If we were to describe, in the most basic of terms, what an antagonist is, it’d probably be something along the lines of “a character or entity that actively opposes the leading cast of characters in any given story”. In this regard, we can throw any number of character types in the position of opposition, but what is it that makes an antagonist “good”?
Is it indomitable power or intellect?
Is it based on how much the viewer comes to despise or sympathize with said character?
Is it how well they actually aid the narrative?
Or perhaps even simply that they push our protagonist to become better?
Let’s take a moment, here, to look at some different antagonists.
I’ll try to keep things fairly vague, but there may be some spoilers ahead.
Takano Miyo (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni): The antagonist driven to villainy
At the start of the series, Takano is known only as the beloved clinic nurse. Toward the end of the story we learn that she’s actually the primary antagonist. Takano’s desire to madden and destroy an entire village of people wasn’t inherent, though; it was cultivated. Her parents died when she was a young child. As a result, she was sent to an orphanage where she and the other children were neglected and abused. She was rescued and adopted by Takano Hifumi, an old associate of her late father.
Soon after, she began studying medicine alongside Hifumi. He was on the verge of discovering “Hinamizawa Syndrome”, a parasitic disease that causes extreme paranoia, and can lead those infected to commit acts of violence under certain circumstances. However, Hifumi is never taken seriously. In fact, he ends up becoming a laughing stock. The truth of the matter, though, is that the Takano’s were right. The illness did exist, but the government and associated scientific community refused to accept it as truth because of the potential political implications. A lifetime of research and effort is deliberately ignored, and Hifumi’s reputation deliberately destroyed. Miyo chooses to continue Hifumi’s research after he dies. She’s desperate to prove the existence of the disease, but is met with the same hostility and basically labeled an occultist freak.
It is a lifetime of unfortunate and unfair treatment that ultimately turns Miyo into a homicidal villain obsessed with immortalizing the Takano name in history.
But even when she’s scheming to eliminate an entire village to prove her point, we see that in many ways she’s still the same lost child looking for someone to believe in her the same way she believed in her adoptive grandfather.
Gilgamesh (Fate Series): The seemingly indomitable foe
Sometimes the fun of it all comes from wondering just how on earth our heroes are going to take down someone or something that is exponentially more powerful than they are. Gilgamesh in the role of Archer in the Type-Moon Fate franchise is one of these types. Known alternatively as the King of Heroes, this demi-god was the origin of all man-made heroic legends. Hence, he possess all of the Noble Phantasms and can seemingly annihilate most other legendary figures with little effort. The OG’s borderline OPness is part of what makes him such a great antagonist. The attributes can’t be the only thing there, though. In Gilgamesh’s case, his outright arrogance and condescending attitude are what really makes the viewer (me) want our heroes to overcome him.
Bondrewd (Made in Abyss): The antagonist we can outright despise
Then there’s this type—the one we’re supposed to just outright hate. Bondrewd is one of the legendary White Whistles of the Abyss. He’s credited with making many discoveries, but he does not give a damn about morals or ethics. While the Lord of Dawn, himself, may feel that the exploitation of children serves a greater purpose, it’s extremely difficult for any sane viewer to sympathize with his cause.
Gary (Pokémon): The rival
There’s no rule that says an antagonist has to actually be a villain. In essence, all they have to do is provide some kind of obstacle for our protagonist(s) to overcome.
Gary is Ash Ketchum’s first adversary. Like Ash, Gary wants to become a Pokémon Master. The two have very different training philosophies, but the role Gary serves as an antagonist is different from that of Team Rocket. The “rival” is pretty common in sports shows. I think Hakone Academy in the Yowamushi Pedal series is a good example of that, but I’ve seen the trope in other genres as well.
There’s also something to be said for the emotional impact that hits when our protagonists—and even sometimes our own expectations—are betrayed. If done properly, the traitor-type antagonist can be one of the best types.
Griffith (Berserk): The traitor
Berserk is told primarily from the perspective of antihero Guts, but Griffith is the driving force of much of the narrative. He’s rather cold and calculated, but his outstanding charisma, leadership, and egalitarian ideals earn the absolute trust and allegiance of those who follow him. Over time, though, Griffith comes to believe that even his closest followers are lesser beings than him. This feeling—amplified by an unfortunate occurrence, and strong desire to have a kingdom of his own—result in Griffith eventually betraying the trust of his Band of the Falcon in one of most egregious ways imaginable.
Ryo (Devilman: Crybaby): The prophesied villain?
Ryo and Akira share a relationship dynamic similar to Griffith and Guts. Ryo and Akira are very close to each other, but at some point, Ryo betrays the trust of our antihero protagonist. One of the key differences, though, is that while Ryo begins as a seemingly neutral childhood friend of Akira, he eventually remembers that he isn’t human. Rather than embrace humanity, he chooses to embrace his former identity, and sets about an apocalyptic chain of events.
What, then, if our story’s protagonist is or becomes the villain? Are they technically antiheroes, or do they then become an antagonist?
Light Yagami (Death Note): The curious case of the protagonist transition to villainy
Light begins his “hero’s journey” of sorts by trying to rid the world strictly of dangerous criminals. Very quickly, though, he becomes comfortable with outright murder, and takes joy in outsmarting the authorities as they try to track to him down. In Light’s case, the protagonist does become the villain. Lelouch from Code Geass may also fit this archetype.
So that’s my take on the anatomy of an antagonist. What do you guys think makes for a good (or bad, for that matter) one? Examples are always a plus.
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