The villain or antagonist is key to any story; they provide much of the needed tension/conflict which pushes the hero (and the reader) through the events. A good antagonist, for example Javert from Les Miserables, can inspire sympathy and understanding as well as dislike and fear, while a bad antagonist, for example DC’s Codpiece, can ruin a whole story arc.
When it comes down to it, however, the basics of writing a fully actualised antagonist are much the same as the process of writing a good hero, anti-hero, or side-character… it’s all about the time you put in during the creation process. It’s about getting to know them, understanding their capabilities, and knowing how to put them across to the reader.
A good antagonists needs to be plausible, to be effective, and they need to be able to connect with your reader in some way. There are a few simple things you can do to lay a good solid groundwork for your antagonist, however;
- Motivate them; your antagonists need to want something, they must have an endgame for their actions as much as your hero’s and heroines do. It doesn’t have to make total sense to the reader, or any sense to the main character, but it must make sense to the villain. They have to believe in what they are doing. For example, Javert seeks Jean Valjean at first because of his firm belief in the french system of justice and the certainty that theft is wrong. He makes no allowances for the fact that Valjean was starving and stole food, but in the beginning this makes him a harsh antagonist, not an outright villain. By the end of the book/film, however, his moral view has become an obsession that leads him to ever more extreme actions; he cannot accept that goodness and bad actions can come from the same person.
- Make them tangible; if you’re planning on making your antagonist/villain an abstract concept or an institution expect some resistance from agents, editors, and possibly readers. It’s all fine and well to want to illustrate the big picture, but if you don’t have a specific antagonist or villain to pressure your hero and spur them on the narrative can become baggy and unsatisfying. It can be done, but it takes a hell of a lot of skill so think twice about this kind of idea. Consider picking on person representing the institution, or even the problem you’re hinting at so that you have someone to battle against.
- Give them complexities; because they’re evil is a reason that doesn’t even work in children’s stories anymore. This is similar to giving them motivation, but the focus here is on their personality and attributes. No person is 100% good or evil; Bane believes that the rich of Gotham are corrupt, that they are bringing and holding down the poor, and though he intends to burn the whole city to the ground, he believes that this will be a purification, and does it out of misplaced loyalty. Javert is both a zealot and the kind of man who believes firmly in the law and all its moral trappings. Frollo believes that sexuality is a weakness, a sign of sin; he pursues purity above all else. Each of these villains/antagonists is complex, capable of love and hate, goodness and evil, compassion and malice.
- Make them a match for your protagonist; antagonists must be formidable if they’re going to really contribute to your story. They should be a match, more than to be honest, for your hero/ine because they have to push the story forward. They should challenge your protagonist by being better than them at what they excel at, or have strengths that can be used directly against your protagonists weaknesses. This is how you create real conflict which drives your characters to evolve.
- Make them a little frightening; this isn’t always easy. What makes a Villain frightening can be really subjective, but there are a few rules of thumb. They have to want to harm your protagonist, they have to be capable of doing it personally, and they have to have the means to do it effectively, e.g. they need to have the authority, the skills, the power, to do it.