When you first study writing and learn about protagonists and antagonists it is all quite simple. Protagonists are the heroes and antagonists are the villains. Those definitions work to a point. Yesterday I looked at protagonists and was given some good comments so I may revisit protagonists later and look at some of the variations, but today is about the antagonist.
Simply put the antagonist is one who is opposed to or striving against another in a contest. They are an opponent or adversary. In your basic story, if your protagonist is the hero, the antagonist will be the villain. The one who blocks their every move and seeks to makes their life as painful as possible. However, as the protagonist doesn't necessarily have to the good guy, the antagonist doesn't necessarily have to be evil or villainous. If your protagonist is an environmentalist who has chained themselves to a tree even there best friend who is trying to drag them away could be perceived as an antagonist in the story because they are opposed to the protagonists actions.
That said, I want to talk about villains because, let's face it, villains are always the most enjoyable characters (personally I think that is why we are seeing so many anti-hero types lately, people want to have the loose morality and freedom that a villain gives and still be the hero).
Being character driven in my writing means that I am really concerned with motivation. I don't like to read stories where the hero is a hero because it is the good thing to do. It makes more sense if they are trying to save their own life, the life of someone they love, or they are after glory or money or some kind of extrinsic motivational force. As it makes more logical sense, it also makes the character more believable. I apply the same logic to my villains. They have to have some sort of logical motivation and goal.
Hence, the 'I want to destroy the world' type villain doesn't work so well for me. Even when the writer adds a quasi revenge theme over the top of that. How is it gaining revenge to destroy everything including yourself? Unless they have established that their villain is clearly insane I really don't buy into it.
I think Joss Whedon got it right in the second season of Buffy when Angel was trying to suck the entire world into hell. Spike, who up until this point had been a villain, joins forces with Buffy to stop him. She asks, logically, why would he want to help her. Spike's answer is perfect. He tells her that thought he likes to talk bad - "I'm going to destroy the world" - in point of fact, he likes the world. Spike talks about television and cars and how there are people wandering around like portable snacks (he is a vampire) and he really doesn't want to see the Earth destroyed. So one has to wonder what Angel thought he was going to get out of the entire end of the world deal.
Motivation is incredibly important but fortunately it is easy enough to find.
Revenge is a fine form of motivation, and one that makes sense, as long as the actions are logical. People like to get something back. They like to hurt those who have hurt them, or even those who they perceive have hurt them. Sometimes they do this in petty ways and are minor annoyances within the story, other times they go all out and decide to ruin someone's life, kill them, destroy a particular thing which is dear to the person, so on and so on, and are the cause of the main conflict in the story.
Money is another easy form of motivation that is easy to justify. People do incredibly silly things in real life for money and that just makes it easier to explain why characters would do horrible things for money.
Love is a classic motivational force and can quite easily have catastrophic results, particularly if the love is not returned.
Power, keeping it or the search for more power, whether it be political, economical, mystical or so on, is a very powerful motivation for most villains.
Prejudice is one that comes up a lot. Whether it is racially, religiously, or nationally based, irrational prejudice (or even 'justified' prejudice) can create some very ugly moments and can definitely give your villain a reason for acting. (Note 'justified' prejudice means that the villain is justifying to themselves a reason for an irrational dislike of an individual or group of people.)
I'm certain you could come up with a hundred more examples of sensible motivation for villains, which is why it always puzzles me when no motivation is ever clearly explained. I would love to hear your views on motivation for villains and some examples of villains that have worked well (or not so well).
Next post I am going to look at the role the antagonist plays within the plot and some specific examples of antagonists. Below are some links to other blog posts that discuss characters.
Bringing your characters to life - Matt Hayward
Vile Villains - Eric
What do your characters want - Nathan Bransford