Saturday, December 7, 2013

What Is the Difference Between Villains and Antagonists?

Well, it's December. Normally I would spend this time of year rambling about the new Hobbit movie (and trust me, that time will come), but I thought of trying something a little different this year. I sort of had a fanfiction-themed month back in April, and since that lent itself to a few interesting literary topics, I figured why not do another theme month? That's why I'm officially declaring this December my Villain Month.

Discussions about writing villains, lectures on the elements of villains, case-studies on famous villains from fiction -- I'm going to cover as much as I can before the end of the year. There's a lot to blog about, and seeing how we're already a week into December, let's dive in! I'll start with a fairly basic question that's been in my head for a while:

What is the difference between villains and antagonists?

We all know essentially what both of those terms mean, and they're often used interchangeably when discussing movies, books, and other storytelling mediums. The thing is though, there are certain instances where the term "villain" doesn't seem appropriate to say. People don't normally refer to the tornado in Twister or the asteroid in Armageddon as the "villains" of those films, despite both being the things that the heroes have to overcome in order to resolve the conflicts in their stories. The same goes for the iceberg in Titanic, the lava in Volcano, or the dilemma-causing element in any other given disaster movie.

But why is that? A common explanation is that the word "villain" refers to an individual character; it's a title specifically given to a personified living being who competes with the hero of a story. By that logic, things like icebergs and tornadoes can't be called villains because they don't have personalities and are not alive. They can instead be called antagonists, which many people consider to be the more generalized term for opposing forces in a story.

Another explanation can be found right in Webster's Dictionary. That book defines the word "villain" as "a cruelly malicious person," and the word "antagonist," in terms of drama and literature, as "the opponent of the hero or protagonist." Much like in the first explanation, it seems here that the difference between the terms is that "antagonist" is more general while "villain" refers to a specific type of antagonist. Every villain is an antagonist, but not every antagonist is a villain. To sum up, natural disasters are also not villains because they lack that defining "cruelly malicious" quality.

That leads to another issue though. If cruelty and malice are what determine whether an opposing force is a villain or a general antagonist, then it really all comes down to the motivation behind that opposition's actions. The idea of all personified living characters automatically being villains suddenly doesn't hold together anymore.

Take the shark in Jaws for instance. He doesn't kill people because he wants to cause pain and suffering. He kills people because he's hungry. He gives dogs, boats, and compressed air tanks the same treatment because as far as his simple shark brain is concerned, these things are all the same. There is nothing personal behind it when he attacks humans. In fact, the only reason he pursues the main characters at all is because they keep luring him to their boat with gallons of chopped-up bloody fish. He would just as soon leave them alone if another, more plentiful food source presented itself to him.

This is also the case for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the titular creatures in the Alien series. It doesn't matter that they were cloned from fossils or bred on another planet. At their cores, they're both basic predatory animals fulfilling their needs, and therefore they're incapable of malice.

An antagonist who is capable of malice is the hunter from Predator. He's clearly shown to be a sentient being with a sense of morality who is deliberately carrying out his actions with the knowledge that he's hurting other sentient beings -- and in extremely cruel ways, no less. He may have a sense of honor at times, like when he refrains from killing people who are unarmed and discards his armor to fight the protagonist hand-to-hand, but that doesn't stop him from cackling maniacally when he thinks he's going to take the protagonist down with him at the end by activating a bomb. He only spares someone's life because a rule somewhere decrees that he has to spare them for that time being. As soon as he determines that the person can adequately defend themselves again, he goes right back to attacking them. There is meditation and an intention to inflict personal harm behind his actions. The Predator and every antagonist like him is a villain.

I started Villain Month with this topic because it's important to understand what villains really are before you can properly discuss them. It's the reason for their behavior more so than the behavior itself that creates them, and what that reason is will determine how good, bad, likeable, despicable, or mystifying they can be. But that's another blog entry for another day. Welcome to Villain Month, folks!


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