An essay on character development from the perspective of the antagonist
|When reading through the many stories on this site, I'm struck by a common flaw in character development. While I've seen some well rounded protagonists, I've found the flip side of the coin lacking.
What good is a hero without an equally well written villain?
In the Lord of the Rings, J. R, R. Tolkien presents us with the Dark Lord Sauron as the great antagonist of the series. Interestingly the antagonist remains a disembodied evil force throughout the novels. Why do you suppose he left him without form?
I would argue he did so, because to give him form would have required the story to shift focus. I'd go even further to say that Sauron wasn't even really the antagonist in the story. Rather temptation and corruption filled the space left by this absent villain. If Tolkien had given this evil lord a body, he would have to ask new questions as a writer.
Miguel de Cervantes' immortal character, Don Quixote, is forced to invent his own antagonists in order to justify his own unreachable sense of chivalry. I truly believe Cervantes sent a message from the dawn of the 15th century to all writers, who would proceed him. He challenges the very nature of the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist in fiction.
Perhaps the immortal bard said it best.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings"
Here Shakespeare makes the case for his antagonist, Cassius. Julius Caesar is a rich and complex work, which blurs the line between protagonist and antagonist. Here Cassius attempts to convince Brutus of their own validity in plotting to kill Caesar. Cassius is stating his case, and adding credence to his purposes as an antagonist.
Some see the phrase as a broader indictment of humankind. That the evils of the world are a result of our failings, rather than some turn of fate.
Whichever way you choose to view it, it fits in nicely with my overall purpose here.
The reason Julius Caesar remains such a timeless work is Shakespeare's desire to give every character their due. On one reading you can view the work through the eyes of Caesar, and you will find a brilliant story. Then you can go back and see it from the perspective of Brutus, and find an equally brilliant, but somehow different work. The same can be done with Mark Anthony or even Cassius.
What does the character want?
As writers we are taught to ask this question again and again. To add depth to our characters, we must understand their desires. Here is where I think the antagonist is often left behind.
It is easy to say the antagonist wants to prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her goals. This, however, doesn't really answer the question properly. It simply states the antagonist's role in the story, but does nothing to fill out the character.
The nature of conflict in this relationship must be equally shared. The antagonist doesn't exist simply to foil the protagonist, and the protagonist doesn't simply exist to foil the antagonist. Each has an underlying motivation, which exists independent of the other. They each have reasons for the things they do. The conflict is between those reasons as much as it is between the characters themselves.
Readers have an excellent sense of characters. When they see a character they don't believe exists, they tend to punish the author accordingly. Now, if one of those unbelievable characters happens to be the second most important to the story, something has gone terribly wrong.
A villain is after all just another human being. Though they may suffer from a twisted morality or world view, they still have their own justification for their actions. If a reader remains unable to find that justification along the way, the villain will fall flat taking half of the conflict with them.
A writer should care about all of their characters, but characters crucial to the plot must come first. Conflict is what makes the plot go, and that conflict can't be three dimensional on one side, while remaining one dimensional on the other.
Writers must be able to defend their antagonist's position, as easily as the defend that of their protagonist. If you can't do so on a piece, your conflict will probably lack interest.