How often have you heard the advice, “A good villain is the hero of their own story”? This line is a step in the right direction. But I find it simplistic and I find that it fails to encompass everything a villain should be.
One of the most helpful things for me has been to change the very words I use. Rather than hero and villain, I prefer protagonist and antagonist. Following the etymology of the words, they mean he who acts and he who acts against. These words are devoid of moral qualification. They don’t specify good and evil, the way hero and villain do. They also imply a more intimate connection between the two characters, a more direct opposition. Often, a typical villain may have a goal and a typical hero’s goal is stopping the villain. But a protagonist and antagonist are much more deeply concerned about the other.
Rather than thinking of a villain as the hero of their own story, think of your antagonist as a character with the same goal as your protagonist. Take, for instance, Thanos, from Avengers: Infinity War. A character often lauded as a great villain. To me, what makes him great is not that he is the hero of his own story. Rather, it is that he and the Avengers both want the same thing: happiness for the people of the universe. The distinction between them is the lengths they are willing to go to achieve that end.
All antagonists are different, and the process of their creation is different as well. There are no rules when it comes to creating an antagonist. We all already have an instinct for what makes a villain compelling. But there are a few common tricks and tools you can use to refine the process. Don’t feel a need to use all of these, or even any of them. Rather, see if one may pique your interest, inspire you in a new direction.
A Piercing Connection
One type of antagonist is a character uniquely capable of hurting your protagonist. But I don’t mean physical pain. Rather, a good antagonist is one who represents the protagonist’s greatest fear, who causes their greatest failure, who terrifies them in a uniquely personal way.
For an example, consider Captain Beatty, from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For those unfamiliar with this book, Fahrenheit 451 concerns a story where the general populace has been rendered complacent by addictive media, and a fire-fighter’s occupation is burning books. Captain Beatty is the fire chief, Guy Montag is a fire-fighter who is beginning to doubt the system. What makes Beatty a compelling antagonist is that Montag is deeply afraid of him. Beatty has compelling, logical, and impassioned arguments for why the status-quo is a force for good. He represents the syrupy ignorance that Montag is trying desperately to escape, he represents the claws of complacency dragging Montague down. He pierces deep and without mercy into Montag’s character. Beatty is uniquely capable of exposing Montag’s flaw. Overcoming Beatty requires Montag to overcome that flaw.
Or, instead of someone who can hurt your protagonist, someone who can stop your protagonist is also interesting. If your protagonist is competent in a field (which I recommend they should be) have your antagonist be your protagonist’s true equal. Or, furthering this idea, have them be better than your antagonist. Sometimes a neat antagonist can be a flawless version of your protagonists — or someone whose flaws are more well hidden.
In the article about complex characters, I discussed briefly the power that contradictions have in making characters interesting. Of course, the same applies to your antagonist. The type of contradiction is a little different, though, and there are a couple of common archetypes that you can use.
Because your antagonist is likely someone doing morally questionable deeds, guilt can be a powerful contradiction. “This person is evil, but feels bad about it.” It’s such a simple contradiction, used in nearly every story, yet its power never diminishes. As always, consider why the person feels bad about it. What part of their character lends itself to guilt?
The opposite is equally compelling. “This person is evil, but doesn’t feel a bit of remorse.” It’s easy to allow this kind of antagonist to become just another run of the mill villain. But there’s also an opportunity to have a character with unique power and presence, a self confidence that your protagonist may be lacking in, or a truly fascinating ideology.
Another contradiction is persuasiveness. “This person is evil, but goddamn if they’re not making a great case for their side.” These kinds of antagonists really make you stop and think. Ozymandius from Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is one such villain. He murdered the population of New York, but he had a terrifically persuasive reason why.
This technically falls under the category of contradictions. “This person is evil, but they’re super likeable.” But making a character likeable is such a vague and complicated issue, and so I wanted to devote a bit more time to it.
Many of my favorite villains fall under this category. I may disagree with them entirely, but darn are they fun to watch. Antagonists with charm, humor, poise, grace, wit, all of these attributes we would never expect to see on a villain.
One surefire way to make an antagonist likeable is to give them relationships. The relationship could be a negative one, that causes your antagonist pain. For example, there’s the classic archetype of the new kid at a new school, and the popular school bully. An easy way to make that bully likeable is to give them a father figure who is distant and abrasive.
The relationship could also be a positive one. An antagonist with a love interest that they care about deeply is wildly compelling to me. An antagonist with friends, or a mother, or a puppy, equally so. Just as relationships bring out different aspects of your protagonist, the same is true for your antagonist.
My favorite antagonists are the ones who change over the course of the story. They don’t necessarily have to change for the better, or redeem themselves, or anything like that. They just have to be dynamic.
The reason for this is because dynamism in a character requires a couple of attributes. A flaw, a motivation, self-awareness, struggle. All of these are the building blocks of a likeable character.
Even cooler is if the antagonist changes as a result of interacting with the protagonist, and vice versa. This intertwining of the two characters can result in incredible relationships.
Classic villains, the big bad evil guy, the cartoonishly evil, these have their place in fiction. I prefer to see these classic villains used in relationship to a more complex antagonist. For a pristine example, take Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. The Emperor is a classic villain with no redeeming characteristics. His purpose in the story is to contrast with the actual, more likeable antagonist, Darth Vader, and to cause Vader to redeem himself.
Additionally, the classic villain can be useful if the story is more of a character study about a complex protagonist. Many war novels fall under this category. “War” is a classic villain, no redeeming contradictions there. But it’s used as a means to explore the complicated depths of the protagonist.
This is by no means a complete list of what makes an interesting antagonist. There are hundreds of different rules you could find, and following them all would result in something nonsensical.
My final word of advice is just, when push comes to shove, make your story about characters. Don’t attach moral labels like hero and villain to them. Make it about characters, characters with reasons and goals and backstories and personalities. Let them interact with each other as they would naturally, and let them change as a result of that interaction.