As a fantasy novelist and editor, I have spent a lot of time reading books and writing sites to learn as much as I can about my craft (and trying to distract myself from writing), and have read a lot of advice about what makes a good villain1
Most of that advice revolves around the idea of humanizing the villain, so that the bad guy is not just some cardboard evil person in a black hat. Just like a hero, a compelling villain should have goals and motivations and probably shouldn’t think of themself as the bad guy. The writer, at least, should have empathy for the villain, even if the reader cannot.
That’s hard to argue with. The Dark Lord trope has been done to death in fantasy literature, and the idea of absolute evil is hard to pull off convincingly in a world where gray is the dominant color. 2
But I don’t think it’s enough that you understand your villain, which is where most advice ends. Yes, you need to know why your character is going to perform evil deeds. However, it is much more important to know why your protagonist is going to be the one to defeat them.
Why? Because ultimately the story is not about the villain, but the protagonist. Just look at the Star Wars prequels to see what happens when you try to make the story about the villain. 3
To better understand the relationship between the protagonist and the villain, I’m going to dip into some classic narrative theory and mix it up with a smidgen of Jungian philosophy.
Harmatia: The Protagonist’s Inward Struggle
Protagonists, as we’ve known since Aristotle wrote “The Poetics,” must have a tragic flaw. Usually we talk about this flaw (or mistake, as Aristotle’s term harmartia might be interpreted) in terms of how it leads the hero to their downfall — Oedipus, Macbeth, Willy Loman. That’s because Aristotle was talking about tragedies. Kung Arthur’s fall should be interpreted as a result of harmartia (his fatal mistake was killing the babies, which led to Mordred’s antagonism and thus the Battle of Camlann).
We’re less fond of tragedies these days and tend to prefer stories where the protagonist doesn’t end up dead or maimed, but overcomes their flaw (or mistake) and triumphs over adversity. The flaw is still there, though in current narrative theory it is more likely to labeled “the lie the character believes“or the “misbelief.”
The misbelief is the core of the protagonist’s character arc. It’s the thing they have to overcome if they are going to achieve their goal in the story. If they can’t overcome it, then the story is a tragedy.
Externalizing the Inward Struggle Against the Protagonist’s Shadow
In order to understand how the concept of harmartia — the hero’s fatal flaw, mistake or misbelief — relates to creating meaningful antagonists, we must jump from Aristotle to Jung.4
Central to Jungian psychology is the concept of the Shadow, one of four primary archetypes that operate on both a personal, psychological level as well as existing on a universal level as part of the collective unconscious. (The other three are the Self, the Anima, and the Animus.)
In psychological terms, the Shadow represents the repressed aspects of the conscious self. These aspects are not necessarily evil, but Jungian psychology maintains that the shadow-self must be confronted in order to prevent negative behaviors from emerging.
Dream analysis, a field heavily influenced by Jung, posits the idea that anyone encountered during a dream should be interpreted as an aspect of the dreamer’s Self.
In the same vein, I would suggest that the characters in a story can be interpreted as aspects of the protagonist’s Self.
(Which is a reflection of the Self of the collective unconscious and why we’re able to relate to the protagonist in the first place.)
Therefore, when a protagonist has a meaningful interaction with any other character, it can be interpreted as a dramatization of the internal interactions between aspects of the personality that take place in the psyche.
How Harmatia & Shadow Define the Story’s Antagonist
Still with me? I know I’m generalizing a lot, but bear with me. To summarize, the two main points I want to emphasize are:
- The protagonist should be forced to confront his tragic flaw/mistake/misbelief (harmartia) in the course of a story.
- A story should dramatize the development of the protagonist’s psyche.
When you combine these two ideas, the protagonist’s misbelief — a reflection of his Shadow — becomes personified in the role of the antagonist or villain. Therefore, when the protagonist confronts the villain he is symbolically confronting his own Shadow.
Sometimes the connection between the protagonist and his Shadow is made explicit:
Frodo’s climactic battle is with Gollum, a creature who was once very like a hobbit himself.
Luke, who has already been shown that he is dangerously in peril of turning into Darth Vader, finds out that his antagonist is his father.
King Arthur meets his doom at the hands of his son, Mordred, who’s death he tried to arrange in order to prevent such a fate.
- Thanos embodies Tony Stark’s ego-driven belief that he alone can save the world/universe.
- Moriarty possess the same skills and intellect as Sherlock Holmes.
- Carl, the main character in “Up,” grew up imagining an adventurous life like Charles Muntz.
If there is not at least an implicit association between the hero’s Shadow and the villain, then the villain becomes nothing more than a catalyst for the internal struggle of the hero. A McGuffin, if you will. This happens a lot in character driven fiction, where the hero must conquer, for example, his inability to trust others, or his fear of heights, or some other flaw the author has decided upon, before he is able to confront the antagonist. By the time the final climax occurs, the hero has already won the essential battle within himself and only has to defeat the antagonist in order to tie up the plot.
But when the antagonist actually embodies the hero’s Shadow, then there’s a real sense of tension when the climax occurs. Both Frodo and Luke are perilously close to succumbing to the dark within them, and only the physical confrontation with their Shadows allows them to survive in the end. King Arthur, too, confronts his Shadow physically, but his death on the field of Camlann is a keen reminder that there is a real risk in the struggles of the psyche, and “victory” is not always assured (but, like Arthur, there is always a promise of another chance).
The story belongs to the protagonist — it doesn’t matter how well your villain is characterized if there’s no intrinsic connection to the protagonist, something that makes it important that the protagonist is the one who defeats (or fails to defeat) him in the end. It doesn’t have to be an explicit connection, but it does need to be there, on some level, perceivable by the reader, so that — at least subconsciously — they understand that the external victory over the villain represents a psychic victory for the protagonist as well.
- I use villain and antagonist interchangeably in this post, though they are not technically the same thing.
- 15 years after this was originally written, I may have cause to reconsider this point of view. The real world may be shy of true Dark Lords, but there are certainly aspiring Dark Lords around the globe.
- I have some different thoughts about the Star Wars prequels now, too, but the main point holds true. The story is about the protagonist, not the villain.
- Please pardon my very novice Jung skills — specifics may be off, but I think I have the gist of it right