The antagonist in the story doesn’t have to be the “bad guy”. It doesn’t even have to be a person. It can be anything that opposes the hero (aka. protagonist). For example, if a virus is running rampant through a town and the doctor (our hero) is fighting it, then the antagonist is the virus. Another example, the heroine might think she’s unattractive and therefore, not deserving of the hero’s love. In this case, her own belief in how unattractive she is the antagonist.
But for the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on a character who is an antagonist. I want to point out that the antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be “bad”. How is this possible? It all boils down to point of view. When we’re looking at the emotionally engaging character, we are most interested in complex characters.
An emotionally engaging could appear to be bad when we’re in the hero’s point of view. But, when you take a deeper look, the antagonist might actually come off as a highly sympathetic character. This is why I love point of view so much. It’s taken me about 5 1/2 years to finally grasp what point of view is all about. It’s perception. It has no basis in actual facts. The person who tells the story determines the truth, but it’s only their version of the truth.
So when you’re in the hero’s point of view, take a look at how the hero views the antagonist. What does he believe the antagonist’s motivations are? Why is the antagonist someone he opposes? What things does the antagonist do or say to make the hero perceive things the way he does?
Likewise, consider things from the antagonist’s point of view. If you are going to truly understand the antagonist, it can help to imagine a scene or write one out where he confronts the hero. How does he see the hero? What things does the hero say or do that bothers (or amuses) him and why? What is the antagonist’s version of the truth?
Most of all, are there any likable traits the antagonist possesses that the hero misses (at least for most of the story)? It’s possible the two work out their differences. In romance, the conflict between the hero and heroine who hate each other but later fall in love is a popular storyline. So the antagonist might also be the hero.
Of course, there are some antagonists that don’t have any redeeming qualities. There’s no way they can ever find a common ground with the hero. But it’d still be intriguing if there was some sympathetic trait that the reader can relate to because the truth is, no one is 100% good or 100% bad. We all fall somewhere in the middle. And the same can be true for the antagonist.