The word villain traditionally summons up a certain image. We often think of someone in a black cape. Someone laughing manically while swirling their red wine from a comfy chair. They order the death or banishment of anyone who even mildly displeases them.
Many of them are more complex, with deep, tragic backstories and insecurities. They can, and should to at least some degree, be actual relatable characters. One of the most basic elements of villainy, no matter how complex or sympathetic, is antagonizing the heroes in some way. If the villains aren’t firmly standing between the heroes and their goals, then they’re just not doing their job!
Although, any character who gets in the way of a hero is not necessarily a villain. To put it in a straightforward way, villains are always antagonists, but antagonists aren’t always villains. What’s the difference between the two? Well, to answer that, we need to look at what makes a villain.
One of the most iconic characters in popular media largely fits with the above description of a villain.
(He’s wearing nothing but black, and his cape is the ominously in the wind. That’s how you tell he’s the bad guy. Image from Soul Caliber 4.)
In 1977, audiences first heard that deep, rasping breath as Darth Vader sauntered into the aftermath of a space battle and casually took in the destruction. Since then, the black-clad figure who is “more machine than man” has become one of the most iconic villains in pop culture.
Throughout the Original Trilogy, he is known for killing of subordinates like flies and choking even the higher-ranking members of the Empire over philosophical disagreements. He killed countless innocent people, tortured many, and cut off his own son’s hand. He represents the treat the Empire poses in marketing materials.
George Lucas once said in an interview that children enjoy Darth Vader’s character because he represents power, whereas children have very little. So, we’ve established that the two things that make Darth Vader a villain is that he’s powerful and malicious. However, this imposing figure of doom becomes a little more complex throughout the trilogy.
It isn’t until the second act of The Empire Strikes Back, (1980) that we see a less threatening, subservient Darth Vader. This is when the audience gets their first glimpse of Emperor Palpatine. He bows low in reverence, and for the first time, he is not the (or at least one of) the most powerful people in the room.
(Like Darth Vader, Palpatine isn’t what you would call a good boss. Image from the remastered version of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.)
Darth Vader suggesting they turn Luke to their side seems like an oddly merciful suggestion for someone who makes a habit of choking anyone who so much as annoys him. Then, (Spoilers?) we learn that Darth Vader was Luke’s Father all along! He was the hero of the Clone Wars and close friend that Obi-Wan spoke so highly of in A New Hope.
Luke (and the audiences) perception of Darth Vader is turned upside down. Both the characters and movie-goers have time to come to terms with this revelation. It becomes clearer than ever before in Return of the Jedi (1983) that Darth Vader is actually a sad, lost man. He’s trapped in slavery to an Emperor who grants him power over his Empire while he’s absent.
“It is … too late for me.” He admits mournfully as Luke tries to save the former Jedi from his current life of enslavement. After a lightsabre fight and a lot of electricity is thrown around, Darth Vader decides to turn on his master and save his son, sealing his redemption.
Of course, no look at Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker would be complete without turning to the heavily criticised Prequel Trilogy. Its entire purpose was to contextualise the fall of Anakin, and subsequent transformation into Darth Vader. In The Phantom Menace, (1999) we meet an innocent child makes robot and asks pretty girls if they’re angels. He was born into slavery and acts disturbingly casual about the fact any attempts to escape a life of slavery result in being blown to pieces.
(Shadows of things to come. Image from Star Wars: The Phantom menace official poster.)
The later parts of the Star Wars franchise go out of their way to make Anakin a relatable, sympathetic character. He is fleshed out far beyond just a threatening mechanical figure, showing that his life bound to the Empire and Palpatine has broken him.
Does this make him any less of a villain? His actions as Darth Vader make the answer a resounding … no.
Even though Palpatine manipulated Anakin, he still chose to serve the Empire. He made the choice to throw away the ultimately good-hearted person he was and followed a ruthless dictator in creating an imperialist regime. It might be a limited power, but he’s still powerful enough to make underlings quake in their boots, and malicious enough to kill even innocent people.
So, we’ve established that Darth Vader fits the role of villain because of his power and malice, even though his situation is more complex than we first thought. Then what makes a character an antagonist/someone who gives the protagonists a hard time, without actually being villains?
To answer that, we’re now going to turn to an anime/manga, and look at one of the most complex, well-developed characters in a series that’s full of them. I’m of course talking about Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist (manga: 2001-210)
(The power of destruction. Screenshot taken from FMA: Brotherhood.)
For a man known as a serial who chases down our hero and nearly murders him, Scar’s first scene makes him surprisingly sympathetic. After he kills the State Alchemist, Shou Tucker, Scar stumbles on the sick alchemical experiment he performed on his own daughter.
Disgusted and angered by the cruelty of this act, Scar decides to commit a mercy killing. While harsh, it was clear this action came from a real sense of pity. When Scar does chase Ed and Al into a dark alley, he agrees to let Al live as long as he doesn’t interfere. Again, not the most stellar of actions, but he’s already shown that’s he’s capable of some semblance of restraint, nobility and compassion.
And it’s not long until finding out the backstory of this nameless, sunglasses-wearing man. His people, the Ishvalans, were massacred during the Ishval Civil War. State Alchemists were at the vanguard during King Bradley’s campaign to eradicate all Ishvalans. They were responsible for the destruction of his home, the death of his brother, and the gradual death of his culture.
Going after State Alchemists who played no part in the Ishvalan massacre isn’t exactly moral, but he is kept in check by some sense of nobility. He shows a great deal of compassion towards others who are alone and struggling to make life better for their people. He takes to the lone Xingese girls searching for a way to provide for her clan very quickly, empathising with her situation and going out of his way to help her.
(He just wants to pet the cute panda. Image taken from FMA: Brotherhood.)
Scar stands in the way of the Elric Brothers’ goal of regaining their bodies by seeking revenge on all State Alchemists. But he lacks the traits that made Darth Vader a classic villain: malice and power.
Scar is deeply conflicted over his vengeful actions and is capable of showing mercy before deciding to abandon revenge altogether. As a disenfranchised warrior monk from a dying culture and people Scar doesn’t have a great deal of power. He’s a member of a race that was subject to a brutally methodical attempted genocide. He was hopelessly lashing out at the imperialistic system responsible for it. “Nothing can bring my brother and Ishval back.”
Even if he had unexpected limitations, Darth Vader was still a figure of great power. The Empire is cold and mechanical with Darth Vader as a representative of that system. Ametris’ representative, King Bradley is a seemingly kooky and kindly old man. However, Bradley is not entirely human either, in fact, he embodies the sin of wrath. His power is also limited when you scratch beneath the surface, and he has absolutely no moral reservations about committing atrocities in the name of the authority he serves.
Scar abandons revenge altogether eventually and fittingly taking on Wrath. He uses both sides of his brother’s research to Amestris from the head villain of FMA, the murderous and controlling Father. He learns to use reconstruction alchemy alongside the deconstructive side, showing that he’s in a much better, much healthier place as a person. At this point, I think we can safely say that Scar falls into the category of antagonist, and not a villain.
(Scar takes on the personification of Wrath, who ordered the genocide of his people so he can save everyone. Screenshot taken from FMA: Brotherhood.)
For our final example of antagonists, we’ll turn to dark magical girls. Yes, we started at Darth Vader and finished with the magical girl genre. Dark magical girls are there to stop the good-hearted magical girls from achieving their aims, which usually start out as collecting MacGuffins and end in trying to help the Dark Magical Girl.
(The girl on the right just wants to help the girl with the sad eyes on the left. Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha official art.)
These dark magical girls have nothing in particular against the magical girls. They might even be tempted by the idea of a friendship with them. However, their villainous, abusive parental-figures prevent their children from having a life outside the mission they’ve been assigned.
And dark magical girl’s are always children, which makes them powerless and without agency by default. They haven’t had the chance to grow up and decide the kind of person they’re going to be. Fate and Rue from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (2004 – Present) and Princess Tutu (2001) respectively, are children who persistently made to feel as though they are unloved and unlovable.
Fate is a clone of a girl who died in a tragic accident, and couldn’t be as perfect a replica as her Mother wanted. The girl is forced to collect magic relics for her Mother that will grant any wish, and Fate obsessively pursues this goal, thinking she will be accepted once she’s collected them all. Of course, this never happens.
Rue is a prima donna ballerina admired by the student body but has no real friends. Rue begins to form an awkward and tentatively sweet friendship with Ahiru/Duck, the main protagonist. However, she’s the daughter of the evil Raven, and the enemy of Princess Tutu, Ahiru’s alter ego. Or at least, that’s who she’s told she is by Drosselmeyer, the man who wrote her story, and her Father. Throughout the series, Rue struggles with her identity, asking on more than one occasion, “Who am I?”
It’s only with the help and care of the protagonist, as well as the other heroes, that they come to see their own worth. They eventually leave their abusers to discover their own identities, no longer forced to do things that go against their natures.
(Is she the grumpy star ballerina, or the raven princess? It’s a trick question. Screenshots are from Princess Tutu.)
Unlike villains, antagonists aren’t sadists and don’t perform evil acts because it’s in their nature to do them. They lack the kind of power a villain has. Their actions won’t likely be entirely ethical, but they’re not coming from a place of pure malice or moral depravity. The moniker of villain implies evil and that there is real and unfettered intent to harm, kill and oppress.
It’s important to have both villains and antagonists in our stories. Both of them can reflect a depth and realness that resonates with people if done well.
Villains must have the ability to make the protagonists lives hell with a wave of their hand, and a willingness to do just that. Your antagonist will make life difficult for the protagonist, but not out of any desire or inclination to do so.