Being a Better Writer: What is an Antagonist?

Welcome back readers, and a big welcome to the first topic from Topic List #20! Being a Better Writer sure has come a long way since 2013, when it was largely (and effectively) the equivalent of message-board posts responding to fan messages asking writing questions, hasn’t it? Maybe in August of 2023 I should do a ten-year special of some kind. Thankfully, I’ve got a year to think about it. But that does sound like fun.

Ten years of Being a Better Writer in 2023. Sands and Storms, that’s a lot of content. Of course, it didn’t start being weekly. Originally it was just a response to a message asking for writing advice. But the one response inspired more people to send in their writing questions and then before long I was getting a few messages a week, and I started making a list, and the posts started to become regular …

That was nine years ago, and things have definitely changed. The initial “boom” of writing questions died down, though I still get the occasional request through Discord these days or on on the Topic Call posts. Being a Better Writer migrated off of its origin point and onto this site, which also became the main hub for my books and other materials. At the urging of a number of fans, I finally opened a Patreon that, to this day, helps keep the site entirely advertisement free—no pop-ups or intrusive ads over the text here! Being a Better Writer has been sourced, quoted, and cited everywhere from Wikipedia to major education systems, collegiate and public.

It’s come a long way.

Sorry, just sort of got nostalgic there with the whole start of Topic List #20. Side note, readers, but this is another Being a Better Writer post prepped and scheduled in advance, as I’m gearing up for a trip in May. Which … let me check my calendar … I haven’t departed on yet, I think, but hey, I’m getting this ready to go now.

Anyway, let’s talk about today’s topic, and step away from the reminiscing. Today’s topic is one most of you will likely recognize from a few weeks ago, when we talked about villains and how to make them deliver on their premise.

Well, one thing that came up over the course of that discussion was a small segment on the difference between a villain and an antagonist. The reason for that segment being that a lot of people—even critics—tend to use both terms interchangably. It’s not at all uncommon to see a review, for instance, refer to the villain of a piece as the “antagonist” or vice-versa.

But there’s a real problem with using these two terms interchangeably: They’re not the same thing. A villain is not automatically an antagonist, nor is an antagonist automatically a villain. As stated in the villain discussion, it’s like the old logic statement: Some villains are antagonists, and some antagonists are villains, but not all villains are antagonists, and not all antagonists are villains.

Worse, using them interchangeably like this is actually kind of harmful, as it blurs the lines for those who may not realize that there’s a very clear difference between the two identities. For a comparison, imagine a car magazine reviewing a new vehicle, but clearly treating rally cars as identical to rock-crawling cars, simply because both can traverse rough unpaved roads. Yes, both can, but they’re also very different kinds of cars.

Villains and antagonists are the same way: They have similar positions in a story sometimes, and can even overlap into the same character, making a villain antagonist. But they are not the same, and not understanding that can lead to confusion both in the writing and in the explaining of the story.

Look, if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: An antagonist is not a villain. There is no requirement that an antagonist be villainous at all. They are separate character roles that can be combined into one, but don’t have to be.

You ready to break this down in depth? Then hit the jump.

So we’re going to start here by going back to the definitions. What is an antagonist, and how is that different from a villain?

An antagonist is, by definition, a character who is actively opposing the protagonist. That’s it. This “opposition” is anything that gets in our protags way.

Now, I do want to note the “actively opposing” bit there. If a character accidentally puts an obstacle in the protagonist’s way, that’s not being an antagonist. An accidental comparison to one, maybe, but if not purposeful, then they’re not an antagonist. It was an accident (unless it wasn’t, and “antagonist reveals” have been made before to great effect in stories).

In other words, an antagonist is someone who is actively working against our protagonist. This can be in the form of putting road blocks in their way, trying to trip them up, or even be in the form of being an opposing group or individual that has the same goal but wants to achieve it for their own ends or aims.

For example, look at a lot of movies revolving around races of some kind. Like The Canonball Run. There’s only ever one actively malicious force in the movie that could count as a villain, and even at best they’re a lawful villain. The rest of the racers opposing the protagonist characters aren’t seeking to hurt or harm the protagonists with their tricks, nor is there any evil intent (remember this, as we’ll be touching on it again in a moment) behind their actions. They just want to win the race, same as the protagonist. They are antagonists, but there’s no villainy in their actions. Just a desire to win.

A lot of stories have antagonists in a similar role. Treasure-hunting adventures, for example, will often spice things up by having a secondary group hunting for the treasure as well as the protagonist group, with both groups racing one another to find the treasure first. The second group is usually not villainous (though there often is a third, villainous party to bring things full circle), and in a lot of stories usually has ties to the protag group, either in through mentorship or even family. Nevertheless, both groups are antagonists to one another, as each is actively opposing the other in the pursuit of a goal that only one can have (until, of course, the villain group causes both parties to put aside their differences and work together).

Okay, so then how is this different from a “villain?” Well, if you haven’t read our prior posts on villains (you should), here’s the quick definition: A villain is a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot. Earlier I said we’d come back to this “evil” bit for a moment, and so here we are, as this is one of the biggest differences between an antagonist and a villain. A villain acts in a way that is morally wrong. Again, we discussed this more in the prior villain piece, so read that for the breakdown, but it’s a key component of being a villain versus an antagonist (and again, quick aside, you can have villains that never work against the protagonist, or even aid them, demonstrating that not all villains are automatically antagonists).

Luckily for all of you, I’ve got a great example on hand to show the difference in very simple, straightforward terms. From an old video game that happens to be a favorite of mine: Sonic 3 & Knuckles.

I know right? But bear with me. Sonic 3 has, for a platformer with no dialogue and just mimed cutscenes fueled by a manual, an actual plot with both types of antagonist on display.

Some background you need: Sonic 3 & Knuckles (S3&K from here on out) saw the protagonist, Sonic the Hedgehog, chasing his long-time villain foe, the evil Dr. Robotnik, to an island floating in the sky, where he was immediately set upon by a new foe: Knuckles the Echidna.

See, Knuckles the Echidna is the sworn guardian of the island from outsiders, and Sonic is trespassing. Robotnik, who arrived there beforehand, has lied to Knuckles about who the villain is and has gotten some amnesty by swearing he’ll leave as soon as possible, and paints Sonic as the villain. With me so far?

What results is a game in which you have an antagonist and an antagonist villain. Knuckles is the antagonist. Throughout S3&K, he’s constantly hounding the player in little cutscenes, triggering traps that send you off track, force you to take longer routes, and generally messing with your path to get to the villain. Meanwhile the villain antagonist, Dr. Robotnik, is actively trying to kill you. Halfway through the game, Knuckles gets sick of Robotnik’s actions and starts trying to actively kick him off as well, culminating in him eventually siding with the protagonist as he finally sees the true scope of the threat.

But in none of this is the character of Knuckles ever a villain. He puts obstacles in Sonic’s path, yes, but not out of a sense of villainy: You are trespassing. His entire life’s work is to keep trespassers away and encourage them to leave. So he does. Repeatedly. There’s no point in the story where he wants you to leave for any reason of evil. He harasses the player over and over again with tricks and traps designed to discourage you or set you back because he wants you to leave. He even fights you not because he wants to destroy you, or has malicious, immoral aims, but because you’ve been getting closer and closer to the object he’s dedicated to protecting and he’s afraid you are the villain there to steal it.

Antagonist. He’s not evil, just has objectives that mean he opposes the protagonist.

By comparison, the villain, Dr. Robotnik is actively opposing the protagonist for purposes of evil. He is there to steal things (as well as repair the battlestation that crashed into the island in the first place so that he can do the classic conquering of the world thing). Where Knuckles is an antagonist who has similar ideals to Sonic, but opposes Sonic for trespassing, Robotnik is lying, cheating, and swindling his way to the very thing Knuckles is protecting by playing the two against one another for his own gain. Immoral actions of evil to serve his own plan.

Does that help show the difference? Knuckles is an antagonist because he opposes the player, but not out of any evil purpose. There’s no evil intent. His aims are just different than the protagonists.

Robotnik on the other hand opposes the player, so he is an antagonist, but he also does so with evil moral actions, behavior, and plans. His evil actions drive the plot, and that makes him a villain. Therefore, villain antagonist.

Now, some of you at this point might be rolling your eyes and wondering “Who cares? Why does it matter?”

Well it matters in a lot of context, actually. For one, if you try to explain a story, any story, to say nothing of your own story to someone else and use “villain” and “antagonist” interchangeably, that person is going to develop a very different view of what the story is and how those characters interact based on their understanding of those definitions.

This can compound even further if you’re trying to work with a group in any fashion. More than once I’ve seen movie watchers react with confusion to a film because a review had declared an antagonist group the villains … only for the movie itself to have them actually be antagonist, leading to differing expectations or confused interpretations of the plot.

But there’s an even more important reason to understand this differentiation when it comes to your own writing: If you don’t, you will actively be denying yourself of any plot or character development that comes from exploring the nuance between these two roles.

For example, if someone always thinks of an antagonist as a “villain,” and therefore evil, anything they write is going to lose the subtle but very useful exploration of having an antagonist whose position isn’t wrong or evil, but just currently at odds with the protag’s.

In other words, not understanding the difference between the two dilutes complexities into “yes or no, with us or against us, black-and-white” equations. Worse, this sort of writing then fuels “protagonist-centered morality” as everyone who opposes the protagonist in any way automatically falls into “villain” territory.

And … well, ugh. I shouldn’t need to explain how that kind of writing loses nuance and makes for pretty poor storytelling.

Right then, with all of this said … what’s our takeaway? What can we gain from this knowledge, and how can we use it to improve our writing?

Well, it comes back to the nuance of before. Recall how we discussed that an antagonist can simply be opposing the protagonist because they’re working toward similar ends and aims and competing to be the one to achieve it, as with a race to some objective? This kind of storytelling makes for much more complex and nuanced characters than the simpler “you’re opposed to me, so you’re therefore evil.”

There are plenty of stories where characters that begin as antagonists to one another realize that they’re actually quite similar and become shared protagonist roles, or the antagonist becomes a secondary protagonist or supporting character. Or sometimes they stay antagonists, but friendly ones where they may be competing with one another, but neither considers the other a foe, but a friend even though their positions mean they have to push against one another. Friendly rivals, in other words.

Basically, once you understand that an antagonist is just that, and not automatically a villain, a whole subset of writing characters and stories is within your grasp. You can write far more complex characters, characters that can address that differences that make them opposition instead of straight allies despite similar aims, be they ideals, methodology, or any other difference you can dream up. You can write complex situations that cause characters to sometimes be antagonists, but also sometimes aides, IE a character who must uphold the law sometimes standing in the way of a protagonist when the law demands, but also aiding them where they can.

Basically, embracing the differences between antagonist and villain allows for stories that are quantum rather than binary. The latter is “yes or no, one or zero.” The former? Any decimal in-between those two states.

To use a math analogy, think about how many equations you can make, and their answers, with the numbers one and zero. You’ve got addition, subtraction, multiplication, division … but regardless, there’s not that many answers to be had there (go ahead and try it on a piece of scratch paper).

Now do the same, but with any combination of values ranging from zero to one. Yes, even the infinitely repeating ones. How many more equations can you make?

I’ll give you a hint: You will run out of scratch paper. Even with just one type of equation, such as addition, you have infinite levels of equations you can make as there will always be another digit you can explore.

Sure, some may come out and a similar result, off only by a few small digits … but that’s still difference, instead of the identical answers the first equations got you.

Antagonists are this sort of “variety” for a story. They can be a friend who just doesn’t want the protagonist to get hurt. They can be a rival organization that has similar aims and goals, but is distinct from the protagonist for a few reasons. They can be … well … anything. As long as they oppose the protagonist in some way, they’re an antagonist. They can be a villain, or they can be a force of good. An old enemy, or an old love.

Antagonists aren’t automatically or always villains. They’re characters, organizations, etc, that put obstacles in our protagonist’s path, yes, but that doesn’t make them villains.

And acknowledging that in our writing? It brings a wealth of nuance and opportunity that no writer should ignore. So use it. Every chance you get.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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4 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: What is an Antagonist?

  1. Hi Max! I really enjoyed reading this post. I’d never thought much about the differences between an antagonist and a villain, and it’s likely I am guilty of using them interchangeably. Thank you for sharing 🙂


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