Villain vs Antagonist in Fantasy Fiction

Villain vs Antagonist in Fantasy Fiction


In this article, we'll learn the difference between Villains and Antagonists, their purpose, and how to identify them. We'll also explore some benefits of distinguishing between these two concepts.

Villain vs Antagonist

The two terms are colloquially used to mean the same thing, and you might even find identical definitions across dictionaries. However, there are stark differences in what they represent and their purpose in the text.

What are Villains?

A Villain is a character whose actions are malicious and important to the plot. Their intentions are, from a moral point of view, inherently evil.

Their primary purpose is to advance the plot through their evil actions. This can be true whether they oppose our protagonist (for instance, Sauron seeking to take The Ring from Frodo in The Lord of The Rings), or they are themselves the protagonist (for example, if their ascent to evil is the main plot). In fact, although uncommon, a story's protagonist can be the Villain. For example, in American Psycho, we follow the character of Patrick Bateman, whose murderous actions categorize him as a Villain protagonist.

In most stories, the plot wouldn't have an opportunity to advance unless one of the characters' actions causes negative consequences; all stories need a conflict, and the evil actions of a Villain can provide the underlying conflict in a story's plot.

Villains are most common in stories with black-and-white morality, where one side is good and the other is evil. For example, the character of Voldemort versus the Order of the Phoenix in the Harry Potter series.

In Fantasy fiction, the Villain is often embodied by the Evil Overlord.  

What are Antagonists?

Antagonists are people, events, or objects that push back against the protagonist's efforts — they apply an antagonizing force.

Their purpose is also to move the plot forward by creating conflict. However, they differ from Villains in several ways:

  • Antagonists are not necessarily people, in which case they are not driven by a moral agenda.
  • The Villain can be the protagonist, but the Antagonist cannot.

Even when the protagonist directly applies an antagonizing force to themselves, such as sabotaging themselves through self-limiting beliefs or fears, those fears and beliefs are the Antagonists.

Although a character can be both a Villain and an Antagonist in a story, that's not always the case.

For example, in Shrek the Third, Prince Charming is an Antagonist, insofar as he opposes Shrek (the protagonist) by romantically pursuing Fiona. He is also the Villain, as his evil intentions lead him to attack the Kingdom of Far Far Away.

In the movie Don't Look Up, the meteor that threatens to crash into Earth provides the story's main conflict and applies an antagonizing force against our protagonists. However, the meteor is not inherently evil, nor driven by a moral agenda.

In a story where the protagonist is a Villain, the Antagonist could be a character with good moral intentions, trying to overcome our protagonist's evil plans.

Why Understand the Differences?

Understanding the difference between the concepts of Villain and Antagonist is beneficial for several reasons:

  1. It can help us better understand the stories we are reading
  2. It can help us reframe events in our own lives, understanding that some things opposing us aren't inherently evil.
  3. It can help us write better fiction.

When attempting the early drafts of my books, I lacked a proper understanding of these concepts. This led me to create Villains where instead I needed Antagonists, and vice versa. I often tried to tie morality into every person, object, and event that came in the protagonist's way.

In my novels, I always knew I needed an evil character, but couldn't quite pin down what kind. This meant that my evil character's purpose was unclear, and I couldn't navigate examples of evil characters in other books effectively, as I didn't distinguish between Villains and Antagonists.

By understanding the nuances between these two concepts, we can create more effective conflict in our stories, and, ultimately, create more engaging plots.


In this article we learned the difference between Villains and Antagonists, understanding the nuances and the ways they can overlap. We also explored a few benefits of differentiating the two concepts.

Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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