One of the great challenges writers face is creating a compelling conflict between their protagonist and antagonist. Too often the hero and villain exist within in their own respective vacuums. The hero saves the day because that’s their job while the villain twirls their moustache and exists as the hero’s make-work project.
I think a truly great hero/villain dichotomy is when the antagonist is a foil to the protagonist. That’s when the comparison goes deeper than their goals; their character traits are similar but differ in some striking ways. Moreover, by creating a strong contrast between your hero and villain, you can develop the themes of your story.
To illustrate this point I want to talk about the characters Cloud and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7. I chose FF7 because I want to show that this principle transcends media. And also because that game kicks ass and Sephiroth is the ultimate badass. FF7’s story is pretty bananas, but I’ll do my best to streamline and focus on the salient points.
When we first meet Cloud, the protagonist of FF7, he is a passive hero. By that I mean, he doesn’t really have a goal, he just goes with the flow. He’s an ex-member of an elite military force called SOLDIER and is now a mercenary working for an environmental terrorist group called AVALANCHE (capitalizations are not my own). As the story progresses we start to see cracks in Cloud’s story and begin to suspect he’s either lying or cannot clearly remember his own past.
As the story progresses we learn that Cloud was never an elite member of SOLDIER; he never tried out but didn’t succeed. Instead, he worked as a low ranking officer. We learn that prior to the events of the game, Cloud was in involved in genetic experiments with a member of SOLDIER named Zack. Together they escaped the lab, but Zack died, so Cloud took over his identity. Through these experiences of trauma and shame, Cloud created a fake identity for himself, in which he lost himself.
Before the story’s climax, Cloud faces up to his past and asserts his real identity and resolves to defeat Sephiroth.
By contrast, Sephiroth was an elite member of SOLDIER. In fact, he was a living legend in the military. Cloud grew up idolizing Sephiroth and joined SOLDIER to be like his hero. However, in a series of flashbacks we see that Sephiroth was disillusioned with his reputation and the military in general. Perhaps even suffering from PTSD.
Sephiroth comes to learn that he was a product of genetic manipulation as a child, bred to be the ultimate soldier. He was injected the cells of an alien named Jenova, who landed in earth thousands of years ago. He comes to see Jenova as his true mother and that it is his destiny to inherit the earth and rule over it like a god.
Sephiroth believes that Jenova was a member of an ancient race named the Cetra who were stewards of the planet thousands of years ago. However, Jenova is in fact more like a cancer who killed off most of the Cetra when she first arrived, before the Cetra were able to seal her away. Sephiroth doesn’t care about this and creates his own narrative of superiority.
Thus, much like Cloud, Sephiroth also manufactured an identity to heal a wound in his ego.
Interestingly, Cloud was also injected with Jenova cells during his experiments. Thanks to this, Sephiroth is able to manipulate him throughout the story. At the story’s climax, Cloud must fight and kill a version of Sephiroth that exists within himself. It is a gesture which acts as a metaphor for the story’s moral argument: reject self-delusion and accept your authentic identity.
The way Sephiroth acts as a foil to Cloud develops the theme of identity and self-delusion in the story. Both characters have experienced trauma and shame. Cloud not being able to achieve his goal of becoming an elite soldier and then his time being experimented upon. Sephiroth and his horrors of war and learning that he was a product of experiments. The important difference is that Cloud chooses to face up to his self-delusion whereas Sephiroth loses himself in his.
So, in conclusion, if you want a strong dynamic between your hero and villain put in the time to figure out how they’re inter-related beyond simply trying to beat each other in a fist fight.