There isn’t much out there about the false antagonist. They’re a rare phenomenon in literature. It’s more of an idea than a character type that needs to be developed.
Most people like to think of the antagonist as the bad guy, first and last. Sure. There may be a few enemies to defeat along the protagonist’s journey to the end of the novel, but what if the big evil isn’t the bad guy?
What if there is someone even worse? Or that character we’ve fallen in love with isn’t who we thought they were?
Enter the false antagonist – and the topic of today’s post.
What is a False Antagonist?
Let’s start with a definition:
False Antagonist: is a character who seems to be the bad guy, but either disappears or becomes the protagonist. False antagonists can also be anti-heroes.Heroism Wiki
There is a nuanced difference between false antagonists and anti-heroes. False antagonists are generally not the protagonist like anti-heroes are. They are still in opposition to the protagonist and create conflict.
Don’t believe me? Here are some examples:
Megamind is an excellent example of this difference. He is, technically, the protagonist of the film, but he is “evil.” He causes conflict for Metro Man, the city’s hero by kidnapping reporter Roxanne Ritchi, causing chaos, attempting to kill Metro Man, etc.
When Megamind finally defeats Metro Man, no one can believe it. Not even Megamind. He becomes bored without having Metro Man around and creates a new superhero to battle with, but his plan goes awry when his new buddy turns out to be the actual big evil in the tale. The new villain forces Megamind to become the new Metro City hero, making him a false protagonist.
You could also argue that Megamind is an anti-hero. He has some bad traits but is ultimately good at heart. My argument is that he wants to be the villain, and his actions reinforce this.
Another example of a false antagonist would be the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. The Beast does some despicable things at the beginning of the movie, such as keeping Belle prisoner in his castle. Belle softens some of his “rougher edges” and shows him that he can be kind even if he’s “a beast.” This leaves the door open for Gaston to take the role of the real villain. He’s willing to anything to get his way, including kill Beast and imprison Belle’s father.
How to Use a False Antagonist
Because false antagonists are so rare, we don’t have much to work with when writing a good one. Thankfully, I do have some ideas for you to try out if you decide to try a false protagonist on for size in your next story.
Pro Tip: You may want to play some video games for some more examples. Video games use false antagonists extensively. Many of them feature smaller challenges before meeting the final boss.
Have them play a compelling but passive role as the villain.
One marker of a good false antagonist is that they are passive in their roles as a villain. They may cause conflict, but they are not actively engaged with the action.
In Megamind, our false antagonist actively pursued Metro Man initially, but his motivations changed once he finally defeated the superhero standing in his way. His listlessness made it easy for him to be a villain in name only because he had no purpose without Metro Man, making his journey towards hero-dom compelling.
Another example can be found in Kim Possible. Dr. Drakken is the mastermind villain behind all the take over the world plots, but it was Shego who did the heavy lifting. Shego was the one to challenge Kim and make her work for the victory directly. Dr. Drakken was all talk and little action, letting Shego be the real villain between the two of them.
This tip goes together with the anti-hero side of the false antagonist. Give your character a background story that explains why they are considered villains by the rest of society.
For Megamind, he tried to fit in with the other kids at school. However, how he tried to fit in was not socially acceptable, and he got shunned from society and turned towards evil as a result.
The false antagonist saves the day.
Instead of the protagonist saving the day, why doesn’t the antagonist? Again, this is a anti-hero-esque type of thing to do.
And there are a variety of ways that you can make this happen. One such way, you can do this by giving your protagonist an undesirable trait, like cowardice. Then have your antagonist step up to save the day by having the courage to stop their plan from coming to fruition.
The real villain is ten times worse.
It’s the same for your false antagonist as your anti-hero. If they possess some less than stellar traits, your antagonist must come up against something even worse to make them redeemable in the reader’s eyes.
That means the real villain in the story has to be horrible. Worse than the antagonist. Make your antagonist look like a kitten next to the genuine big evil.
Turning your antagonist into the protagonist isn’t complicated. But it does help if you set aside the time to flesh them out in your character development process.
It also gives us the chance to redeem the nonredeemable. To provide them with the opportunity to mend their ways and join the forces of good. Sometimes, though, the false antagonist is just a ploy that writers use to get rid of the smaller villains to set up the even bigger win.
Either way, I hope that some of you take a chance on your antagonists and turn them into the heroes and anti-heroes that we all know and love.
Have you ever come across a false antagonist? Do you think you’ll use one in your next story?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.