Merriam Webster defines an antagonist as, “one that contends with or opposes another,” and lists “adversary” and “opponent” as synonyms.
Oxford defines the term as, “a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.”
Of course in a literary context, an antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. I recall learning in high school English that there are six possible types: character, nature, society, self, machine, and supernatural. And within a story or novel there doesn’t just have to be one type. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi*, for example, protagonist Pi Patel arguably has to contend with all six.
But I’m not going to talk about the weather.
For the purposes of this post I’m focusing on the antagonist as a character (which, in SFF works, could involve elements of society, machines, or the supernatural) and, in particular, the type of antagonist that appeals most to me.
What’s notable about the definitions above is the lack of a defining moral disposition. An antagonist isn’t necessarily evil or the “bad guy,” but at the most basic level is a simply character who opposes another character, usually the protagonist.
We’ve all heard that moustache-twirling, evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil, villains are the most boring and trite types of antagonists, and I have to agree. I think this is because they are simple plot devices inserted to thwart the protagonist at every turn, unwavering in this pursuit, and lack relatable human depth. Real people have complex motivations for their actions, and a multitude of competing concerns, and the same should be true of fictional characters if they are to be believable. If an antagonist’s sole preoccupation in life is to take down the protagonist, there’d better be a good reason for this vendetta.
There are probably hundreds or thousands of examples of well-written antagonists, and it’s not easy to categorize them. Nevertheless, I’ve lumped them into a few major groups, below.
What I’ll call “rational antagonists” act on well thought out agendas and believe they’re in the right. Indeed, if we were given the benefit of their point-of-view, we would likely agree (sometimes both sides can be right). They’re oppositional but not evil. In “10 Movie Villains Who Really Weren’t Really Bad,” WHATCULTURE! cites the replicants in Blade Runner as an example, pointing out that these newly sentient beings seek merely to survive. Who can fault them for that? Arguably it is the humans who are the real villains in that story. A more amusing example is the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who’s just trying to enforce school rules and ensure a student’s attendance, after all.
Another common type of antagonist is the sociopath. They can be amoral or persistently immoral (i.e. villainous) but are still interesting, often because of their high intellect and/or grossly antisocial behavior or strange codes. There’s a certain morbid curiosity about their doings. Thomas Harris’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter or the “Tooth Fairy” (Francis Dolarhyde) are examples of this type.
But here’s the thing: rational antagonists and sociopaths are, to some degree, predictable. Once you understand their underlying motivations, you can see their endgame. They’re unlikely to change (not that a rational antagonist can’t change her mind, but she will do so when convinced of facts that contradict her view, which is entirely within character—think Pamela Landy in the Bourne movies). Tension in stories featuring these types of antagonists will often be achieved through plot, rather than character development.
The type of antagonist that I’m most drawn to, and that just might steal the story out from under a bland protagonist, is the conflicted antagonist. This type of antagonist may or may not be rational, but definitely does bad things—sometimes very bad things—but, unlike a sociopath, experiences at least some small measure of angst.
These are complex, fully rounded characters, with often tragic backstories. There is a seed of good in them, or an echo of former innocence, or a smattering of heroic qualities existing beside the darker ones. Sometimes they act in pursuit of their misguided agenda; sometimes not. There are moments of guilt, hints of compassion, and times when their interests or sympathies or align with those of the protagonist. They are not all bad.
This inevitably ignites in me a sense of hope, that they will veer away from the path they’ve chosen, will do the right thing, or will end up helping the protagonist in some way. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t; in a way the outcome doesn’t matter. Their internal struggle is the stuff of high conflict, giving rise to significant tension that keeps me reading until the last page.
Examples of conflicted antagonists that I find compelling are Gollum (a pitiful being corrupted and enslaved by a powerful ring—an antagonist itself—but also showing glimmers of Sméagol, his former river hobbit self), Prince Zuko (an angry young man seeking his father’s love and approval, and also a sense of identity, while having to contend with persistent doubts fuelled by his uncle and mentor, Iroh**), and Jaime and Cersei Lannister (incestuous lovers, and brilliant and ruthless schemers who lust after power and push children from windows, yet who are capable of love, compassion, and heroism).
These antagonists are repellent and infuriating, yet riveting. They are unpredictable and capable of change and that, to me, makes them the most compelling opponents.
What about you? Do you agree? Who are your favorite antagonists and why?
* Yes, I had to get a plug in for my favorite book and movie!
** Making him more interesting than his single-minded sister and fellow antagonist, Princess Azula.