Yeah, yeah, I know Chuck Wendig already told you all you need to know about Antagonists over at Terrible Minds, but guess what? I’m going to tell you some more and a lot of the same things and some other shit too, and f-you for beating me to it, Chuck! (Because I love Chuck very much, but he missed a few points and I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and I really want to tell you about this, anyway. And so, hah! Here we go!)
First off, I disagree with Chuck on one point: Character does not drive Plot. Conflict drives Plot and it’s Characters—or more specifically the Antagonist/Protagonist relationship—that causes Conflict. It is the burning, horrible conflict and confluence of desires that fuel and fire up plots worth bothering with. And it’s all the villain’s doing. Yup, a good story is really about the antagonist and what he wants. Or she or they or it or… you know what I mean. And how that messes with the Hero.
Because Heroes are essentially lazy, self-satisfied Mother-effers, who are perfectly happy to sit at home or in their Cavern of Solitudeiness/Batcave/Go-go-tastic Mystery Machine van playing video games and doing ordinary, boring stuff most of the time (except when they have to go over to their best friend’s house to unblock the dog or the toilet or something of that nature, because they are heroes and they do that kind of crap.) It’s the Antagonist—the Villain—who gets them off their self-satisfied butts and gets them doing Heroic Shit. Because this is all about Conflict, remember?
The majority of Protagonists aren’t out there looking for Things to Be Heroic About; most Heros are reactive, not active. They respond to what the Villain’s actions force upon them. It’s when they go beyond rolling over, paying the vig, or looking away that they become Heros, rather than schmoes. It’s when and how the Conflict polarizes them, forces the Pro and Anti against each other, that makes the Plot pop a wheelie and burn rubber.
Now, this is where the second thing comes in. I know you’ve heard the old blah-blah-blah “The Villain is the Hero of His Own Story” schmooze, which is mostly true, but here’s the thing: the Antagonist must be more motivated, more desirous, more involved, and generally more active initially than the Protagonist. Now, usually this is because the Antagonist’s story actually starts before the Protagonist’s—so he’s got traction and momentum behind him—and it’s when their desires or motives come into contact and move beyond that into conflict that the Hero finally gets off his or her duff and Does Something About It.
Because Batman would have nothing to do but be Bruce Wayne (oops, did I spoil that for you?) and swan around charity balls if there were suddenly no Villains committing crimes in Gotham, no matter how mentally wrecked he was as a child. Really, he’s just half-a-step from psycho anyway. Maybe he’d become a villain himself just to break the boredom—but you can bet he’d do it for a Damn Fine Reason! Like, “My parents were killed by a billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist on his way to stop to terrorists in Obscureistan! And he didn’t even stop to find out what that smell was! I shall destroy all billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropists! (But first, I shall give all my own money away to the Batvillain Foundation so I’m not a hypocrite.)”
Notice how the Hero isn’t really that far away from the Villain? It only takes a tiny thing to make one into the other, which is why the Antagonist has to have as good a motive as the Protagonist for doing what he does—because he is the hero (but for the grace of God and a nifty cape)! Because at every turn he’s going to be slowed, stymied, cock-blocked, stalemated, set back, dumped on his ass, and outright victimized by the Hero. And yet he will keep on getting up and going forward, even when the odds no longer favor him. The Villain believes in what he’s doing even more than the Hero does. It’s the most important thing in the world to him: it is life and breath; it is healthy children living in a world without fear; it’s stopping the Nazis, it’s saving the world! It has to be all that and a bag of Gummy Babies, otherwise, he’d give up after going a few rounds with the Protagonist and find something else to do. Any smart person would—and your Antagonist must be smart/capable enough to challenge the Protagonist on a level field or it’s really not much of a contest, is it?
Seriously: the Protagonist and Antagonist must be reasonably in balance with each other. At least potentially. It’s fine for there to be some initial disparity of skill or power or whatever, but there has to be either a counterbalancing factor, or a change over time that makes them more evenly-matched by the end. There has to be Potential. No one wants to see Batman trounce a nine-year-old Girl Scout with only one merit badge to her name. No, no, no! They want to see him battle it out against odds so narrow that you can barely draw breath in the space between them—she needs to be one badass Girl Scout with a twisted desire to turn Gotham into one large Cookie Sale for the sake of Teddy Ruxpin and Smurf Autonomy! And a part of you as the reader has to be… sad to see the Antagonist lose. Just a little. Because you—both writer and reader—know the Villain was, once-upon-a-time and missed-it-by-that-much, as worthy, righteous, and resolute as the Hero.
He’s still wrong and he’s still dead, but he believed! (Because you know True Believers are always the scariest Mother-effers, whether they believe in Ayn Rand or The Hobbit.)