Regarding antagonists, it may be helpful to point out that while villains are always antagonists, antagonists are not always villains.
An antagonist is simply someone who opposes the protagonist. Of course, if they have villainous intentions, then yeah, they’re a villain.
(For this post, I’ll just use the term antagonist, since it kinda goes both ways)
But other times, the protagonist may be the one in the wrong and so the antagonist is right to oppose them. Or maybe the protagonist is their own antagonist – opposing themselves.
I want to mention a different kind of antagonist that I don’t believe is seen often – an antagonist who only resorts to less-than-desirable means because of a misguided belief it’s the only way to save others. (Hmm…that actually sounds a lot like a certain Jedi from Star Wars)
There’s a certain animated movie that disappointed me in one aspect: the plot twist/surprise antagonist. Not only does it not make sense in the long run, it also detracts from the real villain of the story.
(Also, my apologies in advance if this starts to sound ranty)
There are four reasons why I think this surprise villain fell flat:
There was not enough sufficient foreshadowing this character was a baddie.
Foreshadowing must be subtle, yes, but it must not be sparse (cough cough George Lucas cough cough). I get that people want clichés to be subverted. However, subverting clichés must not come at the expense of good foreshadowing.
Another reason I believe this twist fell flat was because Disney had just released a movie the year before that also had a surprise villain. That one did work, because
You think the character is only doing A because of B, but he’s actually doing it because of C. When you watch the movie again, you can see where the foundation behind C comes from, but there is no foundation for B.
With the movie that came a year later…not so much. It’s actually pretty vague, and vague foreshadowing is shaky foreshadowing, which in turn leads to poorly-executed plot twists.
The main antagonist was not shown to be in direct opposition to either protagonist’s goals from the beginning. In fact, the protagonists were actually in opposition to each other’s goals and one was even in the throes of the conflict known as Man vs. Himself. (The other conflicts are Man. vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Machine, and Man vs. Fate)
If your antagonist is going to oppose the protagonist’s goals, they have to show that opposition from the moment they first interact with the protagonist, regardless of whether they will slide into villainy or not.
There was already a villain opposing the main characters from the start: Fear.
Fear is what drove the two main characters apart, fear is what kept the one character away, fear is what led to one character trying to have another character killed…
Fear could have also been used to lead the main antagonist into doing what he did, but noooooo. We get the overused royal-backstabber-who-wants-the-throne.
The twist was shocking, sure, but again, it wasn’t that surprising. Because every story about royals ever has a backstabber somewhere in the royal family, and if not the royal family, then it’s a corrupt noble or another royal from a different kingdom.
To sum it all up: Aside from the movie not necessarily needing a villainous character, what they could have done instead was have the physical antagonist be a different kind of antagonist that I don’t believe they’ve done before – an antagonist who only resorts to less-than-desirable means because of a misguided, fearful belief it’s the only way to save others. (cough cough ANAKIN cough cough)
This would have not only rounded the character a little more and prevented him from becoming a cliché, but I think it would have also upped the tension and there would have been a horror of not knowing whether this character would actually go through with what they thought they falsely believed they needed to do.
Tell me your thoughts below! What do you think of writing an antagonist that only resorts to villainy because they’ve been misled into thinking it’s the only way?