What’s in a title: villain versus antagonist

Today I learned the lawn at my new apartment is a real behemoth. Everything is actually quite sore. Fortunately for everyone, however, I will not be talking about that in this post. I also make no apologies for any typos that sneak through as my hands really hurt. God damn it.

There’s something about having a degree in English/Writing, being a writer, and a tremendous fondness of language that makes for me being picky about words. I focus on that before diving into this topic for a reason. I’ve heard two perspectives on this topic. One says that villains and antagonists are not the same thing, while others say those are two words for the same thing. Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective and how the writer, artist, director, or other creative-type is choosing to use the titles and their respective roles in the story? You could argue that, yes, and I’m sure it could be argued pretty well. This part, by the way, is a bit painful to admit.

They aren’t, at their core, the same thing. Both may spend portions of a story appearing to twirl their mustaches (lady villains and lady-antagonists don’t waste time with such frivolous appearance-based activities), but there are crucial differences that prevent the words from being interchangeable. 

Here’s the short, too-long-didn’t-read explanation: a villain always plays the role of an antagonist, but the antagonist isn’t always playing the role of a villain. Keep in mind that I, for years, always figured they were the same thing. Brianne pointed out a really good point I’d failed to consider: antagonists are forces that cause some sort of change or growth in the hero, while villains exist to serve their own dastardly purposes by killing anyone who would dare get in their way (I’m looking at you, you bothersome do-gooders). Brianne also pointed out how antagonists and villains could also be things like an inhospitable landscape (an example I’ll now have to address, of course).

Let’s look to the movie Hook for a couple of examples. The classic story of Peter Pan has a clear villain: the nefarious, war-mongering and child-slaughtering Captain James Hook.

I spent a good deal of my childhood idolizing this, which probably speaks volumes about my moral compass.

I spent a good deal of my childhood idolizing this, which probably speaks volumes about my moral compass.

He’s cunning, he’s a touch crazy, he’s definitely more than a touch narcissistic, and he’s most certainly evil. Friends and foe all cower in fear of Captain Hook, and for good reason; he pretty much just kills anyone who dares interfere with his grand plans of waging war on the Lost Boys of Neverland. The pirate who doubted him got stuffed in a chest with scorpions, for crying out loud. That’s some PhD-level evildoing. With Peter Pan gone from Neverland, Hook is forced to come up with a plan that will bring his nemesis back. He wouldn’t be denied his war, after all, and so he travels beyond Neverland and kidnaps Peter Pan’s kids (traumatizing Toodles pretty badly in the process, but he probably had no idea what the Hell was going on anyway). There were no redeeming qualities to Captain Hook, from opening to end credits, and that’s what made him such an amazing, compelling character. He acts as an antagonist to Peter Pan, interfering with Peter’s ability to live life beyond Neverland, but he is clearly a villain in that he is pure, black-hearted evil.

Hook is not without an antagonist who isn’t a villain, however. Enter Rufio. He’s so certain of his leadership of the Lost Boys and can’t possible believe that the sad, bloated old man who is brought before him could possibly be the Peter Pan of legend. Even as the others begin to believe in Peter being Peter Pan, Rufio continues to resist. In his resistance, Peter seems to be further pushed towards his goals of recapturing his time as Peter Pan so he can rescue his kids and return home. For the rare people who have not seen this movie, I won’t go much further with Rufio’s story arc. It’s because of Rufio’s jerk-assery that Peter is able to transform back into Peter Pan.

Neverland itself acts as a pretty powerful antagonist. It’s a strange, unfamiliar place to Peter. He has no idea how to handle being surrounded by these wild and crazy Lost Boys, off in the middle of the wilderness with no authority figures. He nearly drowns in the Mermaid’s Lagoon. He falls, fumbles, and stumbles his way along so many strange landscapes, and he slowly finds familiarity in those locales. Finally, in the last moments of Peter looking to find his happy thoughts, Neverland seems to lend a helping hand in his favor.

Now, however, I need to seem like an old fart and get some sleep.

So perhaps I was wrong in the past, but I did get a chance to write about Hook. Pretty sure that means I win anyway.

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One thought on “What’s in a title: villain versus antagonist

  1. Pingback: What's in a title: villain versus antagonist | Tinseltown Times

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