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Is a lawful good "antagonist" effective?

8

In my post-apocalyptic novel, my protagonist is not necessarily "good", and although the antagonist is an honest and kind person, my protagonist perceives her as "evil". My antagonist is the leader of a group of survivors, and cares deeply for her family and group, and is extremely suspicious of my protagonist.

The way I constructed the antagonist's character (and according to the results of an alignment test I took from her point of view), she's lawful good. That aligns with how I see her, and how I'm writing her right now. I still want the reader to resent and sometimes hate her, just like my protagonist does, but I'm afraid my readers are going to start sympathizing with her when I want their loyalties to lie with my protagonist, no matter how bad she is.

Can I still make my antagonist an effective "bad guy", despite the fact that she is, truly, lawful good? Can I keep my readers' loyalties with my protagonist, not my antagonist?

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19 answers

6

You just need your audience to sympathize with your protagonist. This sympathy can be based on shared identity, or shared personality aspects, or shared goals.

Consider the one-panel comics with "Dennis the Menace" and Mr. Wilson. Dennis is a "menace" -- he is closer to chaotic neutral than to lawful good. Whereas Mr. Wilson is a much-provoked lawful good. The audience might sympathize with Dennis for several reasons:

  • We don't expect young children to have fully-developed moral-senses.
  • We remember making mistakes as children.
  • We are reading the comic to get a good laugh. Chaotic / trickster characters tend to do things that are funny.
  • Theoretically, as an established adult homeowner, Mr. Wilson is more powerful than Dennis. Americans are trained to sympathize with the underdog.
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5

Two Lawful Good people can still end up violently opposed, they just need to have different views of reality, laws or good.

The classic scenario would be two soldiers who are both good, kind and thoughtful people but happen to be on opposite sides of a war. They can resent and hate each other because that's easier than hating the situation or their political leaders or anything else. It gives them something tangible to fight when they can say "that's the bad guy, this person is why my life is bad".

Your protagonist needs to have something likable about them to keep things engaged. Show the conflict from their point of view and try to bring the readers into that mindset and you can pull this off but it is tricky.

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5

The classic example of an effective Lawful Good antagonist is Inspector Javert, from Les Misérables. He is a good person who cares deeply about upholding the law, which brings him into conflict with the protagonist, Jean Valjean, multiple times throughout the story because Valjean is a reformed thief who had to break parole and assume a different identity in order to get a fair chance from society. Javert's main character flaw is that he (like so many other people in his society) doesn't truly believe that a person like Valjean is capable of reforming and becoming good.

Another example can be found in Marshal Samuel Gerard from the movie The Fugitive. His job is to hunt down the titular Fugitive, convicted murderer Dr. Kimble, who escaped on the way to death row. Unlike Valjean, who was legitimately a thief, Kimble was wrongfully convicted of murder, but Gerard doesn't particularly care when Kimble protests that he didn't do it because, as the saying goes, "that's what they all say." But unlike Javert, when solid evidence comes up that Kimble is innocent, Gerard is willing to reconsider and eventually turns to helping Kimble.

So yes, there are multiple ways to have a scenario with a Lawful Good antagonist acting against a good protagonist and still end up with a good story.

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4

Evil doesn't exist...

I'm always reminded of a fairly recent Doctor Who episode (link):

Bill: Is everything out here evil?
The Doctor: Hardly anything is evil. But most things are hungry. Hunger looks very like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery. Or do you think that your bacon sandwich loves you back?

The core of the answer here is that good and evil are relative concepts.

Rather than "the wrong end of the cutlery", you should be focusing on "the wrong end of the plot". The plot almost inherently serves to draw that line between good and evil, or alternatively to make a point of how there is no pure good or pure evil.

"Protagonist" does not mean the same as "good". "Antagonist" does not mean the same as "evil". Pro/antagonist refer to their relation to the plot. Some examples:

  • Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog very much plays with this distinction. It's a story that follows a classic villain (protagonist), whose story arc is being hindered by a classic hero (antagonist). As we explore the characters, the villain is a sweet guy and the hero is a jerk, leading to even more juxtaposition that helps us decouple pro/antagonist from good/evil.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (I'm focusing on the movie because I don't remember all of the book) ends up exploring similar themes. While the protagonist is the good guy (Quasimodo) and the antagonist is the bad guy (Frollo); Frollo is shown to think of himself as the protagonist in his own story (how to liberate Paris from sin), which proves the point that what Frollo genuinely sees as good, the story's actual protagonists (Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Phoebus) consider to be evil. Contrast this to pretty much every other Disney movie, where the villain freely admits they're villainous and they pretty much revel in it.
  • The Star Wars prequel trilogy follows the story of Anakin, who is already know to become Darth Vader at some point. While pre-Darth Anakin is portrayed as narrative good initially, there are telltale signs that his good/evil alignment isn't as clear cut.

...but the antagonist still looks evil...

As much as these examples decouple pro/antagonism from good/evil aligments, they still ensure that the relative evil is observed as evil by the plot.

Using the example of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (movie, not book), Frollo's justification is not fully explained. For example, had the movie contained a scene where Frollo was strongarmed by his superior (e.g. an archbishop) into doing the things he does, the plot would have painted Frollo as a pawn, rather than the source of all evil. If you then resolve the plot the same way (killing Frollo), it's not as satisfying as it was in the original version, because Frollo no longer plays the role of the source of all narrative evil.

But instead, Frollo is only shown to do his (narratively) evil deeds, and his personal justification for them. As far as the viewer can see, this behavior stems from Frollo. He's not just a cog in the machine, he is the man driving the machine.
This puts the source of the plot's evil squarely on Frollo's shoulders, and thus his death works as a meaningful plot resolution.

This doesn't mean you can't play around with this of course, but you need to understand that this leaves the plot open, as the true evil is still unresolved. This can be intentional (to start up a sequel), but you should make sure that you don't devalue your current plot resolution.

My antagonist is the leader of a group of survivors, and cares deeply for her family and group, and is extremely suspicious of my protagonist

This immediately reminds me of the Governor from the Walking Dead. He leads a peaceful colony/community, but ends up being a narrative evil villain.

When you watch the episodes, you will see that the plot, the protagonists and the viewer do not think of him as an evil character initially. Though there are some hints about his true character, he's shown to be a good leader who simply happens to conflict with Rick (the leader of the protagonists). Initially, this is painted as an understandable mistrust as either community doesn't know if they can trust the other community.

It is only when the Governor does evil deeds (torturing innocents, attacking other communities) that the story starts painting him as the narrative evil.

Nothing about what you've told me about your antagonist conclusively makes them good or evil. Caring for people does not make you good. The question is what moral line you are willing to cross in order to protect those you care about.

Victor Fries (Dr Freeze from Batman) genuinely wants to cure his wife because he deeply loves her and feels guilt for causing her "death". But he crosses the line by committing robberies and mayhem in order to get the funds for his continued research, and that (usually) paints him as the narrative antagonist despite his good intentions.

Can I still make my antagonist an effective "bad guy", despite the fact that she is, truly, lawful good?

Think about every story where the protagonist is a criminal. More often than not, the narrative evil is not necessarily evil.

Consider Commodore Norrington from Pirates of the Carribean. He fits the lawful good alignment to a tee, but he is the plot's antagonist because his actions directly oppose the destination of the protagonist's story.

Compare him to Lord Beckett, who serves as the narrative antagonist the the second and third movie. Beckett is lawful evil, not good. And while this is a very different character from Norringtion, he serves the same purpose as the antagonist.

Good/evil has nothing to do with being the antagonist, and vice versa.


...from the perspective of the protagonist's plot...

When you have one or more protagonists, then the plot is written from their point of view. They are the centerpiece of the story.

The protagonist is often genuine, at least to themselves. This means that their decisions are often based on their genuine observations. As you write the plot, you almost inevitably end up writing it in the way that the protagonist perceives the plot, because you have to use the plot to justify why the antagonist is actually an obstacle.

Going back to the Doctor Who bacon sandwich example:

  • When the pig is your protagonist, the antagonist is either the butcher or the human who eats the bacon sandwich (depends on your narrative focus).
  • When the human who eats the bacon sandwich is the protagonist, the antagonist is death through starvation ("the elements").
  • When there is no protagonist, or the protagonist is outside of this scope (e.g. an alien observer of our planet), the pig, the human, and death through starvation are all just cogs in a machine, who are not aligned with any perception of good/evil.

Even when you don't deal with true evil, but only antagonism (e.g. most romcoms), the antagonist is often still perceived to be "the most horrible person" and is thus hated by the protagonist.
While that is likely not the objective case, the protagonist thinks it's the case. They come to that conclusion using their observations (which the plot provides) and their interpretation thereof (which their character exposition provides).

The way I constructed the antagonist's character (and according to the results of an alignment test I took from her point of view), she's lawful good. That aligns with how I see her, and how I'm writing her right now.

This is a bit of a red flag to me. You write the plot, from the plot's point of view. The plot's antagonist must appear evil to the protagonist, and therefore to the plot, and therefore to the writer's mindset when writing the plot.

Exceptions are made when your protagonist is a genuinely evil character who freely admits it (a great example here is Frank Underwood from House of Cards). When the protagonist, plot and viewer all agree that the protagonist is evil, then "good" almost inherently paints itself as the antagonist (or one of them).

When you want to describe your antagonist as good, and your protagonist thinks of themselves as good (regardless of whether they truly are good), you've run into a conflict. It's nigh impossible to objectively describe the antagonist as good, subjectively describe the protagonist as good, and then still make it clear to the viewer what point of view you're writing from.

If you do this, I suggest you let go of the notion of a signular plot with a clear protagonist and antagonist, and instead opt for a Game Of Thrones-esque "multiple players on a stage" where everyone has their own observations, intentions and experiences.


...but exceptions exist.

Tropes and literary devices are commonly used, but they can be equally valuable when subverted. I've listed some examples of stories which specifically go against the "protagonist must be the good guy" trope.

I find myself using Game of Thrones (again, I know the show better than the books) often as an example of breaking trope expectations:

  • Ned Stark was bait for viewers that stick to the "plot armor protagonist" trope. Everyone identified with Ned as the "common sense" character. His removal from the story exist purely to teach viewers that just because we mostly follow one guy, does not mean that he's got plot armor.
  • The Red Wedding was bait for viewers that stick to the "karma always wins" trope. Everyone considered the Starks morally justifiedi n their rebellion, and that they were owed vindication. Instead, the Red Wedding proves that good does not win by merit of it being good.
  • The Red Wedding also throws Checkhov's gun right out the window. The characters who died all had personal story arcs that were nowhere near being resolved, and their deaths stopped those arcs dead in their tracks (except for Lady Stoneheart). The gun was shown to be on the mantlepiece, and then the plot decided to burn down the room and never think about it again; specifically to teach viewers that story arcs do not always tie up their loose ends.
  • Most plot villains have had plenty of spotlight to showcase that they're not evil, they just respond to the way life has treated them. A basic example here is Theon's capture of Winterfell. There are only very few cases of true evil that is considered injustifiable. The only truly evil character we've seen so far is Ramsay Bolton, who is an actual psychopath. The Mountain may be another example, but it's not yet conclusively proven to be the case (we only have the Hound's point of view). The White Walkers are currently painted as evil, but we've only seen the point of view of the humans. We don't actually know if they're evil or simply have a non-nefarious purpose.

The long and short of it is that you can break tropes, but you must do so knowingly, and you have to make a clear point about intentionally breaking the trope. If you underdevelop your subverted trope, it will come across as bad writing instead of innovative plotbuilding.

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2

There is almost never just one antagonist in a story. There may be a chief antagonist, a person who is directly working against the protagonist, but most stories are not actually like that, and even in the ones that are, there is more than one force, more than one person, whose actions frustrate the protagonist's goals. Some of those forces may lie within the protagonist themselves.

Not only may some of those antagonists be morally good, I would suggest that some of them have to be. After all, what forces prevent the protagonist from achieving their goals? Some are the evil forces they are striving against. But some of them are the moral constraints that the protagonist works under. If the protagonist was unconstrained by any moral consideration, they could throw any force, any weapon, any stratagem against the principal antagonist without constraint. That would make it much easier to win. But it would make for a much less interesting story. The constraints of the moral law on the actions of the hero create the kind of moral dilemma that is a central feature of the plot of many stories.

So yes, not only may an antagonist be lawful good, it is very close to being an iron role that some antagonists at least must be lawful and good or there will be no story. In some cases, the principle antagonist may be lawful and good. Nor does this mean that the protagonist must be evil. Sometimes it is entirely appropriate that the protagonist loses in their quest, though they may gain something other than what they were seeking. This is often the shape of the maturation plot, for instance.

The QB loses the big game but gains the respect of the dorky-but-hot girl with the adorable younger brother that the best receiver on the team is bullying. QB exposes the bully, who is benched, thus causing the team to lose the championship game. Hero loses, but really wins. The main antagonist here is not the bully, it is the dorky-but-hot girl who is, of course, the sum of all virtues, and who turns down the QB's advances, until the tearful scene at the where she learns of his heroism and ... well, you've seen the movie.

The moral order itself is an antagonist in most stories, constraining the ways in which the protagonist pursues their goals, perhaps even to the extent of preventing them from achieving those goals. The US targeting of Qasem Soleimani is a case in point. No one weeps for Soleimani, but there is great debate over whether killing this very bad man was a violation of the moral constraints under which the US should have acted. The moral code constrains how good people prosecute their struggle against bad people. Thus it is an antagonist in their stories.

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+1, I can't edit your answer, but "entirely appropriate the the protagonist loses" sets off my OCD bat signal... Amadeus about 1 month ago

@Amadeus, fixed, thanks. Mark Baker about 1 month ago


1

Yes, you can have both. In the Fugitive 1993 film Tommy Lee Jones is a Federal Marshall pursuing wrongly-convicted Harrison Ford, and Tommy Lee is pulling out every legal trick he can to catch Harrison and return him to prison.

Harrison is innocent, the audience saw that and knows that. He was framed, convicted, and sent to prison, and then unintentionally (on his part) freed due to a prison break during his transport to another prison. The bus crashed, guards were killed. He runs, further breaking the law, intent on finding the real murderer, with whom he fought, a one-armed man.

Tommy Lee doesn't know that Harrison is innocent. At one point, they have a confrontation, Tommy Lee has been disarmed. Harrison's only path of escape is to leap into a river, about a ten story dive. Harrison tries to explain to Tommy Lee that he is innocent, he was framed. Tommy Lee's response is basically (from memory): "I don't care. That's not my job. You are a fugitive, escaped from custody, and it is my job and duty to bring you in. That's the law."

Then Harrison jumps, and Tommy Lee goes and looks over the edge, then turns around to go continue his pursuit.

Tommy Lee is lawful good; it is illegal to escape custody, the only legal option Harrison had was to wait for law enforcement to arrive, or turn himself in, or surrender to the first officer he found. Harrison is a good guy, but he ran, he stole clothing, I think maybe he stole a car, etc, but is also risking his life to pursue justice, to find the real killer and bring him to justice. Tommy Lee is not vindictive, or cruel, but he is relentless and if there is any legal route to catching Harrison he is going to take it, even though he has sympathy for Harrison and believes he might have been framed, he believes 100% that if the law is not obeyed by law enforcement, that will result in a lawless society. If the law makes some mistakes and convicts the innocent, those mistakes, as terrible as they are, are the price to pay for a lawful society, and the lesser evil compared to a lawless society.

So for your story, what you want is a protagonist (like Harrison) that truly thinks the greater good is more important than following the law, that good is good regardless of what the law says. Your antagonist (like Tommy Lee) is lawful Good, emphasis on "Lawful", and believes that following the law is more important than their own individual, or any individual's, opinion of what is right or wrong. That it is up to society as a whole to come to a consensus, through the law, as to what is permitted or prohibited behavior. So when your protagonist acts extra-legally, your antagonist considers that an affront no matter what the motive may be. Because the law is the law, it isn't up to the individual, it isn't a matter of opinion or choice to follow the law.

For example, recently I read a story where a man, a year after his 15-year old sister was raped and murdered, went to the police and confessed to the crime, saying he raped and murdered his sister.

He did that because the police had refused to process the DNA collected by the medical examiner in the autopsy of his sister. By confessing, he forced them to test if the match to the sperm collected during her autopsy was his. It was not. But by forcing the sequencing of that DNA, it convicted a prisoner, recently released from prison, of the rape and murder of his sister. He broke the law by confessing to the murder, he gave knowingly false information to the police. But he did that for the greater good, to get justice for his sister. A lawful good antagonist might very well prosecute him and convict him anyway, even if there was no other recourse to getting justice.

The same thing would be true for a vigilante. Remember the TV Series 24, with Jack Bauer? That guy commits burglary, fraud, murder, he tortures and kidnaps criminals and bad guys all over the place. The show is always careful to ensure WE know all his victims are indeed vile criminals plotting mass murders, bit Bauer doesn't always know, and obviously Bauer is acting far outside the law. We root for him, he is unlawful good, but a lawful good antagonist could easily stand in his way and try to thwart him and bring him to justice for the crimes he is committing left and right.

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1

I wrote an answer to a similar question a while ago: https://writing.codidact.com/questions/34255#answer-34261

Like in that answer, to be honest, I think you're spending too much time thinking about your character's alignment. I'm going to quote myself:

Whether your character is chaotic neutral or lawful good or whatever doesn't matter for crafting a good story. RPG alignments aren't really about good and evil, but are more like a knock-off personality test that works well for a specific type of setting. In the end, as in real life, characters' moralities are defined by what they do. If an ostensibly chaotic evil character ends up stopping a cultic ritual to summon a powerful demon, isn't that a heroic action? And if an ostensibly lawful good character throws people who were looting to survive desperate times in jail, isn't that discompassionate? To be clear, I'm not saying not to give [your character] an alignment - it can still be helpful for understanding her personality. Just don't be married to it.

Instead of worrying a great deal about your character's alignment, you would be wise to focus on your story's theme. A good story is more than just a series of interesting events that happen to somebody. This is why you'll hear about ideas like The Hero's Journey, the 3-act structure, and the flow of rising action into a climax mentioned so often and treated as though they apply to every story. It's because they do.

And at the heart of all of those ideas is a story's theme. When a story begins, the MC is naive, immature, or broken in some way that's important to the world. Then, when the inciting incident occurs, they're forced to deal with that piece of their world very directly. The question is, will they be able to learn how to deal with this new reality? If they do, then they're a hero, regardless of what form that takes. If they can't, they've either become a villain or a tragic hero.

Your question is about an antagonist instead of a protagonist, but everything I wrote previously is still very relevant. Like your protagonist, your antagonist will be defined as a villain by how they relate to your theme, and understanding what makes a strong protagonist is a prerequisite for understanding what makes a strong antagonist. There are some very important differences, though, and if you understand them, I think you'll be surprised by how genuinely altruistic, well-meaning, and even right about the situation your antagonist can be!

The key idea that defines an antagonist's role in a story is that they:

1.Actively make it more difficult for the protagonist to achieve their goal, and they do so in a way that: 2. Forces the protagonist to engage with the aspects of the theme that they find the most challenging.

If you look at all of the famous great antagonists, you'll see that not only are they making life hell for our heros, they're doing so in a way that speaks to the story's meaning.

  • In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron clearly opposes all of our heros. He's trying to take over the world! But the way he does so highlights the story's two primary themes: His nakedly overt evil emphasizes the story's deliberate Biblical references, and his vast magic and power contrasts sharply with the humble Shire from whence the hobbits start their adventure.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, our main characters are the two children of a lawyer with a heart of gold. When the story begins, the kids think all is right with the world, but then their father gets caught up in the case of Bob Ewell, a man defined by racism and cruelty. Bob's daughter makes unprovoked sexual advances on a black man, and so Bob vilely beats her and then claims the man raped his daughter. When the black man is arrested, the lawyer defends him in court. But through bald lies and appealing to the jury's own racism, Bob wins the trail - but the lawyer's skillful arguments cost Bob his own reputation as well. So in retaliation, Bob tries to kill the main characters. When the children witness the perversion of justice in the trial and then are nearly murdered, they lose the innocence they started the story with, but living through the experiences makes it easy for them to see through the racism so many of the adults around them have embraced. Bob was the instigator of all the nastiness the children were exposed to.

Both of these antagonists are certainly evil. But that's not what's required of an antagonist. Again, they just need to oppose the main character in a way that relates to the theme. Here's are a couple examples of antagonists who were at least trying to act in good faith:

  • In the movie Stand and Deliver, a high school math teacher teaches a class of underprivileged, minority race students AP Calculus. No one except the teacher believes they can succeed. But they take the AP test and all pass!- until the College Board finds what it believes to be evidence of cheating. The students all used the same unconventional techniques (which the math teacher taught them) and made similar errors on the same questions. So the College Board invalidates the tests and requires the students to take it again with only one day to prepare. The College Board is unarguably the antagonist. Were its graders motivated by implicit racism against the students, or were their concerns valid? It's very much a grey area. But it is dramatically more understandably and sympathetic that Bob Ewell's naked and willful bigotry. And even though the College Board's decisions are justifiable, they threaten everything the teacher and his class have been working for the entire film.
  • In the movie Blindside, Michael Oher is a homeless high school student who is adopted by a well-to-do middle class family. His rough upbringing means that he really has no strengths to draw on academically, but he has a knack for football. His new parents are genuinely caring people who do everything they can to help him find his happiness and success in life, and by the end of the film, he's been accepted to a prestigious college to play on their football team. That is, until the NCAA suspects that the parents have been deliberately influencing Michael to sign onto the team they want him to join, which would go against the NCAA's rules and cause him to lose his scholarship. This not only threatens Michael's success, but also makes him second-guess everything his parents had done for him. When he confronts his mom about it, everything is on the line - his scholarship, his future, their relationship. The NCAA is the antagonist, and there's definitely an argument to be made that the rules they were applying were discompassionate to the situation in the film. But it's an organization following it's well-intentioned procedures, not an evil cabal going out of its way to ruin lives. It's just very unfortunate - and thematic - that these procedures touched a raw nerve for this family.

Get us to root for your protagonist. Prove to us that they have to succeed for the world to be OK. Then, make your antagonist get in your hero's way, and make the way she does so touch on your story's most painful nerves. We can understand why she does the things she does. We can even agree with her that it's the right decision given where she's at. But as with the College Board and the NCAA, we will hate her guts for threatening the hero.

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1

The answer to this lies in (frustratingly) another question:

Why does your protagonist consider them "evil"?

If you can come up with something plausible and relatable for the answer to this you might just have a shot.

If the reason is due to a misunderstanding (or similar) on the protagonist's part (e.g. they believe the antagonist committed atrocity X when they didn't) then you can still do that so long as the reader has the same information that the protagonist does to lead them to that conclusion.

If they really are Lawfully Good in the classical sense and if your protagonist is more likely to be the one doing classically "Evil" behaviors then it's going to be a tough sell. You might be able to play into Anti-Hero status or make them likeable through other means such as making them super-charismatic, or funny etc and use the inertia of that built up appeal to encourage the reader to side with them over the antagonist but that's difficult, readers aren't idiots and if they see a character they like acting in a way they don't agree with you risk a backlash.

Can I keep my readers' loyalties with my protagonist, not my antagonist?

You can lead a reader by the nose a bit into being supportive of a particular character but ultimately they are going to sympathize with the character they find most sympathetic - which might not always be what you intended. There's nothing wrong with that, that's the joy of human nature.

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1

Antagonists are not necessarily bad guys. They prevent your protagonist from achieving her goals.

Free yourself of the labels and write your characters true to themselves. What you seem to have in your protagonist is something of an antihero in that she has killed her entire family and anyone else who ventured near enough to reach her.

The reader need not fully identify with your protag - a young girl who kills is not the most endearing sort. Show why she does it.

You might find, as I did once, that my original hero turned out to be an inadvertent and unaware villain, flipping the man he thought of as the arch villain into the hero. I stopped thinking of them as good vs evil and saw that the purported villain was striving to preserve the world from the consequences of the actions of the hero. I just considered them by their names and the plot developed itself.

Readers having sympathy for a victim of your protag’s earlier evil is not a problem. One thing I wonder, you say she thought she was alone and the last human alive. Why then would she not have felt relieved to see other humans? Was she frightened? Did she think People! I am not the last. Wait, why are they here? No, can’t let them find mom and dad. Need to kill them and run.

If she killed them to cover up her earlier crime, she might be a bit too dark to engage the reader completely. The reader might be curious regarding what other havoc young Eris will wreak, but feeling as Eris feels might be a bit of a stretch.

Let them understand why Eris hates this good woman who stands in her way but don’t expect them to detest her too. They might see her as Eris’ only hope of redemption.

If your characters are engaging enough and fully realized, the reader will probably be intrigued.

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1

of course it is fine.

It all depends on what your story is.

Remember, the antagonist doesn't have to be the bad guy... just has to be someone the protagonist has a conflict with.

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1

The Federal Marshall in The Fugitive (starring Harrison Ford) is an example of a lawful yet dislikable antagonist. So yes, that kind of antagonist can definitely work.

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1

A good recipe for a tragedy is a character constellation where you have multiple good people who only have the best intentions but they still end up working against each other.

Everyone has a plan for how to resolve that major problem of the story. Most of these plans might even work. But all these plans are different and are in conflict with each other. Only one of them can be executed. For some reason (character flaws, inability to communitcate, secondary interests, lack of trust...) these people can not agree on which plan to pursue. So each one of them wants to execute "their" plan, and conflict arises from who of them gets to do so.

In a more upbeat story, they will eventually resolve their differences and solve the problem together. In a more tragic story all the good people might end up sabotaging each other and they all collectively fail.

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This can be done in a number of ways, though I admit it may be difficult to make a genuinely good leader a primary antagonist.

  • Good guy is actually not so good. Your antagonist may be widely respected and acting selflessly for the good of the society, but there is a disturbing darkness in him. Think about Agent Smith, from the "Matrix", or High Sparrow in "Game of Thrones", or sheriff Will Teasle in "Rambo". In the end it is becoming clear that the good guy was clearly not so good.
  • Good guy is acting in a mistaken belief that protagonist is a threat to the society. This is particularly common in Fugitive Arc (TV Tropes) stories, when we see a genuinely good law enforcement officer as an antagonist (but not the "big bad"), and still root for our protagonist, who is on the wrong side of the law.
  • Comedy. Here the audience can root for the bad guys knowing that they are not really bad. Consider "Smokey" from "Smokey and the Bandit", Dean of Students Ed Rooney from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" or concierge Hector from "Home alone 2".
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As others have said, the antagonist doesn't necessarily have to be a bad guy. It's also worth mentioning however, that "bad guys" generally tend to think that what they're doing is good.

Consider for example someone who holds order and stability to be the most important thing there is, and so acts to stop any major change from happening, whether that change would be ultimately good or bad. What they're doing is upholding the order and stability that they hold dear, and they may well think they're truly doing the best thing for the country/world/etc. But what if this means they oppose getting rid of slavery, for example, because that is also a major change?

Consider also the ruler who is forced into a hard decision. They may be forced to choose between closing off all borders to protect their people from a plague that's ravaging the nearby countries, or sending aid to a long-time ally who has been struggling with the plague. Whichever decision they make, perfectly reasonable people can come to the conclusion that it was the wrong one.

Real-world problems are complex, and the best writing shows this. An antagonist whose motives and reasoning you can understand and perhaps even agree with is a sign of a good writer, in my opinion.

Some examples of this type of antagonist:

(the list below contains spoilers, I have listed author/publisher for each entry so hopefully you can choose what you want to see)

  • N.K. Jemisin's

    The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

  • Brandon Sanderson's

    Mistborn trilogy

  • The Konami video game

    Suikoden 2

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People are Complicated

And also compartmentalized. You can find a lot of examples in history of admirable, honest people with feet of clay. One very common twist for the scenario you’re spinning is that she really does put her own group of survivors first—but at the expense of others, and that’s why the hero has to fight them. Or perhaps she’s too loyal to her family or her own circle, who aren’t as noble as she is, and isn’t willing to restrain them. Maybe she has a tragic flaw.

Do We Need Another Hero?

Maybe she’s not “the villain,” just the worthy opponent of the main character. The two sides might be in an irresoluble conflict that she wishes were not necessary. You might be telling the story from the villain’s point of view, or there might be no villain at all.

It’s Not Her, it’s Them

The hero is fighting another group of survivors. Maybe the leader is a good person, but not all her followers are, and she just doesn’t know about them, or can’t stop them.

War! What is it Good for?

If the antagonist turns out to be a good person who doesn’t want to hurt the protagonists, everyone could realize that and stop fighting. The plot might even be about making peace and saving as many lives as possible. That’s a great happy ending.

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Very few people consider themselves to be "evil."

So, it would be very realistic to have two people who are good and even lawful oppose each other.

Think about two such people. They each have a goal that they think will make things better (or keep them from declining). They are committed to their respective goal. They will do anything that the law and their morality allows to achieve their goal. Now consider that their goals have mutually exclusive results or have unintended consequences that interferes with the other's goal.

They may be so invested in their own goal that they see any interference with it to be evil. Thus, you could have two good people who see each other as evil (or merely just wrong).

Politics is a good example of this.

Your story can only be better if both characters are good and oppose each other. If the readers sympathize with the antagonist, the protagonist's victory will be tinged with a bit of tragedy. If you really want to tug on the hear strings, in the end, let protagonist see that the antagonist is also good but must fail for what the protagonist sees as the greater good.

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For a Lawful good antagonist, your protagonist has to be "breaking the law" in some amount.

  1. Good: Not intending to harm another or trying to prevent harm to another.
  2. Lawful: Within the Law's limits. (Note that the law itself might be prejudiced or unfair in many cases)

Now depending on your story, there can be many reasons why the protagonist is outside the law. Most rebels or hunted communities or group of people who has been driven to extremes can be termed unlawful. What makes your protagonist so is the way you write the story. Many examples are given in previous answers, but the general rule is: The protagonist is likable despite being forced to act unlawfully. To a person who commits a harmless robbery to feed his family, a good cop is an antagonist (at least in the short term).

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Stories can be told with protagonists and antagonists all over the moral spectrum and remain interesting and good stories.

Some of the most interesting conflicts come between people who have views that are only slightly different.

It is very common in both real life and in fiction for people who want similar, or even exactly the same goals but to come to disagreement over issues such as how to arrive there. TVTropes has a whole page on the topic.

Remember that people frequently disagree over what is "good" or "evil".

I'll sidestep the whole question of whether it is possible to provide an objective system of morality at all by pointing out that in any complex situation it can be hard to tell which side is good and which is evil and people regularly disagree. The "Sword of Good" story takes this as its central theme.

In most historical wars the people on both sides thought they were fighting for "good" while their opponents were "evil".

It can also get muddled by questions of whether the ends justify the means. The Operative in Serenity provides a good example. He openly admits that he, personally, is a monster doing horrible things. But he believes that he is justified by the ends he is working towards and is thus on the side of good even if he is not personally good.

To reference TV Tropes again, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.

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A pious religious person might be "lawful good" (as a dutiful Christian for example), yet be a right pain-in-behind to your roguish anti-hero protagonist. And if the pious person is quite the moralistic zealot imposing a particular righteous world-view on every-one else (even though well intentioned), it's quite conceivable your protagonist will view them as "evil" in a way.

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