What makes a good antagonist? Whether portrayed in text, stage, or film, good ones always seem to have something in common. It’s what I like to call “the conviction of rightness”. I’ll admit it, not very catchy. Everyone in the audience might know or feel that the actions of a villain are wrong or immoral, but you can’t dismiss motivations. You might have heard that before from actors when they dramatically exclaim to the old time movie director, “What’s my character’s motivation!?!?”
As silly as this might sound, there is truth in the cliche. We all have motivations for doing things. These motivations are driven by a variety of factors like emotion, personal experience, prejudices, etc… Toss in some tragically fatal flaws and deficiencies like being a psychopath, and you have the recipe for a great antagonist. When Batman was struggling to understand his villainous counterpart (the Joker), Alfred the butler pointed out that, “some men just want to watch the world burn…” This is a perfectly crafted phrase which explains the mystery of the “bad guy”.
As simple as all of that might seem, for the writer it doesn’t stop there. Writing for a bad guy only starts with understanding that he/she views his/her side of things as right. As a writer, it is always best to research and observe. In an effort to better understand the antagonist, read up on villains of fiction and non-fiction. In the aftermath of a tragedy caused by someone, we ask the inevitable question of “why?”, but we rarely get to the root of the answer. Watch any documentary on Hitler or Jim Jones and you will see a careful analysis of what we believe to be “why” they did what they did or what be believe motivated them. Digging deep into these things helps build the character and understanding of the antagonist. You may never actually explain the backstory details, but I assure you that having this predefined knowledge will subliminally surface when your are writing scenes and dialog.
The scariest antagonists are deep characters who are driven by dark influences which make them feel justified in their actions. They intimidate us when we don’t fully understand them, yet we believe they are capable of anything when carrying out their goals.