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What do you call the negative character of a movie who usually has the lead role? I need a single word for that. Does the adjective "negative" sound natural to you? I also know the word "sinister". But I have no idea if it is colloquial or technical in this sense. I need a term which most people are familiar with, not a technical one.

Added:

In order to clear off some possible ambiguities, let's provide you with some movie/series actors who are all called negative to me:

  1. The Batman Animated movie: the joker

  2. The Mask: stanley ipkiss

  3. The Breaking Bad series: Raymond Cruz - Both of the mexician cousins

  4. The Game of Thrones series: Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) - Jack Gleeson (Joffery Baratheon) - Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger)

I am looking for an adjective which can encompass all these characters.

The character in my question does not look pleasant to the audience at all. The viewer will often hate their character at the end of the movie. Sometimes, fewer actors/actresses accept such roles because of the negative feedback which can probably remain in the audience's minds. Such role can even make you hate the artist himself/herself for a long time.

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  • Even though you use the word sinister (and then question it), it's not at all clear what you mean by negative. Evil? Immoral? Disruptive? Antagonistic? What positive thing is being negated—and how? Aug 7, 2019 at 16:40
  • That doesn't help. All you've done is provide examples of characters—but done nothing to focus on the specific aspect of the characters that concerns you. If I point to 7-feet tall male basketball players and ask if I should describe them as 7-feet tall, male, or basketball players, it's impossible to answer the question in any way other than yes. You have to be explicit in terms of what you're looking for. Aug 7, 2019 at 17:34
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    Sorry, @A-friend, but actually I think your edit has added to the potential for confusion. In The Mask, Ipkiss is an archetypal example of an "antihero" (the main character and a "bad guy"), but at least some purists would argue that in Batman movies The Joker is more properly called an "antagonist" (imho, a somewhat rarefied Lit Crit term that presupposes an endorsable "heroic" protagonist). But I'm also assuming you're not really after rulings on Lit Crit terminology (which might be better addressed on SE Writing anyway). Aug 7, 2019 at 17:41
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    ...me, I'm on record as saying that with the possible exception of Saul, just about every character in Breaking Bad is an "antihero" (to my mind, even though they're often presented in a positive light, they're all effectively self-serving scumbags! :) Aug 7, 2019 at 17:45
  • I'm really sorry for my poor English sense! Actually, I thought there should be only one single word for that in English. Nevertheless, I tried to clarify my meaning. I wonder if I could make myself understood a bit more @Jason Bassford. Sall I add to my explanations?
    – A-friend
    Aug 7, 2019 at 18:46

3 Answers 3

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Antagonist is fairly common in critical theory. You wouldn't use it when talking to a 8 year old or a simpleton, but it's not a high level term.

Simpler words might be bad-guy or villain. Bad-guy is a little colloquial.

No, you aren't using negative naturally, but I can understand your intention.

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"Antagonist" is the standard literary term for a character who is opposed to the protagonist. A less formal (but also less specific) term for such a character is "opponent". Such a character may be evil, like say Darth Vader in Star Wars. Or such a character may simply be a competitor, such as say a player on an opposing team in a sports movie. Often such a character is portrayed in a negative fashion, because that can make for more drama.

When an antagonist is also portrayed as evil or negative, the term "villain" may be used in place of "opponent". This is less formal than "antagonist" but less colloquial than "bad guy". Indeed it can be used as a near synonym for antagonist.

However, where a viewpoint or central character is portrayed as evil or immoral or amoral, the term "Anti-hero" may be used. An anti-hero is generally the protagonist or central figure of the work, but is portrayed as evil or in some other way as non-heroic. For example the character Parker in the series of novels by Donald Westlake (writing under the name Richard Stark) is a classic anti-hero. Parker is a criminal, and a killer, when it seems to him in his interest to kill. He has little or no affection for anyone but himself, and does not understand why anyone would expect him to. He is surprised when other characters act out of some sort of friendship for him. But he is the central figure, and the primary viewpoint character, and most readers will identify with him.

See the Wikipedia article. See also dictionary.com, Cambridge dictionary Writing Explained, and Britannica All suggest that an anti-hero is "a protagonist of a drama or narrative who is notably lacking in heroic qualities" which is different from simply being an antagonist.

Responding to the added examples, the Joker in the various versions of Batman is an antagonist or opponent, and could also be called a villain or bad guy. (None of these are adjectives, I'm afraid, but descriptive nouns.) Cersei Lannister in the Game of Thrones novel series (I have not watched the video version) was certainly both an antagonist and a villain ("bad guy" sound wrong for the tome of this series to me). Littlefinger is clearly an antagonist, and arguably a villain. Joffery Baratheon is also clearly an antagonist, but I would be reluctant to call him a villain. If he had been the central character, he might have been an anti-hero. I do not know the other characters listed, and so cannot comment on them.

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  • Perfect reply @David Siegel. I am really surprised by such a great answer. Just if I'm not mistaken, the word "antagonist" is the most proper and epidemic word which encapsulates all the characters in my question. Do you agree David?
    – A-friend
    Aug 7, 2019 at 18:33
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    @A-friend "Antagonist" does seem to cover your original question pretty well, IMO. It is, as others have noted, a somewhat formal term mostly used in literary criticism, but not highly esoteric. As it often does, English has a number of words with different shades of meaning around this concept,and different ones will be proper in different circumstances. Your use of "epidemic" in the comment above does not seem correct. Aug 8, 2019 at 9:45
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The main "bad guy" in movies is usually called the

antihero
Traditionally, the protagonist — main character and focus — of a story has been a hero: someone good, noble, and brave. However, some stories change things up by having an antihero instead. An antihero may not be heroic at all. TV shows have featured antiheroes who are mobsters, drug dealers, crooked cops, and even serial killers. An antihero is kind of like a villain, or a mix of a hero and a villain. Antiheroes are complex characters, which is why they’re popular.

As OP has noted, "bad guy" is [more than] a little colloquial (and "villain" is hopelessly dated/quaint, imho). But "antihero" is a perfectly acceptable usage in even the most formal Lit. Crit. context.

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    An anti-hero is a protagonist that the audience is supposed to root for despite his or her evil tendencies. I think the original poster is looking for a protagonist's main opponent: a major character that the audience is supposed to root against.
    – Jasper
    Aug 7, 2019 at 17:09
  • The antagonist is not normally an anti-hero. An anti-hero would be the primary focus of the work, not the opponent of a hero / protagonist. I would add that I do not find "villian" out dated, indeed I consider it rather better than "bad guy". Aug 7, 2019 at 17:14
  • @Jasper: That's usually true, but I don't see it justifies a downvote here (yours or someone else, I dunno). OP makes no mention of whether or not the audience might "root for" the character thus identified. Personally, I'm quite happy to root for someone like Herod (Gene Hackman) in The Quick and the Dead for at least part of the movie, because even when I watched it for the first time I'd have been confident that by the end of the movie he'd be getting his come-uppance (which I gleefully look forward to when re-watching it! :) Aug 7, 2019 at 17:19
  • I down voted this because I consider the use of "anti-hero" to mean "antagonist" to be simply and clearly incorrect, as I said in my comment. At least one other person has downvoted also. Who the audience roots for is not the main point, IMO -- an anti-hero must be the central figure of the drama. Aug 7, 2019 at 17:20
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    Luke Skywalker is a protagonist. Darth Vader is an antagonist. Han Solo is a (mild) anti-hero. A better example of an anti-hero is Walter White from Breaking Bad. He's the protagonist, but he's also not a good or pleasant person. Aug 7, 2019 at 19:28

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