Several times lately I’ve seen various writing friends refer to their baddies (and I am giggling because a certain writing friend has threatened to disown me for saying the word “baddie”) as antagonists and villains as though they were interchangeable. This is, sadly, not always true.
Yes, Virginia, there is a difference.
First let’s see what the great Merriam Webster website has to say about each:
Antagonist – a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.
Villain – a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.
Let’s look at the antagonist first, shall we? I will take the deafening silence as a yes and dive right in.
An antagonist is often bad, but not always evil. An antagonist has one job and that is to stop the protagonist(s) from accomplishing their goal. Most of the time they employ less than admirable techniques to achieve this, but not always. Inspector Javert from “Les Miserables” is a prime example. As is Elsa from “Frozen,” who probably has just a bit more recognizability than ole Javert. Neither are inherently evil (and in the case of Elsa, she is rather lovable) and they have redeeming qualities – as all antagonists should, but we will discuss that at a later date – but their primary purpose is to prevent the protagonist from getting what they want/need to do.
With me so far? Great!
Let’s move along to villains. A villain is evil and is necessary to the plot… but does not necessarily work in opposition to the protagonist. In fact the villain can be a protagonist. Major head canon moment, amirite? One word, folks: Dexter. Not a villain? Come on, guys, he is a sociopathic serial killer (albeit, a killer of bad guys who get away, but I digress), but he is a villain you root for. A villain you love. I mean… come on…
Wait, what were we talking about?
Oh. Right. Villains. Of course you have your antagonist villains that we are all familiar with as well, but keep in mind that they are not mutually exclusive. There is also the very complicated villain that is both a protagonist and antagonist. Prime example is my beloved and darling Harley Quinn. She is psychotic, she is deranged, but I adore her. And depending on which film you watch her in she is either the one you root for or the one you can’t wait to see fail.
Hopefully this clears up any confusion and helps you identify your characters a little better.