Your villain is an antagonist, but your antagonist may not be a villain. Writers use these terms interchangeably, but if we take a closer look antagonists and villains are separate and serve different functions in a story.
Google’s online dictionary is a good starting place to identify the differences between the two roles:
noun: (in a film, novel, or play) a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.
"I have played more good guys than villains"
synonyms: criminal, lawbreaker, outlaw, offender, felon, convict, jailbird, malefactor, wrongdoer, black hat, supervillain.
noun: a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.
"he turned to confront his antagonist"
synonyms: adversary, opponent, enemy, foe, nemesis, rival, competitor, contender.
Within a story, the distinctions are based on the character's role. Author Annika Griffith nails it: the villain is a character type, and the antagonist is a plot role.
Let’s look at these distinctions in greater detail.
What is an antagonist?
An antagonist is a character who challenges your protagonist in the story. It’s that simple.
One story may have several antagonists. Antagonists create tension and keep readers reading.
The antagonist’s function in the plot is to cause trouble. You need antagonists in your story to build tension. When nothing happens and the protagonist has no challenges, there is no story. Antagonists are essential to your story framework.
Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, your antagonists are story-building tools to create pressure on the protagonist and constrict and thwart their planned action. The antagonist can be used to trigger situations that move the story forward.
When a plot contains several antagonists, you create several levels of tension. The levels are set by the degree to which each antagonist frustrates your protagonist.
Examples of antagonist roles in a story:
- The ex-spouse/significant other that shows up with a problem.
- The job partner who badmouths the protagonist.
- The neighbor or local resident who puts the make on your protagonist at inopportune moments.
- A crime suspect who holds back important information.
- A meddler who tries to make things better but complicates.
- The villain.
Antagonists are story tools designed to test your protagonist. The villain is the main antagonist.
Who is your villain?
The villain in your story is the character whose prime motivation is malicious destruction. The villain functions in the plot as the main antagonist. To build a strong and memorable villain, your character needs to be more than bad. The villain creates the ultimate challenge for the protagonist.
To make your villain a worthy opponent for your protagonist, you need to create a deep, rich character background. Don’t skimp. The villain is just as important as your protagonist.
Be sure to enrich your villain with these attributes:
- He or she is worthy enough to make your protagonist look good.
- His or her skills match or exceed your protagonist’s.
- He/she believes he/she is doing the right thing.
- He/she has characteristics that match your protagonist’s, but they are misguided.
Whatever attributes you give your villain, the character can’t be wimpy. He or she must be strong enough to challenge your protagonist. When they are matched, you create page-turning tension.
Depending on your genre, the story, and your vision you can add additional attributes to complicate your villain.
- The villain has a soft spot for children, kittens, people in distress, etc.
- The villain's internal principles guide him or her to be merciless, even to the innocent.
- The villain is proud.
- The villain is skilled at mistruths and deceit.
- The villain is manipulative.
- The villain is jealous of the hero.
As you add details to your villain, align them with the character you envision. Don’t pick attributes and traits willy-nilly. Create a coherent personality that grabs readers’ attention and keeps them interested with depth.
Sort your antagonists and create the villain
Antagonists are plot devices that create obstructions and challenges for your hero protagonist. You can have more than one antagonist in your story. But, the villain must remain the protagonist’s main opponent.
Once you have identified your antagonists and created a masterful villain, you will fill your story with obstructions and tensions that keep your readers engaged.