On Humanized Antagonists and Relateable Villains

By Adam J. Pearson

In works of literature, film, and videogames, I find most compelling those thoroughly ‘human’ antagonists whose motivations are not only understandable but relatable and who may have perhaps been heroes had they not possessed some psychological feature that turned their life in a trajectory counter to that of the Hero.  “Lost,” “Death Note,” Shakespeare (in, for instance, “Macbeth”), and other such works give us prime examples of these types of characters. I would even argue that Milton’s Satan is one such ‘humanized,’ ‘relatable’ antagonist/hero! All of literature’s anti-heroes, from this same Lucifer to Shakespeare’s Richard III, Orwell’s Winston Smith, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, etc. also teeter on this ambiguous brink.

Truly human and relatable antagonists can also catalyze or bring about the shocking realization that we are not so far from “villains” as we would like to think we are; there is a part of us that could have veered in their direction had conditions been different… In this sense, humanized antagonists can sometimes force us to look into the eyes of our own Jungian Shadow and face the dark potentials that lie on the borderlands or periphery of our own idealized self.

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