncle Jonas, Broadmoor Legacy series (Tracie Peterson/Judith Miller)
    * Mommy/Daddy Dearest – Mrs.Sherbourne, Wild Heather (Catherine Palmer)
    * Gossip/Liar – Seamstress, Seaside Cinderella (Anna Schmidt)
    * Love Interest – Roderick Marlow, The Apothocary’s Daughter (Julie Klassen)
    * Mentally Ill – Kevin Parson, Thr3e ( Ted Decker)
    * Narcissist – Lady Catherine, Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)
    * Power Hungry – Sherrif Brannock, Breathe (Lisa T. Bergren)
    * Frenemy (i.e., the Pseudo-Friend) – Jeannie Barton, Heart of Glass (Diane Noble)
    * Snoop – Monk, Sanctuary (Molly Noble Bull)
    * User – Graham, The Shape of Mercy (Susan Meissner)
    * Weakling – Mr. Collins, Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)


  10. The Damsels permalink
    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 6:38 am

    Antagonist in my own writing: 12 year old Ryan (from Kathryn’s Hero) basically he is against the war, where as Kathryn (the protagonist) supports it (more complicated than that but I’d go on for paragraphs to explain in detail :D…)

    The twist though is that he’s the antagonist through 3/4 of the novel until a “secret” is revealed and then though still playing the role of antagonistic he does become good, and he’s always been a likable character, just a means for causing conflict.

    TV shows: I’m drawing blanks though with NCIS I can think of a couple of examples where the characters are truly “antagonist” in that ultimately they’re on the good guys side, but they are a major thorn in the side causing road blocks and obstacles, like FBI Fornell, and Director Vance–Vance especially, he’s new and you’re left with completely mixed feelings as whether you can really trust him.



  11. Wednesday, August 26, 2009 1:15 pm

    I’ve struggled with the antagonists for my Russian epic. They’re still far from clear. I keep coming back to the main antagonist being the war itself, and then the revolution. I know I need a little bit more than that, especially for Michael, and I’m hoping this series will help me get the ball rolling.

    In my 1856 historical romance, the antagonist is the hero’s step-mother, though I’m not quite sure which category she falls into. Probably control-freak, but she could also fit one or two more. She married his father for financial security, and hero stands in the way of that security as the sole heir to the plantation. They’re in clear opposition to each other, but at the same time I’m trying to give her a couple of redeeming qualities.

    There’s also an outright villain in the story, though he has a pretty minor role. I’m also using the novel to contrast the average Southern plantation with the stereotypical Southern plantation, and try to paint a truer picture of what plantation life was really like for most people.


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