Antagonist-Centered Stories: What Can We Learn?
Ever since there were heroes, there have been monsters to challenge them. To be more accurate, the monsters came first, representing the fears and struggles every person has. The heroes were created to show that adversity can be overcome, that dragons can be defeated.
Over time, the monsters have become more human-like and many have been replaced with villainous people, murderous maniacs, tyrannical rulers, or ambitious conquerors.
In recent memory there has been an influx of stories where the protagonist, traditionally a heroic type, has been replaced with a character one would expect to be the antagonist, the villain. Is this the ultimate in “humanizing” the monster? Can we take the same lessons from these inverted stories? Should we be drawing lessons from villains?
Monsters Don’t Live Happily Ever After
Many antagonist-centered stories are “tales twice told,” retelling an established story from the perspective of the villain. This includes books like Seriously, Cinderella is SO Annoying and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and some TV episodes of Once Upon a Time. From these examples, a trend is already emerging: fairy tales commonly receive the villain protagonist treatment.
Fairy tales are the stories we grow up with. Through repetition, we tend to learn them very well without trying, which means most of us are not likely to give them much deep thought. When a story comes along that seems like one we know so well but with a perspective shift, we are forced to reflect on the original again.
Of course, it takes more than declaring the villain the protagonist and retelling the same story to make us think. The protagonist traditionally has a relatable and sympathetic point of view. When the villain is in that position, we usually see him/her in a more sympathetic light than before.
In Once Upon a Time, the villains have usually lost their true love or something like that; their backstories are tales of failed fairy tale protagonists, and that apparently forces them to become antagonists. According to The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, the Wolf was trying to get a cup of sugar from his neighbors (the pigs) so he could make his grandmother a cake – considerably more sympathetic than “the bad wolf wants to eat the pigs.”
Even if these villain protagonists are unreliable narrators, we may still find ourselves relating to them, possibly against our better judgment. At the very least, we may entertain possibilities we had never thought of before; maybe we were wrong about these characters when we were young.
After so long considering these heroes and villains in terms of black and white, being forced to reconsider fictional right and wrong may make us rethink our assumptions about real-world “heroes,” “villains,” and “victims.” Before calling an unpopular politician “evil,” for example, the audience of these stories is encouraged to consider his backstory, his motivations, and his point of view.
In a video called “4 Disney Movie Villains Who Were Right All Along,” Cracked.com lists antagonists with motives that could actually be considered admirable. For example, in Beauty of the Beast, Gaston wants to marry a girl who everyone else just thinks of as “odd,” and also wants to save her from a hideous monster who seems to be manipulating her. “Nine out of ten movies,” the video says, “Gaston would be the hero.”
Michael Tabb, in an article in Script magazine, lists more antagonists with motives like “pride (Apollo Creed in Rocky), sustenance/survival (Dracula)…recognition (Buddy Pine in The Incredibles)…world peace (Ozymandias in Watchmen)…” and the belief that lawbreakers must be punished, i.e. Javert from Les Miserables. He also points out, “The list of motives I used as examples above are not necessarily evil. In fact, depending on their context, the same incentives can just as easily work for a protagonist” (emphasis added).
Antagonist-centered stories provide that alternative context and try to make audiences rethink their assumptions and consider how easily these admirable motivations can make people do “villainous” things.
With Great Power Comes Great Corruption
Another genre that seems to lend itself to antagonist-centered stories is superhero stories. While there are new stories about superheroes, or at least new reboots of old stories, coming out all the time, there tend to be similarities throughout the genre. The protagonist is usually a heroic bastion of morality, and his/her nemesis is the villainous antagonist.
Over time, a growing number of superheroes have been created with looser morals, more willingness to commit darker acts. We call them anti-heroes. Villain protagonists are like the ultimate anti-heroes – characters who believe their intentions are right but do things that many, including the audience and possibly including the protagonists themselves, consider outright evil. Stories focusing on this kind of protagonist are slowly becoming more popular.
Lex Luthor considers himself a hero, using his superior intellect for the betterment of humanity by any means necessary and for protection against the false god known as Superman. Stories focused on him (the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel miniseries, for example) show him as more relatable than most of us would normally like to admit.
The villain protagonist of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is portrayed as sympathetic based on his motivations. His superhero nemesis is a self-centered jerk, so the audience is even more likely to root for Dr. Horrible.
But when Dr. Horrible wins in the end, he gets everything he thought he wanted at the expense of what he really wanted most. The audience feels sorry for him even though he is the villain and he won. The cognitive dissonance shows the quality of Joss Whedon’s storytelling and the power of framing the story from the traditional antagonist’s perspective.
Marvel/Netflix’ series Daredevil and Luke Cage have featured episodes focused on the antagonists Wilson Fisk, Cottonmouth, Mariah Dillard, and Diamondback. Through flashbacks, we see their sympathetic backstories. Although these stories leave out details that may have made the characters less sympathetic, they do make us feel sorry for the villains and maybe make us think their actions are understandable, if not justified.
One of the similarities across the superhero genre is the theme that “power corrupts.” Making the villain the protagonist – even for one comic book issue, miniseries, or TV episode – can show that the villain is not inherently bad but corrupted by power. Perhaps they had very little power before, and they are now willing to do anything to gain power and stay powerful. This further debunks the audience’s assumptions about black-and-white good and evil.
Additionally, showing the corrupting nature of power can be a commentary on human nature. Many people wish they could be powerful like the superheroes they read about or watch. However, because humans are flawed, we are generally more likely to use power for personal gain than for selfless acts of heroism. Again, the monsters come first, and then heroes rise up to face them. Antagonist-centered stories often portray the transition from “normal person” to “person with power” to “villain” as believably simple. So maybe we shouldn’t desire power quite so much.
On a similar note, identifying with the antagonist provides particularly relatable learning opportunities. As Emma Hetrick points out in her article on Locust Walk Journal, “we want to identify with the ‘good guys’ of any story because they’re the people we want to emulate…we don’t want to empathize with the antagonist of a story because that would bring to light the flaws within ourselves.” Hetrick sees identifying with the antagonist as an “opportunity to learn how to overcome our weaknesses.” True, some protagonists also overcome moral weaknesses, but in order to be role models for everyone these heroes reach nearly unbelievable heights of virtue. Villain protagonists are more realistic characters, not necessarily as role models but as examples of what we do not want to be but all too easily can become.
There are many video games that give players the option to be on the evil side (for example, the Dark Side/Empire in many Star Wars games), or let them choose whether to make the main playable character a hero, saving people, or a villain, destroying things and killing people on the way to some ultimate goal. Some of these games have multiple endings that depend on the choices the player made (a popular example of that is the Mortal Kombat games).
Prototype, as TVTropes.org puts it, “automatically assumes the player will choose to behave the way players ‘always’ behave in a Wide Open Sandbox game,” that is, like a remorseless villain. One interpretation of all this is rooting for a villain and even taking some responsibility for their villainous actions can be cathartic, which just demonstrates that we have more in common with the villains than we’d like to think.
The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between
There is an important trend in the growing category of antagonist-centered stories: redemption. Not every villain protagonist achieves victory like Dr. Horrible, but the rest don’t always lose to their heroic counterparts the way the Wolf did in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Sometimes the villain becomes a better person, even a hero, by the end of the story and secures a happy ending.
This theme of reformed villain protagonists often comes up in the superhero genre. Stories like Megamind and Superior Spiderman explore what happens when a supervillain defeats the superhero and becomes the new protagonist. In both of those examples, they become much more heroic because it seems heroes are a necessary part of the story they are in. These stories have the advantage of surprise, and their unusual circumstances can teach unusual morals. In many of them, the villain finds life without opposition not nearly as pleasant as they might have expected – a further cautionary tale.
When we allow our villain protagonist to reform, many possibilities spring up and we expand into many different genres. The comic book series turned TV show Lucifer focuses on the infamous fallen angel of the Bible. He does not see himself as a villain; he sees God as the villain. From a third-person perspective, though, God may still be seen as a force for good, and Lucifer as a villain protagonist with a sympathetic backstory who is slowly being redeemed. This has some dramatic implications. To paraphrase a line from another character, “if you can be redeemed, Lucifer, anyone can.”
Most people wouldn’t consider the main character of Jerry Maguire a villain protagonist. This is because Maguire’s redemption arc begins close to the beginning of the movie; he realizes that he and his industry are morally reprehensible and decides to change himself. He regrets that decision at various times in his story, but he ultimately makes it work. He “wins,” as the protagonist is expected to do.
What Does This Mean?
Whether or not an antagonist-centered story “works” is subjective. Each member of the audience decides for themselves whether the writing and/or acting makes him/her sympathize with the villain protagonist, reconsider their assumptions about morality or power, or have whatever other reactions the storyteller was trying to evoke. But there are some people who enjoy these stories and draw lessons from them, which is all that’s required to classify antagonist-centered stories as a viable sub-genre. The more important question is whether or not storytellers should tell more antagonist-centered stories. Are they “good” or “right”? This is also considered subjective, but arguments can be made.
As previously mentioned, these stories can teach audiences not to assume people are “evil” without learning their backstories and motivations and that even the worst anti-hero can do good and be redeemed. These are, in theory, good lessons to learn. On the other hand, some would argue that not everyone should be forgiven because of a sympathetic backstory. There is push-back against Lucifer, for example, from Christian communities who cry that making the Devil a hero runs contrary to the whole Christian belief system.
Making audiences reconsider right versus wrong isn’t necessarily a good thing either. Villain protagonist stories could be called arguments for moral relativism, a philosophy many people disagree with. Again, many villain protagonist stories are re-imaginings of fairy tales or the superhero genre, the stories children know best. If antagonist-centered stories are teaching moral relativism, they’re most likely teaching it to children. Whether that’s a philosophy one agrees with as an adult or not, is it a philosophy we want children to learn?
Ultimately, though, antagonist-centered stories work as cautionary tales. Audiences can be cautioned about how corrupting power can be and how corrupt humans already are. If we find ourselves sympathizing and empathizing with Lex Luthor or the Big Bad Wolf, the correct response is to be encouraged to be better than them. This can be an even stronger motivator than the incredible standards set by heroes.
What do you think? Leave a comment.