13.5: Villain, Antagonist, Obstacle

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

What’s the difference between villains and antagonists? How is an obstacle character different from those other two? How are they alike? And most importantly, how can we use this information to write effective opposition to our heroes, protagonists, and main characters?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 


Your main character is facing one each: an obstruction, an antagonist, and a villain…

Active Memory, by Dan Wells

8 thoughts on “13.5: Villain, Antagonist, Obstacle”

  1. I was just trying to explain this on an RPG forum in response to someone asking for advice on how they could have a Good “BBEG” (Big Bad Evil Guy). I’ll suggest they listen to this episode.

    (My first advice was to just forget Alignment, and dig into the actual motivations and beliefs of the character.)

  2. Could the “DCU Syndrome” also be called the “Paradise Lost Syndrome”, in honor of those critics who thought that Satan was the real hero of the poem?

  3. A terrific character who is an antagonist and obstacle and perceived as a villain is the Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson) in “War for the Planet of the Apes”.

    Spoilers for the movie follow…

    When we first meet the Colonel, he seems like an outright villain, because his army has infiltrated the ape stronghold and killed Caesar’s son. The human soldiers are ruthless and fanatical, intent on eradicating the apes by any means necessary.

    Caesar and co. pursue them in a fury of vengeance, discovering that the Colonel is murdering his own men. That’s when he begins to feel like a monster. Caesar’s team encounters a terrified human who they kill. They discover he was protecting a little mute girl. Caesar refuses to kill her, proving he’s not just a monster like the Colonel.

    When Caesar is captured and is confronted by the Colonel, it turns out the reason the human soldiers are so ruthless and fanatical is because the virus that makes apes smart and kills humans, the so-called “Simian Flu”, has mutated and it is now rendering humans mute and less intelligent. In order to stem the spread of the virus, they are forced to kill anyone who has it, because they can’t quarantine them. The Colonel has to make the tough call to kill his only son for that reason.

    Turns out the Colonel is ruthless, but it’s because he and his men are literally fighting to prevent the extinction of the human race. The hard choices they’ve made have created a bond between them that borders on the fanatical, because their very existence is at stake.

    At that point you kind of have to wonder if he’s a villain at all. From the Colonel’s perspective, Caesar is the villain, and they’ve both done terrible things to preserve their own kind.

    For a sci-fi action movie, it’s a really nuanced character study, something all the new PotA films have done.

  4. It got mentioned in this episode that you should always be escalating as a series goes on. I don’t agree, not necessarily.

    An excellent example is the webcomic Dominic Deegan. The titular wizard starts out solving simple, local problems, then over time experiences a ramp-up of both his power and the power of the threats he faces that rivals Harry Dresden, until he ends up in the middle of an epic battle to save the world. How do you top that?!?

    By scaling things *way* down and making it intensely personal. The next arc involved helping save his brother’s hometown from a corrupt, wealthy villain who wants to raze the place and take the land for his own use. It’s the sort of problem that can’t be resolved (in a societally acceptable manner at least) by throwing fireballs at it, so it forced the characters to grow and adapt along a different dimension, and it’s considered one of the best arcs of the whole strip.

    Also, I really liked the bit Howard said at the end about resolving conflicts in a non-standard way, and possibly realizing that the antagonist isn’t a villain at all. I didn’t quite do that in my first story, but I did something similar. Paul (the protagonist) spends most of the story not knowing who the villain is, or even that there is a villain involved. And when finally finds out what’s really going on, he discovers that the villain’s evil plan would have a side effect of enabling Paul to achieve the thing he wants more than anything else, and so he has to sacrifice that if he’s going to work to thwart the plan…

  5. On the other side… The original quartet, Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard, take a look at the opposition! Villian, antagonist, or just plain old obstacle? Why would you write one or the other into your story, and what are they likely to do there? Just remember, sometimes superpowers aren’t the answer! So, take a look at the transcript, available in the archives or over here


    and then make your opposition the right one!

  6. What do you all make of “open play” thrillers like Jon Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels, where we spend as much time with the villains as the heroes and know more about what’s going on than the hero does?

    1. I’ve not read those, but there are lots of reasons to spend time with antagonists/villains. The simplest is to set up dramatic irony, when the audience knows something really important that the characters don’t, like that they are running into a trap. Other reasons include humanizing the villains or creating a natural break point for a time skip.

  7. First time commenter here, this episode really hit the mark for me!
    I tend to write vignette-style shorts (fanfic mostly) but I want to delve into some longer, original stories but I’ve had a bit of trouble with my plot, and I think a lot of it stems from the villain/antagonist/obstacles. Looking back at the stories I’ve written, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything with a proper villain or antagonist, by the definitions in this episode they all tend to be obstacles, and, not realising the difference, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. Now I know where to start.
    Great episode, thanks!

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