Writing Excuses 13.5: Villain, Antagonist, Obstacle
Key points: Holding up a mirror to hero, protagonist, main character, we have villain, antagonist, obstacle. Something or someone in the way is an obstacle. Someone intentionally working against the protagonist achieving goals is an antagonist. Evil makes a villain! Villains, antagonists and obstructions are key to good stories. Conflicts make the story change, while obstacles are just in the way. You may decide which one to use based on where you want the story to focus — obstacles make protagonists more proactive, while antagonists and villains often make them more reactive. Consider scale. Superpowers and minor issues don’t play well together. Antagonists can allow you to explore different viewpoints around an issue, topic, or theme.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode Five.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Villain, Antagonist, Obstacle.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m in the way.
[Brandon] Okay. So this is a parallel to last month’s episode where we talked about hero, protagonist, main character. We’re going to talk about villains, but also antagonists, but also obstacles. What are the differences between these things?
[Dan] So imagine kind of the classic movie plot about the kid who wants to do something artistic. Okay? He’s going to play violin in a concert. Maybe what is stopping him is a traffic jam, and he can’t get there. That’s an obstacle. Maybe what’s stopping him is his dad who really wants him to play football. He’s an antagonist. Maybe what’s stopping him is a psychopath trying to murder him. That’s a villain.
[Mary] I’m going to say that actually obstacles can be people. They don’t have to be…
[Dan] They can be. Yes.
[Mary] And I would argue… So, for me, the difference between an antagonist and an obstruction or an obstacle is that an antagonist is actively working against the goals of the protagonist. They’re in active opposition. Whereas an obstacle or an obstruction is something that the protagonist has to overcome, but doesn’t necessarily change the story. It is not necessarily something that is intrinsically part of the story. So…
[Brandon] In Dan’s example, you could say even… I want to get first chair in the symphony, right? I want to play the piano. An antagonist can just be another good violinist who is working for that same goal. That’s not a villain. Now when that person takes your violin and smashes it, then they have become a villain, instead of just an antagonist. An obstacle can simply be I don’t play violin well enough.
[Howard] An obstacle… If you want to look at the obstacle as a person. Kid wants to learn to play vio… Or kid wants to take first chair, and mom falls ill. Mom is not actively doing anything to work against him. She’s not an antagonist, she’s certainly not a villain, but him needing to care for her is in the way of what he’s trying to do. That can create… I mean, that obstacle that I’ve just thrown down, I want to cry because this kid has a huge obstacle in front of him. Solving that problem is going to take resources that he or she might not have any access to.
[Brandon] You guys really nailed this one. Really fast.
[Dan] Well, we’re done.
[Dan] Your homework…
[3 minutes long]
[Dan] Is come up with a reason he can’t play violin that we haven’t talked about yet.
[Mary] I think we also spend a lot of time thinking about villains, antagonists, and obstructions because when you’re building the story, if those are not structured well, it affects your main character and the reader’s enjoyment of the story. You have to have one that is well-crafted and serving the purpose that you want. Like, in my Jane Austen with magic stuff, I don’t need a villain. It’s… Sometimes, I don’t actually need an antagonist. I need a lot of obstacles and obstructions, but there doesn’t necessarily need to be someone who’s like sitting there going, “Mwahaha, I shall prevent them from getting married. Mwahahaha!”
[Howard] It’s worth pointing out here, and I think it… I think we should, that when we are talking about obstacle in this context, we’re talking about the more personal sort of thing rather than the person versus nature story, which I think we’re going to cover in a couple weeks…
[Brandon] We’ll cover next week.
[Howard] Next week. Okay.
[Mary] I think one of the other things that I want to draw a line between is that… This is something that I picked up from Margaret Dunlop when she was talking about the difference between a conflict and an obstacle, is a conflict will cause the story to change, and an obstacle is just something that stands in the main character’s path. I think that that’s one of the things with an antagonist or an obstruction is that you can have someone… Like, you can have the traffic cop that won’t let you through. That’s an obstacle. That’s a person, that’s an obstacle, but they are not changing the shape of the story. An antagonist is a driver. An obstacle is not. An obstacle is just something that’s in the way. An antagonist is driving the story… Is one of the drivers.
[Brandon] So, in your stories, where you’ve decided not to use a villain or even antagonist… What did you gain? Why did you make that decision?
[Mary] It was… So, one of the things that for me… I was writing a pastiche, so that was part of what was going on, for me, was one of the reasons that I chose to do that. But, the reason that I have done that in some other things is that it focuses the energy of the story on the main character. It causes them to be weirdly much more proactive, because there isn’t anyone else driving the story. A lot of times, when you have an antagonist, they can wind up driving the story and causing the main character to be entirely reactive. So a lot of times, the reason that an obstacle is more useful is if you’re doing a story that has somewhat lower stakes, in terms of it’s not the world is ending. If you want to do a more intimate story, it’s much easier to do a more intimate, quieter story without… And have your protagonist be active, if you are not dealing with someone else who’s [garbled an antagonist?]
[Howard] You’re also more likely, in that circumstance… I say more likely, it’s going to potentially be a lot easier for you to generate a sympathetic protagonist working against this obstacle, because you’ve got something that’s more likely to be the sort of thing that we all face.
[Mary] Yeah. I mean, most of the time, we don’t actually in real life face antagonists. I have. There is… There…
[Howard] There are people.
[Mary] There are people. They’re really generally terrible people. But an antagonist is someone who is, I think, actively working against the interests of the protagonist. Then, a villain, I think, is someone who has an agenda that they are going to… It’s…
[Brandon] I would put the definitions, for me, that a villain is actively evil, and an antagonist isn’t, always. Someone can be working against you and not be evil, and have good motivations or good motives. Dan, you’re really good at villains.
[Brandon] You’re good at villains…
[Mary] Why is that?
[Brandon] Who are really evil, but also very sympathetic at the same time, which is something you don’t see very often. How do you do it? Why do you do it? And, how do you make a good villain?
[Dan] I don’t know!
[Mary] They just come so naturally.
[garbled why do…]
[Dan] It just… It’s easy.
[Howard] Just have them do what I would do.
[Dan] It’s like writing a sociopathic point of view. Everyone can do that, right? Villains… The way that I plan all of my villains, and in fact, the John Cleaver books in particular, which is what I suspect you’re thinking of when you ask the question… All of those books are designed as much around the villain, as they are around the protagonist, as they are around John. I have to know what John is going to do. In fact, when I sit down to plot out a new book, it’s… The two questions are, how is John going to change, and what does the villain want, and how can those two relate to each other? They have to find a way, at least for me, they have to find a way to relate to each other, or else there’s no point to it. But… You know, you touched on something earlier, before we started recording, called the DC syndrome. Where the villain will overpower the story, because he or she is so much cooler than the main character is? I… Maybe this says a lot about me, but I have found that if I aim for that, and then make sure to give the hero something good to do anyway, that the balance comes out pretty good.
[Brandon] You’re going to try to make a story where the villain is more interesting than the main character, and then force your main character to catch up?
[Brandon] Okay. Fascinating.
[Dan] Which works really well with John Cleaver, because he is already… I know him really well.
[Mary] I think this is a structure that works also… It’s not just with John Cleaver, but also, your books are structured as suspense thrillers. I mean, they’re billed as horror, but they’re structured as suspense thrillers. In suspense thrillers, one of the things that is happening structurally is that your main character is always a step behind. That rush to try to catch up and to avoid being overtaken is part of what is driving those. That’s part of the energy. Whereas other structural formats, I don’t think that that works so well. Like having a full-on villain in a murder mystery…
[Dan] Yeah. That’s the one I was just thinking of while you were talking.
[Mary] Does not work as well.
[Dan] Yeah. Because then it would… A lot of the mystery would disappear.
[Dan] Because the villain is so overwhelming.
[Howard] Well, what you would… If you want to build a structure like that, you’ve got a villain in a murder mystery? The murder mystery is act one, and the discovery that you are up against a super villain is what carries you into act two and act three.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan, you have a book coming out this month.
[Dan] Yay! Okay. My new book is called Active Memory. It is the third book in the Mirador series, which is young adult cyberpunk. It is a… Speaking of murder mysteries. It is a cyberpunk murder mystery ghost story. Set in the year 2050 in Los Angeles, when everyone has a computer installed in their brain. And it’s awesome.
[Dan] If you’ve read the other Mirador books, this is far and away the best one. This answers a lot of the questions that have been brewing throughout the series.
[Mary] I have loved the Mirador books.
[Dan] All right. Thank you very much. Also, this one has, appropriately, the best villain.
[Brandon] Of the three?
[Dan] The best villain of the three.
[Mary] I’m glad that you escalate.
[Mary] That’s pretty much the only way to go.
[Brandon] When is it out?
[Dan] That comes out… this month.
[Brandon] You’re not sure…
[Dan] I don’t know the day.
[Brandon] We’re recording this ahead of time.
[Dan] This is the third week, which means it’s probably out by now.
[Brandon] No, this is the first week.
[Dan] This is the first week? It’s not out yet.
[Mary] But it will be out very shortly.
[Dan] But it will be out like next week.
[Brandon] All right. We talked about the DC syndrome. Let’s talk about the Marvel syndrome. Marvel… Specifically, the Marvel cinematic universe syndrome, where the villains are all interchangeable and basically boring.
[Mary] There’s multiple villains?
[Brandon] Yeah. How do you avoid making your villain of your story into that? Just a bad guy who shows up at the end to have a fistfight with the main character, end?
[Mary] All of their villains just want to take over the world. World domination is kind of…
[Dan] Kind of boring.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s really boring.
[Howard] The driving evil of the MCU is collecting infinity stones and rule the universe, and everybody wants a piece of that. Every time a villain does that, we kind of know what it is that they’re up to and we’ve seen it before. The thing that I like about what the MCU does, and I think the Avengers is a great example of this, and it’s why knowing your antagonist and your villain and your obstacle character is so important, is that in a superhero film, one of the goals is, for the viewer… The viewer wants to see everybody fight everybody else.
[Howard] You want to see Hulk fight Thor. You want to see Iron Man fight Capt. America. So when you look at the way these stories are built, if Iron Man is going to fight Cap, in the Avengers, it’s got to be because they’re having a personal disagreement. It’s sort of an obstacle. If we want to have Hulk fight Thor, well, Hulk is an obstacle. Every time he hulks out, somebody’s got to fight him and put him back in his Banner. So the structure of these, it’s fascinating to look at because our villain in the Avengers, Loki… Yes, he’s a lot like all of the other villains, but he is not the one who is driving all of these fights.
[Brandon] Well, he’s the best of the MCU. Because he has a personal connection to the main characters. And he is relatable. So it kind of talks about taking all that stuff we talked about last month and stuffing it into the villain’s shell, is why Loki works.
[Mary] Well, I think it’s about making sure that they have a specific goal. That’s one of the things with Loki. He is doing these things for very specific reasons. We never know why anybody else wants to take over the universe.
[Mary] It’s, for me, also the same reason why in the Star Wars universe, Darth Vader is a really interesting villain. Emperor Palpatine… Eh. I don’t care about them overcoming Emperor Palpatine. He [garbled through] spooky lightning, but…
[Howard] That’s the official term on the wiki, spooky lightnings.
[Dan] I’m sure that’s like the spell you can cast in a role-playing game. I want to step in very quickly and point out that we are all bagging on, what is, at the end of the day, a profoundly successful formula.
[Brandon] Yeah, it is.
[Dan] One of the things that Marvel does very well with its kind of milquetoast villains is that it allows them to focus on the heroes in a different way. You get to know them really well and you get to see them a lot. So…
[Brandon] It’s hard to fault success.
[Dan] I think there’s something to be said about the DC version as well, where the Joker is so much cooler than Batman is. Both of them can work, if that’s what you’re going for.
[Brandon] Let me ask, to kind of wrap this up. Let’s take away from villains and to antagonists. Why might you want to write an antagonist who’s not evil? What do you gain? Any suggestions on writing somebody who is an antagonist, a serious antagonist, but not an evil person?
[Mary] So, I have… One of the things for me is again, it’s about scaling. If you have people with superpowers, then the boss who just won’t let them use the copier is… That’s…
[Brandon] It’s a story, but… Yeah, it’s a very different scale. Yeah.
[Mary] So one of the things is it affects the scale of the story that you’re telling. The other thing, I think, is that… One of the things we talked about some in previous seasons is looking at an issue from multiple sides. Having a character who is an antagonist allows you to express a different viewpoint about an issue that you want to explore. Whether it’s an issue or if it’s just a topic or a theme. Because you’re dealing with someone who then has clearly defined goals that are in direct opposition to the main character’s goals. That, for me, is one of the things that an antagonist can bring to the table.
[Howard] One of my favorite things to see in a protagonist or a… It’s usually a protagonist is the discovery that the antagonist isn’t evil. The protagonist has to decide this thing that we both want and I want it more… Or they want it. There is no good or evil here. If I change, maybe I don’t get what I want, and maybe the antagonist does and they change, or maybe I become the antagonist by finally realizing my dark powers and putting them down.
[Dan] The… This allows you to do a lot of nuanced stuff, in particular with the emotions that you are making your audience feel. If you’ve got… Going back to the example at the beginning, where there’s the two people that both want to be the first chair violin. You can make one of them look like a villain. Make one of them grotesquely wealthy. So she’s had way more… Better teachers and longer time and all these other advantages. But that doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person. So no matter who wins and who loses at the end, you’re going to be happy and you’re also going to be sad at the same time. That’s a valuable reaction to produce in your audience.
[Brandon] Mary, you had some homework for us.
[Mary] Yes. So. Last month, when we were talking about hero, protagonist, main character, we had you tell a story where you broke the hero, the protagonist and the main character apart and told it from different viewpoints. What we want you to do this time is to only have one main character, but they’re facing three different types of problems. Same scene. One time, you’re going to write it where they’re just facing an obstacle or an obstruction. The next time you write it, reset everything to zero, and now they’re facing an antagonist. Then you do it again, and they’re facing a villain.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.