“The antagonist is the hero of his own story.”
This piece of writing advice has been said over and over again, and it’s absolutely true. No matter how evil your Bad Guy, he or she still believes they’re doing the right thing for their own reason. As a writer, you need to get into your antagonist’s mind and know what that reason is in order to make them believable.
Too often, the Bad Guy is a cliche villain, who wants power and is taking the worst possible route to get there. They’re ugly, speak in menacing voices, have no sense of humor, and are in every way unlikable, which does not explain in the slightest how they got where they are in the world. And as such, they often aren’t scary — and instead of hating them like we should, we just shrug and go “Eh, it’s the Bad Guy.”
This is why Umbridge is a better Bad Guy than Voldemort. We know people like Umbridge. She’s believable. She has a goal that she thinks is right, and she is absolutely convinced she is on the side of Good.
So let’s talk politics.
Those of you who read my political blog know my views. There are Bad Guys in the White House right now. Seriously, these people are evil. But I can use them to make the point that they think they’re doing the right thing. In their world, anyone who isn’t a straight white male Christian doesn’t deserve the same rights as them, and so every action they take furthers that goal.
“The ends justify the means” was a major theme in my last novel BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT. The conflict in that novel was that the Presidential candidate wanted to do very good things for the country and didn’t care if he had to kill a few people along the way to get there. The protagonist in that story was the reporter who discovered that the candidate was a vampire but had the moral dilemma whether to still support him when the candidate’s opponent had policies that were much worse and could lead to war and even more deaths.
If I were writing a novel about the Trump Presidency, it’s clear that they have a similar philosophy. They think their ultimate goal is good for the country and they have no problem with violating the Constitution, lying, and abusing our election system to get there, because they believe that these means are needed to get to their ends.
And someone else could just as easily write a book where they’re the good guys and we evil Democrats are destroying America with our insistence on things like, oh I don’t know, justice and equality. (We’re so damned unreasonable.)
Anyway, snarkiness aside, the point of this is to emphasize that you need to make your Bad Guys real. Think about politics as an example. Ultimately, both sides want a strong, prosperous America but have different paths they think will lead us to that goal. Both sides think they’re right and the other is wrong.
Get into the mind of your antagonist. Figure out your antagonist’s goal and what reasonable route the character would take to get there. Write a short story from that person’s point of view, and have it make sense, and your Bad Guy will be a lot more believable and much more threatening to your hero.