I wrote this essay a little while back, and considered posting it in this community for a time. I'm not sure if it's on-topic or not, since while Bleach was what inspired me to write it, it doesn't directly deal with the series all that much, instead only makes references to it from time to time. If it's off topic just let me know, Deb, and I'll happily delete it. ^^ People have been writing some world-class essays recently, and I felt guilty reading all of them without contributing something unique of my own, so I hoped I could at least offer this much.
That said, The reason for my writing it is this: I'm often approached with questions regarding my reasons for demanding depth from the espadas and arrancars of Bleach. Fairly often, I here rationales regarding how they're "just bad guys who died because that's what bad guys do" and that "there's no need for them to be deep or significant."
Now, obviously, I'm a fanboy, and as such I have a strong predisposition toward villians, but I have deeper reasons for wanting my villians complex, I promise! I'm not sure how many have already read this, but I hope it gives at least a few people an example of my way of thinking.
The formatting screwed up when I tried to post it on my journal, so for this incarnation I went with the barest minimum of formatting to keep the text as regular as possible. My apologies for the boring layout.
Part of the reason why developed antagonists are as important to the story as developed protagonists stems from the fact that storytelling shares a number of similarities with physical law. (I know, ain't that a silly comparison? ^^) Newton's law is as true in a storytelling sense as it is in a physical one, as is inertia. There can't be an action without an equal but opposite reaction, since the one will always result in the other. Likewise, a plot cannot be set into motion with being triggered by an event, nor can it cease without an event of similar magnitude at its conclusion.
Because of the truth of this comparison, if you have a strong, firmly developed, and wonderfully established cast of protagonists, but a hackneyed, unappealing, or perhaps even virtually absent antagonist, it leads to a story that feels off-balanced. Typically, this can happen in one of two ways:
1.) Weak protagonist, weak antagonist- an example would include a story premise such as "An evil from 1000 years ago has been awakened, and now only the chosen hero of destiny, alongside his assembly of quirky comrades, can journey the world, collecting all of the sacred objects needed to finally quell the evil force. That's just one example, mind. Their are thousands of plot starting points that are equally limiting.
Here you have a setup that borrows from archetypes to create its premise. Because of the very nature of some plots, the hero will be, almost without exception, eithar a chaste and noble soul who always does the right things at the right time because he's the rightful hero of rightness, or a tortured and angst-filled soul who's none too happy about having the burden of destiny thrust upon him, but will nontheless come to terms with who he is, and ultimately become the hero of rightness mentioned before.
The villian will also be muted and forced into a typecast, in this example he will almost certainly be out to destroy the world... if the author is chartiable, he may have some super-selfish but still rather ridiculous motive, like sucking all the life energy out to become a god... but the villian in this type of story is lucky to recieve even that degree of development, and will more likely just be portrayed as the wicked enemy to all living creatures, probably be big and scary, and will likely shout or roar on almost any opportunity.
The confines of the weak premise spread to the characters, and force them to be weak as well. As a result, the entire work is stilted, and never gains the spark needed to be legitimately enjoyable to the reader. Of course, depending on the characters themselves, the quality of a story that uses it can run from "absolutely unwatchable" to "tolerable but not really enjoyable." Either way, if one uses such limited archetypes, the story they create will always come across as cliche.
As far as actual series example, since this level of storytelling tends to be percieved as amateur and run-of-the-mill, it rarely makes it to the levels of renown needed to have real examples to cite, but somewhere between 80 and 90% of all fanfiction and original fiction (especially from younger writers) fits into this category. From my experience, it seems to be a necessary step in the development of many.
2.) Overdeveloped or too numerous protagonist force, underdeveloped or outnumbered antagonist force (Can you guess where I'm going with this? ^^) - Many times, especially in "character-based" writing (which I'll explain a bit more about below) the ideas for "good guys" simply outnumber the ideas for "bad guys," perhaps the writer falls in love with certain characters of his/her creation, and doesn't want to see harm befall them. Perhaps he/she simply doesn't have too many ideas for long-term antagonists to serve as the protagonist's foils. Either way, it typically leads to the same result: at some point in the story, there will come a time when an ungodly large number of protagonists face off against a comparitively miniscule cast of developed villians.
This arrangement will compromise the suspension of disbelief if taken to the extreme. The reader will eventually be led to wonder how exactly the antagonists remained a threat for so long when there are so few of them and so many enemies. Developing the enormous cast of protagonists also becomes burdensome, since finding fight-partners or foils for all of them is impossible. As such, the writer is forced to throw in stock villians, underdeveloped and typecast characters whose only purpose is to be defeated by a specific protagonist. However, because these stock villians are poorly (if at all) tied into the central plot, said plot slows down to a crawl or stops entirely while these conflicts are resolved.
Examples of this type of storytelling include episodic adventures, such as children's action series (power ranger, TMNT, etc.) In anime, as you probably guessed by the nature of my words above, the most heinous offender of this is Bleach.
Thus, balance and strength are needed by both sides to create a story that is enjoyable, fluid, and original. Dismissing antagonists as "invariably wicked creatures who simply need to die in the end" will always weaken your impact, because it will eventually destroy your balance and unhinge your plot.
PART 1: The types of antagonists
Typically, for a character or group of characters to be the protagonists... the ones through whose lens the story is seen by the reader... a certain degree of sympathy or relateability must be had with them. They don't have to be "good" per se, but a story can never develop a following if the characters readers spend the most time with are unappealing. Any charcter who doesn't quite have that degree of appeal, will most likely become a neutral supporting character. Neutral characters are the ones whose existance helps to develop the world of the story, but doesn't significantly alter the movement of the plot. This leaves only the characters whose existance in some way runs counter to the protagonists. Because of the point of view offered to the reader, their motives will seem antagonistic, and thus they are the antagonists. Just as "protagonist" doesn't mean "good," "antagonist" doesn't mean "bad" either. They are two sides whose goals or wishes cannot coexist, the opposite reaction to an action. In more organic stories, it's best to not even think of "good guys" or "bad guys" when creating your world, and instead focus on realistic reasons all the characters would have to do the things that they do. There are more archetypes for antagonists than there are stars in the sky, but I find that most of them fall into four distinct cattegories:
Type one - The sympathetic, redeemable antagonist- The character who may start off completely unappealing to the reader, but eventually shows sides of themselves that are vulnerable or disarming. If these elements to the character are allowed to continue developing, and eventually surpass the unappealing aspects of the character, then a time may come when the antagonist is no longer percieved as such, becoming neutral, or perhaps even a protagonist. Since a large number of antagonists who fall into this cattegory die as a result of or shortly after the events that make them sympathetic, whether a villian belongs in this class or in the one I'll go into next is usually in the eye of the beholder, based on personal taste and bias.
Examples of the sympathetic, redeemable antagonist include- Nico Robin from One Piece, Charden from Black Cat, and, of course, Ulquiorra Cifer from Bleach.
Also from Bleach, one could technically consider the shinigami to be in this category (though personally I never saw them as antagonists to begin with, not by the traditional definition.)
Type two - The sympathetic, unredeemed antagonist- there are times when the sympathetic side of a antagonist isn't shown to redeem him, but only to explain why he turned out the way he did. In most of these cases, while increasing the compatibility the reader has with the villian, these revelations or nuances to their personality don't outweigh the unappealing acts or traits that made them antagonists to begin with. A type two antagonist is the kind who, after having played his role in the story, will make the reader think "I understand why you turned out the way you did, and I feel kinda sorry for you... but you still deserved what you got."
Examples of a type two antagonists include- Kabuto Yakushii from Naruto, Legato Bluesummers from Trigun, and Iseley of the North from Claymore.
From Bleach, it's difficult to say given how much development remains to be seen, but Gin and Tousen likely belong here, with Aizen likely to end up in type 3 or type 4 before all is said and done. This is also the most natural place to put characters like Nnoitra, Zommari, and Grimmjow.
Type three - The unsympathetic, unredeemed, but still developed and complex antagonist- Without a doubt, this is the single hardest kind of antagonist to get right. You see, there really are people, in the world of fiction and in reality, who are... well... batshit insane. As such, every so often there really are people who do evil things for little to no reason, or who develop philosophies and ways of living that would make any sane human being tremble in disgust and fear. The problem is, though, that many writers use "insanity" as an excuse for having an underdeveloped villian, and don't try to justify the actions of their character outside of the "oh, he's crazy" and a few fits of maniacal laughter.
Creating an insane character may seem like a great idea if you really want to exemplify that your antagonist is a villian, but you have to be willing to give him a much greater degree of development than you would if your antagonist were more sympathetic. For starters, how is your villian insane?
Is he a sociopath? If so, then be sure to portray him as such. Make him lack empathy, and perhaps even the ability to feel emotion, but make certain that he has superficial charisma that can draw people to him, as well. You also need to explain how such a person was able to rise to the point where he could be a sufficient antagonist.
Is he simply delusional and sadistic? If so, what are his delusions? Does he follow a thought pattern that makes sense to him.? Is he able to unite other similarly delusional people beneath him? Again, how was such a person able to rise to the point that he could be a sufficient antagonist.
Because of the degree of development needed to create a type 3 antagonist, and because of the difficulty involved in creating a truly developed one, the handful of villians in any genre that succeed in being portrayed in this way stand among my favorite villians of all time.
Anime examples of a type three antagonist include: Solf J. Kimbley from Fullmetal Alchemist, Dietrich von Lohengren from Trinity Blood, and Johann Liebert from Monster.
From Bleach, Aizen has the potential to end up here, but can just as easily wind up in type 4. Szayel-Apporo belongs here, as well.
Type four - Unsympathetic, unredeemed, and undeveloped antagonists- Essentially the half-assed attempts at a type three antagonist, type fours are the stereotypical villians. Favorite passtimes of type fours include: blowing down the houses of pigs, stealing candy from babies, eating babies, wearing black caps and pulling them over their faces for shock value, twirlings the ends of their moustaches, tying women to train tracks, and attempting to conquer/destroy the world/happiness/freedom/puppies. The reasons type fours have for enjoying these activities will never be given... and don't ask the writer... they probably don't know either.
This type of antagonist is partially justified when used in children's storybooks and other literature aimed at the very young, because such stories typically require the portrayal of morals and values in an easy-to-understand way.
For all other works, an antagonist like this should be the thing to avoid, and is a sign of poor writing should he ever appear.
Examples of a type four villian include: Any of them from Power Rangers, Team Rocket from Pokemon, and is a popular interpretation of Ulquiorra Cifer amongst shippers of IchiHime. (hmm... I wonder if they have ulterior motives behind such a linear view...)
From Bleach, pretty much every hollow to appear in the KT arc except Orihime's brother. Hollows in general have laughable development prior to the arrancar arc, and even after it there are a few who make this list. The sadistic Aaronario, for instance. Surprisingly, many of the fraccion escape this, most becoming type 2 antagonists before the ending comes. The only ones who I feel belong here are Findor and Nirgge.
Bear in mind that these villian types are based on the assumption that the characters in question are human. demons, vampires, and the like have a bit more freedom in how they exist, although without development any antagonist can be a weak one.
Part 3: The ways of writing, and how I personally create my protagonists/antagonists.
It is often said that there are two kinds of writers in this world. I find that the manner in which protagonists and antagonists are developed and portrayed vary greatly depending on which of the two types you are. For instance:
With writers who create their characters first, and then develop the world and plot around them, the protagonists are more likely to be heroes or heroic, and the antagonists are more likely to be villianous. There's usally a clearly drawn moral event horizon, and and obvious choice of who the reader wants to support. The upside to this style is that all the characters will tend to be very unique, in appearance and manner if not necessarily in depth. The downside is the kind of story created is typically more a "shonen/shojo" in nature.
This style of writing is particularly popular amongst those with artistic talent (whom I envy very much) as they draw a character, get a feel for who they want him to be, and then start creating other characters for him to interact with.
With writers who create their world, and then develop the characters and plot around it,there's often more of a feel of moral ambiguity. Perhaps the protagonist and the antagonist aren't that different, perhaps bad things will happen no matter who prevails in the end. The upside to this style is that the story conveyed can be effective on multiple levels, and it's easy to understand exactly why every character is the way they are. The downside is that the characters themselves can sometimes lack charm or uniqueness, due to the fact that they aren't thought of as more than cogs in the plot's motion.
From what I'm told, this is the rarest type of writer, and the style is prevelant mostly amongst those who are better at thinking of events than physical details, or who are very methodical in nature.
Bear in mind, I'm not saying that ALL people who write in one style have the same strengths and weaknesses, only pointing out the tendencies and trends. There are exceptions to every rule, and neither style is inherently better or worse than the other, they're just different.
Personally, I belong to the latter group, so I'm not certain how much help any advice I give can be, but when I start to write someting, this is the thought process I generally go through:
1.) To quote Axis Powers Hetalia, "draw a circle, there's the world." My first step is always to develop the kind of world my story will take place in. Everything about it that is outside the control of those currently living there, from climate, to vegetation, to quality of life. After the physical, I move on to the philosophical. What kind of history has this setting had? What events led up to what is happening now?
2.) Try to imagine what kind of person would grow in a world like this, or what kind of group. How do they live? What do they live for? What would they want most out of life? Is it a big group? Maybe it's only one person. The last question I ask myself is always "would this character/group of characters be appealing enough to readers to serve as my protagonists?" If not, I repeat tis step. Creating many different groups and kinds of people, and developing how they would interact with each other, as well as the world.
3.) Once I've decided on which character/group will be the protagonists, I more sharply define their relationship with the other characters/groups I've created. Which ones exist neutrally with the protagonists... and which ones cannot coexist with them. The majority of the plot is developed here.
4.) now I set up the events of the plot. Everyone who writes a story has a general idea of the kind of tale they wish to spin, this step is a simple case of manipulating the events and characters you've created and using them to tell your story.
5.) This is when the aesthetic details of my characters is applied. I'm nototoriously bad at thinking about the physical appearances of my characters. I typically only give one or two details, and leave it to my artists to handle the rest (when dealing with graphic novel format.) I also tend to swipe names from phonebooks... and often role dice to determine the genders of my characters, since most of the roles I create are unisex. If there's one thing I've never had talent for, it's the finer details in things. ^^