When I was writing The Black Trillium one of the things that I had the most fun with was turning my primary antagonist into a perspective character. It also really shows as I edit the book and look at him compared to the other two key antagonists, who didn’t have the same level of agency and find their motivations are more opaque. (Don’t worry, I’m fixing that.)
Then I started reading The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie and realized it’d be difficult to decide who the antagonists of the story were since he puts protagonists into positions where you just know they’ll end up on opposite sides of the central conflict. There is a certain inflexibility to a heroic story. Even if you try to avoid the more cliche’d elements of the heroic journey, a hero is still a character who the audience must be invited to root for.
Even if the character is Jeff Lindsay’s delightful Dexter Morgan, a psycopathic murderer, he’s still given qualities (charm, humour, and a code that injects a hint of the righteous) that give the audience license to hope he wins.
This is not true of our antagonists and it affords us much greater freedom.
Bad as I want to be
More often than not an antagonist is a bad guy. This isn’t always the case. Sgt. Doakes is very much an antagonist in both the second season of the Dexter TV series and the second Dexter novel. Even so, he’s probably, actually, the good guy – a cop who has a legitimate suspicion that he acts upon justifiably.
And yet his narrative purpose is to present a challenge to the protagonist: in this case a threat who he isn’t supposed to kill. Because Dexter is successfully established as the hero of his deranged stories Doakes becomes an antagonist.
On the other hand, in Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (incomplete fan translation at the link goes by the alternate title of Legend of the Eagle Shooting Hero) , the Ouyang family, Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke are every inch the duplicitous, vile counterpoints to the hero’s blundering virtuousness. Ke, the younger Ouyang, is a rival for the affections of Huang Rong and a notorious womanizer to boot. Feng meanwhile mentors Ke in viciousness. The master poisoner is one of the most feared killers around and his motivations revolve around mentoring Ke and enhancing his power relative to his own rivals.
These people are bad people. But notice, both Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke want things, they have motivations beyond just being challenges for Guo Jing and Huang Rong to overcome. Likewise Sgt. Doakes wants things too. Successful antagonists are, first and foremost, characters and must be treated as such.
Nobody is the villain in his own story
This is the one thing that bothers me about Voldemort, Sauron, (eurgh) Darken Rahl and their “dark-lord” ilk. Nobody sets out to be the villain. It should always be possible to rewrite the story from the perspective of the antagonist and have it remain logically consistent.
In the case of Doakes you could create a crime drama about how he comes to suspect that a forensics expert in the force is harboring a terrible secret. You could describe his growing unease when the arrival of Doctor Danko forces him to work together with a man he rightly suspects of being a deranged menace.
If you were writing a story with Ouang Ke as the hero it’d probably read a lot like a book about martial arts written by the Situation. (Note: I do not endorse reading books written by the Situation.) That might not be a morally welcoming story – the younger Ouyang is a first-class creep and a would-be rapist. But it would still be logically consistent. He wants something: Huang Rong who is a worthy catch as a wife, intelligent, skillful and beautiful, and the heir to a wealthy and powerful man. He has an obstacle to overcome: Huang Rong’s idiot boyfriend and his beggar buddy.
To this extent antagonist and protagonist become mirrors of each other. There must be balance between them developmentally and thematically for the story to work.
This is what I like about Abercrombie – he’s internalized this idea to the point where it’s hard to tell just who the protagonists and antagonists are in a shifting tapestry of morally ambiguous conflict and widely distributed protagonists.
When antagonists are reduced to opaque sources of evil they lose that agency. Sauron is nothing but a shadow looming over the world and, as a result, the real antagonistic clout of the Lord of the Rings comes from Gollum, Saruman, Wormtongue and Denethor. If you remove those four characters from The Lord of the Rings the entire story falls flat and, I’d propose, that the notoriously slow start of the trilogy has more to do with the absence of a clear motivated antagonist than it does with Tolkien’s predisposition to counting every leaf on every tree.