A couple days ago, my friend and colleague Grace Weiser (ooh! That sounds so official!) (aand you ruined it.) (Sorry.) posted...well, a post about the nuances between “heroes” and “villains.” In summary, everybody has their reasons for doing stuff and the world is a confusing mess.
I apologize for that opener. Let’s try again.
Protagonists don’t have to be noble and antagonists don’t have to be crazy -- we can leave that to people writing blog posts on the internet.
Anyway, I’m going to take it a step further and suggest this: What if it is impossible to tell who is the antagonist and who is the protagonist? What if...it even depends on the reader?
Let’s do an example, shall we?
Let’s say there’s a teenage boy. We’ll call him Kevin. And let’s say Kevin lives with his dad, whom we’ll call Bob. And let’s suppose that in the course of events, Kevin falls in love with a similarly teenage girl named Alexandria. Now, Bob doesn’t like Alexandria, because once upon his time her mom stole his book in sixth grade. Also, Bob believes that Kevin is too young and impetuous to date the daughter of a notorious book thief. But Bob is a smart father, and has read books and knows that simply forbidding Kevin to date Alexandria will not work. Instead, he enlists the help of his sister (Georgie) to direct the course of Kevin and Alexandria’s relationship and force them to realize for themselves that it will not work. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll just tell Kevin that Alexandria’s mom is a book theif. (Wait.)
So who’s the villain? Well, at this point, it seems that Bob is -- he and his sister are being dreadfully interfering, don’t you think? From Kevin’s point of view, they are trying to warp what would be an otherwise beautiful, cutesy, non-cliche-ish teen relationship. As readers, we want to see Kevin and Alexandria overcome their obstacles and their heritage and form a beautiful bond.
Unless...we’ve ever been in the place of Bob. Ever seen two kids whom you knew would train wreck if they dated? Most of us are too wishy-washy to do anything about that, but Bob refuses to stand by. Four for you, Bob! You go, Bob! Besides, Bob knows more than Kevin does. He knows that Alexandria’s mom is a notorious book thief, who just can’t wait to get her hands on Kevin’s new collector’s set of Lord of the Rings. She has every reason to want Alexandria and Kevin to be together -- at Kevin’s peril! (Okay, only one reason. But still.) So now the primary antagonist is Alexandria’s mom (who shall remain nameless). Alexandria herself might become an antagonist -- will she follow in her mother’s infringing footsteps?
Oh, but now we’re going to do it again! Nameless loves books, but she’s never had enough money to buy her own. She knows that Kevin is very protective of his special edition books, and she only wants to look at Alan Lee’s beautiful paintings! She knows her daughter will do anything for her and plants her into Kevin’s home to try to retrieve the books for her. She’s only borrowing without permission! Bob never asked for his book back in sixth grade, so maybe he won’t even care!
And what about Georgie? Is she truly helping her brother? Or is she looking for a chance to take revenge on him for the time he broke her blue eyeliner and scribbled all over her cassette player? Will she aid Bob or defect to Kevin’s side?
And what about Alexandria? A pawn in this game of theft and love? Will she blindly follow her mother’s orders? Will her love for Kevin spur a spirit of rebellion in her? Or will she throw her hands up in the air and say “this is stupid, y’all!” and move to Timbuktu?
And boom, we’ve generated a...really strange plot. With some pretty eccentric characters. And I used the book stealing thing from Grace’s last post.
The point is, the antagonist in this story depends on (a) how it’s written and (b) who reads it. There is no inherent evil bad guy. In fact, even if the story is written in first person from Kevin’s point of view with all evidence supporting his youthful endeavors, a reader who sympathizes with Bob might decide that Kevin’s the real villain, launching all the story’s problems with his own impetuous lifestyle and devil-may-care attitude.
Villains are not villains because they’re bad. They’re villains because they directly oppose the character we support. Do they do this in morally horrific ways? Very often they do! Are we and the main character occasionally wrong? Sure! Cheesy villains come off as contrived because they have nothing to do with the main character’s conflict. You don’t need cackling laughter and Force Lightning. Just stick a bunch of people with opposing agendas in the same room and watch the sparks fly.
Speaking of Force Lighting, I think this whole who-is-the-villain thing may have been the intended effect of the Star Wars prequels. It could have been great, too, except we had to throw in Palpatine and be like “the lines between evil and good are blurred...except this guy, he’s definitely evil.”
I mean, yes, it was a plot twist, but was there really ever any doubt? *sigh* I guess George Lucas has a thing for absolutes.
And totally off topic, I just found this picture that really needs to be circulated more.
(Made by Smilernarry on Wattpad)
So what do you think? Have you read any good stories where you couldn’t tell who was bad and who was good? Writing any of your own? Let us know!