Villains, Antagonists, and Everything in Between

In last week’s post, I wrote that one of the most important aspects of writing a mystery is the villain. I chose this word, instead of antagonist, because it sounds delicious.

But there are differences between the two. So here’s the definitive answer on both.

Villains are always villains.

Antagonists are always antagonists.

Sometimes villains can be antagonists.

Sometimes antagonists can be villains.

Sometimes antagonists can be protagonists.

If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s a better explanation:

Villains are motivated by evil. Not necessarily Satan, though I suppose that could also be true. Villains are cruel and malicious by nature and resort to criminal activity. Their whole existence is to cause harm and destruction. They may feel slighted by humanity or superior to it. They may even feel their diabolical actions are a form of social justice or in the world’s best interest.

Any way you slice it, villains are always villains. They may, however, not always interfere with the sleuth’s investigation. A villain may just go about her merry way killing off all the bellringers in a local competition to atone for the murder of her ancestor over five generations before without ever thwarting the investigation because she wasn’t on the suspect radar until it was too late.

Antagonists, on the other hand, don’t have to be evil at all. They may merely oppose or try to block the sleuth from achieving his external goal, which is to solve the mystery. This can be done without breaking any laws such as by starting rumors, deliberately stalling, lying, or evading. An antagonist may have the same goal as the main character or may just want the main character not to achieve it.

An example of the difference between a villain and an antagonist in a mystery might be:

Little Timmy, seeking revenge on a classmate, causes an accident that kills the classmate. Timmy’s mother, trying to protect her son, obstructs the investigation by hiding physcial evidence and lying to the detective about Timmy’s whereabouts at the time in question.

Timmy is the villain because his motive was to cause harm out of revenge. Timmy’s mother is the antagonist because she literally opposes the sleuth–she does not want your main character to solve the mystery because it would mean something horrible for her child.

Now as I said, villains can sometimes be antagonists. Not only do they commit the crime, but they lead the detective on a wild goose chase as well, perhaps taunting the sleuth with riddles, leaving false clues, and goading her into playing an “I’m smarter than you” game. Many mysteries centering on serial killers will use this device.

Villains as antagonists also love to knock your sleuth unconscious (every Nancy Drew mystery ever) in order to escape or even hold your sleuth captive.

In the same sense, you may have an antagonist who becomes a villain due to circumstances beyond her control, like feeling threatened or being exposed.

Consider a woman who stages her own disappearance in order to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her down. The woman’s goal is to not get caught and is in direct opposition to the P.I.’s. As the story progresses and the investigator closes in on her, the woman who is desperate and afraid she’s been recognized, murders the potential witness to prolong her freedom.

Though I’ve only seen the movie, I suspect Amazing Amy from Gone Girl is an antagonist who becomes the villain because she uses misdirection first which then escalates to murder as a means to an end.

In most mysteries, the protagonist will be a sleuth, amateur or otherwise. In capers and heists, however, the antagonist becomes the protagonist because we see the story from the thieves’ point of view. The thieves are not considered villains despite resorting to crime because they don’t steal with evil or malicious intent. They do it mostly because they can, mostly to see if they can get away with it. (And I’m sure the money it brings isn’t too bad either.) By definition, capers are lively and playful, often humorous, and you would be hard-pressed to find much more than childhood mischief as motive.

We want the thieves to succeed because the victim of the theft is usually a horrible person and deserves it, so the detective who investigates the crime becomes the adversary or antagonist.

So there you have it, the definitive answer on all things villain vs. antagonist.

Take a look at your own “bad guy.” Where does he or she fall on the scale of villainy?

Do you like your villain or antagonist more than your detective?

Do you want your villain or antagonist to get away with the crime?

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