All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains.
Sometimes, you have a story where the natural villain is the Evil Overlord who threatens to enslave or wipe out every good person in the world. But other times, you have a guy who, if the hero weren’t around, wouldn’t be evil per se. In fact, he might be the hero of his own story and just have a goal that runs counter to our protagonist’s mission. It’s easy to give your antagonist the qualities of being an absolute, irredeemible bully, if not a monster, but sometimes that’s too much.
The difference between a villain and an antagonist
When you write a villain, you can write someone who exists solely to oppose the hero. They have no life or purpose outside of that original desire. But that’s not always a bad thing. The Joker is still a compelling nemesis for Batman, after all. He’s admitted in multiple stories that his life and his schemes would have no meaning without the Dark Knight to oppose him. But an antagonist could well be the hero of their own story.
Ask yourself: “Who or what does my villain care about, if they care at all?”
We learn, for example, that Darth Vader cares about finding his son in The Empire Strikes Back, but that knowledge doesn’t take away from his menace throughout the movie or its sequel. If anything, it sets up the battle for him, because Luke sees a chance for his redemption, while everyone else (including the audience) sees a man bent on twisting his son into a copy of his dark self, all while serving a tyrannical regime.
We also know, from shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, how a drug kingpin like Gus Fring can be utterly ruthless, but still likable. He truly does care about his employees at Los Pollos Hermanos, and he does mourn his friend Max Arciniega, whose death motivated his whole revenge plot against the cartel and the Salamanca family. We might still be rooting for Walt to overcome Gus, but we still can sympathize with the latter for his positive qualities.
Getting better with villainy
So, how can we advance our idea of a villain in the story we’re writing? Let’s start with a few simple steps.
1. Give your villain an opposing goal to the hero.
Take a film like Guardian of the Galaxy. If Peter Quill wants to make a profit by selling the Orb, then Ronan the Accuser wants to take the Orb and use the dark power contained inside. Or how about The Godfather? Michael Corleone doesn’t want to be involved in his family business, but rival Dons like Barzini and Tattaglia are willing to kill his father and brothers in order to take control of the Underworld.
The better you can define what your villain wants and what he’ll gain by it, the more clearly you can define the stakes for your story.
2. Look for opposing qualities.
If your hero is a rough-and-tumble girl from a bad neighborhood, then your villain can easily be a well-bred gentleman from an aristocratic family. If your hero is too proud to admit their faults, then your villain might well be humble and diligent about correcting every mistake. It’s not enough for these characters to have opposing goals. Their very traits need to distinguish them, even if they belong to the same profession, like two rival cops in a police department or a pair of athletes facing off in the big tournament.
3. Consider what your villain does offscreen.
This is a big factor that some writers don’t take the time to think through. I should know; I’ve done it loads of times.
When you’re writing your story, it’s easy to think, “Okay, so my hero is doing this in Act One, and then this in Act Two, and then he does this…” But if you have an active villain, then what are they doing throughout the story? Sometimes, you’ll see their actions onscreen. Sometimes, you won’t. It’s those offscreen moments that matter.
For example, when we look at the first Star Wars movie, we don’t just follow Luke Skywalker and his attempts to rescue Princess Leia. We also follow Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, who manage things on the Death Star. They have to convince their allies in the Imperial leadership that they have everything in hand, and that they are on the verge of wiping out the Rebellion. They also face setbacks with their prisoner, Leia, when she resists torture and later lies about the rebel base to save her planet. Small details, perhaps, but they also raise the stakes for our heroes, and they reveal a lot about the character of our villains. They have a story arc that exists outside the heroes’ efforts.
Villains come in all shapes and sizes, and some are more noble or more vile than others. The only question you have worry about is how effective they are for the needs of your story. Because if your story isn’t pulling its weight around the hero’s actions, then your audience might end up rooting for the villain to win out of sheer annoyance.