One of the flaws in fiction that annoys the living daylights out of me is a badly drawn antagonist – particularly when said antagonist is intended to be evil. The way antagonists get characterized has this interesting tendency to showcase how the author sees life, and when that view doesn’t meet up with the way people act, well… Let’s just say I don’t respond very well.
That said, it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem for a lot of authors. I can name quite a few that couldn’t write a convincing antagonist to save their souls, but those authors are making a damn sight more from writing than I am, so who am I to say they’re doing it wrong? (I will say that at least one of them is much more convincing about the antagonists when said antagonists remain shadowy malignances for almost the entire thing before being taken out in a major, often self-sacrificial act of Hero. As soon as this author tries to write antagonist point of view, they turn into puppy-kickers – no, not that sort of puppy kicker, the sort that does gratuitously evil things (like kicking puppies) on screen to demonstrate that they are evil.)
Me, I prefer a bit more than shadowy evil, gratuitous nastiness, or the outright cartoonish caricature of a villain that so many authors seem to fall into portraying. After all, a lot of the time the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist can be as simple as who is telling the story. Well, assuming you aren’t going for a man-against-nature or similar kind of plot, because then the antagonist isn’t exactly a person.
If I’m going to write an evil character, I prefer to write one whose world-view is such that it’s completely opposed to my protagonist and completely justified by the antagonist’s culture or upbringing. It’s more fun that way. I get to play with ideas like what kind of culture would actually produce the kind of person my “evil” character happens to be.
Yes, it shades into moral relativity, but then, so does history. An Aztec wouldn’t question the need for messy human sacrifice in batch lots. Europeans in the witch-hunting era considered themselves justified burning supposed witches alive. And there’s no telling how many cultures believed that rules against murder only applied to their own tribe/culture/band/whatever you want to call it (probably most of them, in all honesty. There’s a reason all those different versions of hospitality rules in history and mythology exist. They’re a kind of negotiated truce for travelers so the host and the guest could be reasonably sure that neither would try to kill the other for the duration of their stay).
You take someone from a culture that’s used to bloodthirsty rituals to placate their gods, and that person is going to look evil to a culture like ours – particularly if he decides you make a perfect sacrifice for the next scheduled ritual. He, on the other hand, could well be convinced that you are a danger to his entire existence, not least because your insistence on not performing the bloodthirsty rituals means his god is going to fry him in some way.
Yes, there is still the inexplicable distant evil to consider – but it’s a damn sight harder to characterize that. That’s actually something I’ve never been able to manage: characterizing or even effectively writing anything resembling the “evil god” so popular in role playing games and some subgenres of fantasy. It’s not something I particularly want to write, either, because people following beliefs are much more interesting than immensely powerful malign deific beings that can only be defeated by dropping a magical artifact into a convenient volcano.
I’d rather write the embittered fellow who resents that an old combat injury means he’s never going to rise above the second-bottom level of his very rigid caste-based society and wholeheartedly believes that those who injured him are nothing more than talking animals and should be exterminated at the first opportunity. He might not be terribly friendly, but he’s a person and his motives make sense.
Frankly, if real life had to follow rules like the enemy making sense, life would be ever so much easier.