11

If all an antagonist did was steal a pie, then they could probably be forgiven after a simple apology. But some antagonists kidnap, murder, conquer whole lands, and routinely hurt the protagonists both physically and mentally. An apology is not enough to cut it.

So how do you keep the main antagonist as redeemable and morally grey but keep them from becoming thoroughly evil, horrible, and irredeemable?

Context

For example, I have a character who is essentially behind every conflict since the beginning of the series, causing lots of harm to the main protagonists over the years, and his main goal would essentially destroy the world as the heroes know it, but I want him to be redeemable enough that he remains "grey" and not "a villain".

One of the biggest difficulties in writing him is therefore figuring out how to keep him from becoming too evil while still driving the plot forward.

I could have him level an entire city, murder people left and right, and torture the protagonists with their worst fears, but that crosses a clear line. But he's also the main antagonist of the story, so he can't just sit around and do nothing either.

I need to somehow balance an antagonist who is both extremely threatening and not wholly a bad person deep down, but these two seem impossible to reconcile, and I can think of no examples of antagonists who mark both boxes.

3
  • 5
    Morally grey to whom? Do you want the protagonist (or any of their allies) to see the antagonist as not wholly a bad person, or do you want the reader to see the antagonist that way? Also, this may change how much your readers identify with your protagonist (which can be intentional, or not)
    – Blueriver
    Jun 27 at 21:15
  • The TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender has an antagonist who fits your description to a T.
    – DLosc
    Jun 28 at 16:15
  • 1
    Does your villain need to be morally grey, or just sympathetic? In the film Collateral, the villain doesn't just do bad things, he's absolutely a horrible human being. But he is shown helping the hero out, and being dangerously competent, and struggling to find meaning, and going through challenges/trials until you actually feel sorry for him, a bit. (Same for heros: put them through hell, show them fail, and overcome, and gain sympathy and relateability of the audience).
    – MGOwen
    Jul 3 at 23:43

11 Answers 11

18

Your question was how an antagonist can be kept "morally grey even after they cause serious harm."

If by "morally grey" you mean that it has to be possible for the reader/watcher to still think that what the actions they have done aren't bad...

And if to intentionally (see footnote) "cause serious harm" = always bad in the moral worldview of your readers...

Then yes, you have a 2+2=5 goal you have set up for yourself. You're saying essentially how can I have something be true and false at the same time.

If, however, you define "morally grey" as, meaning that it's possible to see how, to the antagonist, their actions could actually make sense morally to them...now that's very doable. You just need to show how much your antagonist cares about what's right and wrong. You also will probably want to have their beliefs teased out of them through dialogue or their writings or hearing their thoughts or somehow show that it's properly explicated what their worldview is, why they believe that committing genocide (or whatever heinous act they did) was the morally right move.

This has many examples in stories:

  • Thanos of the recent Avengers movies
  • The Joker in The Dark Knight
  • Satan in Paradise Lost
  • Roy Batty from Bladerunner

Footnote: another direction you could go that may or may not feel helpful to your story...there is the case of unintentionally causing harm, which has its own rich tradition in literature (Oedipus, anyone?).

Is doing something with evil consequences still evil if it was done unintentionally? (To what degree is manslaughter morally different from murder for instance?)

A lot of people feel there is a moral difference, but there's also grey areas. If someone was negligent of their duties (not following safety codes, not watching your kid as often as you (maybe?) should, not building up a dyke around your coastal city that can withstand 100-year floods...) and because of that something bad happens, how much moral responsibility falls on that person's negligence?

2
  • 3
    There is nothing "2+2=5" in this. Even the most moral hero with the best intentions might cause serious harm.
    – vsz
    Jun 27 at 8:11
  • 1
    @vsz good point; I have added the word "intentionally" and a corresponding footnote to talk about that route.
    – levininja
    Jun 27 at 22:09
13

You need to give such villains clear, non-selfish goals. They truly are trying to save something, in their own way, no matter what it costs them personally. And they are sacrificing people, even innocents, for the greater good.

They aren't really working for themselves.

Alternatively, they may be killing and torturing criminals.

Spoiler Alert: John Wick has a bit about that in his first movie, it is made very clear that he was minding his own business when criminals killed the dog he loved more than anything. So he was supposedly a bad guy, but he was killing brutal gangsters left and right, risking life and limb, to exact vengeance for this guy stomping to death the puppy given to John by his dead wife. The audience sees that as a valid and understandable emotional goal.

Later, Wick is mostly killing people in self-defense; the one intentional hit he does, the victim is again a crime boss, and he honorably lets her commit suicide rather than be killed by him. So he doesn't even actually do it.

Killing bad guys, even horrifically, is okay.

And villains can often be cast as killing innocents as a sacrifice to save others. A man with a starving child may kill a stranger that has food but won't share it.

A genius villain might level a city and kill a million, but the audience can know that he's truly trying to save nine billion people: that's 9000 million people. So how bad is it really to sacrifice 1 in 9000 to save the other 8999 in 9000? Might you do the same?

It is at least an understandable trade, to the audience, even if horrific.

You need to make your villain a plausibly misguided hero. Meaning he isn't acting out of selfish interest, or when he is, he is acting against others that themselves are only acting in their own selfish interests.

2
  • Regarding John Wick, you say: "The audience sees that as a valid and understandable emotional goal.". I don't think you and I have seen the same movie. In the John Wick movie that I've seen, John Wick brutally murdered hundreds of people as revenge because one guy killed his dog. There was absolutely no question that John Wick was 100% a bad guy, and certainly not "morally grey".
    – Stef
    Jun 26 at 19:22
  • 1
    @Stef The audience disagrees with you. John Wick goes after the brutal, cruel and uncaring criminals that attacked him and killed his dog for no good reason other than enjoying his pain. Yes, it is revenge, but against criminals for committing a lethal crime. Most people see brutality against brutal criminals as fair game, it is why the law allows people to kill in self-defense, it is the basis of a just war: Are the Ukrainians 100% bad guys for killing the Russian soldiers killing their women and children and invading them? Most of the world thinks the Russians have it coming.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 26 at 21:02
8

The antagonist is the hero of a fundamentally incompatible cause.

You say that the antagonist's main goal would essentially destroy the world as the heroes know it. Why does he want to do this? One possibility is that he's trying to bring about a world that arguably would be such an ethical improvement that any cost to the heroes' world as they know it would be minor in comparison. If you can make that point to the readers—that is, show that his road to hell was paved with good intentions—then he can be an antagonist but have the shade of gray you're looking for.

For example, perhaps your antagonist has a plan that can bring about a utopian world... except that he needs to shatter the entire society of the current world to do it. His plan would bring about a decade of global chaos and untold misery, but after that would come a world that would ensure universal happiness for a thousand years! He has some reason to be SURE he can make this happen as long as the heroes don't stop him, and is absolutely convinced that any cost to present society (and the people in it) is outweighed by the benefits of a millennium of utopia. Anything he has done to the heroes has been to bring about his vision; what's a little torture if it's enough to break the heroes so they stop getting in the way of his utopian world?

As an additional twist (and one that will help readers to be able to sympathize with him), maybe he's not actually the Big Bad after all. He's carrying out this plan because he's acting as the agent for somebody else—possibly somebody who is using him for an ulterior motive. (In a fantasy setting, maybe there's a demon who is orchestrating all of this and knows that the decade of misery is required to bring about a world where the demon rules everything; it's just that the demon is powerless to affect the world as it is now, and has tricked the antagonist into believing he's bringing about a utopia rather than hell on Earth. Whatever the setting, the important part is that there's a reason the Real Big Bad was using the antagonist all this time rather than doing it himself and neither heroes nor readers had a clue about the Real Big Bad's existence.) Once the erstwhile antagonist discovers that he has been tricked all along, he starts helping the heroes instead, giving you the redemption element you're looking for. This would also give you the opportunity to introduce new elements to the story—suddenly, everything the heroes thought they knew about the battle they were fighting has changed. For example, it may be that the erstwhile antagonist was actually only one of several people doing the Real Big Bad's bidding, and now the heroes (with the former antagonist's help) have to track down all these new antagonists before they can actually stop the Real Big Bad's plan. (Possibly some of the things that have befallen the heroes were actually the work of one of these other antagonists, for that matter, and only got blamed on the erstwhile antagonist because he's the only one they knew about.)

That combination of factors—good intentions, the revelation that he is a pawn, and his willingness to shift his allegiance to the side of the heroes once the truth is revealed—should suffice to bring at least some measure of sympathy and redemption to your antagonist.

5

Give the antagonist a clear code of ethics

If your antagonist does a thing that the villain knows is evil then that character is unambiguously evil. That character has said they are evil, both in action and intent. But if you can make the character evil in action but not the intent, you can ride the thin line of moral grey areas.

In the trolley problem, you are asked if it is moral to push one person in front of a trolley to save more than one person. The act, pushing someone in front of a train, is clearly evil. But the outcome of saving 5 people is good. There are a few ways you can approach this and ways your villain could interpret the trolley problem that would lead to a moral grey area.

First,

Doing an evil act is bad. Your villain could believe that the action taken by the protagonists and civilians is evil, and that letting them do the evil act is not acceptable. This villain doesn't push the person. They may also not believe that the actions they take are evil. A might makes right attitude may say that the Villain believes that by attacking and harming people the Villain is applying a superior will to create the greatest good while suppressing the evil actions of those who oppose him. A society of cyborgs being attacked by someone who doesn't believe that humans should be augmented is an example of this.

Second,

The best outcome should be chosen. The total outcome of pushing the person is 4 total lives. Only outcome matters, so pushing the person is moral. This villain pushes the person. If you don't want a sympathetic Antagonist make it so that the good outcome the villain makes is only better if you share their bias. For example, the villain may kill thousands to steal data to ensure it is not lost in a calamity. However, the actual value of that information may be less than they believe since it may be backed up, and only the villain believes it is that important to save the extra copy.

Third,

The trolley problem is too hard for most people to handle, so it must be simplified to achieve the greatest outcome. The best outcome of the trolley problem is one death, but it doesn't matter how that person dies. Therefore, killing the person ensures who ever has to actually make the decision has an easy choice. The villain can't be there for the trolley problem, but they can effect the circumstances of the trolley problem. Do you take in 100 refugees with a virus who will infect 1000 people if they are taken in? Well, if the villain firebombs the refugees, you don't need to make that choice.

Furthermore, if the villain has a clear code of ethics, then the character is not evil, their code is evil and they are being twisted by it. If your villain follows the code you gave them even to their own detriment it will be clear that they are being bound by a code and not acting out of evil self interest.

3

If, at the core, your question is how to make the antagonist into a compelling protagonist, despite his past evil, I propose a broken-redemption arc.

Lean into the evil.

Existing answers take the route of making the main antagonist understandable or likeable, so that he can transition into being a good fellow after all. For a compelling story, I propose exactly the opposite.

Make him evil, really evil. Lean into it. Even if he has a moral code, have him break it. If he has a goal, make the pursuit of it consume him until his actions are even counterproductive to that goal. (He wants to capture a city and rule, peaceably? Fine - but then make him get so consumed by it that he executes the resistance, in the name of peace.) Show that his evil only multiples as he pursues it, and don't be bashful about it. That's what evil does.

But then, break him.

You can do this a number of ways. Have a particularly brutal, evil act sting his dulled conscience with a vengeance that doesn't go away. Have him come within an inch of his life, and realize his own depravity. Have a protagonist give his own life to protect the antagonist, despite his evil. Whatever the case, let the antagonist realize that he is exactly, precisely wrong. If there's anything "good" in this man, let it be this alone - that he is broken over his sins. Let it break him into a shell of a man, and make him sit in that state for a long, solemn time.

Don't leave him there.

Next comes the redemption arc. A protagonist finds him in the broken state. The antagonist is ready to accept any punishment, broken for his wrongdoing. But then, instead of punishing him, have the protagonist choose grace. That is powerful. Maybe the protagonist was in a similar state previously, or maybe just has an incredibly strong moral character. Regardless, instead of reaching out to strike, he offers a hand up and a second chance.

The antagonist, shocked, initially balks, but then accepts the forgiveness offered. He purposes, not to atone for his wrongs, but to live consistently with the new man he wants to be. That lays the groundwork for his redemptive arc, undoing the evil that he had accomplished, and applying that same zeal in a positive direction. He completely acknowledges and owns his past, but he doesn't let it fully define him. The hard 180 turn sets him on the right path, and he proves to the other protagonists, by his imperfect but steadfast commitment, that he is indeed changed. Not gradually, not through strength, but through being totally broken and then forgiven.

Why is this compelling? Because life often goes exactly like this. We run until we hit a breaking point, and then we realize that we were running in the wrong direction all along. At that point, excuses and nuances don't redeem us. Slight changes in direction are insufficient. It requires a brokenness of heart, followed by real forgiveness and a changed life, to be redeemed.

2

He doesn't sound completely irredeemable - the only crime it would be difficult to come back from is the murder. But maybe the people he murdered were themselves evil. (e.g. like in V for Vendetta).

Other crimes such as

Kidnapping: OK, but he was nice, or at least fair to the people who he kidnapped, never torturing or depriving them of basic human needs.

Conquering lands: You say conquer, he says liberate!

Harming the protagonists: Again not the end of the world, as long as the harm is what he sees as necessary (e.g. he thinks they are attempting to sabotage his attempts to make the world a better place, or at least get revenge on some genuinely evil people).

e.g. Batman is chasing a serial rapist, but our protagonist gets in the way and says, "Stop! This is a job for the police!", and in his haste, Batman violently pushes them out of the way, injuring them. Not exactly a nice thing to do, but we wouldn't necessarily call Batman an irredeemable villain because of it.

2

Keep in mind that "Antagonist" and "Villain" are not the same thing, though the latter tends to be the former. Antagonists are in story elements that block the protagonists' goals or desires. Villains are characters who the storyteller wants the audience to morally oppose. One can have a Villain who is the protagonist (Walter White, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Thanos (Infinity War Only)) as well as Antagonists that have no moral opposition to the heroes (generally forces of nature such as storms, harsh environments, and predatorary animals, society norms, such as social or economic classism, political or court drama, or sports stories. Essentially the source of antagonism is not directly targeting the protagonist).

I always like to cite the Disney film Mulan (1998) as an excellent story with a very visible antagonist and villain that are seperate entities. Mulan is one of the more beloved films of the Disney Canon, despite having one of the weakest villains (Shan Yu). But it's clear that Shan Yu is not her antagonist. Mulan, a woman, joins the military disguised as a man (a capital offense) because she wants to save her permanently injured father from a possible death in battle. Having any personal or moral opposition to Shan Yu neither informs her choices nor opposes them. In fact, when she finally meets Shan Yu in the climax, he doesn't move to attack her because she is a woman... but because she is "The soldier from the mountain" that handed him his most humiliating defeat. However, Chinese society actively opposes her even getting into a position to do this and the story makes this clear, to the point that the introduction crowd song "Please Bring Honor to Us" can be read as a hidden villain song ("We all must serve the Emperor who guards us from the Huns/ A man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons"). The song makes it clear that a woman's sole duty is to make babies... male babies none the less... and if she cannot be a perfect bride, then she brings shame upon her family. And bearing arms is always more noble the raising children, which women can't do. Compare that to the guy who, while he does want to kill you for what you did to him, he's at least respecting you as a soldier and worthy opponent without your gender factoring into it.

Other stories are various sports stories where the antagonist is almost always the competition setting (A baseball movie will almost always follow the underdog who will win the league against the favorite champion team, a tournament arc will always have competitors who will put up a tough fight that tests the heroes) but the people who compete against the hero are not themselves morally opposed to the hero... they just want to be the only person who win... expect the end to see the opponent accept his loss and be cordial with the hero.

Courtroom Dramas will occasionally show this among lawyers (it happens more in real life than in Hollywood) where the lawyers arguing a case zealously in the court room are friendly with each other outside of the court room. This happens a lot because in a given area, the legal community is small, and if you specialize in a particular area of law, the number of attorneys who specialize are even smaller. In criminal law (the bulk of legal dramas) the prosecutor's office is small enough that local defense attorneys should know who they are. In the 1992 film "My Cousin Vinny" the titular character, Vinny, is a first time defense attorney and has nothing but friendly interactions with the prosecutor in the case he is litigating. The prosecutor takes Vinny hunting, and when he learns of the out of state lawyer's sleeping trouble (a running gag) he offers to let Vinny stay at his hunting lodge, rent free (it doesn't help... but it was a nice thought). We even learn that the prosecutor's career started as a defense attorney, and he began to morally question his actions after getting a recurring client off of some serious charges which he knew the guy was actually guilty of committing. Now he looks to put the guilty behind bars... but is big enough to concede he could be wrong if shown enough evidence, and does so promptly.

And of course, the villain protagonist is complimented by the "heroic antagonist". In Breaking Bad, Walter White is the protaganist... and his story is the decent into villainy. Hank Shrader is the antagonist, and despite his somewhat offputting and gruff personality, he's every bit the hero. Walt is morally detestable, but is motivated by noble reasons (The road to hell). Hank is societally detestable and has a problem with getting too emotionally invested in his cases, but he's not evil, he's just one of those people who will "Pick on you because they love you". His worst sin is some racial insensitivity towards people of Hispanic descent, but it's shown to be in good fun with his Hispanic partner, who he deeply cares about when the chips are down... and who we are shown gives just as good as we get. But given his role as a DEA agent, he would naturally oppose his drug kingpin brother-in-law.

2

All these "hero" and "villain" and "morally gray character" are always framed in terms of character and story construction and I don't like this framing. I think it's a moral question. Whether you choose to write black and white characters or morally gray ones, perfect characters or flawed ones, I think the important thing is to remember that this always makes you take a stand on your morals and values. If you (deliberately) write a flawed character, this makes you take a position on which of their traits are flaws and why, and which are not. If you write a fully good character, you are taking the position that they traits they exhibit and actions they take are morally good, and vice versa for a fully bad one. And if you write a morally ambiguous character you are taking an even more precise position on which aspects of their character are bad, which are good, for what reasons, and whether this all sums up to a person who is redeemable or not, that people should root for or not, and why. This isn't to say you can't leave space for different readers to disagree and to come to their own conclusions, but even that space is one you choose to create and that choice itself is a moral one.

So in my view you shouldn't be seeing this as a question of "what's the magic sauce of actions and character traits I should give my villain for them to be evil but redeemable". That's a character and story structure question and I worry it's leading you to having a morally muddled story where characters have the traits they need for the plot but where the consequences aren't explored and you risk running into the exact moral dissonances you're worried about. I think instead you should be asking yourself "what do I think is morally right". If you think razing a city is always morally irredeemable, then you shouldn't write a story where a villain does this and is redeemed; you should embrace that this isn't the story you're writing and instead have a lower-stakes story where the villain doesn't take such bad actions, or have a high-stakes story where the villain doesn't get redeemed.

If the "villain is seriously evil but also gets redeemed" is a story you really want to tell then I think you need to dig into the actual morality and human psychology of this story. Maybe take inspiration from real events - what kind of evil acts do the worst people do in this world? Have people done such evil acts and then had some kind of redemption, and if so what kind of redemption was that, in whose eyes and to what extent, and how did it happen? What are the different reasons people might do such evil acts and how does this impact their redeemability? For that matter what are different perspectives people have on those evil acts, what are the impacts or causes that make you feel the word "evil" is justified even if others might not?

I think if you explore those questions and come up with a scenario where you feel you can imagine a person committing acts that are evil enough to make your antagonist high-stakes (and seen as fully evil by your main characters), and also coming to some kind of redemption by your own moral standards, then I think you'll have your answer. Like, I think at that point the details don't matter - you just need to believe them. It's possible many readers will not agree that your character is redeemable enough or evil enough, but if you believe it then you can write your story in a way that makes your case; you could go into the consequences of the evil acts that show them to be evil, you could explore the psychology of your villain to show how they could commit them at some point in their life, how they came to be that kind of person, and how they could later come to be a person who is sufficiently improved, morally speaking, to quality as "redeemed". You could describe that process and how others reacted to them and the impacts of their new actions to make the case this redemption did happen in practice.

The point is, I don't think your readers need to agree with your moral stance under those conditions; within some limits many of those who disagree will still appreciate a well-executed story with a coherent, consistent viewpoint. And unless you're a total moral weirdo the odds are that plenty of readers will agree with your moral stance, and in that case you being confident in that stance and deliberately exploring it will mean you're providing them a satisfying, non-dissonant, maybe even enlightening experience.

And who knows, maybe exploring the moral question might make you realize that this "evil villain is redeemed" isn't the story you want to tell - that you find it compelling instead to explore the details of why the acts the villain commits are evil, how they impact people, how the villain and their henchfolk came to be that way, how different main characters feel about them depending on how they're impacted, and how the main characters can succeed or fail into making things right, without the villain ever needing to be redeemed (after all, IRL people often aren't are they. And that's also something that can be challenging to deal with). Conversely maybe you'll decide that exploring the depths of human depravity is too much of a bummer and that the adventure story you want to tell would be more authentically told with lighter stakes.

0

Did you notice that in perhaps 1,000 years of conflict between England and France, which side you happened to be on defined who were pro- or antagonists, with no reference to bad or good characteristics on either side?

You keep antagonists redeemable and morally grey by portraying them realistically; not in black or white and certainly not in the terms of your examples.

How far did you get, and what made you think you'd gone wrong?

Which three or four authors, in your view, have most closely got this right? Which writers d'you think have tried and failed to portray characters like yours?

The biggest difficulty in writing your character seems to be that you see antagonists as necessarily bad, and protagonists as always good. Where is that written, please?

You seem to be confusing at least three quite separate things, first and foremost that "antagonist" equals "bad guy." Is that what you mean, or what?

If all anyone did was steal a pie, where would there be antagonism? If not to suggest that thieving and dishonesty are both necessarily and exclusively attributes of antagonists, what purpose did the example of stealing a pie serve?

Why must people who kidnap, murder, conquer or routinely hurt anyone else be "antagonists"? Look back at England v France, in which for centuries, both sides routinely did all those things.

Do you think no protagonist could be behind every conflict since the beginning of the series, by righteously attempting to rid the world of bad guys? If Dudley Doright gets the people to rise up against three-or-four hundred years of bad-guy rule, who's behind that conflict?

If you want "a villain" to be redeemable enough that he remains "grey" then write him as at worst ambiguous.

Ask yourself what is meant by ambiguity or antagonism, by evil, by irredeemable… If not yourself, ask your dictionaries or search engines.

Ask yourself why driving the plot forward requires anyone being or becoming evil.

Try reading, for instance, George McDonald Fraser's Flashman novels, whose main character would stop at none of the crimes you mention.

Try reading, for instance Bella Mackie's more recent How to Kill your Family whose heroine is rather worse.

0

Morality is relative

Rather than imagine 'morality' as a consistent score on a character stat that needs to be obscured with trickery until it is dramatically revealed, work on this character's arc and their POV within the story world. Their actions need to make sense to them.

'Morally grey' only has meaning in a black/white world. If the story is set in a morally grey world every character is 'morally grey' (moral-purity in that context would be at odds to the world).

In a literary story with nuanced character development no characters are black/white. They all fall short of their best-intentions, or succumb to the flaw they refused to face.

Avoid turning a good guy to the dark side cliché, and please avoid the scene where the hero pulls off a mask and – SURPRISE – it was his best friend all along (and coincidentally the only other compelling character in the story)!

In the real world 'morality' is probably innate, based completely on our psychological revulsions and attractions, but this character will need something more concrete that motivates them than just secretly hating on the heroes, meanwhile openly aiding them as the plot requires.

He is an antagonist to the heroes, not the readers. The goal is to let the readers know, so they can enjoy the conflict and anticipate sparks. Surprising the reader with a last-act reveal, squanders any character depth and tension.

Antagonist Longevity

So how do you keep the main antagonist as redeemable and morally grey but keep them from becoming thoroughly evil, horrible, and irredeemable?

Here is the real balance you need to make: get the readers to enjoy the antagonist while they are present, causing conflict for the protagonists – not the same as liking or agreeing with them.

Show us their plan. Show them improvising when things go wrong. Give them stakes, make mistakes. Show wins and losses.

We feel empathy when we're involved, whether we like the person or not. In contrast, it's hard to feel anything about a mystery antagonist.

a space war with 2 antagonists

I'll use 2 antagonists from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine specifically because they happen to be interesting contrasts to each other, probably created to be mirror archetypes: male/female, enemy/ally, hedonist/priest, chaotic/rigid.... Each seems designed to be THE specialized antagonist for a specific main character, but evolve to become personally antagonistic to the other MC as well.


Gul Dukat is a charming Nazi. We hear that he was an evil despot, but in-person he's a delight. Despite being evicted, he party-crashes debonair and flirtatious as ever – a clue to how he stomached being the horrible despot: dirt doesn't stick.

At the start of the story Dukat's career is in ruins, but he seems unflappable, and we enjoy characters that are droll under pressure. Over time we see complicated power games as he schemes to get back on top. We learn his flawed (creepy) affinity for the people he subjugated – story arcs make him complicated, then almost redeemable, but ultimately more horrid.

The show constantly resets his topsy-turvy political career. His goals are always selfish, he backstabs everyone, yet we feel sympathy each time success is snatched away. He starts as a simple counterpart to Cisco, but evolves to have an obsession for Kyra too. Mid-series the power flips and Dukat is back on top through a Faustian bargain….

He's a delicious character. Everyone loves a Dukat episode.


His idealogical mirror is Vedek Winn, a rising religious leader. She's a condescending scold to Kyra. We instantly hate her, yet paradoxically she can't openly be criticized. Her episodes are frustrating because the heroes can't touch her, she's not an enemy. Often they must acquiesce to some part of her agenda to accomplish their own goals.

Where Dukat is the life of every party, Winn sucks all joy from the room. Where Dukat hatches schemes that are thwarted, Winn seemingly does nothing – she waits for her rivals to misstep then swoops in. Everyone hates a Kai Winn episode. Her presence in the show indicates someone we like will fail while she undeservedly walks away with the prize.

Dukat is a scenery-chewing villain who is sometimes heroic and complicated. Winn is presented as an irritating schoolmarm that grows slowly into a major ideological threat – not just for the heroes but for their entire agenda. She rises to ruler of the planet, and threatens to erase all the gains they've made.

Unlike charming Dukat, Winn is un-appealing with a glacial rise to power. Her "flaw" appropriately is her pursuit of religious knowledge, which in the ST universe means gaining access to sci-fi artifacts kept locked away for the safety of the galaxy. Again there a contrast, Dukat knows he's an irredeemable scoundrel. Winn's arc is about believing your own bs. Her hubris is to be holier than everyone else, and ultimately that pursuit leads to mystical corruption. (Also she is regular-corrupt because there is zero nuance in ST religion/politics.)

My opinion is that Dukat is the more obvious trope, but done awfully well in a show that needed a campy villain. He brings life to episodes.

Winn is the less-successful rendition. Her arc is monotone and spread thin. The sympathetic flaws come late. We aren't really clued into how important she will become (other than casting a name actress), the politics are too vague to have any stakes, and the religion is Star Trek technobabble™ that never feels weighty. I've read the original idea was to have her sweet at first then do a twist-reveal, which I think is the melodrama cliché of a 'respected leader' trope. Instead they went with a slower, character-driven arc coupled with pseudo-religious shame-dogma. I think it aims a bit higher than ST could hit.

-1

Try to paint the things, ideas he destroys darker. This way reader may feel that his actions are somewhat justifiable.

1
  • 1
    Hello and welcome to Writing SE. Please provide more details and further expand on your answer so that the asker can better understand and gain benefit from your answer. Jun 27 at 17:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.