The trouble is, despite the fact that making the evil presence in a story a person is easily the most popular choice, far too many would-be authors resort to stripping away the human side of an antagonist. In other words, the antagonists exist only to make the protagonist’s life a misery.
Which, frankly, is stupid. Seriously, any time I read a book or watch a movie where the villain’s goal is simply to end the world or blow up a city, at best I lose half of the respect I had for the story, at worst I give up on that story and move on. Why? Well, that antagonist is one of the most key players in any given story. They, along with the protagonist, clash against one another and drive the plot forward. The protagonist, of course, is motivated to achieve something. So an antagonist who simply gets in the way of our protagonist’s goals for the sake of just getting in the way, just doing some big bad evil thing because hey, that’s what villains do, right? Well, those kind of bad guys are big turn offs.
Because let’s get one thing out of the way: protagonist does not equal evil. Indeed, one of the most important qualities of a solid, believable antagonist is that they truly believe they are doing the right thing. They believe they’re the good guy, and they think the protagonist is actually the bad guy. So when your supervillain is aiming a nuclear missile at New York, stop and say to yourself: can he justify this to be the right thing to do?
Let me give you an example, from the movie Kingsman. Now, warning, there are spoilers for that movie ahead! So, Richmond Valentine is administering a dastardly plot that will see over 90% of the world’s population culled. Now, had it been left there, Valentine would’ve been a cardboard cut-out villain who is just simply being an inhuman roadblock. But then we have his justification that it’s for the good of the planet, which is seeing it’s resources depleted at an alarming rate from overpopulation.
Now, with this justification, Valentine’s character becomes much more believable. Who wouldn’t care about the state of Planet Earth? This relatable motivation, this idea of making your protagonists human, with human foibles and, yes, even good points, has a dual benefit. First, it makes us, the audience, feel much more deeply connected with the theme of the story. After all, there is a good chance that your story will have certain themes running through it (such as coming of age, destruction of the environment, materialism etc).
The protagonist will offer one point of view on these themes, and that’s all well and good, but with a well-rounded and believable protagonist you are able to offer a more well-rounded, three-dimensional view on a topic. For example, Rowling has stated that the overarching theme to the Harry Potter series is death. Now with Harry, you have him dealing with the death of his parents from the beginning, culminating in him accepting his own death and facing it. On the flipside of that, you have Voldemort, who is doing everything he can to conquer death. These two opposing forces taking different, yet understandable stances on a topic is what makes for a high-impact story.
The second benefit is within the story itself. A protagonist being victorious over a mindless maniac of a villain who has no motivations beyond wanton destruction doesn’t feel like a satisfying victory, because the motivations of the antagonist do not clash with the protagonist. So while the good guys may be tested on a surface level, they aren’t having to call their own beliefs into doubt or face their own human shortcomings, so it all feels hollow. However, humans winning over other humans is altogether more meaningful. Seeing that good nature of the protagonist tested and questioned by a protagonist who themselves may raise good points, but ultimately win through, feels like an emotional, well-earned victory.
A well-rounded protagonist with meaningful motivations can have huge knock on benefits for your story. Consider well how you develop them, as they are just as important to your character roster as your main protagonist.