As had been mentioned when we talk about villains what we really mean is antagonist. Villain suggests outright evil whereas antagonist simply means, in ‘in opposition to’. For example, an annoying neighbour who parks their car too close to yours or plays music too loudly is not a villain intent on ruling the world but they are an antagonist, in a story told from your protagonist perspective.
In a previous article we have discussed that an antagonist is the hero of their own story and in another that a villain’s villainy shouldn’t be based on a stereotype. But nor does villainy need to be a huge and dramatic action, it doesn’t even need to be a person. Your protagonist’s antagonist could be an object, possessed cars are popular, or something as abstract as life itself because nothing can go right for them. Aging could be the antagonist of the story for a character who always wants to be young, aging is not itself an evil thing, it doesn’t actively try to harm the protagonist but it can still be something that the protagonist struggles against. A protagonist can make a big change in their life because they feel it is stagnating, once again this is an abstract where stagnation is not actively trying to harm the character, it might not even exist, it is something that the character feels to be true and strives against.
Another way to look at it might be to imagine you’re telling the story of a toddler learning to put shapes through the right holes in a model. They may be trying to get the cube to go through the round hole and it just won’t fit. The model is not doing anything to the toddler but it is in opposition to the toddler until they work out that they’re trying to put the cube through the wrong hole and put it through the right one. The antagonist is defeated and the conflict overcome.
So when we look at the concept of villainy through a lenses of being antagonistic we realise that ‘the villain’ can be a multitude of things or people, and they/it might not even realise they are an antagonist to the protagonist. I once saw a man stopped at traffic light pipping his horn furiously at the lights. In his story the lights were his antagonist but I don’t think they knew that.
In this way we may look at finding the antagonist of our story by asking ourselves; what is the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist? What are they fighting against? What do they fear most?
If I were to look at the Weekly Serial through such a lens then I might say: The worst thing that could happen to Charlotte is she could go back to the workhouse. Therefore she fights against going back to the workhouse because that is what she fears most. From such a perspective the overarching antagonist of the story becomes the workhouse, an institution, rather than a physical person.
This begs the question: What will the protagonist do in their fight against the antagonistic force? How far will they go?
Hmmm… Here we seem to have a question that not only makes protagonists but villains too.