Being a Better Writer: Antagonists Are Not Villains

Welcome back once again writers! It’s time for Being a Better Writer, your Monday installment of writing advice and guidance, and today … Well, today is actually a bit of a bump in the queue.

See, I actually had a whole lot of other topics I wanted to explore in the coming weeks, but sometimes something occurs that moves that schedule around a little bit. In this case, the pressure to move this topic up the queue came about due to a very good movie that came out a few months ago.

To be more specific, this post’s position today has come about due to the reactions to that movie found across the internet. I am speaking of one of 2022’s best movies—if not the best—which is Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.

Now, if you’re reading that with a raised eyebrow and statement of “Really?” then let me reassure you: The Last Wish is one of those stunning films, not just because you wouldn’t expect a Dreamworks film that is both a spin-off and a sequel that was trapped in development hell for almost a decade to suddenly be one of the year’s best films. But it was. The team that finally drug it out of its painful development has produced one of the best films I’ve seen in recent memory, with stellar animation and yes, a story that is incredibly well paced, thought-out, and brimming with carefully designed, complex and realized characters that don’t waste a second of their time on screen.

It tells a fantastic story, and does it with superb visuals, pacing as tight as a drum, humor, and quite a bit of aplomb. This is a case of a film that didn’t need at all to try as hard as it did, given its spin-off and sequel status, but instead decided to give it its all and produce something greater than any of the films that gave it existence.

Seriously, if you have slept on this film, go see it now. On the big screen, if you can. It’s a feast for the eyes and a finger-licking good story. And with that story comes a bevy of characters, including one that has led to today’s post.

Now, I will warn you at this point, this post is going to discuss spoilers for The Last Wish. It is an unfortunate requirement of our writing topic today. So, I am going to hold off discussing it until after the jump. Now, you’ve likely already been spoiled by the YouTube algorithm, since the plethora of videos discussing this spoiler are constantly appearing on feeds, but if you haven’t been spoiled about one of The Last Wish‘s good twists (which some of you will see coming, recognizing the symbolism, but some I saw it with were still caught by surprise at the reveal) then either prepare to have it spoiled or come back and check out the post after you’ve seen The Last Wish.

Got that? Okay, we’re bringing up the jump now. Hit it, and let’s talk about our topic at last, plus the context behind it.

Okay, if you’ve been on YouTube or seen the movie, you know by now that the character of Lobo, the fearsome wolf bounty hunter that pursues Puss throughout the film, is not actually a bounty hunter, that being an assumption made by both the character and the audience. He is, in fact, Death, come to collect Puss’ last life as a consequence for not only frivolously wasting all his previous lives with empty, vapid living, but also doing so while constantly taunting Death itself. Well, now Death has arrived to collect on the bill, and Puss is terrified.

Now, to say the character of Death has been a smash hit is an understatement. I’ve already met people who declare this version of Death to be their favorite depiction across entertainment (which tells you something about the crowd I keep). I myself rate him just below Pratchett’s Death, but there’s no denying that “Lobo” is one of the greatest depictions of the reaper I’ve seen, and not just because of his design or the careful framing of his character to imbue him with as much menace as possible.

BUT … with all this said, here’s the problem that’s sprung up in the wake of Death catching everyone’s attention. If you’ve been on “Writing YouTube” or “Film Critic YouTube” in the last few months, you doubtlessly have seen dozens if not more videos all bearing a title like these (all of these are real videos):

  • Why The Wolf From Puss In Boots: The Last Wish Is One Of The Best Villains Ever (A Character Study)
  • How to Build an Incredibly Effective Movie Villain
  • Death: The Perfect Villain
  • Analyzing Death – DreamWorks Scariest Villain
  • Puss in Boots: The Last Wish – How to Introduce a Villain
  • Why The Death Wolf In Puss In Boots: The Last Wish Is The Most Feared Villain In DreamWorks History

And so on, and so on, and so on. These videos are legion right now.

On the one hand, they illustrate why Being a Better Writer is written instead of some YouTube video series: Writing requires effort, forethought, and a sense of direction and path. A lot of YouTube videos? Well, no offense meant, but some of these YouTube results listed above are just bandwagon hoppers, people with no actual knowledge of the subject hopping on whatever is popular for views, prattling on for a few minutes repeating bullet points from someone else’s video with no actual understanding of the subject, and then signing off.

Visual clickbait, in other words. Some of you might say that statement is really strong, but here’s the wham-line to back it up, that shows many of these videos for what they are:

Death is not a villain. He is an antagonist.

Yes, as before when we’ve discussed the commonplace issue of calling a character a “hero” when they are nothing more than a protagonist, Death’s meteoric rise in popularity has given rise to the opposite issue: Calling an antagonist a “villain” when they very clearly are not.

So today, we’re going to talk about what separates the two. About how a character that is an antagonist can be a villain, but is not always a villain. Sands, it’s possible for a story’s antagonist to be a literal hero, acting against a protagonist that is also a hero.

Now, before we dive into this, I know there will be some who will say “Who cares? It’s the person against my hero, and that makes them the villain, right?” But the answer to this is “No.” Calling an antagonist a villain for being an antagonist is like calling a wagon a race car because it happens to have four wheels. It is not a race car, it doesn’t even have an engine, and is used for a very different purpose (preferably, riding down a hill while discussing philosophy with a tiger).

There’s a power in knowing what makes something what it is. Death is not a villain, but an antagonist, because a villain and an antagonist are two different circles that sometimes overlap, but do not have to.

So, let’s talk about an antagonist, and what makes a character one. Then, we’ll talk about what makes a villain (though yes, this is a topic we’ve discussed before—Sands, we’ve even discussed today’s topic before), and how these two spheres can overlap. And we’ll discuss what makes The Last Wish‘s Death one, but not the other.

So … What is an antagonist? The definition of an antagonist is a character who actively opposes our protagonist.

That’s it. Straight, plain, and simple. If a character gets in our protagonist’s way and works against them, that makes them an antagonist.

Note that this can be done openly or from the shadows, and that a story can have multiple antagonists. In addition, antagonists can become protagonists. For example, if our protagonist is beset by a band of hired blades who bear no personal grudge against the protagonist, but have been hired by someone lurking in the shadows to stop the protagonist. Well, those hired blades are antagonists, as they are working against the purposes of our protagonist.

But then let us go a step further. The “man behind the curtain” is revealed to be a betrayer among the protagonist group of friends, who has secretly been working against them the whole time to accomplish some aim. That makes them a revealed antagonist. Meanwhile, the protagonist looks at the hired blades and says “Hey, how much are you being paid? I’ll double it if you aid me.” and suddenly the antagonist group of blades are no longer antagonists, since they’re now aiding our protag. Or even just stepping out of the way.

A good way to think of it is this: Is this character antagonizing the protagonists in some significant, deliberate way? That second bit is key, as after all a poor old woman who accidentally cuts the protagonist off isn’t deliberately antagonizing them. The action is unintentional, even though it can be detrimental to the protagonist. But if the act is intentional, with the aim of opposing our protagonist in some way, that makes that character an antagonist.

Okay, but what about villain. What makes a villain different from an antagonist? Well again, we’ve discussed this before, but a villain is someone who acts in a way that is morally wrong to a significant degree. This does mean that in order to have a villain, you must have some semblance of right and wrong in your story (and we’ve talked about that before too).

This doesn’t mean that a villain necessarily believes that they are acting in the moral wrong, but it also is not a requirement that they have that belief. To use a counterpart from the same film (The Last Wish), Jack Horner is a completely unrepentant villain, and even better 100% states that he is the villain and doing horrible things, but doesn’t care because it’s all about him.

But here’s the thing: Just because a character is a villain does not mean they will be an antagonist, and vice-versa. And we can find examples of that all across entertainment mediums. Sands, in one of the original posts on this topic I used the characters of Knuckles and Dr. Eggman from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, a Sega Genesis game with no dialogue. Knuckles is an antagonist through much of the story, working against the player, but with no wrong moral grounds to do so, since you are an intruder on the territory he is supposed to protect, and he’s upholding the code he was raised be. Meanwhile Dr. Eggman is both an antagonist and a villain, as he’s actively working against the protagonist and with openly cruel, malicious, and evil intent (AKA, steal something of great value Knuckles guards while he’s distracted and commit massive war and whatnot for personal gain).

You can have other versions of this as well. Shadow of an Empire has “the Boss” of a company town who is very clearly a villain, willing to abuse and commit all sorts of “questionable behavior” under the laws of Indrim in the name of keeping her power and wealth. At the same time, however, she does not oppose the protagonists in any way whatsoever, but actually aides them, if grudgingly, making her the opposite of an antagonist.

All these examples illustrate the venn diagram of the two. Some antagonists are villains, but not all antagonists. Some villains are antagonists, but not all villains. Either way you spin it, being a villain is a separate codifier from being an antagonist. Were this not true, we could not have villain protagonists.

Okay, as I’ve noted we’ve discussed all this before. But simply, an antagonist is someone who works actively against the protagonist, and a villain is someone who acts in a way that is morally wrong to a significant degree. The two can overlap, or they can stand independent.

So why is Death from The Last Wish not a villain? After all, he is literally trying to kill the protagonist. Is that murder?

Is it murder when a storm causes the death of someone? See, the thing a lot of folks who are making those clickbait videos are missing is that Death isn’t quite a “person,” though he has a personification. He’s death, a natural part of existence. A force of nature. Puss, the protagonist, has mocked the idea of dying through eight lives while mocking death itself, finds himself at the end of the reaper’s blade when Death passes judgement and finds Puss guilty of wasting the experience of life. Puss then attempts to cheat Death by finding the wishing star.

Does that make Puss a villain? I’d argue no, but it also doesn’t make Death one either. Death is, quite literally, being death, something that Puss nor any other character can run from, but must face. And while Death clearly relishes his acting against Puss in this fashion, coming to collect Puss’ last life, it’s only because Puss has so frivolously wasted his lives and mocked Death time and time again that has brought them to this collision. Death has been slighted by Puss, and now he has come to collect his final, unavoidable due.

Now, if we look at the other antagonists of the story, they’re clearly villains. Goldie is literally the brains of a small-time crime family, taking jobs of theft, shakedowns, and other illicit activity. While she’s a sympathetic one, with a great character arc and a pretty heartwarming ending, that doesn’t change the fact that she and her family are a group of killers who operate outside the law and are willing to hurt and kill anyone who gets in their way.

And then Jack Horner … Well, he is, as the movie puts it (and Jack himself agrees), an irredeemable monster. He is very much a villain, and in part so fun to watch because of how sociopathicly immoral he is about, well, everything. He is a villain, and he states it and revels in it. No sympathy at all.

But Death? Death is claiming his due. He opposes Puss through the movie, and pursues and even toys with him in masterfully done scenes. He’s clearly a lover of the dramatic … but then so is Puss. Puss is just unused to having his own boasts and taunts finally catch up with him and being on the receiving end for once.

Furthermore, Death relents once Puss proved he has changed. The moment he faces Death with dignity and proves that he has learned to value what he has, accepting that Death will come for him, Death acknowledges that his judgement is no longer relevant and departs, but not before checking to make sure that Puss understands that it is inevitable that they will meet again.

Along the way, Death never harms, nor attacks, nor blocks anyone else. He doesn’t wish to let them interfere with his purpose, but unlike Goldie or Jack Horner, he respects them and bears no ill-will.

Death is an antagonist, come to claim, but not a villain.

Now, with this all said, I will once again repeat what was said the last time we discussed this matter: Why is this conext important. Who cares of someone is a villain or an antagonist? Why not just use one in place of the other?

Well, because knowing what makes one and not the other is important when we wish to convey or create a story of our own. As this fun advertisement illustrates, not understanding the difference between two thing that are similar, but not the same, can led to complications.

Now, that advertisement may be pretty funny, but consider your own story being in the same position. Imagine pitching it to a publisher, or an agent, or a reader, only for them to find that what you said the story was and what it actually was were very different things. Because you can’t pitch your story of “A hero goes up against a very powerful villain” only for the reader to find that there’s no hero and no villain, just two characters very opposed to one another, and not have the audience take a step back and reconsider.

It’s important when working out your story as well, because you’ll need to understand the roles in order to better make use of them, but also to figure out who your audience is and explain things to that audience. Knowing what goes into a role, and how that role is defined in its use, is useful to you in analyzing where a role may best fit in your story, in planning for how you may use, subvert, or even sidestep a traditional position.

Furthermore, if you hold that an antagonist is always a villain, your own story may use dialogue or treat characters in a simplistic or even broken manner that will knock your readers back, acting as a strike against their enjoyment of the story when a character who is clearly not villainous at all is declared by the story and characters to be such simply for incidentally being in the protagonist’s way.

Yes, I’ve actually run across and read stories like this. And yes, they were often very blind to the fact that the creator’s lack of understanding of what made a character role a role led to a protagonist that behaved like a sociopath and seemed to have no grasp of right or wrong.

So, the takeaway is simple: A villain and an antagonist are two different, distinct roles from one another that can overlap, but are not automatically linked. An villain is a character who acts in a morally wrong manner to a significant degree, while an antagonist is a character that opposes the protagonist in some manner. A character can be both, but also can be one or the other, or niether.

Knowing what these roles are, and what they do, is key to using them properly and assigning said roles to our characters. If we do not, or if we conflate them, we risk our story being conflated and smeared together, as roles, their actions, and the consequences begin to lose meaning or fall into simplistic setups and solutions.

So, as with the difference between a hero and an protagonist, keep the difference between an antagonist and a villain clear in your mind as you write, create, and assign roles. It may seem like nuance, but it’s “nuance” like that that enriches stories and narratives and builds a world of characters that are more than just cut and dry binary stereotypes.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Oh, and don’t forget that you can leave questions and comments below, or that Being a Better Writer and Unusual Things is kept advertisement free thanks to the donations of our Patreon Supporter crew: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Lightwind, Boomer, Piiec, Wisehart, and Taylor!

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