Understanding the difference between an antagonist and a villain is a bit of a tricky thing to do.
While a villain can most certainly be the antagonist of a story, not all antagonists are villains.
The simplest way to define them is this: The antagonist opposes or works against the main character. A villain is a bad guy who will always be bad, regardless of who the protagonist is.
This article will explain the difference between antagonist vs villain and provide examples usually read and seen in literature and film.
Sometimes, the main character is not a nice person. Sometimes, the main character is downright evil. In these stories, you have villain protagonists, and the main antagonist is whoever is in their way the most or opposes them the most.
In Cruella, for example, the main characters are thieves who live together.
While she is not a full-fledged evil character type from the beginning, Cruella quickly becomes that way to move the story forward in her quest for power and revenge against her boss, her birth mother.
The viewer roots for her, even though she gets crueler and engages in more evil actions as the story goes on.
2. Darth Vader
We see another example of this in Star Wars.
Darth Vader is a cruel and malicious person who is the main character type rather than a supporting character, and his need for power and control over everything drives the story forward.
Other characters seem to exist for the sole purpose of either helping or stopping him from accomplishing his evil goals. Vader is an important evil character in Star Wars, especially since that franchise has far more than one antagonist.
In the book series, and the musical play inspired by it, Wicked, Elphaba is the wicked witch. Much like the Dalmatian-loving Cruella, she is not necessarily evil, to begin with.
While you cannot quite call her a good character at the start, due to unusual acts of violence and cruelty even as a child, her evil actions later in the book solidify her as a villain.
Villain Is Not a Plot Role
It is important to remember another big difference between an antagonist and a villain. An antagonist is a plot role, while a villain is a type of character.
You need to have some sort of antagonist for a story, even if it is not human. Antagonists exist to oppose and play against the protagonist.
A good example of this can be seen in Harry Potter, where there are many different antagonists throughout the book series.
From Snape to Draco Malfoy, the books are rife with antagonists working against Harry Potter out of their sheer dislike of him. The villain, however, is clearly Lord Voldemort, who will exist and be evil even if there is no Harry Potter.
A character who is a villain is just a character type. Just like “love interest” is a type of character. Or “faithful sidekick” is a character type.
If you want to be a good writer, make your antagonist a villain. Just evil through and through. They are great fun to write about, and there is rarely a limit to the depravity they are not capable of.
However, if you want to be a better writer, give your characters actual personality, motivation, and opinions, and write antagonists instead.
Once the reader has an antagonist to oppose the protagonist, they gain access to the opposing character’s actual motivations, making for a much more rewarding story than simply making the villain the antagonist.
Types of villains
There are many different types of villains to choose from to go up against your protagonist.
The pros of writing a villain as a character against the protagonist are that the reader will always side with the hero, as a villain has no redeeming qualities.
The following are just a few of the different types of villains in literature and film.
This villain does not seem all that bad at first glance. They can pull the bait and switch and look fairly normal and composed.
A few examples of this type include Norman Bates from Psycho, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, and Vincent from Pulp Fiction. They seem like ordinary people, but they are not.
They are basically all bad to the very core, and the protagonist often does not know that until it is almost too late.
This is the villain in charge, and they terrorize those they are in charge of.
Severus Snape in Harry Potter is mean to almost everyone. Madame Trunchbull from Matilda is the principal of a school who threatens all of the students. Thanos holds the key to existence in the Infinity Stones and does not care who lives and dies.
These are the characters in charge of something that gain an elevated sense of evil because they have power on top of being bad.
This is the non-human villain: It is the shark in Jaws. It is Pennywise in IT. It is Cujo in, well, Cujo.
The sole focus of these things that are not human is to injure, destroy, kill, and cause pain. They are not particularly specific as to who it is they terrorize. It is simply in their nature to wreak havoc.
Often, the protagonist is simply there to attempt to survive. You see this sort of villain a lot in the horror genre.
Types of Antagonists
A worthy antagonist enhances the protagonist because they are two opposing sides or forces with reasons, opinions, and motivations.
These are simply two characters who rub each other the wrong way and end up clashing against each other. They do not both have to be evil.
There are four main types of antagonists. One of them is villains, and since they have been discussed at length, we will move on and discuss the other three.
1. Creators of Conflict
Captain Hook is an antagonist, but is he really all that bad?
If you base your opinion on the Disney movie, then no, not really. He is just an adult missing a hand, relentlessly mocked and followed by the animal that took it.
He is constantly annoyed and harassed by a forever-child who rubs in his face and who can have fun all day and never get old.
Some antagonists are just people who stir the pot or throw a wrench into the works. They are often in competition with or on the opposing side of the protagonist, so they become the antagonist, almost by default.
2. Non-Human Forces
The tornado in the movie Twister. The island in the movie Castaway. The virus that kills almost everyone on the planet in The Stand.
These are inanimate forces that the protagonist must deal with but cannot directly fight. The protagonist cannot do much in a story with a non-human antagonist but tries to survive most of the time.
3. The Protagonist
This is the character who is his own worst enemy somehow. It is the main character with a clear goal, but because of their personal issues and weaknesses, they get in their own way, sabotage other characters, and negatively impact the plot.
This type of character can play either a protagonist or an antagonist. This is a character who actively opposes justice at times due to a selfish motivation. They are similar in nature and can even be cast as anti-heroes, but they are not always the same.
Harold Lauder, from The Stand, for instance, is one such character.
A good person whose deep insecurities lead him down the wrong path. By the time he realizes that he has ruined everything for everyone he cares about, including himself, there is nothing he can do to rectify the situation. He started out as a good guy that the reader feels good about and ends up being his own worst adversary.
Types of Protagonist
Every novel has a protagonist, and most people who read do not overthink about there being different types of characters for this role. The following are just a few of the different types of protagonists that exist.
1. Hero Protagonist
This is the character who always has brave words and actions. Always willing to fight injustice and crime and do what is right.
The point of these characters is to represent absolute goodness and hope and to give the antagonist a force to reckon with as an opponent of a hero.
Luke Skywalker could have just stayed on Tatooine and told Obi-Wan to take a hike. Harry Potter could have told Dumbledore to deal with Voldemort himself. Superman could have decided humans were not worth the trouble and just did his own thing rather than save the regular folks.
2. Anti-Hero Protagonist
Most of the time, this character does the right thing, but it just works out that way coincidentally.
Batman is the perfect example. Driven by revenge, he is a vigilante, not a hero. He wants revenge for his parents’ murder, not world peace.
It is important to understand the difference between the villain and the antagonist, as well as the different types within each, especially when it comes to writing your own story. Being aware of the nuances will help in creating compelling characters and later on, in the character development.