Who is the “bad guy” of the story? The antagonist, the villain, or the foil? Those three terms sometimes get used as synonyms but in reality, they have different meanings.
To understand better the differences between antagonist, villain, and foil, let’s take a look at a story that contains examples of all those characters: the comic Three Jokers by Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok.
An antagonist by definition is a character or entity that opposes the protagonist and creates obstacles to prevent him from reaching his goal.
The antagonist is not really a fixated character in a story, but actually, a role that some characters might play.
In classic stories where there’s only one villain, he himself can be the only antagonist. If he has minions that oppose the protagonist, they can be antagonists. If the story deals with an internal conflict, the protagonist himself (or an aspect of his character) can be the antagonist.
Regardless of who or what it is in the context of the story, the antagonist is absolutely necessary. His part is fundamental in creating conflict, without his efforts the story would have no reason to exist.
To pick a topical example, in the story of Batman Under the Hood, Jason Todd’s all-consuming obsession with revenge can be considered an antagonist because it actively prevents him from reaching his goals.
Three Jokers does a really good job at blurring the lines between antagonist and villain by using an antagonist as a red herring and making the reader believe that he is the mastermind behind the Joker’s grand scheme.
From the beginning, the writer wants the reader to think that The Criminal is the real villain. He is the man with the plan, he is seemingly the “leader” of the three Jokers, he is the one who seems to be obsessed with Batman the most.
Then, at the last minute, we find out that it was actually the Comedian who manipulated his fellow Clowns into his schemes, and that all along he had Batman in mind. However, without the other two antagonists, Three Jokers not only wouldn’t be as interesting as it is but wouldn’t even exist.
After all, the whole premise of the book is that there are “Three Jokers” instead of one. Take away the other two and there’s no mystery behind their identity and the reason for their existence.
Without its two antagonists, Three Jokers would be a run of the mill Batman story where the bat has to stop the clown from poisoning the water supply or from killing everyone in a mall, or robbing a bank, or whatever.
Three Jokers, however, gives us a great antagonist: the Criminal. Someone clever enough to trick Batman, experienced enough to know how to manipulate the hero, commanding enough to establish his authority over the other Jokers.
He’s the one who challenges Batman at every turn while the real villain plots in secret.
Most stories revolve around one protagonist that tries to reach a goal with the help of certain allies, the ones who try to stop them from succeeding are the villain and his minions. And here’s the thing, just like most stories have only one protagonist, they also have only one villain.
Sure, the two can be part of different “groups” (good guys vs bad guys), but at the end of the day there’s always one character in those groups that can be considered “above” the others. Those are the villain and the hero.
Three Jokers is the perfect example of two opposing groups where the allies and the antagonists are fighting on the behalf of a respective villain and hero.
The Batfamily: Batman (protagonist), Batgirl, Red Hood.
The Jokers: the Comedian (villain), the Criminal, the Clown.
Something that separates the villain from the antagonist is his motivation.
Obviously, all antagonists have their own reasons to torment the protagonist, but it’s usually volatile or impersonal. They could be simply minions following orders, mercenaries who fight for money, or someone who made a deal with the villain but doesn’t really have anything in particular at stake.
With the villain, however, we go one step further: for him it’s personal. An old grudge, revenge, a fundamental difference in ideology, a bond that no longer exists, etc…
The antagonist could be fighting anyone who tries to oppose him, the enemy is interchangeable. But for the villain, it’s not like that. He is fighting the protagonist for a specific reason.
In Three Jokers, the Comedian’s motivation couldn’t be more personal: he wants to be the only “bad guy” in Batman’s life, the bane of his existence (well, not THAT Bane).
This Joker is not fighting some random vigilante, he’s not going to move to Metropolis and start a feud with Superman, he interested in torturing Batman, only Batman.
This villain’s whole plan (and by consequence, the whole story) revolves around his deeply personal motivation. The kidnapping of Joe Chill, the conflicts he creates inside the Batfamily, the mind games he plays, etc… They are all designed specifically for Bruce Wayne and they wouldn’t work on someone else.
So not only the “personal” nature of the villain’s relationship to the protagonist affects his motivation, but it also affects his actions and his strategies.
Same goes for the protagonist. Batman has kept the secret of the Joker’s identity to protect his family. He knows his greatest secret and he is aware of the fact that he accidentally “created” his worst foe.
Both of them have reasons to keep fighting and both are going to protect the secrecy of the other’s secret identity. In this comic, they are the characters with the strongest bond.
This is what makes the Comedian the true villain of the story.
A foil is a character who exists for the purpose of highlighting the qualities or lack thereof of another character. If the foil is placed in an antagonistic role, the character in question might be the protagonist or one of his allies.
The foil is essentially the reflection of another character. Often the two are compared through a “what if” scenario.
What if Jason Todd snapped for good and decided to let go of his (already elastic) moral code? He’d be like the Joker.
One of my favorite moments in Three Jokers comes right before the death of the first Joker. Jason and Barbara are tasked to “babysit” the Clown until authorities arrive to collect him and put him in prison. But the Clown keeps taunting Jason until the man grabs his gun and shoots him.
This moment shows perfectly the contrast between Red Hood and his foil: Jason is stern, focused, serious, and driven; while the Clown is sassy, carefree, and cocky.
Red Hood’s hand is shaking while he’s holding the gun because he’s thinking of the consequences of what he’s about to do. The Clown laughs while his life is being threatened because he just doesn’t care. One is the exact opposite of the other.
But the comparisons don’t end there. Instead of a “what if” scenario, this Joker gives Red Hood a shocking revelation: he wanted to turn him into something that Batman would despise, and he succeeded.
Years before, the Joker killed Jason Todd (if you’re confused here’s the Red Hood’s complete story) and after being resurrected, Jason became the Red Hood to seek vengeance against the Clown.
With this panel, however, it’s revealed that the Joker is more than happy to see how things turned out for Jason. Instead of considering him a serious threat or even an enemy like Jason would want, the Joker considers him “his Robin”.
And in a way… he’s right.
Red Hood is Robin’s foil. And Jason has become the opposite of what the Boy Wonder is supposed to stand for: he is a wanted criminal, he has broken Batman’s code multiple times, he refuses to work in a team, and instead of fighting crime he is seeking vengeance.
He has even adopted the Joker’s old name “Red Hood”. Without realizing it, Jason has really become the closest thing to a Joker’s sidekicks. All he needs to do is dive into a pool of chemicals and he’ll be hanging out with Harley and Punchline in no time.
Throughout the next two chapters, Barbara even expresses her concerns that Jason might “turn into” the next Joker either by accident or by choice.
In a way, Jason can even be considered Barbara’s foil. Bruce himself seems to consider him her “what if” scenario because he “healed wrong” while she managed to move past her trauma.
Ant that’s the Clown, the foil of this story.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Is it necessary to know the definition of each term?
No, the definition itself is superfluous, a story is not an essay on different character types. You’ll never have to write a monologue where a character says “I’m the foil, he’s the villain, she’s the antagonist and here’s why”.
The term itself is not important, but knowing the difference between those three types of character can be. Knowing the difference between antagonist, villain, and foil can be really useful because it helps the writer understand the role that a character is supposed to play.
In Three Jokers, those roles are played by people who look identical and share one name, but still, it never once feels like you’re reading about the same person. Their objectives, their purposes, and even their personalities are constructed around their roles in the story.
And in the end, that’s the only reason why those definitions and terms even exist, to help writers write better stories.