Antagonists don’t often get the attention that they deserve. Or rather, that they feel they deserve. And that’s the root of their problem, in a way, because instead of attention, they substitute something else.
Antagonists come with answers and messages of their own; they are the opposite to the protagonist, who tends at first to not have any answers. The function of antagonists in a story depends upon the intention of the author: if an author wants to create a Comedy or an Epic -in other words, a story with a positive ending- the antagonist of that story will be creating sorrow and negativity; if an author wants to relate a victory, an antagonist will be trying to bring about defeat. In Comedies and Epics, antagonists answer the moral vacuum the wrong way.
If an author wants to create a Tragedy or an Irony -a story with a negative ending- then the ‘antagonist’ of that tale will be the one trying to bring joy or positivity, and failing. If the author is focused on defeat, this character will be aiming for victory. In Tragedies and Ironies, this character tries to answer the moral question the right way -but the world is against him or her.
Some antagonists don’t have much back story. The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, The Silmarillion’s Morgoth, Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine, Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, Pride and Prejudice’s Lady Catherine du Bergh, It’s a Wonderful Life’s Potter, The Hobbit’s Smaug and so on -these are just bad, and we’re expected to accept that for the sake of the tale. Others have some hint of development: Saruman, Darth Vader, Heathcliff, Miss Havisham, Voldemort and others all have hints or glimpses of an earlier life which suggests an explanation for their later badness. But the overall characteristics of an antagonist are much the same: they are seeking to dominate others, to assert their own superiority, and to crush dissent. And they usually have good inner reasons for doing so.
If the protagonist is the person in a story who has lost the most, or who has the most to lose, the antagonist is the one taking it away or trying to fill the gaps with his or her own answers. From the antagonist’s point of view, that gap must be filled.
In the first part of The Silmarillion, Feanor has his precious gems stolen from him by Morgoth; in Star Wars, the Emperor steals a galaxy from everyone else; Lady Catherine du Bergh threatens Elizabeth Bennett with ruin in Pride and Prejudice, while Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life tries to crush George Bailey out of existence. We are so used to the actions and behaviour of antagonists that we pay little attention to them -they serve an almost coded purpose for us in stories. They highlight the plight of the protagonist. And by highlighting that plight, by being the construct who places the most pressure on the hero, they make the hero’s losses or risks greater and thus attract more reader attention to that central focus that we call the ‘protagonist’.
They not only provide contrast, they actively promote contrast. Anyone can be a static bad guy in the background, but to be an effective antagonist, that character has to be directly connected in some way to the protagonist’s innermost needs, just as Sauron is linked to Frodo through the Ring, or Voldemort to Harry through the scar, or Vader is to Luke through fatherhood, or Morgana Le Fay is to Arthur through her sibling connection. Antagonists who don’t have a route straight into the heart of the hero are weaker, less interesting, less memorable.
But why is an antagonist so bad? Some stories attempt to answer this question, and usually become more interesting in doing so. A bad guy becomes bad, it seems, by failing to resolve some issue from his or her own past. Like protagonists, they have an inner vacuum which craves to be filled. Instead of being able to accurately and satisfactorily fill this deep hole in their hearts, they adopt a fixed solution to it. This vacancy in their lives is challenging to the point of overwhelming them, and they decide on a way of deaing with that challenge which itself overwhelms them. From that point on, they are trapped by their own determination to assert the solution that they adopted at some point in their past.
From that point on, they become failed protagonists.
We as readers are not privy to what this past extreme situation was for such constructs as Sauron, Morgoth, Palpatine, Baron Harkonnen, Lady Catherine du Bergh, Potter, or Smaug: these characters we have to accept are natively nasty. But in the case of Saruman, we can perhaps see that he has been confronted by the Dark Lord and has decided that the only solution is to become powerful himself -which also serves his hidden jealousies, flaws in his nature that go right back to his origins in Valinor.
Darth Vader, as we later discover, was once Anakin Skywalker. His trauma included the loss of his mother, leaving a gaping void in his life. The choice he makes to serve the Sith is based on the extreme pressure arising from that void as well as his own impulsive nature. Heathcliff’s passion for Cathy and the apparently intransigent class differences which stand between him and ever having her in Wuthering Heights lead him to a course of anti-social behaviour which he then carries on giving life to even when Cathy has gone beyond his reach. Miss Havisham, abandoned at the altar as a bride, is an even clearer example of an antagonist who ‘freezes’ at that exact moment of emptiness and despair and then modifies their behaviour to make that moment live forever.
Their choices were of some use to them at that past moment: somehow, they asserted a decision and it apparently got them through their inner void. The decision was wrong, and on some level they all know it was wrong -but instead of confronting that and going back and reliving that extreme situation -and so becoming, in effect, protagonists- antagonists hold on to their choice and give it force and power, growing into monsters in the process.
This gets to the point where they create machines, weapons, entire lifestyles or realms, to justify their own mis-choice. The antagonists whose inner choices we don’t glimpse, as well as the ones whose choices we do, all do this: Sauron devises his Ring, Palpatine manufactures not one but two Death Stars, Narnia’s White Witch freezes the land into a Hundred Year Winter, Smaug gathers and broods upon his treasure, Miss Havisham cultivates hatred in Estella’s heart, turning her into a living weapon. The antagonist can’t bear something, and so he or she retreats into a frozen world which they must grip harder and harder to keep it real, contriving larger and more potent weapons to prevent things from changing. They must; they feel they have no option. Not to conquer the world and hold it still is to admit that they were wrong in the first place and have their whole universe collapse about them.
The antagonist is trapped in the middle of the web that they have spun. The machine or empire that they create to handle the world for them is the thing which hampers their ability to handle the world. It becomes, in fact, their primary weakness.
Sauron is brought down through his Ring; the Death Stars are destroyed and Palpatine with them. Antagonists can’t see beyond the thing in which they put the most faith -thus the White Witch can’t envision anything outside her Deep Magic, and Lady Catherine du Bergh can’t imagine anything existing outside her rigid conception of society. These things were perfect solutions at the time, but once the protagonist, with his or her refusal to accept false and fixed solutions, arrives the antagonist’s ultimate flaws become devastatingly apparent.
The protagonist, you might say, is a failed antagonist. Instead of adopting a fixed solution to his or her innermost void, heroes and heroines of Epics see things through, embracing their own inner voids and saving their worlds from the monsters in the process.