"You learn eventually that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either. And until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something." - Paul Gallico
When I was little, I used to watch the villains like Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians or Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I would cringe as they bested the hero and then cheer when they were finally defeated and killed at the end. I was under the impression, as all children are, that villains are bad and the heroes are good. There was never any question; it was black and white. Right was right and wrong was wrong.
If you were to ask any writer what the fundamentals of storytelling are, they would most likely say that you have to have two things. You need someone who wants something and you need someone else standing in the way of that person's goals. Basically, you need a villain.
That's a simple enough concept. Without Ursula, The Little Mermaid would be nothing more than the everyday life of a mermaid. 101 Dalmatians without Cruella de Vil would be a family with a bunch of puppies. Pretty boring, right?
So yeah, stories need conflict. They need an antagonist. These are the basic principles of plot. However, something I find even more fascinating to ponder is this: who exactly said that Ursula was the bad guy? Who ever said that the tiger in The Jungle Book was evil?
By definition, an antagonist is a person that opposes the protagonist, the hero. This could mean that our protagonist, Jane, wants her father to drive her to the mall to get some shoes. Her father, however, refuses to take her. In this story, her father opposes Jane and her goal of going to the mall. Therefore he's the villain. But what if her father has a horrible migraine? What if he was recently in a tragic car accident and now fears driving?
If I were still under the same opinion as my five year old self, I would view the father as "evil."
He is, after all, the villain. But what makes the story interesting is that we have an understanding of the father's motives. We see where he's coming from.
Great writing, in my opinion, captures both sides of the story. We may not like the villian, we may not like like his or her actions, but we know the villain well enough to understand why he does what he does.
After all, a villain does not see himself as a villain. In the mind of Darth Vader, he has his own goals and objectives. If we were to tell the story in his point of view, Luke Skywalker would be his obstacle and, therefore, the villain.
As a writer, it's important to not be too quick to choose sides. You may be in love with your protagonist, but if you dismiss the view point of your antagonist, you lose the opportunity to fully explore the characters you are creating and your story misses out on the depth that it aspires to.
When you really start to think about it, we're all our own heroes, but we've also most likely played the villain in another person's story. And when you begin to slip into the shoes of your characters, or really anyone in life, you will be amazed at what you learn and the fascinating avenues you begin to uncover.