Sympathy for the Devil
This is going to be a new thing from time to time. When I feel like discussing something related to the nature of antagonists, it is going to be under a header that includes Sympathy for the Devil. Why? Because for an antagonist to be worth reading about, the writer has to really understand them.
You don’t have to like them to have sympathy or them, just know where they are coming from and treat them with the same fairness you give your protagonist. So, without further ado:
Antagonist vs Villain
So what is the distinction? Anyone or anything going against the goals of the protagonist is an antagonist. Every villain is an antagonist, but not every antagonist is a villain. This is important to understand. Mustache twirling bad guys who have no more lofty goals than destruction and mayhem have their place, but it is usually in high fantasy or allegory. They serve most often as a contrast to the immaculate character of the protagonist in a world of grays. I not the protagonist, then at least to some major character who influences the protagonist.
Villains are pure evil and hatred. We love to hate them, but they very often have far less depth than other forms of antagonist. Maybe they do have some ‘greater good’ goal in mind or a very moving reason why they are doing what they do, but go into your writing understanding that this isn’t required to be an antagonist to a character who is at the center of the story.
Two men face off for a game of tennis. Each is the protagonist of his own story. Each is also the antagonist for his opponent. Both men duel out the match and both gain a resolution to the conflict that was at the center of their story. The match is over and both men shake hands and walk of to the snack stand nearby.
So? Well, neither was evil or wrong or even having some lofty goal. They simply had a desire and each stood in the way of the other achieving that goal. The match might have been compelling even for onlookers or readers, but there was no villain.
Replace one of the players with a ball shooter. Now there is only one protagonist and antagonist, but the machine most likely has no goals in mind. I say most likely because if you are writing science fiction, maybe it does. Good story fodder there… Anyway, there is still some form of goal, action and resolution. In a word: conflict. There isn’t a villain however.
I am sure to go into this subject in more detail in the future, but for now recognize that your story may not need a villain at all. Many stories and even full novels have no villain. They have people, things or events serving as the antagonist of the story and each may be no more wrong or evil than the protagonist is.