Recently, I’ve been on a bit of a Les Misérables binge, and as I unfortunately don’t have time to go back and reread the book, I’ve taken to reading its wiki page and fanfiction instead. In my search through the internet, I came across a term that I had never heard before in reference to the character Javert: anti-villain.
Unlike other villains in classic literature such as Iago of Othello, Javert is portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic antagonist with noble goals and viewpoints, arguably an anti-villain.
Until this point in time I had only thought about and been aware of the differences between an antagonist and a villain. I had never even considered a term like anti-villain, even though I’ve often thought about the differences between protagonists, heroes, and anti-heroes. All things considered, it makes sense that if anti-heroes can exist, there should also be room for anti-villains as well.
Characters who either are or can be considered antagonistic are often my favorite characters. Most people don’t wake up and decide to be evil; from their point of view, they are the good guys and the heroes of a story are the antagonists. These are generally characters who try to do the right thing, but ultimately go about it in a morally misguided way with horrible consequences—such as Darth Vader betraying the Jedi in order to save Padmé—thus prompting the actual heroes to stop them. This is also the same reason why I tend to detest villains.
The difference between an antagonist and a villain is that villains don’t need to have redeeming characteristics. I find a lot of villains unrealistic because of this. They are the clichéd characters who exist for the purpose of having a villain for the hero to overcome. Additionally, when given a reason for their villainous ways, it can sometimes be a rather flimsy excuse, such as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty wanting revenge for not being invited to a Christening.
According to TV Tropes, a villain is the bad guy who instigates the conflict of the story. The antagonist may also provide the conflict and oppose the hero, but said antagonist doesn’t have to be the Big Bad. The antagonist also doesn’t have to be morally objectionable. The anti-villain, however, is a villain or antagonist who has heroic goals and virtues. They are characters whose desires are good, though they go about them wrong. Alternatively, they are characters whose desires are evil, but they use fairly innocuous means to achieve their goals. Anti-villains may also occasionally be heroic.
Much like the lines between heroes, protagonists, and anti-heroes can blur, the same is true here. Many characters can fill in multiple roles in a story. Generally, I find straight-up villains like Palpatine or Galbatorix uninteresting and detestable because I never learn anything about them. Stories are not told from their point of view, so therefore we never get to see their perspective on the world. As such, they never break from the villain mold and come across as people who are evil for the sake of being evil. However, when we do get the chance to learn more about villains, they can sometimes become much more sympathetic and well-rounded characters.
I normally consider these characters the antagonists, which villains can become over the course of a story. I personally find antagonists far more interesting than villains. I love to explore antagonists and discover why they are the way they are, even if I don’t agree with their goals or methods. The antagonists are not meant to be the embodiments of evil like villains are, and they can raise numerous questions on morality and what is right and wrong. Anti-villains are very similar in this regard, as well. However, though I do not always agree with an antagonist’s views and methods, it’s much harder to say the same about anti-villains, because they can be much more sympathetic and righteous than an antagonist.
Watching the struggle between Javert and Valjean does raise a lot questions that are not always easy to answer. Javert may be Valjean’s antagonist, but he is not a terrible person. He is moral and completely justified in his quest to bring Valjean to justice, who at the same time is completely justified in running from the law. However, though we see and agree with Valjean’s reasons, we cannot fault Javert for his, since from Javert’s perspective, Valjean is a dangerous criminal who is making a mockery of the law, something Javert holds in the highest esteem.
Anti-villains tend to be just as unconventional as anti-heroes, and they do stand in some contrast to each other. Anti-heroes are the opposite of anti-villains. They are protagonists who are willing to do evil in order to achieve their goal. They are characters who, like many antagonists, believe that the ends justify the means, no matter what those means may be. An anti-villain, however, is an antagonist with a more moral conscience. Told from another point of view, an anti-hero could easily be the antagonist of the story, and an anti-villain could easily be the protagonist. However, as I stated earlier, the line between some of these character types tends to blur, especially given what perspective the story is told from, so it’s not always easy to tell the difference between an anti-hero, anti-villain, or an antagonist. In many instances, they actually seem interchangeable.
All of these character types serve their own purpose in a story and can be just as equally important. I may not like villains for their unrealistic evil qualities—just as I sometimes won’t like heroes for their unrealistic sense of morality, especially if I’m never given a chance to learn why that character is so moral—but that does not make having either villains or heroes any less important. However, sometimes I do feel as if writing characters who are either pure villains or heroes is a shorthand, since the author then runs the risk of never developing redeeming qualities for the villain or flaws for the hero. I’m normally more forgiving of heroes than villains, if only because we tend to spend more time with the heroes and therefore it becomes difficult to not learn about their flaws. For me personally, characters who are more morally ambiguous are more interesting, if only for the kinds of questions that they raise. This is one of many reasons why Les Misérables is such a powerful story to me: because there is no easy answer to the struggle between Javert and Valjean.