Thursday, January 26, 2012

Antagonist or Protagonist?

Whenever I see or hear the word "villain," I immediately picture a sneering man in a top hat, looking evil as he twists the waxed end of his pencil-thin mustache.  This particular foil worked well for the silent films of the early 20th Century, but today's antagonist needs to be something more than an over-the-top caricature.

Analyze iconic antagonists of film and print and you'll probably find they share many of the following characteristics:
  • No matter how evil their actions seem to others, they don't believe they're wrong.
  • In their own minds, their actions are justifiable.
  • They are driven by deep emotions a reader can understand even if not wholly agree with.
  • They often possess one or more redeeming attributes.
  • Despite how convinced they are of their 'rightness,' they occasionally experience moments of self-doubt.
As Hugo Award-winning author Ben Bova so aptly puts it:  "There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds.  There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.  As your protagonist is struggling to solve her problems, your antagonist is struggling to solve his.  It's all a matter of viewpoint" (

Bagman Creech, an antagonist from Philip Reeve's novel Fever Crumb illustrates this concept well.  Creech doesn't see himself as evil.  In fact, he's considered a hero by many of London's paranoid inhabitants.  Creech was part of the uprising that "rid London of the Scriven tyrants," and he still dedicates himself to finding and eliminating every last remnant of their arrogant race.

Creech isn't an unkind man.  When the abusive Ted Swiney thrusts Charley, a shy eleven year old, into the old Skinner's service, Creech treats Charley with great compassion.  Unlike his fellow Londoners, he also isn't quick to make a judgment about Fever.  To avoid mistakenly killing a fellow 'human,' he goes to great lengths to assure himself her murder is justified.

"Killing a Scriven isn't like killing a human being," Creech tells Charley.  "They aren't made like us and they don't think like us, and if you let them live and breed there might come a time when it will be them hunting us, and our kind hiding in the dark."

Like Mr. Bova says -- protagonist or antagonist, it's all a matter of viewpoint.