Have you ever noticed how some antagonists are just evil? I mean like burning-down-houses, kicking-puppies-for-fun evil. And for no discernable reason? And is it just me, or does that make them significantly un-terrifying?
We all remember when we were five years old and we watched those Saturday morning cartoons. The hero was always the embodiment of good and the villain was always completely evil. And he always had some ridiculous scheme, like destroying the world or taking over the world or something else that usually involved the world. But he never had a reason for it, and I think that’s why he never succeeded: He never wanted it badly enough.
Once you get a little older, purely evil villains just don’t have the same appeal. You want your villain to have a reason for being evil, to have a reason for doing what he’s doing—just like you want your hero to have a reason for what he does. We hear talk about complex characters all the time, but sometimes we forget that it doesn’t just include the good guys. The bad guys have to be fleshed out too.
You have to remember: all the characters in a story are the protagonists of their own story. That means that the villain thinks he’s the good guy. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, and your hero is his antagonist. No one’s going to expend the kind of effort it takes for world domination if they don’t have a reason for hating the world as it is. The villain needs a drive just as much as the hero does.
Personally, my favorite villain is the kind that the reader can’t help but like—even just a little bit. I know he’s the bad guy and that he’s done horrible things and he’s going to keep doing horrible things, but I like him anyway—maybe because he’s funny, conflicted, rightly furious at the world. Whatever it is, it definitely strengthens your story if the reader can’t completely hate the villain; it complicates things, makes the readers think instead of handing them a pre-school good vs. evil lesson.
At the end of the day, no one is born evil. All villains have to get there somehow, and it’s the author’s job to show how and possibly make you, the reader, feel bad for the villain along the way.