A good friend of mine asked me recently to review a screenplay he's working on. It's an excellent piece, an action-packed sci-fi/fantasy with a very compelling protagonist. Overall I'm a tad jealous of his ability to create a completely new world and have the script read in such a way that I can actually see the potential film in my head.
There was just one problem, though. His villain (or villains, rather) fell a bit flat.
My writing mentor once told me the following: Your hero is only as good as your villain. Now, she didn't mean that your villain has to be good in the sense of being redeemable or even sympathetic (though sympathetic villains are my personal favorite). She was, instead, referring to the idea that no matter how fantastically 3-dimensional your hero is, if your villain is just a 2-dimensional bad guy, it's your hero who suffers.
Let me use the examples of two films from the Marvel Universe to further expound on this point. (I'm going to go in the reverse order of their release dates.) First, there's Captain America. Chris Evans did a fantastic job of portraying a real life Steve Rogers. His backstory was moving: a young man who desperately wants to do the honorable thing and serve his country, but is too sickly to do so. But does he give up? No. And even when he's granted abilities beyond his wildest imagination, he remains humble. Normally such do-gooders tend to put an audience off, but the combination of good writing, directing, and acting created magic with this character.
Unfortunately, I found myself somewhat apathetic about Captain America not because his rendering into live-action was badly done, but because his villain's was. Johann Schmidt or "Red Skull" played by Hugo Weaving was a character that felt more like your stock bad guy rather than a real, flesh-out character. I blame the writers for this, as this wasn't Hugo Weaving's first pass at portraying the antagonist. (He did a spectacular job in the Matrix films.) Because Red Skull came off as merely a bad guy for the hero to defeat, I was rather ambivalent about the whole story arc of the film. It wasn't that I didn't want Red Skull defeated, it was that I really just didn't care.
And because I didn't care all that much about the villain getting defeated, then Steve Roger's character arc became less meaningful.
There were, of course, other stellar moments in the film, and being the geek I am, I still thought it pretty entertaining. But I have also not seen the film more than once.
Now, contrast that to Thor. After seeing the film, for a long time I alternated on whether to give it four or five stars (per the Netflix rating system). The sole reason for my waffling was actually the character arc for Thor himself. (I'm a cynical anti-romantic at heart, despite what I write in fanfic, and was a bit put off by how whirlwind his romance was with Jane Foster. I actually felt the romance wasn't really necessary at all--but on consecutive viewings, I've reconsidered my feelings on that point.) Thor is a great protagonist, and Chris Hemsworth is a spectacular actor, but he lacks the same kind of moving backstory that Steve Rogers has. In fact, Thor's change from arrogant, spoiled immortal prince to a humble man willing to die for inferior Midgardians in a matter of three days seems a bit unbelievable at face value.
Simply put, comparing only the heroes from the two films, Steve Rogers is actually a bit more compelling. In fact, if you look at The Avengers, Captain America still has the more meaningful character development than Thor, from his adjustment to modern society to his sense of betrayal by SHIELD for attempting to use the tessaract to create weapons just as Hydra had during his time. On the other hand, aside from his interactions with his wayward brother, Thor does come off as a rather arrogant "this is an internal matter, so back off" demi-god.
And yet, Thor is my favorite superhero of the two. Because with Thor comes Loki, arguably one of the best sympathetic villains of all time. In a single film, we watch him transition from trickster to a power hungry nemesis willing to kill the man raised as his brother. You experience his betrayal at discovering he isn't who he thinks he is (and not only is he adopted, but he's one of the very monsters who the Asgardians fight against) and you can believe that he could, driven mad by that betrayal, become that "crazy as a bag of cats" psychotic murderer he is by The Avengers.
The character of Thor is magnified because Loki is such a rounded out villain. I mentioned Thor's miraculous turn around in just three days as being a bit unbelievable on paper. But it's absolutely believable because Loki had a similar turn around (only in the opposite manner) in the same period of time--and Loki's change was authentic. In fact, I'd say the pivotal moment for Thor's change came when Loki visited him while he was being held by SHIELD. It was Loki's lies, told under the guise of false sympathy, which broke Thor completely, that made the blond Norse god finally humble enough to understand what Odin had been trying to teach him. Sure, Jane Foster was there to help pick up the pieces, but it was Loki who ultimately changed Thor--a change that continues to solidify by Thor's various interactions with Loki throughout the rest of the film.
That's what a good villain or antagonist does. They don't solely exist as some foe for our heroes to vanquish. A villain is meant to challenge the hero, to push that protagonist beyond his limits and discover who he truly is.
You might think I'm unfairly comparing Loki and Red Skull as they are clearly different types of villains. Loki is a sympathetic; he doesn't start off bad (just a bit naughty by nature), but circumstances propel him to make choices which ultimately land him in the real bad guy category. Red Skull is very much a sociopath who we ought to love to hate. Looking at the two very different antagonists, of course Loki wins the better villain award.
But let's bring up other sociopathic/psychotic foes and see how Red Skull stands up next to them. Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs, anyone? (Even the new television series version of him is fantastically disquieting.) How about the Joker from The Dark Knight? Or perhaps Moriarty from Sherlock? Sylar from the first couple of seasons of Heroes (before the writers got wonky and turned him into a hero, then a sympathetic villain--messing up the awesome evil he was)? There are plenty of straight-up evil villains to compare Red Skull to, and it's sadly like comparing Michaelangelo's David to a stick figure drawing.
Villain problems come in literature as well, even in stories that aren't the typical good versus bad scenarios. Sometimes your main character only faces a harrowing situation rather than going head to head with evil personified. The same rules apply, however, if you want your readers to truly root for your protagonist. What your character goes up against must be believable, must be challenging (extra points if it challenges your character's core beliefs about him or herself and/or the world around them), and must not be easily conquered, or else your hero, too, will become flat.
I know there are people who have a hard time getting into the head space of a bad guy, and admittedly, it's a very, very dark place to go. But if you are burning with a desire to write an engaging good versus evil tale, going to that dark place is not just a suggestion, but a requirement. Even if you write solely from the POV of your protagonist, as the writer, you still need to know your villain inside and out. Is he a sociopath, utterly cognizant of the evil he wishes to unleash on the world--or at least your hero? Is she the kind of villain who believes what she does is ultimately in the best interest of others (or herself), no matter the carnage she leaves in her wake? Is he a villain by circumstance--by a series of events which led him to becoming the bad guy? Is your villain a combination of all?
When you know your villain or antagonist, then you better know your hero.