Villain and Foil: The Perfect Antagonist
Some writers believe that the antagonist of the story should be the foil to the protagonist. This is to highlight your main character, to show their strengths and perhaps feature their weakness. Doing this makes the protagonist feel developed, but often times leads to a flat, dry antagonist. Think the mustache twirling villain with a girl tied to the train tracks.
Why did this man tie the girl to the tracks? Does he have a mental health problem? How long did it take him to grow that wonderful mustache?
The villains of old were meant to be nothing more than an excuse to highlight the good guy of the story, give them a reason to be heroic. Don't do that. We've come a long way since those days of old. So here are my 4 steps for creating a good villain. This can be used in writing and in tabletop gaming.
1. Who is this guy? Relating the villain to the hero...
As I've said there can be the villain that serves as nothing more than a foil for the protagonist. The shiny bit of metal behind a gem to make it shine. This is the character that will drive your protagonist forward and give them a goal to strive for. It's the object the reader can grasp onto as the story's struggle.
Don't make the antagonist an evil corporation (sorry Umbrella Corporation), a disease, or war in general. These ideas fall too flat as an antagonist because they are not relatable, not very visible. They can drive the narrative forward but the reader/viewer has nothing really to latch onto. We read stories for the characters, make your villain one.
Darth Vader and The Joker from the Dark Knight are good examples of this. They have done something to draw the protagonist in, steeling a Princess or pulling off a crime, which introduces us to both our protagonist and a reason to watch the hero struggle. These villains are ominous characters and fun to watch or read because of how different they are to our main character.
Vader is dark, looming and all powerful, while Luke is some weakling from a backwater planet just learning his powers. The Joker is insane and pulls of daring, exciting crimes that the Batman is compelled to confront.
As the hero struggles against the traps or obstacle put before him, we learn more and more about who this villain is and why we should care. Which brings us to...
2. Why do they do it? Motive...
If you have spent hours pouring over creating your main character, you should be putting in as much effort for the villain. (Please see previous posts on Character Creation). Why are they doing what they are doing? What drives the villain to do their dastardly deeds? Their ambition becomes the protagonist's goals and struggle.
The Joker doesn't just commit crimes for the sake of doing bad. He doesn't really do it to watch the world burn (sorry Alfred). The Joker does it because of the Batman, because he exists. He is the Ying to Batman's Yang. This can come across as merely being the foil, but it is deeper than that. Batman is the Caped Crusader and Dark Knight, The Joker wants to expose him and humanity for the hypocrites that they are. To plunge the world into chaos and prove that no one is better than him. To prove that there isn't good in the world and that even the mighty can fall. Batman's struggle is to maintain that status and not fall to the Dark Side (mixing references).
What motivates the villain, what makes it all worth while? To gain monetarily, to prove a point, revenge? Making the villain another person, not just he mustache twirling maniac, give them depth and makes them sympathetic. They too have desires and goals. Don't make them just want to destroy the world, because that doesn't make sense. They live there too.
The simpler the better. Think what drives you and put yourself in their shoes. Everyone is the hero in their own story.
3. Fight back! The ebb and flow of struggle...
We love the struggle in a story, that goal that is just outside of reach. Because we care about the character, we want to see them succeed. That moment when you pump your fist in the air excitedly, cheering on your favorite character as they beat the odds and land that one in a million shot as they speed down the Death Star trenches.
But your villain should get a few shots in along the way. A villain should be competent and planning out their plot a few steps ahead of everyone else the protagonist.
Think Hans Gruber, my all time favorite villain. We love him because he is cool and collected, knows exactly what will happen next, and keeps one step ahead of the good guys. Until John McClane shows up that is. John is the villain in Hans's story and watching their tug of war is exciting. Watching Hansy Boy hatching a new plan along the way and pushing his way ahead of the obstacles put before him by John is compelling.
To keep the tension up in your story, there has to be struggle along the way. Sometimes the hero succeeds and sometimes they don't. But the back and forth between the protagonist and antagonist keeps us wanting to read on. As soon as the hero achieves his goal another obstacle should be laid before him. (Sorry Mario, the Princess is in another castle) Let us celebrate our victory, but pull us along to the next goal to be accomplished.
4. They're the bad guy. You love to hate them...
I personally love watching Hans Gruber because he is such a compelling villain. You don't want to like him at first, he's a villain/terrorist after all, but he commands the situation so well. His lackeys follow his every command, he exudes confidence and intellect, and by the end you almost want him to succeed.
But you love John McClane a little more, the good guy against all odds, so you get that fist bump moment at the end when he pushes Hans out the window (sorry if I spoiled this for you, but the move has been out for nearly 30 years now).
If you have made your villain sympathetic, you can evoke a strong emotional response from the reader every time they are in a scene. Something about the character makes them memorable and makes you want to cheer them on, for the mere fact that you want to see what happens next.
Think Dolores Umbridge. She has that sickly sweet demeanor about her that is a juxtaposition to the "evil" deeds she is carrying out. You love to hate her because of how outright despicable she is, but in her own mind she is perfectly normal. (Although I cannot abide by her blatant Centaur/Half Human racism). Which makes it all the sweeter when you see her get her just comeuppance.
If you have done all of these and really thought out who the villain is and why they do what they do. You will have a compelling victim that drives the narrative. Not just a shadow of the main character.