My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.05 – Villain, Antagonist, Obstacle

After what felt like an episode that wasn’t for me, this one fell much more into my wheelhouse. Villains, antagonists, and obstacles.

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

This topic continues the discussion that main crew had going about heros/protagonists/main characters and quite obviously was recorded at the same session.

The humor played into that fact. And with how easily they were referring to an episode from “weeks” ago. It’s not like the podcasters make any big secret about doing multiple shows in a session, but this episode it seemed especially noticable.

And I like that – I like moments when the wizard is a bit visible behind the curtain. It reminds me that people who I admire and respect aren’t perfect and let’s me be a little more gracious with myself when I don’t pull something off as smoothly as I might want to.

Self compassion aside, I loved this episode for the topic it covered.

In my reaction to the heros episode, I mentioned that I have a dislike for using that term to describe my main character. But I will admit that this episode might be changing my mind. I really like the definitions they came up with for the three “opposite” roles and it’s changed how I think of the roles of hero, protagonist, and main character.

Here are my particular paraphrases of those definitions:

  • obstacle: a person, situation, or event that blocks or opposes the desire of the hero/protagonists/main character
  • antagonist: a character who actively works against the hero/protagonist/main character and/or competes with them for their desire.
  • villain: antagonist who is actively evil

It’s the villain one that impacts me the most on my thinking about heros. I have no issues with how a villain is described in the episode, even though “evil” isn’t a hard and fast trait. We feel like we know it when we see it, but it is a difficult metric to quantify. But in my subconscious, it makes sense: that’s what a villain is.

Combine that with the hero episode where the podcasters posit the question of when should you (in storytelling) have the hero, the protagonist, and the main character all be the same, and when are they different.

Per that episode, the hero is the one who takes heroic action. Again, heroic action isn’t hard and fast – but just like I grok “evil” within the context of villain, stated this way I understand what heroic action would mean within the course of any particular story that I tell.

The other thing that I like is that I can have multiple characters take heroic action for different things, in different scenes, and in different amounts.

I’m not limited to one hero, one villain. And that may be why I have a hard time with referring to the main character as the hero. That concept just doesn’t fit for the kinds of stories I like to tell.

Example time.

Let’s break out Star Wars: A New Hope just because.

During the course of the film, no less than 4 characters take heroic action and could be considered heros in that light.

  • Leia never breaks under torture or duress, but maintains her secret knowledge of the rebel base in spite of pending death.
  • Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to ensure that Vader and company are distracted enough to let the Falcon escape.
  • Han returns to a suicide fight in an undermanned freighter, risking getting blown out of the sky to help a friend.
  • Luke stays in the trench and risks his life after all previous pilots doing the same have been killed.

Only one of these heros was also the main character of the film.

So with this same idea in play, I think it really does come down to what type of story is being told to figure out who the protagonist is and who the antagonist is and if these roles even make sense in the course of storytelling.

For me, I like my heros less iconic and I like my antagonists less villainous, but I definitely have a better feel for using these ideas in my fiction.

Incidentally, that brings me to my final thought. I think the main antagonist of Star Wars: A New Hope was Han Solo. Granted, the villains of the film are Tarkin and Vader. But I think Han is closer to the true role of antagonist.

He actively opposes the protagonist’s (Luke) desire on most every front – he mocks Luke’s desire to buy a ship, he refuses to give into Luke’s desire to rescue anybody, he doesn’t let Luke grieve (Come on, kid). He competes with Luke for Leia’s perceived affections. He confronts Luke and tries to dissuade him from going to battle against the Empire. It is only at the end that Luke overcomes Han by attacking his cowardice and convinces Han to return to the fight.

To me, that all says antagonist.

Please – argue it out in the comments below. I’d like to see what you come with.

3 thoughts on “My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.05 – Villain, Antagonist, Obstacle

  1. You are able to like you said to be both hero and bad guy. It’s all a matter of how and who sees you. Most people jump to conclusions about the situation right or wrong. Usually wrong.

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  2. I’m often having trouble with the very definitions of heroes and villains because they usually imply other ideas such as “absolute good” and “absolute evil”, which are both very subjective approach of the world. Just ask any Chinese and they’ll tell you that all foreigners suffer from extreme superiority complex (a by-product of ethnocentrism), try to sell anything to a North Korean and you’re in for a beating because you’re trying to impose capitalism, etc..

    From what I get, the closer a protagonist’s code of conduct aligns with the ethos of the reader, the closer they are to be labelled as “hero”. This can make the villain harder to spot when they have a code of conduct or at least some ground which is liable to please another part of the audience. For instance, I do remember that when I was a teen frustrated in love, I used to support RyΓ΄ga, the love rival of Ranma in the titular RanmaΒ Β½ manga. In the same fashion, I hated the Autobots in Transformers because their dubbers had terrible voices, unlike the Decepticons’. Believe it or not, in the famous X-men series, in the very long run which lasted and trashed the franchise until the many recent reboots, the one who’s proved right is Magneto, Xavier’s actions proving more and more dictator-like. You’re right to label Han Solo as an antagonist to Luke but many who just have a knack for this type of rebellious behaviour would pretty much tell you he’s the actual hero of the Star Wars trilogy while Luke is just following along his monomyth-driven destiny like a puppet in the hands of the Rebellion.

    The sad reality for me is that stories are very hard to drive if your main characters do not even have identifying features. Check “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951), good luck finding some sort of achievement to Holden. There’s neither hero or villain in that one, and some people would even argue about Holden being a protagonist at all. This makes the book a bit harder to read than your average Harry Potter, for sure.

    There are some tricks to have the reader feel specific emotions at specific points but of course, that’s assuming they endorse the narrative. Only when you do oppose emotions can you associate a specific character to that “hero” role and another one to that “villain” role, just don’t expect 100% of your readers to lash out at the scarecrow twisted bad guy. Just because they suffer doesn’t make them any more divine.

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    1. A lot to unpack here, and I really like your comment, because it reminds me that I have a particular Western-centric view on fiction and storytelling based both on my education and my preferred consumption of stories that does color my thinking.

      Where I think this episode really helped (and where I may not have said this clearly in the reaction post) was how it gave me a new facet for my mental model of character roles. The best part of continuing to educate myself about the craft of writing is in how it changes my understanding. I haven’t written up my reaction to this week’s episode, but it did the same thing – it has forced me to reconsider things I thought I understood and see them anew.

      The villain episode was good because it gave me a new lens to view other main character roles. That nuanced change is what I most enjoyed getting.

      Liked by 1 person

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