Villains are an integral part of many stories, striking fear into the hearts of protagonists and readers alike. In so many stories, villains are effective because they have a personal connection to the hero, easily outmatch the hero, are mysterious, and have certain qualities that make them seem human.
I believe that an effective villain is someone who has a personal connection to the protagonist in some way. When a villain doesn’t have a personal connection to the hero, an opportunity is missed to make the audience feel invested in the story and understand why the conflict matters to the character. Let’s consider Fire Lord Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender as an example of what not to do. (I don’t think Ozai was a terrible villain, but I see ways that his presence in the story could have been made more impactful.) Aang never has opportunities throughout the series to interact with him on a personal level in the way that he did with Zuko, another one of his enemies. Imagine if Aang had gotten to know Ozai and been betrayed by him, for example. That would have made their conflict in the third season even more intense than it already was.
On the other hand, Aang forms a personal connection with Zuko early on in the series. When Aang speaks to Zuko after saving him and offers to be his friend, Zuko doesn’t accept the offer and attacks him instead. This makes their conflict all the more complicated, as it makes Aang feel upset and wonder what could have been if Zuko had been willing to team up with him. This is why it is important for protagonists and antagonists to have personal connections to each other.
In addition, a good villain should pose a significant threat to the hero and seem impossible to defeat. An example of this is from a movie that many of us saw as children: Pokémon The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back. This movie had me in awe all those years ago because Mewtwo seemed to be indestructible and have powers that our protagonist, Ash, certainly could not overcome, even with help from his friends or his Pokémon. In fact, at the beginning of the movie, it appears that no living being on earth has the power to defeat Mewtwo. This adds plenty of tension to the movie and has the audience waiting with bated breath to see how our heroes will come out of this conflict in one piece. Seeing Ash challenge Mewtwo to a Pokémon battle has the viewer fear for the safety of Ash’s Pokémon, raising the stakes of the story to a whole new level. Therefore, a good villain is one that seems impossible to defeat, since the audience will then be surprised when the villain finally is defeated.
Another quality that a villain should possess is the element of mystery. In the anime Attack on Titan, the main antagonistic forces are the titans. We know very little about them and where they come from or why they choose to attack only at certain times. This adds to the conflict, because since the characters know little about the titans, they are often caught off guard by them and very fearful because they do not understand how they operate or how to defeat them. We as an audience want to know more and will keep watching in order to find answers, even putting up with more boring scenes and episodes if it means that there will be an answer waiting for us at the end. When I was watching the series, I was less interested in certain episodes in season two, but I continued because I simply had to know more about the titans.
Villains should also seem human in some way. In Death Note, our antagonist is L (he’s seen as an enemy through the eyes of our protagonist) and despite being a highly intelligent and analytical person, making him seem almost more than human at times, L also has a love for sweets that makes him seem more human. He also dresses in wrinkled clothes and is awkward when interacting with others. It is very important to bring out the humanity in an antagonist. After all, antagonists can seem larger than life and formidable, which can make them difficult to relate to. But if an antagonist is relatable and has flaws that make him or her seem less perfect, the reader or viewer is more likely to connect to him or her. When an audience can see the humanity in an antagonist, the villain suddenly becomes someone that the audience can feel empathy for and perhaps see the good in.
These are some qualities that a great antagonist should have. Not all antagonists need all of these traits, but these are certainly ways to make a villain three-dimensional and much more compelling. Having a villain that the audience is interested in following can make the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist all the more meaningful.