Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Antagonists, Villains, and Antiheroes

Antagonists are usually thought of as villains, but that’s not always the case. In fact, antagonist, by definition, means opponent, and our opponents aren’t always evil. Villains, on the other hand, are always evil. Then we have the antihero, who for the most part is a good guy fighting bad guys by maybe questionable means. (Please note that I’m using “guy,” for gender simplicity. All references apply to females as well.) So let’s dissect these definitions and put faces to them.

I was just involved in a Facebook event for Kindle Scout winners, and one of the questions posed by the moderator asked who our favorite villain was. My answer, without hesitation, was Hannibal Lecter, from Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs.

I read the books and always ask myself what it is about Lecter that draws readers and viewers. Part of the visual is Anthony Hopkins, the charismatic actor who plays him, part is the excellent suspense woven into the book/movie, but a big part is the way Lecter is written. We hate him, yet we’re as fascinated by him as is the young FBI agent, Clarisse Starling, played in the movie by Jodie Foster. We admire his brilliance, but we’re also repulsed by his "Hannibal the Cannibal" persona and his manipulation of the reluctant woman he nevertheless captivates. Few villains on the page or on the screen have had such a lasting effect. (An interesting addendum is that most of the other authors at our Facebook event also answered Lecter.)

There are many books with evil characters wielding plenty of blood and gore, American Psycho by Bret Eason Ellis, for one, but, in my opinion, nothing compares to the German SS officer in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, who commits the purest, most evil act I’ve ever read or witnessed.
He’s the villain who forces Sophie to choose which one of her children will live and which one is to die. No blood, no gore, just psychological trauma. That scene haunts me still and I imagine haunts every person, parent or not.

As I mentioned, antagonists don’t have to be villains. They’re opponents, backstabbers, traitors, but they aren’t necessarily evil. The Hollywood classic, All About Eve,
is a perfect example of an antagonist/opponent, Eve, a Broadway ingénue who worms and manipulates her way into the good graces of the star only to stab her in the back for the lead role. The movie is sixty-five years old and holds up to this day.

There’s a long line of antiheroes both in books and in movies. Some are good guys doing bad things for the sake of country, a lover, or himself. Rick Blaine in Casablanca is my idea of a perfect antihero. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.
Steve McQueen (Bullitt, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair) and Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, The Hustler) epitomized the antiheroic characters who bucked the system in almost every role they played. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, James Garner as Maverick and in The Rockford Files, Sylvester Stalone as Rambo, and Hugh Laurie as House, all did creditable jobs as good guys willing to bend the rules, maybe even break them, maybe even kill. Those characters were antagonists to someone, whether the law, the military, or just “the man.”

Unfortunately, present-day equivalents are few. All the antiheroes these days, especially in movies, are comic book or dystopian characters come to life: Batman, Mad Max, Wolverine, Iron Man, and the characters of X-Men. The lack of originality in films and novels may be because producers and publishers feel safe regurgitating what’s worked in the recent past rather than take chances with something risky. It has fallen to indies, both in publishing and film making, to forge new paths.

Here are a few you might consider defining and where I believe the line starts to blur. Are the following antiheroes, Antagonists, or Downright Villains? Some are clearer than others.

Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—hacker extraordinaire, sociopath, but riveting. How would you define her?

Oskar Schindler: Nazi, war profiteer, complex and conflicted. Hero, villain, antihero?

Contrast Oskar with Amon Goeth in the same book. Definitely a villain.

Salieri vs. Mozart—Opponent/antagonist, or was he a villain too?

There’s no doubt we root for antiheroes. Why? Because they usually fight for the little guy. If they fight evil, they’re definitely heroes. If they take their quest too far, does that turn them into villains?

Who are your favorite villains, antagonists, or antiheroes in novels or on film/TV? Why? Have you written one you love? I have.

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. I loved the Dragon Tattoo series in spite of the poor writing because of the Lizbeth character. I was not so fond of Blomkvist. I think Lizbeth has to go down as my favorite antihero.

  2. I have all three books but I only read the first. I did, however, see both the Swedish and English versions of the books and loved them both. She's definitely an intriguing character. Wish I had written her.

  3. This is a great discussion, Polly. I really like the examples you've included. The villain in my current work is one I love to hate. I'm working hard to weave into the story some justification for his attitude of entitlement -- at least from his perspective. The reader may see it differently, as do I.

    1. Linda, they have to have some redeeming characteristic to make them believable. I try to do that too, but I have one character who is just plain evil. I do give him a father who let him get away with, murder, though. Literally murder.

  4. Rick Blaine is my all-time fav. I love antiheroes--all of the actors you listed (Newman, McQueen, etc.) were must-sees while growing up. Personally, I quit reading if the hero or villain are either too perfect or evil. I'm interested in realistic characters, not cartoons.

    1. Couldn't agree more, DV. Rick Blaine is the perfect antihero, yet he never gets so soft he ruins his image. What's the line? Something about, I'm the only person I care about? Yeah, right. Newman was the best, imo. Just something about that face.

  5. These were such great examples, Polly, and really helped define the difference between pure villains and antagonists.

    I, too, will never forget that moment in Sophie's Choice. I din't read the book, but the moment as portrayed by Meryl Streep will always stay in my mind. I think you also made a good point about how an actor can bring another dimension to characters that may not be there on paper.

  6. I have Sophie's Choice on my bookshelf, but I don't think I'll ever read it. Too depressing, and with all the turmoil in the country, I don't want to be depressed. Writers must give villains the same attention they give their heroes; otherwise, they're not real characters. I love me a good villain though. :-)

  7. Excellent examples, Polly! My favorite antihero/villain of the moment is Joe Goldberg, protagonist of Caroline Kepnes “You” Series. He’s an intelligent, good humored, oddly self-aware psychopath, with a talent for biting social criticism. Unlike most unreliable narrators, he comes with boy next door charm and a host of good intentions—apart from being an obsessive, manipulative serial killer.

    VR Barkowski

    1. Another VR recommendation. Your last one got me reading a series. I'm on six now. I'll have to look up this one. Sounds right up my alley.

  8. I also love anti-heroes, including Paul in your book, Indiscretion. There's just something exciting about a character that can move through impossible or complex situations and get things done through unorthodox and colorful methods, often with humor, and/or panache.

    1. Thanks for saying that, Mary. I love writing antiheroes, and I've written a few. The end justifies the means in many cases, but it can be tricky. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Wonderful essay, Polly. Thanks for the clarifications between these characters. A lot of writers confuse them, especially the antagonist and villain.

    The villain forces the protagonist to grow the most. If you write anything less than a three-dimensional villain, your protag will be dragged down to that level.

    My favorite on-screen dark character is Gul Dukat from "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." His characterization was so versatile that throughout the seven-year series, he shifted effortlessly between antagonist, villain, and antihero. It was fascinating to watch what the screenwriters did with him -- and the "dance" he did with Captain Sisko, his opponent and the main protagonist.

  10. I never watched that show on TV, Suzanne, but it sounds like great writing if a character can be all those things. A lesson for any writer who watched. I do think people think "antagonist" is always a bad guy where he/she or it can be anything that stands in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal. Thanks for your post.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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