Villain or Antagonist? The Semantics

by Hayley E. Lavik

The terms villain and antagonist get bandied around quite a lot, and everyone means something a little different when they use them, but I realized recently that I hadn’t defined what I mean when I use these two terms. Synonyms they may be, but synonyms only ever mean similar things, they never mean exactly the same thing.

Antagonists are not the same as villains.

The words can be interchanged (villain, antagonist, bad guy), and technically mean the same thing, but it’s rather like talking about sex (making love, having sex, screwing). The terms all reference the same thing, ‘a character who acts as an opposing force to the hero/protagonist/good guy’, but each term carries subtle nuances conjuring up a different type of character. You may not consider them different words, but I’d be willing to bet you don’t use the terms for precisely the same characters.

So, realizing my oversight, I sat down to try and nail down the difference between villains and antagonists in conversation with an old friend, Angela Sasser. Fairly quickly, we realized it wouldn’t be so easy.

We could say, for example, that Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort is a villain, while Professor Snape is an antagonist, but that doesn’t mean an antagonist is always an ‘inferior’ threat to the main villain. Nor does an antgonist have to wind up on the side of protagonist in the end. So what makes the difference? It certainly isn’t depth of character or believability vs. caricature. Some of the finest villains I know are rich in depth and realism, yet they’re through and through villains. Voldemort and Snape both boast dimension of character. Another old favourite, Billy (played by Thomas Jane) from Original Sin (2001), has great character complexity as well, but he’s a villain for sure.

So what about conviction? I’ve read suggestions before, and wrestled with the prospect as well, that villains are the people who know they’re doing bad, while antagonists hold a strong conviction in the rightness of their own (potentially horrible) actions. Now, I like this, I really like this. I think it captures part of the essence of the sort of villains and antagonists I write, but it still felt like something was missing. This view becomes a question of intent, an issue that came up a lot when I studied the philosophy of sexuality at university, so I will already say intent alone is no justification.

As one article said, everyone doing something does not make it morally right. Likewise, good moral conviction does not make a bad action good, regardless what the character thinks. Society’s view comes into play as well.

There are some acts we would expect almost anyone to know are morally, primally wrong (look at the reams of cultural taboos on cannibalism), and some acts simply cross over the reader’s own moral threshold. No matter how convinced an individual character is of the rightness of an atrocity, the audience simply cannot abide by them, and those acts throw that antagonist far far into the realm of villainy, never to return. Conviction doesn’t make something less villainous for the reader to experience.

So the antagonist’s career lies somewhere in the grey area, where things may or may not be acceptable, and an explanation can make the difference in the audience’s perception. Perhaps we’re getting somewhere. Villains hold the stereotype of black and white, good vs. evil, high fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings where there’s no question of whose side is right. Antagonists, then, get the grey areas, the murky depths, the low fantasy premises. Each type is equally worthy, but certainly different. Still, saying antagonists are grey is like saying food tastes good. What food? How does it taste? Why do you like it?

So what defines grey? Moral ambiguity, in this case. What makes someone morally ambiguous? I could say their realism (actual people are complex and ambiguous), or their conviction in something I think is wrong… but then we’d be going around in circles. Let’s look at a scenario.

The main character, a daughter, struggles to overcome a father’s abuse. If she wins and he just gets carted off to prison still believing it was his right, he’s a villain. Now, what if he apologizes? If he comes to her at the end and repents for his treatment of her, does he change from a villain to an antagonist? Was he an antagonist all along?

Two conclusions emerged from this scenario. First, oppositional characters need not stay fixed in one state. Darth Vader does not remain a villain through the whole of the original Star Wars trilogy. In time, his role as villain is taken over by the Emperor, as he becomes an antagonist instead. The climax of Return of the Jedi heralds his final change. So, a villain is not always a villain, an antagonist is not always an antagonist, and honestly, a hero is not always a hero either, right? More importantly though, we begin to see the common thread here. Change.

A villain stands and falls by her convictions. Villains die, get locked away, tumble off buildings or into family-friendly Disney darkness still spitting their animosity. Billy’s screen time in Original Sin ends with the belief he’s about to win, he’s finally going to get the reward for all his hard work and sacrifice, and then–*bang*

Antagonists change. When a character repents, switches sides, or a secret noble agenda is revealed, we confidently label them antagonists, because they weren’t the villain.

Even if they don’t join the protagonist’s side, however, they are still antagonists. They are the grey characters because their views can change. Their potential for revising morals makes them morality ambiguous. While they may not side with good by the end of the story, they may have simply broken sides with evil, and chosen to look out for Number One. If Catwoman sides with Batman, it’s only because it’s in her own interests. In the next installment, she’ll likely be the problem again.

Antagonists can change, like anyone else, which can make them sometimes seem lesser. They might one day become good guys, so they don’t seem like true enemies.

Villains don’t change, so they’re not like anyone else, which makes them seem like caricatures. They can wind up straight and simple evil, without the depth and realism they deserve.

So, while I may glide between ‘villain’ and ‘antagonist’ to describe oppositional characters, often for the sake of typing fewer keystrokes, I hold the two terms in separate, distinct categories. Villain and antagonist are not synonymous, but neither are they permanent states. The lines are not clear cut, but the nuances remain.