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Your Antagonist DOESN’T Have To Be A Villain. Here’s Why

All About The Villain

Most writers ‘get’ the villain archetype intuitively. At their foundation, stories are often about ‘goodies and baddies’. Just like every story needs a protagonist, it usually needs an antagonist of some kind …

… and that antagonist is nearly always a villain.

A villain may have relatable and understandable motivations for their ‘evil plan’. We may invest in their journey every bit as much as the protagonist’s … Alternatively, they may just be evil because that’s their personality.

They may be criminals, politicians, narcissists, abusers, serial killers, actual monsters … it doesn’t matter. The villain role is burned into popular culture so much even small children may assign it to their toys when playing. (We had a kidnapper penguin on the loose at our house FOR YEARS! Only The Hulk could destroy him).

Whatever happens in the story, the villain is very, very important. Without them, there is NO CONFLICT because the protagonist automatically gets what they want, with no pushback. YAWN!

For more about the villain archetype, CLICK HERE or either of the pics, above or below.

The Antagonist Versus The Villain

So, more often than not the antagonist is some kind of villain … even if we get where they’re coming from. Their job is to OPPOSE the protagonist from reaching their goal or achieving their mission. They will do this via all kinds of evil shenanigans, such as violence, stalking, bullying, chasing, whisper campaigns, manipulation or other dastardly deeds.

But what if I told you the antagonist DOESN’T have to be a villain??

The two words are used interchangeably so often it frequently blows writers’ minds when I say this … but SERIOUSLY!

Look at the definition below. It’s true antagonists are often enemies, nemesis or foes, but this DOESN’T mean antagonists have to be evil as well.  If we consider someone being an ‘opponent’ or an ‘adversary’, this does not mean that character has to be a villain to achieve this in the story.

Hell, even being ‘hostile’ to what the protagonist wants does not mean that antagonist has to be evil!

So … if an antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain, what are they?? More, next.

The Antagonist Does NOT ‘Need’ To Be Evil …

… They just need to be ABERRANT. But what does ‘aberrant’ mean?

As we can see from the third definition below, aberrant means ‘departing from an accepting standard’. So if your antagonist is NOT evil, then they can be aberrant in the following ways …

  • They’re the voice of reason when the protagonist is the one being unreasonable (such as the misanthrope) or
  • An authority, ie. a parental-type figure who doesn’t want the protagonist to hurt themselves or others on the way to their goal
  • A character that embodies a societal expectation like ‘don’t break the law!’, ie. some police characters in stories where we want the protagonist to get away with their crime

There are of course other ways for antagonists to be ‘aberrant’ to what protagonists want, but these are the most common I see in the spec pile.

Consider Marge Simpson

Most writers have seen at least one episode of The Simpsons. Whilst the series has grown into a very large ensemble cast over the decades, let’s agree the following …

  • The Simpsons are still the ‘main’ characters (it is called after them!)
  • Like most sitcoms, The Simpsons is about a dysfunctional family. This means they do ‘bad’ things each episode, learn from them, then reset to zero by the end of the episode.
  • Homer is the ‘lead’ within that ‘main cast’, closely followed by Bart. (They have the most screen-time, plus we’re most likely to see their stories centred as ‘A’ stories, making them ‘protagonists’)
  • Lisa follows closely behind Homer and Bart. (Lisa is highly critical of her family but also a hypocrite. This means she tends to do the ‘types’ of things Homer and Bart do, albeit it for different reasons and in different ways).
  • Maggie is side-lined as standard (she may be featured heavily, but usually via another character, most often Marge).
  • Sometimes Marge is the protagonist, but a major part of her characterisation is she feels she gets side-lined as standard. This means ‘no one listens’ to her. As a result, even when she is featured in an episode, it’s usually in relation to how her family does not value her.

So in a scenario where dysfunction is the standard, it’s Marge who becomes ABERRANT most often to the rest of them. This makes her the antagonist of The Simpsons.

This is NOT because Marge is evil, but because she is …

  • The voice of reason. Hell, Homer, Bart, Lisa and occasionally Maggie are ALWAYS unreasonable in some way!
  • An authority. Marge prides herself on being a good Mom, so she doesn’t want her family to hurt themselves or others.
  • Embodies a societal expectation like ‘don’t break the law!’. Marge wants a quiet life, so she wants her family to do what they’re supposed to, but they hardly ever do. In one season, Marge even joined the police, but we still want Homer and Bart to get away with their antics.

In other words, Marge is probably the most ‘normal’ one in The Simpsons and not evil at all. Instead, she is aberrant, making her the antagonist but not a villain.

Summing Up

Next time you’re dreaming up an antagonist, remember s/he does NOT need to be a villain. The character just needs to be aberrant. A subtle, but crucial difference.

More about The Simpsons on B2W

7 Important Writing Lessons From The Simpsons

Spotlight on Sitcom Structure: 6 Tips For Writers From The Simpsons

14 Masters of Comedy Share Their Secrets

Good Luck!

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2 thoughts on “Your Antagonist DOESN’T Have To Be A Villain. Here’s Why”

  1. I agree. Again, this comes back to observation of the world. There is good value in writing scenes from the antagonist’s point of view, where they are trying to make something happen (active) or stop it (passive) The Australian Christian Lobby is a good example of an antagonist trying to stop or roll back something they are opposed to. ACL is an antagonist working for their beliefs against the majority of the nation (70% of Australians are against ACL’s core values based on Electoral commission data) or ACL are the protagonist trying to fight the good fight against overwhelming odds. There’s a good collection of material on-line where the ACL position is expressed very well, showing the level of sophistication that could be looked at.

    I also found it very useful to write the antagonist’s story from a protagonist point of view in novelized form while preparing to play the antagonist in a student film (Thriller) which unfortunately has yet to proceed.

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