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I'm a good way through writing my fantasy story, and up until now, my antagonist has been portrayed as being a megalomaniac, and my protagonist (and myself) have believed this to be true.

However, I have had an idea that has suddenly made the antagonist's actions reasonable... while his actions have been more than a bit unethical and high-handed, they're quite justifiable all of a sudden.

The antagonist has been portrayed as a power-hungry megalomaniacal avatar of a god, who has murdered the avatars of his fellow gods in order to weaken them and allow him to gather more worshippers, and he appears to be gathering magical power solely for the sake of the power. The conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist has always been portrayed as the antagonist being the enemy of the protagonist (in trying to kill the avatars of the other gods of the pantheon), but the protagonist being the antagonist's opponent. The protagonist wants the antagonist to resume his natural place in the pantheon, and stop trying to dominate it.

However, the idea that I've had was that the antagonist has been trying to gather sufficient power so that he can go back in time (time travel has already been established being used by the protagonist, and the antagonist should be similarly capable) and enact a change to the world that will lock an even worse antagonist out of this universe forever. In essence, this change has already taken place, so long ago that it is almost forgotten, and no-one knows or really cared how it happened. The antagonist has decided that he must have gone back in time and done the deed, but it would require a stupendous amount of power to pull off... far, far more than he had access to at the time.

My problem is that this provides a good deal of justification for the antagonists's actions, especially considering that if he was actually the one who changed the world to ensure its safety, it could cause a paradox if he failed to go back in time to do the deed. Paradoxes are bad, even - or especially - for the gods and their avatars. It doesn't change the fact that the antagonist has been doing the wrong things... it merely provides justification.

My problem is that I can't decide if this new idea and its implications are a good or a bad thing. Either way, it won't require that I rewrite anything I've written so far... it will just change the nature and the result of the upcoming conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist.

Can anyone say what I should consider in making this decision? Am I making things too complex? Should my antagonist be unexpectedly sympathetic? Have I missed something important in the process of plotting and writing this story?

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    Related: Should my readers be able to identify with the bad guy?. (Ideally, take a look at the answers and refine your question to explain what information beyond that will be helpful to you.)
    – Laurel
    Nov 22, 2021 at 0:59
  • Whether "reasonable" here means simply logical, or what most people might do, can you explain how that plot outline and the actions of the antagonist being reasonable are related? Isn't any connection too tenuous to follow? Nov 25, 2021 at 14:10

5 Answers 5

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This is a great idea, but keep one important thing in mind.

First of all, there's absolutely nothing wrong with making an antagonist sympathetic, reasonable and likable. If anything, it's good writing! The best villains in literature, video games and movies are the ones with some personality, charm, charisma, or some other likable and relatable qualities - they aren't just "evil", completely monstrous, or doing things for no reason or just to cause chaos. (With the obvious exception of force-of-chaos villains where that's clearly established to be their entire philosophy, like the Joker. Your villain can be an agent of chaos with no other motive, as long as you write him right, but usually you want them to have a more nuanced philosophy that isn't just blowing things up, and even the Joker had a deeper mindset than just unbridled anarchy.)

"Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!"

In general, though, you want a villain to have some kind of reasoning behind what they do. There's some kind of method to their madness and a reasoning behind their actions, even if that methodology is twisted or wrong. This is why we don't remember basically anything about the lesser Marvel villains in the side movies like Darren Cross (who?) or Malekith (huh?), since they're cookie-cutter "bad guys" whose whole shtick is simply having the powers of the protagonist but using them for evil. But Thanos from Infinity War stands out incredibly strongly because he has a clear reason for doing what he's doing, he is eloquent enough to lay it out, and he explains that reasoning to the audience and communicates it through his actions. However twisted that reason might be, he knows what he's doing and why, and we know clearly why the protagonists are trying to stop him. Both sides are acting on their own, independent philosophies, and the reason the conflict happens is because their philosophies, and the means to act on them, cannot coexist. We can understand Thanos's philosophy on some level because it is a real philosophy that exists in our world right now - the fact that eventually the Earth and the universe at large will run out of resources and be too overpopulated - even if we don't agree with the genocidal and extreme way he chooses to act on his beliefs.

"Little one, it's a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources, finite... if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction."

So, giving your antagonist a clear reason for his actions is great. It means that you're giving him a philosophy, and now the conflict becomes the fact that the protagonist disagrees with how he is acting on it. In theory, this is fantastic. It provides an additional layer of nuance to your villain, making him more sympathetic but not fully excusing his negative actions, and it gives a more clear and direct reason for why they oppose each other.

But there is one snag that you could fall into here, and it's a trap that many writers have fallen into before you.

Even if the villain's philosophy makes sense, their actions should not be excused by it. They should be clearly established to be either acting on that reasonable philosophy in an unreasonable way, or to be misinterpreting that philosophy.

What I mean by that is that if you go too far in justifying the villain's actions, and they actually start to make sense to the reader and become a little too understandable, the protagonist automatically becomes less likable. Suddenly the question is not why the villain is doing what he's doing, but why the protagonist is trying to stop him. If you, as the writer, cannot provide a meaningful answer to that question, your protagonist starts to, for lack of a better word, look like the villain.

And hey, maybe that's what you want! But if you don't want that, and you still want the reader to identify with and root for the protagonist, you need to make sure the villain is not so likable and reasonable that they inadvertently become the hero instead. The protagonist still needs a reason to oppose them despite their philosophical justification. Is the villain acting too aggressively on his philosophy? Does the villain not actually understand or comprehend the full scale of what he's doing, to the point where his misguided actions endanger the world itself? Is the villain ignorant of the true powers he is tampering with, or too arrogant and proud to let himself consider the consequences of his actions? Give the villain some other quality that makes him still opposable and villainous, despite having good intentions or a logical motivation behind his actions. In the case of Thanos, while his idea of preventing resource exhaustion was understandable and admirable, his means of solving the problem was so repugnant that there would be no mistaking him for the hero.

Naturally, as you get older, villains tend to talk a little more sense. In the end, it's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal who put it best:

SMBC comic about siding with all the villains.

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    Another story that does this really well is The Watchmen by Alan Moore (also a movie!). Everyone has a motivation that kind of makes sense and it leaves you wondering who the good and bad guys really are. The characters are wonderfully written. Recommended reading for OP.
    – Seth R
    Nov 22, 2021 at 17:12
  • Also, with the current pandemic, we can see just how wrong Thanos is by seeing that a comparatively minor reduction in workforce severely disrupts production, transportation, and allocation of products and services, among other things. Nov 22, 2021 at 18:18
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    I would add that sometimes, in really good writings, everyone is flawed. The heros are not purely heroic and right, the villains are not purely evil and wrong. Everyone is instead doing the best they can, given their background, philosophy, and experience as described in the story - and those conflict. The villain has a short fuse and is prone to jumping to extremes and over reacting, and is selfish, but is still a 3D personality not a caricature evildoer. ......
    – Stilez
    Nov 23, 2021 at 6:47
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    ........ The hero has screwed their life up and hurt people and wants to do good but has a lot to learn and tries to force good ideas on people, then gets resentful and a bit petty/vengeful when these ideas aren't adopted with open arms. Whatever. The point is, I would not be scared necessarily of blurring things. A villain can be sympathised with, and a hero disagreed with, and it doesn't need to spoilt the story. It could enhance it.
    – Stilez
    Nov 23, 2021 at 6:47
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    I'd add that "the villain's actions must not be justified" is a very western perspective. In many Asian dramas, two equally justifiable philosophies clash (e.g. preserving nature vs. preserving human lives, protecting the emperor vs. protecting one's own family etc.). The villain is more of an antagonist there, rather than evil. Western pop culture mostly knows that from "good cops" hunting the main protagonist. Nov 23, 2021 at 15:12
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I have a slightly different take on Sciborg's excellent answer.

Yes, by all means give your antagonist a reason to do whatever it is he is doing. In fact, he should believe himself to be right. In the words of someone wise (but I forgot who): Nobody is the villain in their own life story. So in the story told from the antagonists perspective, he is the good guy, doing what is right. Maybe this justifies his methods in his eyes, or maybe he by himself doesn't like his methods but sees no other way...

but

but...

Your story already has a protagonist and from what you write that character is a true protagonist, meaning you want the readers to root for him. Which means that your antagonist may think of himself as the hero, but your reader should not become confused about who is the antagonist and who the protagonist. While there are a few stories with the interesting twist that in the end it turns out the good guy is actually the bad guy and vice versa, I don't think that's the story you are writing.

Explaining the reasoning to the reader makes the antagonist more life-like, more believable, his motivations clear and his actions more understandable. But it should be clear to the reader that he is wrong. Sciborg used Thanos as an example. We get introduced to Thanos as a bad guy first, with his actions clearly inexcusable and immoral (random slaughtering of half a planet's population, etc.) - we may agree with his philosophy, or at least consider it somewhat reasonable, but not his methods. While the movies play with the thought, and tease us to entertain the "what if he's right?" idea, they never place him across the line into protagonist territory.

So while your idea could enhance the story, I would recommend ensuring that the reader doesn't mistake the antagonist for a second protagonist, expecting their seeming conflict to be somehow solved and the real antagonist to appear (maybe in the time-travel sequence). You'd disappoint your readers.

For example, the antagonist thinks he travelled back in time - but maybe the protagonist, or someone else (and thus the reader) knows that isn't true. In fact, if he travelled back and tried to do what he thinks he did, he may disturb the real time-travel hero, prevent that save and doom everyone.

As a reader we would still understand why he does what he does, and even why he thinks himself in the right, but we wouldn't side with him.

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    What makes Thanos a great villain is that "Infinity War" does not cast him as the antagonist but as a "Villain Protagonist". He has the most screen time compared to any of the Avengers, with Iron Man and Cap having a shockingly low on screen time. Thanos works here because he is addressing a major problem of overpopulation... and his solution is the logical albeit horrific one. Contrast with the heroes position of "We don't trade in lives" Thanos is the logical end of someone who does... I can save half the universe, at the cost of the other half.
    – hszmv
    Nov 22, 2021 at 13:10
  • "For example, the antagonist thinks he travelled back in time - but maybe the protagonist, or someone else (and thus the reader) knows that isn't true. " This is great, and this would fit into the idea of the antagonist being an extreme narcissist.
    – bob
    Nov 22, 2021 at 19:34
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Some of the best writing advice I ever got was summed up thusly:

To the reader, the most important character is the protagonist. To the writer, it is the antagonist.

This has kind of ruined me when I look upon works of fiction because I look for what the antagonist brings to the table and how that forces the protagonist to react. And do not confuse Antagonist with Villain OR Protagonist with Hero. Antagonists and Protagonists are the focus of the story while Villains and Heroes are the embodiments of differing ideals.

For example, Walter White, the drug kingpin, is the Protagonist of "Breaking Bad" while Hank Schrader, the DEA cop, is the Antagonist. However, Walter is clearly the villain of the story while Hank is the Hero.

In another example I like to use, Disney's Mulan (the animated one), Mulan is clearly the Hero and the Protagonist, but the villain Shan Yu is not the Antagonist. Mulan's true Antagonist is Chinese Gender Roles, which box both men and women into roles collectively that might not suit them. Most of the musical numbers center around the roles and people's places in society with them ("Please Bring Honor to Us" details the expected role of women and the high level philosophy. "Reflections" details Mulan's individuality and her inability to fit the mold and thus the shame she believes she brings to the family. "Be a Man" discusses what is expected of men and how shameful it is to be unfit for combat. "A Girl Worth Fighting For" is a song among the more common men in Mulan's unit and how that they see going to war as something they can use to make them more attractive to the women back home. Finally the ending number "True to Yourself" extols the virtues of individuality over conformity that is the primary conflict of the film.). Tellingly, Shan Yu's invasion is only mentioned in passing and he is never directly mentioned. (The closest is the opening line in "Be a Man".) Additionally, of all the people who learn of Mulan's pretending to be a man to join the army, only Shan Yu does not see the difference. When Mulan pulls her hair back, he reacts in horror and rage to find that "The soldier from the mountains" aka, the person who singlehandedly defeated his army of thousands, is in the room with him. He treats her as the biggest threat in the room and prioritizes killing her over the officer he almost choked to death.

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  • Wow. I do like that advice!
    – Stilez
    Nov 23, 2021 at 6:49
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Plot twist 1: It is revealed (in line with your idea) that the antagonist came across ancient records of an ancient seal enacted to seal out a great and terrible power, and saw someone involved that had so many similarities to himself that he concluded he must go back in time otherwise that ancient seal could not have been enacted.

Plot twist 2: The protagonist finds out from a carefully hidden ancient record that if there had not been that ancient seal then the antagonist would be so power hungry that he would become an even worse antagonist than he already is now. But the protagonist has no idea how to enact the seal, and is afraid to reveal this to the antagonist for fear of unpredictable consequences.

Plot twist 3: The antagonist finally got enough power to go back in time, and the protagonist manages to borrow some of that power to tag along. They make a temporary truce and then together discover an ancient time nexus that permits exploring possible futures and also records a method to seal off a possible future. There they learn that all the terrible things the antagonist had done in the future were technically unnecessary, as there were possible futures where he did not do them, but those futures were marked as no longer accessible because he had already done them in the actual future.

Plot twist 4: They can see that there are still accessible futures diverging from a later point, one in which the antagonist gradually gets corrupted by his immense power to the point of insanity, and another in which the antagonist seems to be missing, and many others. They realize that they would have to seal off that future in which the antagonist gets corrupted if they wanted to prevent it. The antagonist argues with the protagonist that he would not get corrupted, and they are at an impasse. They decide to learn more from the time nexus first.

Plot twist 5: From the records stored at the time nexus itself, they see that there have been many people who had discovered and used the nexus. The more they read, the more uneasy they become, because these users could also see the possible futures in which the antagonist got power-corrupted, but none of them did anything about it despite all of them using the nexus to seal off other bad futures, mostly with natural calamities. They suddenly realize that the nexus only allows sealing off possible futures in a manner that does not infringe on the moral agency of conscious beings, and that only the antagonist is permitted to seal off his own possible evil future.

Plot twist 5: The antagonist finally figures out that in the second accessible future he is missing because he was sealed away. He finally chooses to go ahead, to atone for what he had already done in the future. He activates the nexus to seal off his own possible evil future, and instantly vanishes. The nexus now shows that and many other possible futures to be inaccessible.

Plot twist 6: But the protagonist still does not understand where the ancient records came from. He could not write them, because it would be forbidden by the universe rules from reaching his future self. Eventually, he finds one more record by a wise user of the time nexus. That user records that she saw all the possible futures related to the antagonist but could not directly seal the bad ones off as it would violate his moral agency, so she searched the possible futures to find a way to successfully prompt the antagonist to come to the time nexus.

Plot twist 7: By studying the possible futures, she could estimate the personality of the antagonist, and guess the most likely outcome of each possible action that she took. In the futures where the antagonist did not see any ancient records, she estimated that the antagonist would likely still do evil things for the sake of power (the other futures where he did not do anything evil were possible but unlikely). In contrast, she found that in some futures where the antagonist saw records written by her, he would be likely in her estimation to attempt to gain power for a more noble purpose and hence kill less indiscriminately. She then used the time nexus to seal off futures in which her 'records' failed to be received by the right people, as well as futures in which the antagonist found out about her.

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  • This is just one possible story that gives moral depth to the antagonist without being unclear about his actions being evil.
    – user21820
    Nov 23, 2021 at 17:44
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People with some form of psychopatchic / sociopathic disorder tend to find something to justify / reason-away their actions. People think Megalomaniacs just hoard power for no reason. But, even if they do, they still find ways to justify it (either to others, if they care about others, or just to themselves, if they're also narccisstic and only think of themself).

The simple fact is the human mind wants motive to support action, to both justify why it's doing, and to use as an argument in case someone questions them.

So, your situation plays perfectly in with your megalomaniac. In fact, it adds depth to them. They're not 2-dimensional cardboard cut-out bad guy that just wants power for the sake of wanting power. They have a real motive now. They think they're the "chosen one" that went back in time and changed history. So, they become singly driven to make that happen... and any cost.

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