Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and thought, “That heroes were great and the plot was engaging, but the villain was kind of… blah”?
I’ve noticed this. Quite a lot.
I’ve noticed television shows actually seem to handle the writing for their antagonists better than most media. Perhaps it’s because they have more time to devote to fleshing out characters, although this in no way guarantees that it will be done competently. Movies (having the least time to utilize) tend to exist on the opposite end of the spectrum, where it seems the makers just needed someone to act as the “bad guy” and jam anyone into that role just to make the story work. Books usually exist somewhere in between, with genre having a lot to do with where it skews.
While time frame is certainly a factor in how the antagonist is developed, I think it’s less of a factor than people expect. In truth, I think the lens through which the writer views the antagonist is the greatest influence on how they come across. When antagonists are viewed through a black-and-white lens, they come across as flat and one-dimensional. That’s because no real person views themselves as a villain. We find multitudes of ways to justify our actions – some completely valid, and some less substantial than cotton candy. And we all have flaws, cares, hopes, and dreams. The world exists in too many shades of grey for anyone to be a hero or villain all the time.
That’s why a simple but incredibly powerful writing technique I’ve used in writing my own book has been to just not write antagonists. No characters in the story are antagonists. Certainly, they are the antagonist from certain character’s points of view, but I treat each character as a protagonist with their own goals and wants and desires. I give them their own PoV (point of view) scenes, write out a whole backstory that may or may not even make it into the book, and give them their own character arcs. Yes, even antagonists can have character arcs and growth! If you go this way, you might actually sympathize with your antagonist as much as your protagonist.
My second tip is to avoid dichotomies. Certain stories require it by definition, but dividing every character between bad faction and good faction, rebellion and dystopian dictatorship, free people and evil empire, etc just enforces the black-and-white viewpoint. Instead, try to imagine three groups or more, each with their own wants and goals. The moment you no longer have that dichotomy, things automatically become more grey and complex.
When right and wrong become muddled, when ideals can’t always overcome reality, when antagonists disappear into a chaotic blend of people simply being forced to make decisions with no clear answers – that’s where you find your most engaging characters.