A Discussion on Antagonists

I am discussing antagonists today. I highly recommend you check out my YouTube video for this, as I feel the experience is more enjoyable there. If you’d rather read it, this is a cleaned-up version of the closed captions.

If you read my protagonist post, you know I didn’t have much to say because I don’t like a lot of protagonists. That won’t be the case this time because I love antagonists. I want to see well-developed antagonists. I like seeing their motivations. Why are they the bad guys? This is especially true for villains. What motivates them to do evil things? I also like seeing antagonists have redeeming qualities. No one is all evil, so I don’t want to see antagonists being completely evil. I want to see some redeeming qualities within them.

As a note, antagonists aren’t always evil villains. Sometimes they’re just the person in opposition to the protagonist. All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains.

I particularly like when villains have so many redeeming qualities that they become sympathetic. Their motivations are so well explained that you understand why they do what they do. That doesn’t mean you support what they do. You just understand them well enough that they become sympathetic, and those are my favorite kinds of villains.

With villains and antagonists, I think they are best when the reader doesn’t know who to root for. Sometimes the answer is obvious like if the antagonist is a villain, obviously you should root for the good guys because they’re not going around being evil. With non-evil antagonists, I think when both sides are so compelling that you don’t know which to root for is an indication of good writing. It’s also an indication that the antagonist has really good motivations, and remember, the antagonist or villain is the protagonist of their own story, so if you take it from that perspective and you develop villains and antagonists that way, it makes them far more interesting and compelling.

Now in terms of redemption arcs—because I talked about corruption arcs before—there are really only two I’ve seen that I really like, and one is from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the other one is from Beyonders by Brandon Mull. I won’t say who either of the characters is because those are spoilers, but those are two that I really like. Pretty much any other redemption arc I have seen I have not been a huge fan of. I tend to like some characters better as bad guys than I do when they switch over to being good guys. I don’t like seeing a lot of bad guys go good for some reason. I don’t know why.

Now I’m going to give some examples of some of my favorite villains. I don’t have any general antagonists on my list. Then I will talk about some bad villains who aren’t well developed, and again they’re all villains, not general antagonists. Since I mostly read and watch fantasy, they’re all true villains because that’s typically what you see in that genre.

One example is Kylo Ren. I feel like Kylo Ren is really the one who made the sequel trilogy worth watching. Anything else in the sequel trilogy was not really worth watching, and I really like Kylo Ren’s character. I think we get lots of motivation for him. None of the other characters have motivations, but he does. He wants to be supreme leader, and then he has some redeeming qualities as well. He’s not all bad, and he’s really sympathetic as well. We don’t really get a whole lot into why he went evil, but we kind of understand what happened. He was being manipulated, and I think it’s enough, and so I think Kylo Ren is a really well-developed villain, and I absolutely love him. There are some other villains from Star Wars that I love as well, but Kylo Ren is definitely my favorite.

Another example would be from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that is Loki, and with Loki we do get all those motivations. I guess this is kind of spoilery, so if you don’t know much about Marvel and don’t want to be spoiled, maybe don’t watch this part of the video, but this is pretty common knowledge. Loki is the son of Laufey, who is king of the Odenheim. Loki thinks being the son of the king means he gets a throne as a birthright, and the fact that his adoptive father Odin keeps trying to give the throne to his biological son Thor really upsets Loki, so Loki keeps trying to get thrones in other ways. Plus Loki is a god, and he is the god of mischief and chaos, so Loki just kind of naturally has villainistic tendencies because of what he is the god of. He has those motivations, and it’s not just because he’s the god of chaos. He also has other motivations that play into that as well, and so I think that’s really well developed. He also has some redeeming qualities because there are several points across the movies where he behaves like a good guy, and he actually helps save people. He’s not always causing mischief, and I know he betrays people a lot and tries to kill people and things, but there are some moments where he actually acts in other people’s best interests. Now when he does this, I think he typically has an ulterior motive, but he still has some redeeming qualities, and he does help Thor sometimes, so he I think is a really well developed character, and I think that’s why so many people love Loki.

Another one that I really like—this one is not fantasy—is the Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera. His name, if you’ve read the book, is Eric, so I’m just gonna call him that for simplicity’s sake, and Eric I think has a lot of motivations as well. He had a really tough childhood because half of his face is disfigured, and so he just wants love, and because he wasn’t raised really by anyone—I mean, he grew up in a circus as a circus freak—he doesn’t really know the difference between right and wrong, and so I don’t think he really understands that what he’s doing with Christine is considered wrong. He’s really sympathetic. We can understand why he feels the way he does, and he really isn’t cruel to Christine herself. I mean, he does do some things that are not super great, but she’s not really in danger with him (though one could make an argument about potential rape if the story had gone in a different direction). Whereas the other characters are in danger because they are a threat to him, especially Raoul, and so I find the Phantom to be really sympathetic and compelling as a character, and he’s my favorite character in The Phantom of the Opera.

The next one is a spoiler. If you haven’t read Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo or seen the Netflix show, skip this section. I know this is becoming more common knowledge because the show just came out, but if you don’t know who the antagonist is and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read this section. The antagonist in Shadow and Bone is the Darkling, and he has really strong motivations as well because he has lived for a really, really long time, and he has seen the Grisha—the people with magical powers—being discriminated against by normal people, and he is tired of it. He’s done with it. He wants to rebuild the country with the Grisha in control, so that they are not being discriminated against and hunted for their powers, and so that’s pretty compelling. Now the way he goes about attaining this goal is not super great because he ends up killing a ton of people in the process, but we understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, and he has a lot of redeeming qualities like he truly cares about Alina, and I personally don’t think she was ever in danger with him. I don’t know that he actually would have physically harmed her. He threatens to all the time, and that’s really toxic, but I don’t know that he would actually follow through.

I know there are a lot of people who ship the Darkling and Alina, but it would still be incredibly toxic because he’s a terrible person and kills people and threatens her, and it doesn’t matter whether or not he follows through with the threats. The fact that he threatens her is a problem, so while I love the Darkling and he’s my favorite villain of all time because he’s so sympathetic, I don’t think it’s good to romanticize him and make him seem like he’s a better fit for Alina than the other characters. This will get kind of into spoilers for the later books, so if you don’t want to be spoiled for those, skip ahead, but Mal is really toxic as well because he keeps telling Alina that he wants the girl that she was before and not the one she is now, and I don’t think that’s okay at all. Really out of all the guys she has to choose from, I think Nikolai is the best match because Nikolai is never toxic or abusive around Alina, and I know she doesn’t care about him like she did about the Darkling and does about Mal, but I think Nikolai would have been the best choice for her in terms of not being in a toxic or abusive relationship. What I also really like about the Darkling is that Alina realizes there is still some good in him. He’s just lonely and just trying to do good for his people, and she understands that, but she also understands that he is a villain and needs to be stopped, and so I really, really love the character development with the Darkling.

The next three I’m going to talk about are from Disney, so one is live-action Jafar. With the animated Jafar, we really don’t get as much of his backstory and development, and so I don’t think I can really categorize him here, but with live-action Jafar, we know a lot about his motivations, and he is tired of being second best. He’s pretty power hungry. He wants to be the person in power, and he wants to attack the country Shirabad, and he said something about being in one of their jails for five years, and so you can see there’s some history there that explains why he wants to attack them. His motivations aren’t fantastic, but they’re better than a lot of other villains, and so I really like his development within that film.

Another one that I really like from Disney is Gaston, and I think this one can apply to both the animated and the live action, and he’s just a narcissist. He’s not evil for the sake of evil. He just has narcissism, and he wants to marry the most beautiful woman in town, which happens to be Belle. That’s his motivation, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to woo and marry her. I really like his development in the live action because we really see him manipulating people to get what he wants, and I think that’s really interesting, so I find him pretty compelling. I think I find him a little bit more compelling in the live action just because we get more of his motivations and see more of him working toward his goal. That’s the thing with antagonists. They tend to be really proactive, and we see a lot of agency with them. You really don’t see agency issues with antagonists. You see them more with protagonists, and so that’s what I really love about villains, too, is they have goals, and they actively work toward them.

The last one I want to talk about in terms of good examples is Maleficent. Now Maleficent on her own in either film, whether it’s the film Maleficent or the animated Sleeping Beauty, is not well developed, but if you combine the information from the two, I think she’s better developed In Maleficent, you see her background. You see why it is that she goes dark, and those motivations are amazing. I don’t like what that film changed about her character. I like her as a villain. In Sleeping Beauty, I like seeing her with her goal she’s trying to attain. She’s kind of evil for the sake of evil, but when you take that motivation of King Stephen betraying her, that’s really interesting, and I think that would be good enough motivation to make that animated Maleficent really great. Again, without combining those two movies, Maleficent isn’t super great, but I think once those two movies are combined keeping the motivations from Maleficent and then the characterization from the animated film, I think she’s a really great villain. Maleficent is my favorite female villain because all the rest that I listed are guys.

In terms of villains that aren’t super well developed, the ones I can think of come from two franchises. One is The Lord of the Rings. I know in The Silmarillion we learn more about Sauron’s motivations, but that information does not make it into The Lord of the Rings. I can’t remember exactly what his motivations are, but I think they still go into evil for the sake of evil, and that’s just not super compelling. Sauron also doesn’t have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Same thing with Saruman. We don’t know why Saruman does what he does, and he doesn’t have any redeeming qualities either, so I don’t think either one of them is particularly well developed, and I don’t find them super compelling. I think I would love The Lord of the Rings a lot more if we had some really well-developed villains within it. Really the most compelling villain in The Lord of the Rings is Gollum because he’s better developed.

The other one is Harry Potter. We really don’t get motivations for any of the villains. We don’t get them for Voldemort, the Death Eaters, or Umbridge. I want to know what their motivations are, and I also want to see some redeeming qualities within them as well because we don’t. I think Harry Potter would also be way more compelling if we saw motivations within these antagonists in the story. I can’t think of any other stories I’ve read that have terrible villains. Any sort of villain that’s just evil for the sake of evil, I’m not going to enjoy very much because they are not well developed.

That’s all I have on villains. Like I said, I had a lot more content for this one because I love lots and lots of villains, and I don’t love lots and lots of protagonists, so that’s what I have. Let me know in the comments down below who your favorite antagonist is and who your least favorite antagonist is. I am interested to see your thoughts.

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