Antagonist has its roots in the ancient Greek word for enemy, rival, opponent, or villain: antagonistēs. Aristotle defined the antagonist as the obstacle to the protagonist. But why is this archetypal character so unchanging and one-dimensional in our stories? Are critics right to complain that most antagonists are simplistic?
Mauvaise Lee is a mysterious and sinister character in my Silent Lee books. She’s introduced as Silent’s absent mother. She’s always traveling to distant places for her work as a spice importer. Spices are just her cover, though, to which end she sends oddly aromatic packages each year as Christmas gifts.
Mauvaise is not Silent’s birth mother. She’s a distant cousin from the midwest, adopted herself, and resentful that she can’t do magic the way most Lees can. She knows Silent’s caregiver, Great Aunt Generous, because she came to Boston for college, and Aunt Gen kept an eye on her and tried to teach her magic.
Aunt Gen wanted to raise Silent, but was in a dangerous line of magical work in which people avoid entanglements for fear their family members might be kidnapped for leverage over them. So Mauvaise stepped in as the legal mother. But hers is a name that foreshadows trouble. It’s from this French word:
Mauvaise (adjectif, nom masculin et adverbe), Qui présente un défaut, une imperfection essentielle ; qui a une valeur (utilitaire, esthétique, morale, intellectuelle) faible ou nulle. - Dictionnaires les Robert
Because of her exposure to the Lee family, Mauvaise has some knowledge of magic despite living in the non-magical world. She works for the, no, a CIA: a shadow agency named Central Investigation of Anomalies.* Mauvaise believes inexplicable events and implausible coincidences are clues to hidden magic, and she's very interested in Aunt Gen and her magical door to a parallel world.
But wait! Doesn’t Mauvaise have feelings of loyalty for Generous and Silent? Nope. Faible ou nulle, little or none! Which is where we step off the branch of Silent Lee’s plot and onto the massive trunk from which it arises. The antagonist in Western literature is a character who is happy to do others harm in the selfish pursuit of their own goals.
Villains have been a feature of stories for a long time. Shakespeare’s Othello has Iago, one of the most devious of antagonists and a template for many to come. Iago was keen to manipulate others as evinced in this famous quote:
"So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all."
He’s referring to Desdemona, who is married to Othello. Motivated by the jealousy Iago seeds, Othello murders Desdemona, then kills himself rather than face trial. Iago doesn’t fare that well either–he is arrested and sent to trial, while Casio, Iago’s rival for the position of Governor of Cyprus, is reinstated. So the antagonist, after ruining almost everyone’s lives, does fall in the end. But he doesn’t die, he remains a threat, however remote, for some future plot.
Mauvaise Lee rides for a fall too, but not before doing a lot of harm. After capturing Aunt Gen and faking her death to inherit her house and take its magical door, Mauvaise sends her agents to hunt Silent and her friend, Raahi. Not much of a mother!
But what, exactly, is she? Her name gives us the critical clue both to her and to antagonists in general. She has une imperfection essentielle, an essential imperfection. That’s not an expression we use in English. When I’m unsure of how to translate a word, I look up synonyms. Here are a few for essentielle: absolument, avant tout, constitutionnellement, intrinsèquement.
In case your French is as rusty as mine, here are English equivalents: Absolute, primary, constitutional, intrinsic. The phrase refers to a very deep imperfection or flaw. Bad to the bone, which can be said about most literary villains. Our stories do not take a generous view antagonists. We usually presume they are irredeemable.
Professors Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams of the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia penned an immensely important paper in the Journal of Personality Research twenty years ago (December, 2002). The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy is an article I’ve read often, not because I’m a psychologist (I’m not), but because I’m an author.
Their paper observes that this dark triad of personalities “entail a socially malevolent character with behavior tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness.”
And there you have it: A set of traits that characterize Iago and thousands of literary and movie antagonists who followed. The stories may be fiction, but the character traits are real.
Ten years after the Paulhus and Williams paper came out, it had spawned dozens of studies and been cited 350 times in academic papers (The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10-Year Review, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, July 2015). Now, twenty years later, the upward curve of articles and citations is beyond anyone wanting to count. It started something huge in psychology.
A review by three professors from Western Sydney University (Monica Koehn et al., Australian Journal of Psychology, November 2020 online) gives us authors a helpful summary of this triad of antagonistic traits:
Narcissism is described by a sense of grandiosity, egotism, and self‐orientation. Machiavellianism is associated with manipulative behaviors, self‐interest, exploitation of others, and a ruthless lack of morality. Psychopathy is characterized by impulsivity, antisocial behavior, and a lack of empathy and remorse. Collectively, the traits can be viewed as dispositions to engage in self‐interested and antisocial approaches to attaining an individual’s goals.
While I’m sharing my sources for designing the personalities of antagonists, I’ll mention another study that looks at the ability to tell effective lies, or deception production: “The data indicate that the Dark Triad traits and Antagonism are associated with perceived deception production ability” (Wissing and Reinhard, Frontiers in Psychology, Aug. 2019).
And you probably noticed the inclusion in that quote of a fourth personality term from a different model, the Big Five summary of personality traits: Antagonism. Isn’t that from the same root as antagonist, the character who thwarts the protagonist? Precisely!
Antagonism is the opposite of Agreeableness, which is the name of one of ‘big five’ major personality scales used to describe us all, the others being Extroversion, Openness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. (Each, of course, has a bottom end to its scale: Antagonism, Introversion, Closed-mindedness, Carelessness, and Emotional Stability.)
It also bears noting that researchers are looking into the psychology of good in the form of a Light Triad. Just as the dark triad consists of negative personality traits, the light triad consists of positive ones: empathy, compassion, and altruism. (Scott Barry Kauffman of the University of Pennsylvania, et al., Frontiers in Psychology, March 2019). A truly good protagonist is going to respect, value and trust in the goodness of their fellow human beings. Wow, what a sucker… The average dark-triad antagonist is going to give them a lot of trouble before the story ends!
But back to Mauvaise Lee, Silent Lee’s antagonist in my middle-grade novels. As her name suggests, shehas an intrinsic flaw: She’s totally lacking in empathy, and can only see Silent and Generous as means to her ends. She has the antagonist’s dark triad of manipulative, selfish traits.
The same might be said of almost all antagonists. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, our modern literary antagonists are describable on the three dimensions of the Dark Triad. They are to varying degrees selfish, manipulative, and antisocial.
We often hear criticism of literary antagonists because they lack a backstory that rounds them out and makes them sympathetic. They are drawn only in stark, bold strokes. They’re static and don’t develop the way main characters should. That’s why they’re criticized as being one-dimensional and unbelievable.
But even though our villains seem one-dimensional, we suspend disbelief and accept them wholeheartedly. Why?
It’s because these fictional antagonists are actually quite real in the broad outlines of their personalities. Alas, antagonistic people who possess the dark triad of personality traits really do live amongst us, conning and robbing us or doing harm more subtly as they run large companies or hold high office.
The durability of the so-called one-dimensional villain is understandable once we recognize their deep correspondence to psychological antagonism. These fictional antagonists actually are three-dimensional, it’s just that they occupy a different set of three dimensions than most of us: the dark triad of personality traits.
There is speculation that the dark triad could be an ‘evolved cheater strategy’ (Personality and Individual Differences, Johanesen and Walker, 2018). This is an established social strategy of people who, like Iago, attempt to manipulate and cheat their way to success. Of course, societies would fall apart if everyone did that. But like parasites in a body, cheaters thrive so long as they don’t proliferate so much as to kill their host.
If real antagonists act like highly evolved social parasites who cheat and manipulate the rest of us, then our portrayals of them in our stories may be our way of trying to inoculate ourselves against their influence. German folklorist Kurt Ranke suggested our species, Homo sapiens, be renamed Homo narrans, the storytellers. I think he’s right. Stories are our species’ first and foremost form of education, our way of passing on knowledge and warnings to our children.
Stories about antagonists—how they operate and how to vanquish them—need to be told and retold as long as there are real antagonists among us. Even some of our most outlandish and fantastical antagonists, like Count Dracula and the vampire villains he inspired, are manifestations of the dark triad of predatory traits and act as real life warnings.
The monsters of some of our earliest surviving stories, Beowolf for instance, were literal monsters: Huge, menacing things from swamps, forests, or mountain peaks. Dragons in need of slaying. However, as literature evolved, antagonists took a different form, becoming threats from within the walls of our cities, not the wilds beyond. As we humans began to live in larger social settings, the monsters we faced most often were masquerading as one of us. However, with their triad of antisocial traits, they were not fellow protagonists, they were dangerous antagonists instead.
So our stories have adapted correspondingly, giving us villains who are more real and multidimensional than we like to admit. The one-dimensional villain is a coded representation of these three-dimensional Dark Triad villains.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee stories as well as a teacher and essayist. His novels are available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon or simply request them from your local bookstore.
* I had to laugh when I read that the Department of Defense has just created an agency called the Anomaly Resolution Office. Foreshadowed by Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key with its Central Investigation of Anomalies agency!