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What makes a Compelling Antagonist

Join us as we explore the prevalent representations of villains in literature and film. From the dark reflections of our protagonists to the heroes of their own story, let's explore the world of villainy in depth.

Antagonists can make or break a story. Make sure that yours suits the mould.

Hey, Authocrats! Joseph here.

I often like to remind myself that we are living in the age of nuanced storytelling. If a novel is going to stand out amongst the swathes of stories out there, then it is going to have to do something wholly different with the established framework in order to stand out in today’s saturated markets.

In other words, you have to put your own spin on the formula.

Heroes and villains… they’ve all been done before. The ancient Egyptians dreamt up the God Set to aggrivate the Sun God Ra long before the Greeks even began telling stories. Good, evil – it’s a matter of “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”

But don’t be dismayed. If anything, this is inspiration! Use it!

So, without further ado, here is a not at all comprehensive list of the various tropes of villainy expressed in storytelling thus far. Adapt one if you wish, or simply invert expectations and create a villain that defies all previous tropes.

The choice is yours, Authocrats. Choose wisely…

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The Dark Reflection

There’s a reason they are called “antagonists.”

Villains are a dark reflection of the protagonist in motivation and means. They are stubborn and un-moving, everything that the protagonist shouldn’t be.

Let’s use the first Iron Man (2008) film as an example.

As well as being a phenomenally well-written, character-driven first entry into the movie-going phenomenon that is the MCU, it is also a prime example of a villain that is the dark reflection of the hero.

The Ironmonger, A.K.A. Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, is everything that Tony Stark WAS. He’s a high-ranking and wealthy member of the weapon’s manufacturing elite without a care beyond his company’s yearly figures.

Obadiah Stane represents everything that Tony Stark left behind and rose above. He is a dark reflection of what our hero would be should he have not embarked on his hero’s journey in the first place.

That is what makes this film work. Ironmonger’s dark reflection of the protagonist serves to solidify the hero’s battle within himself. Stane is a villain that is the part of Tony he wished to quash. 

He is Tony.

There are plenty of representations of these types of villains in popular culture, so we’ve listed some of them with their heroic counterparts down below!

Ironmonger to Tony Stark – Iron Man
Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker – The Original Star Wars Trilogy
Voldemort to Harry Potter – The Harry Potter Series
Marley to Scrooge – A Christmas Carol
Sauron to Gandalf – The Lord of the Rings

And many, many more…

How to use it: Make sure that your Dark Reflection villain is thematically linked to your protagonist. Ensure that they are intrinsically linked to your protagonist’s moral struggle and urge them along their hero’s journey.

The Familial Connection

This is the second time I’m going to mention the Ancient Egyptians in this article, and with good reason!

Ever since the Osiris myth of Ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom mythology, there have been evil reflections of a noble sibling overthrowing a Kingdom and ruling as a tyrant.

To illustrate this, you have a positive parental figure, and a negative parental figure (a hero, and a dark refection villain, respectively.)

  • Ying & Yang
  • Cain & Abel
  • Osiris & Set
  • Heads & tails

The negative figure kills the positive one (in full view of our young protagonist) and takes over from him, thereby starting a whole cavalcade of events, and our story is born!

It’s only when the valiant nephew/ niece rises up against them that these evil aunts and uncles overthrown. Does this sound familiar fans of Hamlet and The Lion King? There are only so many stories in the world, after all!

The Familial Connection trope is a wonderful way of bringing emotional resonance to a character’s struggle. As with the Dark Reflection trope, the Familial Connection shows our hero what they could become should they chose the darker path.

The Lion King and the Osiris Myth

The Lion King is a wonderfully well-written film, for one primary reason: it was written thousands of years ago.

Well… not really, but the story’s premise has been around for thousands of years.

Back in Ancient Egypt, there was the tale of Osiris, Set and Horus (Mufasa, Scar and Simba respectively.) 

Set, being the Dark Reflection of the noble King Osiris, kills him and takes his Kingdom. Horus, Osiris’ son, then rises up after finding his inner strength (Hakuna Matata and all that) and overthrows his evil uncle to take back the Kingdom of Egypt.

Voila! We have a plot that stands the test of time. 

The Familial Connection is one of the most popular villainous tropes in literature and film, and I don’t see it going away any time soon!

Here’s a small list of good old fashioned evil uncles and family members!

Darth Vader – Father to Luke Skywalker – Star Wars
Scar – Uncle to Simba – The Lion King
King Orm – Brother to Aquaman – Aquaman Comics
Claudius – Uncle to Hamlet – Hamlet

There’s a lot of family issues here. Do let me know if you can think of any more!

How to use it: The Family connection isn’t going to go away anytime soon. It’s important not to veer into the realm of cliche, but appropriately utilising the familial connection can take your story to new emotional heights.

Good ol’ Fashioned Dastardly Trickery

Sometimes a villain can be nothing more than a Dick Dastardly and his Mutley sidekick firing obstacles at the protagonist for them to overcome.
If you understood that reference, I applaud you! 

This villain trope is usually associated with a protagonist who has nothing to offer but bulging muscles and damsels in distress.

Think He-Man and all that 80s nostalgia! Ooopf, love it!

However, sometimes a dastardly villain arises that is so tricksy and dastardly that they spin the protagonist’s world into a madhouse of unpredictability.

I am, of course, talking about the Joker to our Batman. I couldn’t possibly get away with not mentioning him, now, could I?

Enter the modern age of dastardly trickery!

The Joker is, quite possibly, one of the best villains in fiction. Regardless of his on-screen portrayals, the character of the Joker is one of the most well-developed and versatile of Batman’s Rogues Gallery.

He’s not a physical presence, necessarily, but he is a schemer, and he is unpredictable, let alone psychologically unstable.

The Joker is a combination of the Dark Reflection and the Dastardly Tricksy villain tropes. As well as being the agent of Chaos that he is, he is also the juxtaposition of Batman himself.

Such a character deserves his own time in the spotlight, so expect a full article on the Joker’s role in the evolution of villains in the near future!

For now, suffice to say, there is still room for a bit of dastardly trickery in modern storytelling… as long as you do it right!

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The Anti-Hero

Ahh, yes, now we have our Wolverines, our Deadpools and our Punishers!
Never has the anti-hero been a stronger presence in mainstream media than right now!

Just like the heroes of classical antiquity, modern day anti-heroes were ushered into our hearts, each with tragic flaws that limit them to villainy rather than fully-fledged protagonism.

Yes, I just coined the word ‘protagonism.’ It works…

Unlike the Fallen from Grace villains we’ll talk about in a moment, The Anti- Heroes have a character arc that is erring towards the heroic – putting aside their selfish ways in service of the greater good… or at least something serviceably not evil.

Where they occupy the position of evil-doer in most cases, they do not often serve the function of the villain in the storytelling framework.

Often holding a tragic past behind them, these would-be heroes are the ones with the biggest chance of redeeming themselves and overcoming their unhealthy tenancies in the meantime.

Here’s a shortlist of anti-heroes for you:

Wolverine and Magneto – X-men
Deadpool – Deadpool
Punisher – Daredevil
Boromir – The Lord of the Rings
Bronn – A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones)

Some get over their evil tendancies, some don’t. Some are simply flawed heroes. 

What I’m saying is that there is plenty of room for anti-heroes these days, especially those that put a new spin on that ‘morally grey’ area of storytelling ethics.

The Fallen from Grace

Oooh…I like to call these the Lucifers.

These are the Fallen Angels that were pushed to villainy by exterior forces either related or unrelated to the protagonist.

They are similar to the Anti-Hero in all but one regard: they are not always redeemable.

Whether rebelling against something they believe corrupt (I.E. Satan/ Lucifer/ Beelzebub etc, etc, titles, titles,) those that have Fallen from Grace are often too far gone to redeem. Some may have a last gasp and save that which they had so hated prior, but many will die for their beliefs.

Take everyone’s favourite Dark Lord, Sauron, for instance.

I apologise in advance for the Tolkien nerd tirade you are about to witness.
The Silmarillion tells us that once he was a Maiar (an ancient being, much like Gandalf) kind and fair. But when the Dark Lord Morgoth warped his mind, he became enamoured with the dark, taking on the names of Gorthaur and Sauron. Ever since then, Sauron fought against the forces of light.

Some would say that he was always destined to become a villain. Others could argue that he was nothing more than a victim of Morgoth’s corruption.

Regardless, the Fallen from Grace are often related to the Dark Reflections, and are indeed tragedies – victims of circumstance and sometimes just bad luck.

Here’s a little list of Fallen Angels in literature and film.

Lucifer – The Bible
Darth Vader – Star Wars
Sauron – The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings
Dr Faustus – Dr Faustus

Those poor, unfortunate souls…

The Heroes of their own Story

These are the worst villains of all.

Why, you may ask? Because they believe themselves right. No villain ever believed they were the villain. That is just a fact. Instead, they are saviours and they are martyrs, and that is what makes them so dangerous.

Let’s take Thanos, the Mad Titan from the Avenger’s films and Marvel’s exemplary comic books.

The element I find most fascinating about Avengers: Infinity War in particular, is in how the Avengers are not the true protagonists.

Thanos is the true Protagonist. Avengers: Infinity War is his story.

He undergoes the same story arc as many heroes over the course of the film, whereas all the Avengers do is try to stop him from achieving his goal – which he wholeheartedly believes is noble.

Over the course of the film, Thanos sacrifices that which he loves, heads up against insurmountable odds, and comes out in a moment of quiet triumph for the good of the entire Universe.

He is the hero and the villain all that the same time, and that is an incredibly well-written character trait.

The Heroes of their own stories are the most dangerous villains of all, because they are not villains at all. They are heroes… or at least from their point of view.

This newfangled method of reversing storytelling tropes is becoming increasingly popular these days, what with the advent of Game of Thrones and the MCU.

They’re compelling, and, most importantly in this industry, they are fresh in the world of Popular Culture, and for that, they have my keen attention. 

And that concludes our list of 6 types of Villainy in popular culture today.

This has been quite a ride. I had an absolute blast writing this article, and I hope you managed to gather a few incentives to incorporate into your own writing!

Can you think of any more villain tropes? If you have, let me know in the comment section or shoot me an email. I always love hearing what people have come up with!

Stay creative, Authocrats!


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