I grew up reading comic books where the villain was often evil and wanted to take over the country/world/solar system/galaxy. Pick whichever level of villain, but the evil characteristic was often the same.
That negative bias for the antagonist creeps into my writing more often than I would like to admit. Usually when it does, the villain is pretty two-dimensional. Trying to add additional depth often fails because, at his or her core is a being that wrings his/her hands and has a laugh reminiscent of MWAHAHAHA!
So, just as an exercise, I decided to try and create a character who is a normal, flawed person like you and me. He is friendly, intelligent and well-educated. He doesn’t have warts or a hunch and is able to carry on a conversation without veiled threats and evil/insane laughter of any kind. His work is interesting and, dare I say it, almost sexy (think Indiana Jones and you are on the right track).
In fact, he is considered to be a personal hero by my protagonist.
He doesn’t sound at all like an antogonist, does he? He actually sounds like he could be the hero of the story.
Except, somewhere in the story (and I’m not saying what story or where), his goals and actions come to be at odds with my protagonist’s. He has good reason (to him) for those goals and actions. Unfortunately, the story’s hero cannot allow him to achieve some of those goals. (Now our antogonist sounds more like Dr. René Emile Belloq to keep the Indiana Jones analogy alive).
The man is still intelligent and interesting. He is still a likeable person. Its just that our hero has had his eyes opened to the character’s flaws and must act accordingly.
The fact that they are friends means the hero must tread carefully and doesn’t really want to damage the integrity of his friend.
Makes things a lot more complicated, doesn’t it? It also makes for a much better story and interesting villain (if you wish to call him that). In fact, it makes the antagonist interesting enough to me that I might bring him back in a future book.
Looking at it that way, I know I have to put the exercise into practice. It will make the character and the book much more interesting.
Does the above mean a villain cannot be evil? Not at all. In fact, to create a truly nasty villain, the above exercise should still be done, only taken much, much further. My example for this is Breaking Bad. In the early episodes, Walter White is doing a bad thing for a good reason. As time goes on, that good reason is lost and he does worse and worse things.
By the time the show was over, Walter was not the same person he started out as. Would ‘evil’ be the word to describe him? That’s up to the viewers, but he was not the likeable person he started out as.
He also had so much character and depth, he would never be mistaken as a two-dimensional character.
So the characteristics in both examples that makes the antagonists multi-dimensional isn’t whether they are bad/good/misguided or whatever. It is that they have been made to live and breathe through character development. Harder to do than simply making a character do bad things for no apparent reason, but worth it in the end.
And hopefully dispelling the myth that antagonists must be “bad”.