I’m not fond of anti-heroes, but I do like a well-rounded character rather than a cardboard cutout. This applies to antagonists as much as protagonists (who wants boring), but can an antagonist be a hero?
An Antagonist, by definition, acts in opposition to the Protagonist of a story. Usually we call the protagonist the hero and the antagonist the villain, but really it’s a matter of perspective. I truly believe every villain thinks he’s the hero of his own story. So, I write my villains with that in mind. They need to have their own goals and motivations and be as pissed off about the ‘hero’ thwarting their plans as the hero is about the villain’s dastardly deeds.
But I think as moral readers, we can tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, despite what they believe. A serial killer might consider himself the hero in his triumph against conformity, but by any sane measure he’s a nasty. In contrast, a hero might consider himself a vile failure for letting an innocent die. We know what that humility and Atlas-mentality really indicates. So, first of all, can an Antagonist even be a Hero? If it’s all about perspective, certainly. If it’s about morality and societal definitions of a hero…? Maybe.
Shameless plug: In my Eva Thorne series of fantasy/mystery books, I’ve created a heroine who struggles to be a hero. Surrounded by villains, hated by association, and tempted by power, it would be easier for her to succumb, to be one of the bad guys. What makes her a hero is every conscious act to avoid that path.
Hannibal as hero—saving Clarice from mundanity. Clarice as villain—failing to save the lambs. It’s all about perspective, but I think most of us know Clarice is the true hero. Also, Lecter isn’t the antagonist at first.
Here’s a true example of Antagonist as Hero: The Change of Heart. Darth Vader (talking about the original movie through Jedi) is the best villain ever. He’s a presence physically and mentally throughout the story. The very incarnation of the oppression the Empire represents, he ruthlessly hunts the rebels, but he too is oppressed, as chained as those he attempts to chain. His change of heart at the end, when he kills the emperor, makes him a hero by any measure. He overcomes his mental shackles, sacrifices his own life, and saves the protagonist—despite having been the main antagonist up to that point. I call it the switcheroo. Just check out the internal conflict in those glassy eyes…
Antagonist as Hero: The Antagonist of an Immoral Protagonist. Frankenstein’s monster is Victor’s antagonist but the sympathetic hero. What others can you think of?
The Antagonist Hero: A True Hero who often eventually joins sides with the Protagonist Hero, after having been in opposition for most of the story. For example, the US Marshal in “The Fugitive” is the antagonist, but clearly a hero. Eventually he realizes the protagonist is not the bad guy and helps Dr. Richard Kimble catch the real one. Classic “misunderstanding”. Can you think of other scenarios?
Finally, it’s worth reading Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Mythology is a journey through the collective unconscious and tells us the history of our own minds. If you follow the hero’s journey too long, the hero eventually becomes the villain. My son would agree: when I tell him he can’t do something, I am suddenly the worst monster ever! But seriously, in the hero’s journey it’s all about knowing when to let go of what you’ve won. You could be a good and gracious King of the World—but if you don’t hand over the throne when the time is right, you can quickly become a tyrant. Power corrupts, and so some Antagonists were the Hero once upon a time….
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Thanks for reading! More posts on books, film, and writing can be found on my website at Lorel Clayton Author.