Without a good villain, you can’t have a good hero. They are the yin to their yang. While it is the main character’s actions that should drive the story forward, it is the villain that should compel them into action in the first place. They push our heroes, bringing out the best and the worst in them. The villain is just as important to the story as the hero is, if not more so!
But here’s the thing that people often forget. There is a difference between a villain and an antagonist.
A villain is a force of evil. These guys can have depth, and they often do. But their goals are usually malicious in nature. These are characters like DBZ’s Freeza, Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7, and of course: the Joker (along with most comic book villains). These characters are all great, but it is rare for them to stick in people’s minds as interesting characters. More often than not, they’re remembered for being a ton of fun to watch simply because of how evil they are.
An antagonist, on the other hand, is a much more grounded character. Unlike the villain, their goals often aren’t malicious; they simply go against those of the protagonist. A great example of this would be Adam and Eve from NeiR: Automata (seriously, play that game, it is so good). These two robots aren’t evil; one just wants to acquire knowledge and the other only wants to spend time with his brother. However, this puts them in exact opposition with 2B and 9S, who are working under orders to destroy the robots. Thus, the conflict between the two is inevitable. In order for one party to have the peace they desire, they need to destroy the other.
The line between villain and antagonist can be thin at times. But make no mistake; there is a line there. However, that line does not distinguish the quality of these characters. A villain can be just as interesting as an antagonist. It’s just that a villain faces a far greater challenge than the antagonist.
Making them sympathetic.
Not all villains need to be sympathetic, mind you. None of the examples I listed before are even remotely so! Freeza and Sephiroth are both completely irredeemable, no matter what approach you take! There’s nothing wrong with a villain being pure evil, so long as it works within the tone of the story. But a villain without depth, while enjoyable, struggles to earn the audience’s sympathy. You don’t pity Freeza when he gets cut in half. Nor do you feel any sorrow when Cloud Omnislashes Sephiroth to hell.
A lot of people think that making an antagonist sympathetic is easy. Just give them some sad backstory that explains their motives and actions, then wham! Compelling character! Right? Wrong! It’s a bit more complex than that!
Take Stain from My Hero Academia! His shtick is simple: he murders heroes he considers corrupt, those that work only to make money so that only the purest will remain. He’s a violent murderer aiming to make society better through his killings. That alone doesn’t make him sympathetic; in this case, the ends don’t at all justify the means. Plus, we the audience know that his ideology is heavily flawed. He believes that corrupt heroes can’t be redeemed; however, through both Todoroki and Iida, we know that isn’t true.
A sympathetic villain isn’t just someone that you understand. Nor is it someone you feel bad for. A truly sympathetic character is someone you can’t help but root for. You understand that they’re completely set against the protagonist. But, just like the story’s hero, you still relate and root for them.
So, what makes a sympathetic villain? What’s the trick that makes them tick? Well, it depends on the story. But there are some factors that are crucial, no matter what.
The most important one is to avoid making the antagonist completely evil. If you aim to make the audience care for your protagonist’s main enemy, you must avoid that at all costs. Their motivations must be in opposition against the hero’s; that much is a given. But that doesn’t require them to be an evil bastard that bathes in the blood of orphans.
Say, for example, we’re writing a sports series. Our hero aims to win a smaller tournament so he can qualify for Nationals; let’s say he’s aiming for a scholarship. Naturally, our antagonist would play for a different team while working towards the same goal. This puts our protagonist and antagonist in direct opposition with each other. After all, only one team can win a tournament.
But the question stands: why? We know what drives our protagonist. But why does our antagonist aim for victory? That leads to the next point.
In order to fully empathize with a character, especially the enemy, you need to understand them as much as you do the hero. Where do they come from? What do they want? Why do they want it? So on and so forth.
Let’s go back to our sports example. Let’s say that our antagonist, a talented player, suffered from a critical loss in a prior tournament. This is why he is so determined to win this one; he aims to redeem himself. In order to achieve this goal, he plays with all he has, thus pushing our hero to his absolute limits.
Of course, our antagonist still needs to do just that: antagonize. Even if he isn’t a bad person, we can’t have the audience root for him more than the hero. Part of what makes an antagonist fun is the catharsis of watching them fall! You want to see them pay for their actions! There’s no catharsis in watching a good guy get torn down by an equally good guy! So, we need to give them some negative qualities to put them against our hero.
Luckily, we can do that pretty easily. Again, let’s go back to our sports example. We’ve already established that our antagonist is an intense player aiming for redemption after a crippling loss. But how does that affect his personality? Maybe his high demand for victory has made him demanding of his teammates, which makes them resent him. Or maybe he’s taken to playing dirty, which puts him against our honorably playing hero. Perhaps he’s taken to trash-talking his opponents to dish out psychological damage, which has given him a reputation as an annoying, disrespectful player.
It’s important to make your antagonist hatable enough for the audience to root against him. However, if you’re aiming for a sympathetic character, it’s important that you don’t make them completely despicable. For every negative quality, there must be a positive one to balance it out.
A great example of this is Beerus from DBZ: Battle of Gods (not the Super arc; the characters are different enough to warrant distinction). Unlike other big bads in Dragon Ball, Beerus is not pure evil. Sure, he blows up planets! But that’s his job; he is a god meant to wipe away the old so that new life can emerge. Thus, his actions are mostly justified in context. Plus, we see through his actions that he isn’t a bad person. He likes to joke, party, have fun, and even knows how to show mercy every now and then. You as a viewer like him enough that you don’t want to see him go down. However, you hate him just enough that you root for Goku to win. As a villain, he lacks the same charm as Freeza and Cell. But as an antagonist? He stands at the top of Dragon Ball’s list!
Simply put: the villain is the guy you love to hate. Meanwhile, the antagonist is the guy you root for, even when you shouldn’t. The line between them is thin at times, but it is definitely there. Which one you prefer is entirely up to you. Personally, I love ’em both. But I do prefer a sympathetic character to a one-dimensional evil machine.
Although I do still love them to death.