Let’s talk creating characters. Where to begin? Every story needs a protagonist and an antagonist.
The Protagonist: Call them the hero if you like. It’s their story you’re telling. Generally speaking, you want someone that your readers can sympathize with. Maybe you want them to be likeable, but it’s not as important as you might think. A lot of protagonists and even secondary characters aren’t all that likeable.
I might be the odd man out here, but I don’t find Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy all that likeable. She’s tough, she’s a damned fine archer, she holds her family together. What I find compelling about her is what she wants. Every character has to want and fear something. What she wants is to save her family from destruction, in the first book her sister Prim. And Prim is likeable as chocolate mousse. With whipped cream and a cherry on top. And sprinkles. She’s a cute younger sister, she’s got a cranky cat that she loves, her shirttails keep sticking out. And she has a goat. What’s not to love about Prim? Then Katniss teams up with Rue, the cute girl from District 11. Who then is killed off. We’ve got all kinds of sympathy for Katniss for what she is up against and the people who love her. Suzanne Collins admits as much in the novel. Katniss’s mentor for the Games, Haymitch, says that popularity will keep her alive.
Now the Antagonist. For me, this one’s easier. I don’t like two-dimensional villains. I like villains who by some stroke of ill luck have found themselves the villains of this story. I like villains who could be the hero, and who think that they are the hero, of the story. To pick on the Hunger Games again, the most compelling character in the series is President Snow. Because the books (unlike the movies) are told only from Katniss’s point of view, we don’t get much about President Snow’s background until the third book, Mockingjay, when there are some vague details about his rise to political power.
But what I do get from him is that he’s doing the Last Sane Man Alive bit. There are monsters that he is keeping at bay that no one else seems worried about. Katniss is on the very bottom of society–she is barely in society at all. Snow is at the tippy-top of all economic, political, and military might in North America. So very different perspectives. His is a kind of bureaucratic evil, and without him it all falls apart.
Shifting gears a bit, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite antagonists. Cersei Lannister, the Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. She appears first in A Game of Thrones though not as a POV character: we only get her story through the eyes and ears of others as a result.
What I find compelling about Cersei is the very bad situation that she finds herself in. Some of it is of her own making, but a lot of it is not. She’s had a number of children with her twin brother Jaime, so incest. On the other hand, she’s married to King Robert, who is often drunk and sometimes physically violent. Her widowed father is distant and more interested in family fortune and power than any emotional relationship with his only daughter.
The incident that explains their relationship in a nutshell, likely what destroyed their marriage before it began really, is this: on their wedding night, Robert cries out the name of his dead fiancee while they are in the sheets so to speak. Theirs was an arranged marriage, but there would be no love from such an abysmally bad beginning. Everything in the series flows out the events of the war known as Robert’s Rebellion that happened a decade and a half before the series begins, the wedding bed incident no less important than all the rest. It’s a very human moment and one that creates sympathy for Cersei: it explains (but does not necessarily excuse) the choices that she makes thereafter.
So when creating your new antagonist, keep in mind what they are after, what scars and fears they carry with them. You can start with a well-known antagonist like Cersei and break her down different ways. Give her a different background perhaps. Or have her and other characters make different choices. Maybe she strangles Robert with the bedsheet once the drunken oaf falls asleep or arranges an accident for him (which happens in AGOT) much, much sooner. She doesn’t need to be a kickass action hero. Have her solve her problems based on who she is and what her situation is.
Finally, remember that a good antagonist is the hero of their own story. It’s just a matter of perspective that makes them the villain.
Now go forth and write compelling characters.