Remember watching Disney movies as a kid, how the good guys were always good, and the bad guys were so easy to hate because they were so undeniably, moustache-twirling-ly evil? Characters fell into two very distinct categories, the good guys and the villains. By the way, am I the only one who still gets that “Chillin’ with the villains” song from that one Disney channel commercial stuck in their head? Yeah? Well, ok, then.
Well, hopefully your cinema tastes have matured since then (but hey, no judgement), and you now realize that villains are not just figurative, two-dimensional cut-outs for the protagonist to hang their awesomeness on (I may be mixing metaphors there just a tiny, tiny bit). Villains need to have believable motives and backstory.
This is your challenge as a writer, and also about 90% of the fun.
But what types of villains are there? And really, what is the difference between an anti-hero and a villain? Does it really matter?
Well, read on to find out!
An antagonist is any force that is impeding your protagonist from achieving their goal. You might consider “villain” a subcategory of antagonist – all villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains. One of the unique characteristics of this category is that it’s not limited to people, but can also include forces of nature, acts of god, and even inanimate objects. In any story, there might be only one or two villains, but countless antagonists – including the protagonist’s mother not letting them save the world until they’ve finished their homework, their car backfiring once they’ve finished said homework, and the tornado that impedes their path on the way to the final battle.
Examples: Any type of villain; the weather from The Day After Tomorrow, The Asteroid from Armageddon
Classic villains have no redeeming qualities – they are there simply to serve as a foil to the awesome, all-powerful hero (who is usually just as two-dimensional), who will eventually vanquish them. They are flat, and lack any sort of nuance, sympathy, or depth. They want to do bad things simply because they are evil and bad things are what evil people do. These days, it’s generally accepted that classic villains make for boring stories. Unless you’re writing a Disney movie, it’s best to stay away from this trope.
Examples: Jafar from Aladdin, Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove, Pluto from Popeye
Anti-villains have good intentions – their goals are admirable, such as stopping global warming or saving a relative – but their methods of achieving these goals are bad. They most likely realize that their methods are questionable (they themselves would probably not use the word ‘evil’), but think it’s a necessary sacrifice, or are so wrought with grief or anger that they don’t care.
Anti-villains tend to be charismatic and likeable, which often makes them a more intriguing choice when compared to that moustache-twirling nefario, the classic villain.
Examples: Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin, Magneto in the X-men movies
Anti-heroes/heroines are protagonists that are deeply flawed, but end up doing good things in the end despite themselves. Usually sympathetic –we can relate to why they do what they do – anti-heroes often have some sort of baggage, and a big part of their character arc is whether they are going to do the right thing or do the wrong thing – if they do the right thing, then they are anti-heroes; if they do the wrong thing, they are villain protagonists. It’s this ‘will they/won’t they’ aspect that separates anti-heroes from just plain jerks – the jerks ALWAYS do the right thing – they’re just extra snarky while doing it.
Examples: Skyler White from Breaking Bad
Remember how we were talking about the ‘will they/won’t they do good’ question in the last section? Yeah, the villain protagonist checked the no box. The difference between a true anti-hero and the villain protagonist is that the result of the anti-hero’s actions are ultimately good, while the goals of the villain protagonist are not.
Examples: Walter White in Breaking Bad, Doctor Horrible in Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog
Just Plain Jerk/Dark Hero
Say it with me:
“Batman from The Dark Knight is not an anti-hero. Batman from The Dark Knight is not an anti-hero. Batman from The Dark Knight is not an anti-hero.”
Very good. Like Batman, other Just Plain Jerks (also known as Dark Heroes) are often confused with anti-heroes. See the anti-hero description above – with anti-heroes, there’s this question of whether or not they will do the right thing. With Just Plain Jerks, they always do the right thing, they’re just pricks about it. Another difference between Anti-heroes and Just Plain Jerks is that anti-heroes are usually likeable, while Just Plain Jerks aren’t, though they may be compelling in other ways.
Examples: Batman from The Dark Knight; Doctor House from House
Of course, the lines between these archetypes are often blurred, and you may have to use a judgement call when deciding which category your Big Bad falls under.
So where does your antag fit in? Did I miss any categories? What do you think? Let me know in the comments!