In any story, when it comes to the characters, the first point of interest is almost always the protagonist. And yet, where would the story be without the antagonist?
Back in the day, the villains would, more often than not, turn out to be cardboard, 2D caricatures who wanted nothing more than to make life difficult for the hero; who were greedy for power and/or riches; or who wanted to bring about the end of the world.
I never got that whole ‘end of the world’ thing – without the world or humanity, what’s left for the villain? Unless you’re Thanos, it doesn’t make much sense.
When I first watched ‘Star Wars’ all those years ago – I’m talking ‘A New Hope’ – I thought Darth Vader, for all his powers and presence was not much more than the average, run-of-the-mill villain. It was only in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, when he uttered the now-immortal line – ‘I am your father’ – did I realise there was so much more to him and I couldn’t wait to learn more. Not long into the third film, ‘Return of the Jedi’, I was actually feeling for him, wanting him to reconcile with Luke, wanting Luke to give him a chance.
Despite the somewhat clunky writing and jarring plot turns over the whole ‘Star Wars’ saga, Darth Vader, for me, is one of the best antagonists ever written.
For an antagonist to be believable, for him to be a fitting counter to a well-written protagonist and to drive the story forward, he cannot exist purely as a 2D character. No one is purely good or totally evil; everyone has it in them to be both. ‘Bad’ people aren’t the only ones who do ‘bad things’; ‘good’ people do ‘bad things’ too.
I believe the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are basically flip sides of the same coin. The most obvious example, for me, is Batman and The Joker.
When their behaviour and reasoning are stripped right down, there’s very little to choose between them. I wonder, sometimes, if that’s why they come across as so obsessed with one another.
Another good example is Charles Xavier and Magneto in the ‘X-Men’. The line dividing their points of view is a very thin one. I think the only thing that sets them apart is their actions – for Magneto, the end very much justifies the means regardless of who gets caught in the line of fire, whereas for Charles, if the price is too high, he always looks for another way, no matter how hard or impossible it may seem.
Just like the protagonist, I believe the best antagonist is someone who is real. Someone who may not necessarily have started out villainous; maybe something happened to make her choose to do ‘bad things’. Maybe it’s something to do with anger, fear, heartbreak, a misplaced sense of honour. Maybe the only reason she caused the deaths of countless people was because she was desperate to save the life of someone she loved.
The best antagonist, I think, is someone who, despite their ‘bad’ ways, can also be funny, kind, interesting. Someone whom the reader finds possible to understand, even if only a little. Someone who has flaws, as we all do… someone human.