It’s easy to think that the term villain and antagonist are synonymous, and while in most cases the villain is the antagonist, this thought isn’t necessarily true. The protagonist of the story is the main character, the person whose story that you follow. The antagonist is the person who opposes them. So I wanted to bring forward a less explored path, the villain as the protagonist.
Amongst my graveyard of dead stories are a few ideas focusing on the villain as the protagonist: where they are followed instead of the hero. This approach casts a different light on your story and makes you view the hero from a different lens, sometimes it makes you see the hero as the villain.
When you look at your villain you need to consider this, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.”
However, making the villain the protagonist comes with certain risks. The book Lolita is one of the prime examples, however there are hundreds more. An unlikeable protagonist. One of your most important jobs as a writer is to make the reader interested in the protagonist, primarily from making them like the protagonist and care about what happens to them. When writing about a paedophilic perverted older man chasing after a young girl, this is quite a momentous task (which is why it’s important to remember the protagonist of Lolita was never intended to be liked). This is even more important to consider when writing in first person, as your reader lives inside the ‘mind’ of this villain.
So what are the approaches to making your villain the protagonist?
The simplest and easiest way would be to flip the perspective of your villain or turn your villain good. The Shrek films took a character ordinarily perceived as the villain (an ogre) and sent him on a hero’s mission to rescue the princess. Despicable Me had a supervillain turning good after adopting three adorable little girls as part of his ‘evil plan’. Another great example is the film Megamind, this showcased a supervillain who finally defeated his superhero, only to realise that he only enjoyed the fight, he never wanted to actually win. Megamind becomes distraught with the knowledge he’s the villain and seeks to bring forward a new hero to stop him, but in the end Megamind becomes the hero that he was searching for.
Or perhaps your villain has a reason for their actions and their evil. A prime example of this is the live action film of Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie as the evil fairy who cursed the princess. Maleficent has been voted the best Disney villain and widely considered one of their most evil characters, cursing the child solely due to the scorn of not being invited to the party. However, the film gave her new motivations. Maleficent was betrayed by someone she trusted, this scene which was the turning point for her evil motivations has been clearly stated by Angelina Jolie to be a metaphor for rape. It was this harrowing experience that led to the start of Maleficent’s story and involvement with Princess Aurora.
Alternatively when considering the part of the villain and their likeability, it is also worth considering your hero in perspective. Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog featured a protagonist that the viewer could relate to. Sure, we’re not all evil masterminds who want to join the Evil League of Evil, but we do understood unrequited love. It is Dr. Horrible’s love for Penny, that makes us relate to him. However, it is another thing that truly makes us side with the villain and that is the hero, ‘Captain Hammer’. While a public figure and hero all applaud and worship, we see him through Dr. Horrible’s eyes and see the truth of his intentions, that he is just a shallow man who sucks up the attention. The viewer wants the villain to destroy the hero and get the girl.
Even after killing short-lived but loved characters in the Vampire Diaries, Damon was still an incredibly loved character. For the first season of the show he was the primary villain however other influences on him, such as Elena and his love for Katherine, humanised him and prevented the viewer from hating him. However, after the introduction of the villainous Mikaelson family of vampires, the Vampire Diaries had raised the standards of villain. Elijah, Rebekah and Klaus, quickly became fan favourites. Their interactions with the other characters on the show (such as Klaus’ love for Caroline and Rebekah’s affection for Stefan) showed more depth to villains than is usually shown. It was the popularity of these characters that led to them getting their own spin off, the Originals. It’s easy to say that the Vampire Diaries suffered with the loss of the Mikaelson’s, however television gained a truly great show, one featuring the villains as the protagonist. Even in their own story the Mikaelson’s are constantly at war and Klaus never ceases in his villainy, it is the viewers’ love for him and the other characters that causes them to forgive him for his actions and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Finally, I must admit I saved my favourite approach for last. When delving into stories of villains and heroes it’s so easy to touch on the grounds of moral ambiguity. It’s very likely your hero thinks what he is doing is right and will stop at nothing to ensure he is successful. The book Vicious touches on the moral ambiguity between hero and villain, the protagonist Victor has every intent to stop Eli, someone the world widely thought to be a hero. He even muses over the question, “If Eli really was a hero, and Victor meant to stop him, did that make him a villain?” Despite this, Victor decides that he’s more than happy if that’s the case. However, when reading this story you really ask yourself if that’s true. Eli believes he is a hero but Victor believes that what he’s doing is wrong. Where is the line drawn? Another prime example is the manga/anime Death Note that is one of the greatest examples of moral ambiguity in fiction. The main character has the power to kill people, so he uses it to kill murderers and other high profile criminals. Is he right to do so? The police may view him as the villain but half the world regard him as a saviour. It’s as the story develops that you really consider the moral ramifications of his actions, the uncertainty of good and evil, and the meaning of justice. The viewer is torn between the side of Light, the protagonist, and L, the detective who intends to stop him.
In stories where there are multiple protagonists, particularly television shows, there is a lot of moral ambiguity concerning the protagonists. In the A Song of Ice and Fire book and Game of Thrones series, there are more characters who can be viewed as villains and very few, if any, who can be viewed as hero. It explores all levels of these character and clarifies that no one is truly good. While the main character in Once Upon a Time is clearly Emma, there is equal time given to villains such as Rumpelstiltskin and Regina/the Evil Queen. These characters are cared for just as much as the heroes and while not always active in their villainy, it’s clear they don’t share the same morality as other characters.
In conclusion, the most important thing to consider when making your villain the protagonist is to ensure that the reader cares for them. This is the same rule that would apply for a hero, but in the case of the villain you must make your reader excuse all their evil deeds.This might be done by having them commit good deeds throughout the story, where like Shrek, Gru, Megamind and Wreck-it-Ralph, they are no longer the bad guy; by considering the motives behind your villain like with Maleficent; or you might blur the lines between what is good and evil and make your reader question who to support, as shown in Game of Thrones and Death Note. Don’t be afraid to take risks. While a risky move, having your protagonist be a villain can truly add something special to your novel.