In traditional screenplay writing, the lead characters simply broke down into a protagonist and antagonist.
The protagonist is a symbol of uprightness, working toward the values and objectives of the movie.
An antagonist meanwhile opposes the former. He goes against the theme of the screenplay and provides challenges for the protagonist at every turn.
Fortunately, not every movie is like this. If so, then we’d get bored with cinema very easily. This is when we as writers break the rules and bring in the anti-hero and the anti-villain.
These two characters are not simply the opposite of their more traditional counterparts. An anti-hero is not the opposite of the hero because the anti-hero could be the central figure of the movie, just like a traditional hero.
Likewise, the anti-villain cannot simply be the opposite of the traditional antagonist because an anti-villain could be supporting the hero of the movie.
Perhaps, even supporting the anti-hero at times. See Mike helping Walter White set-up his drug empire.
The common theme between an anti-hero and an anti-villain is they both are gray characters. They cannot be purely evil or purely good.
Imagine Clark Kent but with an alcohol problem. Or Cruella De Vil with a soft spot for cats and little kids.
👉The main difference between an anti-hero and anti-villain is whether or not the story revolves around them. In other words, does the character in question take the normal narrative place of a hero in story? Do we follow his or her journey?
Consider this scenario with Dr. Freeze (Batman’s nemesis). In the movie, Batman & Robin (1997), the story revolves around Batman & Robin and how they investigate the anti-villain Dr. Freeze for a string of diamond robberies.
Later, we learn Dr. Freeze is using the money to fund a cure to save his terminally ill wife (Dr. Freeze’s redeeming quality).
In this 1997 movie, Dr. Freeze is the anti-villain because the movie has a traditional hero or heroes in Batman and Robin.
But what if we switched it around? What if the movie is titled Dr. Freeze: Origins. In this movie, we follow Dr. Freeze’s life and see how he fell in love with a woman, who later becomes terminally ill. This leads to Freeze’s life in crime and the inevitable showdown with Batman.
In this scenario, Dr. Freeze is the anti-hero because he (and all his flaws) become the central figure of the story. He takes the place of the traditional protagonist in a narrative tale.
So that’s really the main difference between those two terms. It comes down to whether or not the character is the central part of the story.
The hero or protagonist was always the center of attention. Pop culture adored him. He was the white knight that conquered all.
The day was always his in the end, no matter the immense opposition in his way. In recent years though, the preference of audiences everywhere has shifted.
Thanks to new approaches to modern storytelling, the anti-hero is one that’s finding more support by the day. He is not your conventional protagonist.
He doesn’t stand for truth or justice, nor does he take the high road. The anti-hero is representative of real human nature. He is not purely good or evil.
There are no black and white definitions to group him, he is who he is. He is good when he needs to be, and but is not afraid to match the monstrosity of villains when the situation demands it.
A complex character that could easily be any one of us if push came to shove.
A central character with unconventional heroic traits, the antihero can be confused for the antagonist. He shares similar attributes with the latter.
Alternatively, he does the job of a typical hero but achieves his purpose through unsavory ways. An anti-hero is a person we can understand. Their value system may differ sharply from ours, but his plight is relatable.
The most common type of antihero is the hero or protagonist with a righteous goal but who uses villain-like strategies to attain it. Wolverine from X-Men is a great example.
Wolverine is a hero who kills to achieve his objectives, which goes against conventional hero attributes.
Another famous example from antihero history is Batman. The capped hero of the night watches over the fictional crime-plagued city of Gotham.
He is a rich billionaire who achieves his hero status through wealth and intensive training, inspired into that life by the tragedy of his parents’ deaths.
Here is the hero Batman using “aggressive” interview techniques on Joker:
Unlike the conventional hero, he constantly crisscrosses the morality line. He breaks the law, and often bones too, and is not afraid to use deception and underhand tactics to win.
In fact, many other superheroes who’ve teamed up with him have had problems with his methods.
Beyond the superhero genre, Breaking Bad also features an excellent anti-hero. Walter White is a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer.
His family can’t afford treatment so he resorts to making and selling methamphetamine.
I cover in more detail Walter’s story arc in my article “how to write your first screenplay.”
He grows into a huge drug dealer, but his goal is noble. He seeks to spare his family from the expenses of chemo, and save enough money so they can live comfortably when he’s gone.
His villain-like actions are outright bad, he even has to kill along the way, but his purpose is relatable and righteous.
He just wants a good life for his struggling wife and handicapped son, something he won’t manage on a high school teacher’s salary.
The villain is the protagonist’s rival. He stands for everything the protagonist/hero is against. He fights to keep him from his goals.
But what happens when the villain is not necessarily evil? When he doesn’t mean to stop the protagonist, but has his own agenda and purpose? When the hero is the one actually getting in his way? That’s when he becomes an anti-villain.
Further, as noted before, the anti-villain cannot be the central figure in the story.
We’ll take an example from one of the best anti-villain movies of recent times, Avengers: Infinity War. The Avengers are a group of superheroes who protect the planet from extraterrestrial threats.
In Infinity War, they come up against the intergalactic conqueror Thanos. Driven by watching his planet dying due to overpopulation and depletion of resources, Thanos is determined to ensure no other planet endures the same fate.
Here is Thanos speaking openly of his intentions:
He embarks on a quest to bring balance, as he calls it, to the universe, killing half of all life wherever he goes. In his mind, by wiping out half the population, the other half will thrive.
He believes it is absolutely the only way out and that everyone will be better off for it. The other option would be to wait for overpopulation to make the universe extinct.
His actions are selfless, despite them being monstrous. He seeks power, (the infinity stones), not to for his gain but to fulfill a higher purpose.
We even find out in the sequel that he destroys the stones stating they only served as temptation after his mission was complete. What he does is wrong, but he acknowledges it as a lesser of two evils.
Thanos is the villain of the story (the Avengers as the protagonists), but he is the anti-villain. He is hard to hate, easy to understand.
If you watched the movie, I’m sure you were in his corner, holding your breath as he faced near defeat, smiling with him as he basked in a victorious sunset at the end.
Thanos is representative of the anti-villain with a conscience. The villain of the story with a twisted yet morally-sensible goal.
Still, genocide is still hard to justify. So here is another example of an anti-villain is Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad.
Mike starts out as the muscle to Gustavo Fring and eventually sides with Walter White, who in turn eventually kills Mike.
Mike doesn’t hesitate to kill and do the dirty things needed to run a drug trafficking empire.
His only redeeming quality?
He’s doing it to give all his earnings to his granddaughter. He doesn’t care for the money. He just wants to make sure his family is taken care of in the end.
Mike was such a compelling character that even staunch supporters of Walter White (after multiple seasons) turned on him.
Here’s Mike’s journey:
Over the years, it has become clear that audiences are no longer resonating with the general evilness approach.
Characters being evil simply because it’s in their nature no longer cuts it today. People don’t just do things because of who they are.
In reality, people dwell in the gray area when it comes to morality. You can see that in every facet in life – business, politics, sports and especially in social media.
So if you want to create compelling characters, make sure they have memorable traits and try the anti-hero and anti-villain route.
They’re very similar in their unique place in cinema, and the only difference is who’s in charge of the cinematic narrative.
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