All stories have a protagonist, someone you’re rooting for throughout—usually whether you fully identify with them or not. These same stories tend to have antagonists as well, characters created in order to produce obstacles for the protagonist. Characterizations of antagonists range anywhere from a reasonable but nosy character who is committed to honesty (à la David Rosen in Scandal) to a wholly evil and irredeemable character whose only goal is world domination (like Voldemort in Harry Potter).
My favorite antagonists tend to be the ones that aren’t one-dimensional. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more characters that fit this mold. Growing up, the stories I tended to consume had clearly evil characters (such as Dr. Drakken from Kim Possible or Team Rocket from Pokémon). This makes a lot of sense as, for better or worse, content for children tend to create a very defined line between good and bad. However, to me, humanized antagonists are more interesting; they become more complicated than the basic Ultron-like motivations where all they want is to take over or destroy the world. Below is a list of some of my favorite 3-dimensional characters, all from different stories I like.
1. Rowan Pope (Scandal)
In Scandal, Olivia Pope’s father is very clearly the main antagonist of the show. As Command of B613, he has almost unlimited power, even when he is in jail. Olivia and her firm spend a lot of their time trying to take him down, and he constantly demonstrates his ability to thwart them, influence extremely powerful people, and kill with impunity. At the same time, B613 is an organization that was created primarily to protect the national security of the United States by any means necessary. So Papa Pope’s job is literally to protect the country, and though he definitely abuses his power (most notably in the moment where he (SPOILER) has the President’s son killed). Even still, he is humanized in relation to his daughter. While Papa Pope is clearly an evil and problematic character, so are most of the characters on Scandal. With Olivia, he at least seems to want to be a good father, especially before she knows what his real job is. Even while Olivia is trying to take him down, Papa Pope continues to protect her up until she goes too far and attempts to kill him. While it is completely true that he is a deplorable character, he still isn’t the classic villain twirling his mustache as he plots world domination. His motivations are much more complicated than that which makes him a much more interesting character.
2. Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire)
I know that most fans of Game of Thrones hate Cersei Lannister, and I count myself among those people. However, I also find Cersei to be an interesting character. I feel like she is a bit more developed in the books than the show, but in both mediums we get to see Cersei’s struggle to lead. While on the surface it seems as though she just wants to rule all of Westeros, her struggles are actually valid. As a woman, she is frustrated with having to defer to men, being unable to be heir to her ancestral seat at Casterly Rock though she is technically the oldest child of her father, and only being able to have power in relation to men (for example, being the Queen because she is married to King Robert, a position that is threatened once Robert is killed and her son has to get married). While Cersei had most of what happens to her coming, one of the worst scenes in my opinion is the one where she is forced to walk through King’s Landing naked as a walk of shame for the crimes she has committed. While she deserved to be punished for the things she has done throughout the story, her punishment is extremely gendered and difficult to watch. I still hate Cersei but I like that there are moments when I feel sympathy for her, especially when watching her deal with the struggles of being a woman in a fantasy based on medieval times.
3. Aaron Burr (Hamilton)
Aaron Burr – the fictionalized version of him in the Hamilton Broadway Musical, not the real life person he’s based on – is another great example of an antagonist who is humanized through a story. Hamilton, as the title suggests, is a musical about the life and death of the “ten dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton (“Alexander Hamilton”). However, the story largely follows the friendship, rivalry, and later enmity between Hamilton and Burr. It chronicles their relationship from their meeting during the lead up to the Revolutionary War until the duel between the two that ended Hamilton’s life in 1804. While Hamilton could have easily used Burr as a one-dimensional character only concerned with foiling Hamilton’s plans and standing against him, instead Burr is used as the main narrator for the majority of the story, which gives us a deeper understanding of him as a character, in relation to his jealousy of Hamilton’s meteoric rise, his concern with not sharing too much about his own views, and his struggles in life and love. Even when Burr and Hamilton are friendly, it is clear that they are opposites and basically antagonists to each other. Each hold opposing beliefs about how one should navigate the world, each has different strategies for getting ahead, and what starts as friendly competition turns into a rivalry that becomes dangerous and deadly. However, even after Burr has killed Hamilton we don’t see him happy; another part of his humanization is that we see his regret and his realization that “the world was wide enough for the both of us” (“The World Was Wide Enough”). This characterization is great because it makes Aaron Burr a more interesting character to think about.
4. Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter)
Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter is immediately set up as the one-dimensional bully. He initially stands as someone to go against Harry; he is a Slytherin (the rival to Harry’s Gryffindor), he holds bigoted beliefs about blood purity, and he literally walks around with two people he has basically appointed to be his henchmen . However, as the Harry Potter series expands and progresses, Draco becomes more complicated as a character, while still maintaining many of those initial defining characteristics that made he and Harry enemies to begin with. In Chamber of Secrets, we learn more about Draco’s family, namely his father Lucius and Draco’s pressure to live up to family expectations. We see how much of Draco’s beliefs are not truly his own; he was raised in a household that valued the positions of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. His father and aunt were prized servants of the Dark Lord, and so what other chance did he have but to become one as well? Throughout the story, we see Draco’s cowardice (again, inherited from his family) but we see his capability to love as well. Draco is extremely loyal to his family, a trait that leads to him becoming a Death Eater and agreeing to kill Dumbledore in order to save his family from being murdered by Voldemort in turn. His main concerns are his mother and father, and while the decisions he makes are not good ones, his reasons for making them are fairly noble. Again, while he is the enemy of Harry Potter, the two of them are actually very similar in the ways they make their decisions and their loyalties, though they largely fall on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of good and bad.
5. Sasuke Uchiha
Sasuke Uchiha from Naruto is another character with an interesting depiction, despite being an antagonist. Like Aaron Burr and Draco Malfoy, Sasuke is placed in direct opposition from the main protagonist, in this case Naruto. Sasuke’s story is interesting because he is humanized outright. Initially, his rivalry with Naruto is a friendly one; they compete in a way that pushes each other to be better. However, Sasuke is a traumatized kid, one who witnessed his brother Itachi murder their entire clan and was then left to avenge them. He struggles with his conflicting desires to make friends and be happy with becoming more powerful and killing his brother, but once he makes his decision to avenge his clan, he begins to spiral into “darkness”*. He becomes someone who will do anything for power and becomes increasingly callous because of this pursuit. What makes him interesting is that his descent into evil is what humanizes him. We know that his ultimate goal is revenge and that requires a sort of compartmentalization as well as rejection of things that may get in the way of that revenge (which, in Sasuke’s case are his friends and ties to his village). The large struggle of Naruto is one of being acknowledged and Sasuke neatly falls within this theme, both in his struggles to cut ties from Naruto and not acknowledge him as someone who has had a great effect on him but also in terms of acknowledging himself as being strong enough to defeat his brother and avenge his clan.
*I put “darkness” in quotes because while I do not agree with the connotations of light vs. dark, this is the way it is posited in Naruto as it is with many other stories (like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.).
There are plenty of other examples of humanized antagonists, but these are just a few of my favorite. These characters all have complicated values and motivations that aren’t just cut and dry, which is what makes them interesting and may even make you root for them at times.