If you’re in the business of running games, you’re in the business of generating antagonists. If you run a game with a pretty high lethality index like D&D or the average WoD game, then you have to generate a bunch of them. Players chew through them quickly, pick through the bones, then hand out their bowls and request another. It can be pretty draining, especially if you make the mistake of getting attached to your little preciouses.
I think most everyone has a favorite villain trope: the remorseless noble with the code of honor, the Jokerish nihilist comedian, the dumb brute, the woman scorned, whatever. And of course, players will burn through them quickly if you let them. Sure, the antagonist doesn’t have to be dumb, and he will probably take whatever measures he can to stay alive, if staying alive is the sort of thing that’s in his motivation. (It isn’t always, and sometimes those guys who would rather die in a manner that spites their opponent are pretty memorable.) But if players are clever and competent, they will probably figure a way around those defenses and 23 stab wounds later, your antagonist is lucky to gargle out a quick “et tu” before he bleeds out. So that leaves you thinking about the next villain, and whether or not you’re going to do a new spin on your favorite trope or explore another one — and basically, wondering how to make the next blackguard stand out.
By this point, I’ve built a lot of exercises to stock up the next bunch of jackasses. It’s a process that’s relevant for work as well as recreation, though admittedly some of the techniques you’re going to need to disguise a lot better for work. You’ll see what I mean.
– Motivation: This is something you have to do for antagonists anyway if you want them to have as many as two dimensions, but it’s a brainstorming motivation anyhow. I have a list of motivations jotted down in one of my graph books that runs from “revenge” and “avarice” through “nihilism” to “bad romance.” Selecting a motivation from the list I haven’t used in a while is a fine starting point.
– Organizations/Numbered Villains: Antagonists are sometimes easier to build if you buy in bulk. Let’s say as a brainstorming exercise you’ve got a group that is meant to parallel Dante’s Inferno, one for each circle of Hell. If you pick out all nine at the same time, you can look at stuff like gender ratio, complementary roles, if all your guys are old and maybe you should have some younger ones in there, etc. If it’s a fairly symbolic number, all the better; to use the Inferno example, you know that the guy representing the Fifth Circle will have something to do with anger, and that’s something to build in. And players loooove killing numbered villains — more on that another time, I guess.
– Veiled Allusions: I’m kind of susceptible to doing this. This can be associated with the organizations/numbered villains concept above; say that you have seven villains, and each one represents one of the Deadly Sins (for simplicity’s sake, the most familiar incarnation, not the version where it’s sinful to feel sad). Now, they aren’t all together because they recognize that they’re references to the sins, it’s just an allusion. But it’s easier to brainstorm them if you know that, say, the disgraced general is in some way influenced by Envy. Even if it manifests as nothing deeper than a penchant for wearing green — that’s still distinctive. The trouble is when you start getting cheekier (or nerdier), doing things like placing antagonists that are carefully veiled takes on Batman villains or the Scooby-Doo gang. If you hide this right, your players never have to know — but be real careful if you’re doing this for work or the like.
– Existing Relations: This is great for well-realized settings like a city full of interesting characters. Pick a character you’ve already got in place. Now figure out what sort of antagonist would play off that character well. A relative? Someone with a diametrically opposed philosophy? Professional rival? Romantic entanglement? This gives the antagonist a more immediate hook into the setting than the plot-related one you already had in mind for her. And if that existing character is not the focal point of the plot (the assassin targeting the Prince is an old rival of the protagonists’ mentor, but cares more about the Prince’s assassination at the moment), then that villain becomes more fleshed-out by default — she cares about something in the setting other than the plot that has mandated her appearance.
– A Hobby: This is an odd starting point, but it can work. Think about an odd, interesting hobby that an antagonist might have, and then see if that suggests anything about their personality that could help you build them out further. Take Wee-Bey from The Wire. While he almost certainly wasn’t created with this method, consider how you could start with “he keeps exotic fish in several aquariums” as a basis. Who’s interested in watching fish? Someone who doesn’t need excitement all the time; someone who’s got a certain level of serenity. Now consider an antagonist whose hobby is bonsai. It implies someone meticulous, who likes things to be controlled, doesn’t it? What about a falconer? A scholar of history? A pickup artist?
– A Visual: Sometimes I just pick a miniature and use that as a basis for an RPG villain, it’s true. The visual is one of the easiest ways to brainstorm a new character. Maybe it’s a certain color — you want to do someone who wears yellow, for instance. Or a villain that looks brutish, but oddly civilized in an expensive tux. It’s very useful. Why is it all the way down here instead of one of the first ones I picked out? Well, because a visual doesn’t always suggest a motivation — or when it does (like “he looks like a Goth, he’s probably a nihilist”), it may be a little too simplistic to make someone nuanced.
Of course, the amount of nuance you put into a given antagonist depends on what you’re using them for. As I noted earlier, if your players are chewing through them, you probably don’t need lots. But everyone should have something. If your players or readers notice that there’s really no such thing as a generic bandit lord or Brujah thug in your game — that everyone with a name has something that makes them stand out as a little more real — you’ve got them. And to be honest, coming up with that nuance is fantastic exercise.