It has been said that without conflict, there is no story.
Now that we’ve identified the importance of a great villain, there are two important things to remember when creating worthy opponents for our heroes.
Motivation – Just as our heroes must have a motivation, have an objective, so must our villains. We’ve come a long way from the nefarious gentlemen tying young ladies to train tracks and twirling their mustaches for no apparent reason. We expect something more. Most of them don’t even think of themselves as a villain. In their minds, they are the hero of their tale, and are simply doing what they have to do. Even if we don’t agree with their motivations, it is essential that we understand why the villain acts the way he does. Sometimes we may even be able to sympathise with them.
In Othello, Iago is driven by jealousy of the man who has it all, the prestige and adoration of everyone. We may not condone his actions, but we understand his motivation.
In Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul shares a similar motivation to Batman, although his methods differ critically. He see’s the corruption in Gotham and wants to bring it to an end, by whatever means necessary.
In The Matrix, Agent Smith, an AI construct, isn’t just simply following orders when he tries to destroy the resistance. Having sent the other agents out, he confesses to Morpheus that he can’t wait to leave this place, that he can’t stand it, and he fears that he has been infected by the humans.
In the story I’m currently redrafting, the antagonist is seeking revenge for something that he holds the protagonist responsible for (to find out what you’ll just have to read it when it’s released ;))
Along with believable motivation, it is also important to imbue our villains with qualities, attributes that make them worthy opponents.
In the stories of Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty is a criminal mastermind, an intellectual giant who seems to stand alone as an equal to Holmes, with none of the moral restrictions that are imposed on Holmes.
In Dark Knight Rises we have a completely different villain in Bane. He possess great strength, succeeding in physically breaking the Batman. On top of this, he is also revealed to be fiercely loyal, having watched over Talia al Ghul for most of her life.
Villains are important, at least as important as our heroes. If writers can remember to create fully fleshed out antagonists, with believable motivation and strong characteristics, then they will have memorable villains, and memorable stories as a result.