In a story, you have an antagonist and a protagonist. The protagonist is usually who we root for. What is she going to do? How is he going to achieve his goals? Her goals should be something we can relate to or even be inspired by. His values should be similar enough that we want him to succeed.
And often, in a story, there is a person or group of people standing in the way of achieving that goal. That person against our protagonist is the antagonist … or to use an older idea, the villain. Or as my kids call it as they’re running through the house dressed up like warrior princesses or ninjas, the BADGUY.
In literature, we came through a time period where there were clear ideas of good versus evil, no more clear than in comic books or cartoons for kids. It is simple and – if done correctly – even inspiring. But of course literature has always loved its anti-heroes, flawed people choosing even against their own nature to do what is right. We can relate better to flawed characters. We know better our own faults and weaknesses and feelings of powerlessness against the dark world around us.
Which leads us to the antagonist.
To use comic book characters as a simple example, villains are important to the whole story. Villains often define the hero. For Superman, a near invincible man, his antagonist is an evil genius. At first in the comics, Lex Luthor was just this evil scientist making bad weapons and stuff; then as the comic industry adopted the anti-conservative Christian viewpoint dominant in much of the mainstream media, Lex became a corporate mogul … then for a while when Bush was president, a politician.
Part of what Superman had to overcome was his own limitations. Not physical but philosophical. He needed evidence against Lex Luthor. Man to man, he could kill Lex with a thought, but Superman stood for truth and justice (but not the American way anymore … that had to go, too). He could not simply kill Lex because Luthor was bad. He needed proof to send to the authorities. That is justice, to Superman.
So here we see Lex Luthor as an important tool to help us define Superman, the hero. Throw in Luthor’s scientific ability to figure out Superman’s one physical weakness, Kryptonite, and he’s the best villain for Superman. Otherwise, you have to give Superman antagonists that are as strong as he is and then you end up leveling a city when they fight. Not as great for character (sorry, Man of Steel).
Batman is another great example. He is a self-made hero, controlled and prepared to the extreme and fighting for the innocent. His villain? The Joker, an brilliant agent of pure indiscriminate chaos and death that Batman, also because of his own values, will not kill.
These are comic book examples, but hopefully you get the point. The villain, especially in our culture today, becomes even more important than the hero. The villain gives our hero something impossible to overcome and that says a lot about our hero (or anti-hero). Gone are the days of flat villains who are just evil and want to do bad things. Give them depth and character, and your story and hero will be better for it.
One more personal note: be creative with your villain or antagonist. For me, at least, the flat evangelical Christian, corporate mogul, or conservative politician, it is all overdone. It is lazy writing, to be honest. I’m not saying stay away from these people as your villains completely. You believe what you believe, but I would roll my eyes just as much at violent Arab Muslim terrorists without any real character or motivation other than the flat stereotypes we’re used to. There’s been a good deal of effort to humanize the Muslim extremists, and for the most part I appreciate the effort and the writing is better for it. For the good of writing and literature, needs to start happening with some other stereotypes, as well.