Antagonists as a whole seem to be a misunderstood species. In most stories they devolve into little more than scenery, another minor roadblock for the hero to overcome in their grand quest. I’ll admit that it’s difficult to craft a nuanced antagonist, but they can elevate a story from simple fiction into a work of art.
One of the first aspects involved in creating said nuanced antagonist is deciding upon their reason(s) for pitting themselves against the protagonist. Are they avenging a lost love, or perhaps seeking bloody vengeance? For the best novels, the antagonist is just as well-defined as the protagonist; their motivations just as storied.
To help you in crafting your own antagonists, here is a list of the most basic motivations a villain can have for—well, acting villainous:
- Vengeance. This is the classic backstory for an antagonist. They feel wronged, and the actions that they take are about righting those wrongs. The important thing to remember about this is that it only becomes villainous when the vengeance is unfair (ie: killing a man for stepping on someone’s foot) or the wrong is attributed to the wrong person (which tends to make for a more sympathetic antagonist). Ex: either family in Romeo and Juliet
- Sadism. The quote that immediately comes to mind is The Dark Knight’s: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” I don’t really like this one, because in most novels it feels like a cop-out. Ex: Joker in The Dark Knight
- Greed/personal gain. The antagonist wants to gain something through their actions, usually something which it isn’t their ‘right’ to possess. Ex: Jafar in Aladdin
- Envy. Very similar to greed, in that the antagonist wants something that doesn’t belong to them. Only in this case, the focus is on hatred of the person who has it (rather than upon obtaining what’s desired). Ex: Tom from The Great Gatsby
- Misguided intentions. The antagonist is actually trying to help, but ends up doing more harm than good. Ex: The pigs in Animal Farm
- Simple hatred. When it happens on its own, this usually seems to stem from a fundamental conflict of values (ie: the hero upholds some value that the villain disdains). For the most believable of antagonists, the values they’re conflicting over aren’t necessarily good or evil.
- Honor. The antagonist has taken a vow which forces them to take up arms against the protagonist, or through some other way must set themselves opposite someone they would normally be on the same side with. Almost exclusive to anti-villains, this motivation tends to make for some interesting plots. Ex: to use a real life example, Rommel in WWII
Before I wrap this up, I’d like to mention that the list could be further simplified into 2 items: a motivation for gain, or a motivation to see others lose. Either the carrot or the stick, so to speak. Also, it’s rare that a strong antagonist fits solely into a single category in a novel; typically they will take their motivation from several different sources with a single main source, resulting in a uniqueness that allows them to feel more realistic to the reader.