As many a character has stated and even questioned, “Are villains really bad? Are they even born bad– or just MADE that way?”
I’ve already gone into antags a bit; now I’m going to elaborate a little on a few specific kinds.
While I won’t bore you to tears with my little rave on the Darkling ( see, In Defense of the Darkling, for those interested), I will say it is a very interesting question to pose in general. After all, what’s a bad guy without character? Would Voldemort be Voldemort if he had a loving wizarding family? Was Sauron always that bad, and why? What would have become of the faction system, and more specifically, the Erudite, if Jeanine Matthews hadn’t taken it over?
As mentioned many, many times before, there are exceptions to humanizing or making sympathetic villains or antagonists: motiveless maligniters and traditional villains being the two primary candidates. Sauron, for instance, is a traditional villain. He’s simply oozing evil out his pores, because, well, just because (I mean, does he REALLY need to have a reason? He IS Sauron, after all…). Similarly, motiveless maligniters are essentially the same thing: their motives are either well-concealed, or they have extremely muddied motives– so muddied you can’t quite piece together why it is that they do things. It’s so confusing, so perplexing, that’s there’s little chance you’ll feel for them.
Another kind of antagonist I am particularly fond of is the “Seems like a Good Guy at the Time, But Turns out to Be a Cruel, Villainous Jerk” guy (or girl). (For all you “Frozen” fans, think of Hans…) You may not think it, but these are actually fun to write up; you never know what they may do, and it’s a joy ride for both you and the reader– in fact, if you end up surprising yourself in writing a dramatic bad guy reveal towards the climax or end, there’s probably a pretty high chance you’ve surprised your readers, as well. If you want to write this character, be CONVINCING. This is one villain you want to play the sympathy card with (at the very least, temporarily), so they’ll expect it even less. Make them human. Relatable. Friendly, even sweet, unsuspecting, Machiavellian. Then, when the reader’s and other characters’ guard is lowered… BAM!
The only real danger with these villains is, however, that they may seem so completely sincere, so devoted to their cause, so human and kind at first, that even when the villainous reveal comes, you may have the readers defending their bad actions in favor of their pasts, and their personas, rather than simply be just shocked and horrified. If you were to write this kind of villain, I’d recommend doing so CAREFULLY (it depends what kind of reaction YOU want from your readers, too.).
Then there’s monsters. No, I’m not talking what you call a cruel but cunning and intelligent villain, though they may seem like it. I’m talking CREATURES. Maybe the antagonist isn’t even human, but a beast– a savage, heartless, mindless beast that thinks of nothing but destruction, its hunger unsatisfied, or even manipulation. Of course, if you wanted an interesting creature as a monster-antag, you could always take a leaf out of Mary Shelley’s page, in Frankenstein. The creature, as he is often called (Victor Frankenstein did not even bother giving him a name. Pathetic.), is very much human, and just wants companionship. The loneliness practically drives him to insanity, and certainly drives him to desperation, and soon he is killing with a vengeance, simply because Victor made him.
Lastly, the criminal masterminds. These are fairly easy to write up, namely because their primary objective is typically to either rule the world, or riches, or both. Criminal masterminds are often wealthy, but not always. You don’t have to have the wealth or manners of a gentleman to be a genius, and you don’t need either to be a criminal. Genius is partly what separates the common thug from the brilliant, extraordinary masterminds. These are the people orchestrating oh so elegantly the conspiracies and grand heists of the century. And getting away with it… until YOUR protagonist steps out onto the scene to halt them dead in their tracks.
Of course, you could always pull an Artemis Fowl, too…