But the antagonist is more than a mere technical device. He is also a flesh-and-blood character with a personality, a belief-system, and a goal of his own.
How many times have we seen the bad guy doing bad things, but can’t understand why? This is because he is merely a cog in the writer’s plot. Since the antagonist and protagonist form a basic narrative unit that drives the story forward, a badly written villain will stall the engine.
Generally, all aspects of crafting a believable character apply to the antagonist, but one in particular warrants special mention — the villain believes he is the hero of his own story! He believes he is justified in doing what he does.
In The Matrix, agent Smith despises human beings. He hates their smell, their sweaty bodies, which he sees as prisons of meat. His job is to rid his perfect world of anyone who threatens to destroy it. He is clever, determined, skilled — in his own mind, a hero with a cause. It is partly this self-belief that makes him such a memorable villain.
In The Shawshank Redemption, the bible-punching Warden is obsessed with maintaining absolute order in his prison — in itself, a good thing. The problem is he is also a cruel killer.
In The Last of the Mohicans, Magua is a terrifying villain. His goal is to kill Grey Hair and eat his heart, but not before he hacks his children to bits while he watches. But, if that’s all there was to him, he’d be a one dimensional character, with little interest to us other than as a plot device.
But, later in the story, we learn that his village was destroyed by the English, his children killed, and he enslaved by Indians who worked for Grey Hair. To make matters worse, his wife married another man thinking he was dead. The backstory casts Magua as a tormented and bereaved husband and father seeking revenge — hardly a cardboard cutout serving only the plot.
The antagonist does not consider himself as being evil. He feels justified in his actions because of a wrong perpetrated against him in the past. Grant your antagonist a powerful cause to give him credibility and depth.
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Image: RyC – Behind the Lens