Sandy Creek Central School District
Villains: More complicated than you think
By Nikolai Rosenbaum on January 27th, 2023
The concept of hero and villain are nearly as old as storytelling themselves. The need to have someone to root for, and root against, has been and is heavily integrated into virtually all stories told to some degree. However, there is often a disconnect in how the character should be written, with many writers opting for personality above all else for both protagonists and antagonists. In many older films, both are often relegated to specifically good and bad traits, intentional flaws of the character notwithstanding. Paradoxically, modern media has seen more of a push towards heavy nuance and moral gray areas to both parties, where you can see where both parties are coming from. The term villain and hero has largely been set aside as a result.
All of this being said, the current trend shouldnt outright have to be the case for the story, and if you are creating a story, there is one major thing that needs to be set before any creation of personality is done: you need to figure out the tone of the story, and where it sits on the scale of silly to serious. The tone will tell a lot about the rest of the story, and mold how things may turn out within it.
With a tone set in mind, you can then set up the two most important characters to the story, should you decide to have one or both. The protagonist is defined as the character that the story centers around, and the lens through which the story is presented to the audience. However, a protagonist is not synonymous with a hero. A hero is a character whose moral code and intentions are mostly or entirely pure and well-meaning, with the intent to help other and defeat the villain. While your protagonist may fit the criteria, it is not necessary to create a good story or character. As long as they match the tone, the protagonist may be any level of shallow or deep as you so choose, and any degree of likable or unlikable. That being said, poorly characterized protagonists are notoriously harder to get people to like and identify with, so perhaps a bit more nuance than you planned will not hurt.
The concept of the Antagonist, by contrast, has seen much more of an increase in complexity in recent years, with a sympathetic goal and desires that are more identifiable are the norm. However, more so than the protagonist, the Antagonist should set the tone of the story. A cartoonish, less serious show will likely benefit more from goofier, less morally dubious villains, because an overly serious villain could contradict the tone and make them feel out of place or lame. A story with a more serious and nuanced tone should have a villain to match as well, since they would be more at risk of being called shallow than the antagonist of a sillier tale.
However, there are factors that should be considered outside of the tone when it comes to both sides of the coin. With protagonists, a certain degree of relatability or understanding is often expected, and for many writers forgoing these choices can make things difficult down the line. With antagonists, there should always be some degree of tangible threat. Whether subtle and underlying, or blunt and in your face, unless the villain can capture audiences through writing a villain who is not scary will not be taken as a threat, detracting from their purpose in the story.
In conclusion, writing even just the main players of a story can be tricky. There are so many lanes and paths to take when it comes to writing and developing them, but at the same time so many pitfalls and risks that come with writing them poorly. Overall, do not let what is told here dictate how you choose to depict or view a character; just take it as a set of tips and warnings for what can go wrong.
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