Villains and Antagonists

When I started the rough draft of my novel Owl Riders, I had a set of characters whose goals were going to be odds with the novel’s protagonists. As I’ve come to the end of writing the rough draft and have come to know those characters and understand their motivations better, I find myself pondering the nature of villains and antagonists.

It can be great fun to watch a movie or read a book and encounter a true villain who blocks the hero at every turn, but ultimately meets their comeuppance at the end of the story. That said, there’s an old saying that no one sees themselves as the villain of their own story and I think there’s truth to that. In general people have a set of objectives and sometimes one person’s objectives will exist at cross purposes with another person’s. When those people come into contact, there’s conflict that can help drive a story.

I do think in certain types of stories, such as horror stories, it’s possible to imagine a character such as a demon who understands they’re an agent of evil and actively pursues that objective. Even there, a character who sees themselves as “evil” might see themselves as bringing some form of balance to the cosmos and thus performing a necessary function. My character Mr. Vassago in The Astronomer’s Crypt falls into that category.

Often when I think of the most wicked villains, I think of characters like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon whose only motivation seems to be personal greed and power. It’s tempting to dismiss such characters as cartoonish caricatures except that some people in real life do seem to fit this mold. Villains like this can be fun to write and it can be fun to imagine their ultimate humiliating defeat, but sometimes its more interesting to explore how a character got to be like this and explore any redeeming characteristics they might have.

Another great villain is Darth Vader who thought he was bringing peace and order to the galaxy by choosing the path he did. Although the handling of his origin story is soundly criticized, it was still satisfying to see his ultimate redemption when he defeated his master who was motivated primarily by greed.

Perhaps a more frightening type of villain is the true monster like the xenomorph in Alien motivated by the need to feed and make little aliens, but who can’t be reasoned with. At some level, this type of monster is very understandable and not necessarily evil—after all, it just wants to live—but the only way to defeat this type of villain is to destroy it utterly.

Most antagonists in fiction aren’t going to fit these almost archetypal extremes. Most are going to be people like you and me. That might feel cheated or wronged. They might see an opportunity and try to exploit it. They might actually feel like they’re attempting to do good, but don’t realize they’re causing harm to others. These are the types of antagonists I’ve tried to create in Owl Riders and what makes them scary to me is when I realize that I don’t always have to reach too far from my experience to create a character who my protagonists might see as a character who needs to be stopped.

Do you have a favorite villain or antagonist in fiction? What makes them a particular favorite of yours? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments.

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6 comments on “Villains and Antagonists

  1. Some authors develop their villains and others don’t bother. I once had an English teacher that felt real villains like Hitler and Vlad the Impaler were so powerful fictional ones always tend to disappoint. Of course I’ve used the Mayan god Ah Puch a number of times. I just love this guy. My vote for best nonfiction villain: Jack the Ripper. Best fictional villain: Darth Vader. Vader is powerful, smart, and efficient.

    • Good choices and I like Ah Puch in your books. I think one of the difficulties with real world villains is that it can be so hard to sympathize with them that writers will tend to soften them to allow themselves to write them. I admit, it can be difficult to go to some of the darker head spaces my villains need to go to make them truly villainous.

  2. Pagadan says:

    Fu Manchu–not the stereotype. Btw, he was clean-shaven.

  3. I actually don’t believe villains are unaware of their evil. They want what they want, and take it without regard for the needs and feelings of others.

    • You make a good point, and what you describe is a villain much like Ming the Merciless in my post. That said, you could make a case that such a villain doesn’t necessarily care about good or evil at all. I’d argue they may not see themselves as a villain simply because they don’t care whether their acts are villainous.

      That said, there are certainly some villains who know they do evil acts, but believe them to be in the name of the greater good. If the prequels had been written a little more subtly, Darth Vader could have been written that way. Hope Hubris in Piers Anthony’s Bio of Space Tyrant series is perhaps a better example (and that series is written very much from the character’s point of view).

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