In most stories–whether they’re written or visual–we’re used to a pretty cut and dried formula. There’s a goodie, and a baddie, and we’re supposed to root for the goodie and hate the baddie. Right? This isn’t always the case, though, and the great thing about telling a story is that we have license to play with what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Sometimes villains become more memorable than heroes and sometimes good guys aren’t always so good.
But there’s a technical split amongst these kind of characters, beyond the ambiguous creative attributes. I’ll go over a few of them here:
- The Protagonist. The protagonist is always the main character of the story, the one whose struggle we’re seeing first hand. This is a technical term and has no basis in morality. The protagonist is simply the person the story is happening to. They can be an utter saint, morally ambiguous, or Satan incarnate, but if the story is theirs then they are the protagonist.
- The Antagonist. This is not necessarily ‘the villain.’ The antagonist is the person/force/entity that is throwing problems in the protagonist’s way. Again, their moral standpoint doesn’t matter, because this is a technical term. The antagonist–which might not even be a person–is the one creating chaos in the main character’s world.
- The Anti-Hero. This is where we begin to get into creative territory when it comes to crafting goodies and baddies. I personally love anti-heroes because no one is perfect and even the kindest, nicest, most generous of us has our flaws. An anti-hero might not be a good guy in the eyes of the law, the church, or their parents, but we identify with their plight and they’re (usually) trying to do what they believe is right. Think Robin Hood. The anti-hero seems to be very big right now in the creative medium, especially in movies and TV shows. I think we’re tired of the pure of heart and want to see our heroes a little messed up and skewed. Plus, the anti-hero is a fun way to explore those things we’re probably never going to get to experience in real life, like being a double agent, in a biker gang, or an international jewel thief.
- The Villain. The villain is the antagonist as a true bad guy. Their intentions are evil and wrong and they just want to destroy the protagonist and all they stand for. The thing about villains, though, is that they’re more interesting when their bad intentions have a reason, especially one we can all relate with. The mad scientist in his island lair concocting a bomb to blow up the world is campy and fun, but I’m personally more interested in the villains who went bad because of some profound hurt or struggle that I understand.
- The Unreliable Narrator. Slightly different than the subjects above, this type of protagonist cuts into strange moral territory as well. An unreliable narrator is the focal character of the story who is also lying to the reader, or omitting things, or trying to make themselves look better than they are. This isn’t done by having some big reveal at the end like, “and Joe Good was the murderer all along!” but usually there are plenty of clues throughout the narrative so the reader will gradually come to realize this person is lying or delusional.
There are many creative ways to craft your main characters, and not every good guy has to be good, or every bad guy trying to blow up the world. That’s the great thing about fiction–it’s a great medium for exploring the gray areas of morality.