Aliens vs. Terminator, villains vs. antagonists, and nuances of writing

alien-3-mainHappy Halloween, everyone!!

This week in my Creating Universes, Building Worlds class at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, one of my students said, in passing, that they thought James Cameron’s Xenomorph Queen, from Aliens, was a great villain, and that they thought Cameron was generally particularly good at creating villains. So I asked if they thought the Queen was a true villain, or–to split a semantic hair–an antagonist? She’s acting, after all, to avenge her offspring, and to survive.

What I was wondering, in that moment, was this: does villainy require premeditation, evil intent, or cleverness?

We batted that around a bit, talking about whether a baddie with simple motivations, like the Queen or the original Terminator (who does presumably know that what he’s doing is illegal within the time period he’s visiting, and who does a few pretty clever things to find Sarah Connor) is truly villainous. Here’s a snip from one of my posts in that discussion:

One definition of villainy is “wicked or criminal behavior.” If we were to contrast the Xenomorph Queen and the first Terminator, there’s an interesting question of intention. The former certainly isn’t setting out to be criminal. She’s essentially a big space-wasp. Wasps are parasites and what they do to their prey species is thoroughly horrible. And, to add in another wrinkle, she is smarter and more thoughtful than her soldier-spawn, who are orders of magnitude smarter than the face huggers. It is common in action movies to work your way up from dumb thugs to smart villains.

The Terminator is after one kill and causes a lot of collateral damage as he pursues it… in some ways, what he does is less horrible than space wasp parasitism. And, as you note, it behaves in ways that are consciously criminal and much more premeditated.

Anyone else have some thoughts? Is villain a value judgment? A level, like boss monster?


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About Alyx Dellamonica

After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

2 Responses to Aliens vs. Terminator, villains vs. antagonists, and nuances of writing

  1. I’d say villainy is a moral judgement. A villain is doing something that is morally wrong, whether it is legal or not. I would describe the Queen and the Terminator as monsters rather than villains, because they are (nearly) unstoppable adversaries who cause a huge number of casualties and deaths, some of them in quite horrible ways. They are the cause of fear and pain and death, so monsters. And a villain can be a monster for the same reason but a monster isn’t necessarily a villain. A threat, yes, and a boss-level adversary, but both of them are acting according to the nature of their species, or their programming.

    Are they even antagonists, though? Would you call a mountain an antagonist, or an avalanche? I would say that the cause of the situation in each film, the character behind it, is Skynet in the one case and Burke in the other.

    The true villain of Aliens is Burke. He is cowardly and venal and will happily murder everyone else on the expedition to serve his own interest, and none of what he does or did is illegal if he doesn’t get caught at it. That is villainous. He isn’t fearsome, though, and he doesn’t kill anyone directly so I wouldn’t call him a monster. If as in the director’s cut, he sent the message to the colony to go looking for the eggs, in the clear knowledge of what would happen, then he is a deliberate and callous mass murderer – so monster as well as villain.

  2. I absolutely agree! Burke is both a monster and a villain. He also represents the Company, putting a face on an even bigger villainous force.