A complex protagonist is difficult to write. It’s the character your audience will be with for the duration of your novel/movie/TV show, so it’s important that you get her right. But it is much more difficult to develop a good antagonist than it is a good protagonist.
When we imagine the perfect villain, we (or at least I) imagine an entity of pure evil. While that may provide a formidable opponent for your protagonist, that’s not necessarily a good villain. A good villain is one who is complex. Pure evil is too easy; it’s a copout. A good villain is a well-developed one, maybe even one who means well. A good villain isn’t evil for evil’s sake.
In fact, some villains are so complex that they cross over from the dark side and help the protagonist.
5. Dinobot, Transformers: Beast Wars (1996-1999)
I never watched the original Transformers, but I remember very fondly the Beast Wars spinoff/sequel, featuring Optimus Primal as the protagonist leader of the Maximals fighting against the Predacons, led by Megatron. In this series, the Transformers were robots who could transform into animals. Optimus, for instance, was a gorilla, and Megatron was a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Dinobot, who took the form of a velociraptor, was a powerful subject of Megatron, aiding in the war against the Maximals. I always liked Dinobot, but as a child I felt bad rooting for a villain. Then, Dinobot challenged Megatron’s leadership, and the Predacons cast him out of their ranks. He found a place with the Maximals and came to a sometimes shaky truce with them.
The relationship dynamics that occur when a former enemy becomes an ally create great opportunities for conflict and character development. Some of the most entertaining moments involved banter between Dinobot and Rattrap, a Maximal who was hesitant to accept Dinobot as a part of their group.
Dinobot wasn’t really a character who could be controlled, and that’s exactly what Megatron wanted to do. Dinobot was always at least neutral if not borderline good. It just took being cast out for him to find where he truly belonged. He stopped looking out for himself, and started working as part of a team.
4. Zuko, Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation spent an entire season chasing the Avatar, the master of the four elements, from the Water Tribes and through the Air Temples, only to finally abandon his mission and join forces with Team Avatar.
Exiled from the Fire Nation after disrespecting his father and subsequently refusing to duel him in an Agni Kai (a traditional battle between firebenders). Zuko seeks to reclaim his lost honor by capturing the Avatar, who has been missing for a century.
Zuko and his uncle, Iroh, help Avatar Aang and friends in a Fire Nation siege on the Northern Water Tribe. Fire Lord Ozai then declares them traitors and sends his daughter—Zuko’s younger sister—to capture them and bring them back to the Fire Nation.
In the second season, Zuko abandons his search for the Avatar and lies low in the Earth Kingdom with his uncle. By the third season, Iroh is imprisoned, and Zuko has been restored to the crown, only to turn on his father and teach Avatar Aang the art of firebending.
After Aang defeats the self-appointed Phoenix King Ozai, Zuko rises as king of the Fire Nation and joins forces with the Avatar to bring peace back to a war-torn world. After spending so long trying to do what his father thought he should, Zuko finally realized that only he could determine his own path.
It wasn’t easy: Zuko struggled for a long time to determine who he was and what he should do. He even betrayed his uncle—the only one who had ever treated Zuko like a person. Even when Zuko was “bad,” he wasn’t bad on purpose. He thought he was doing what was in the best interests of his people and himself. But even at his worse, he had a conscience.
3. Hiei, Yu Yu Hakusho (1993-2006)
With King Enma, ruler of the Underworld, away on business, three demons raid his legendary treasures. Yusuke Urameshi, the new Spirit Detective, is charged with recovering the items. The thieves turn out to be an unlikely bunch: Gouki, a brutish muscle head, Kurama, a mysterious and selfless young man, and Hiei, a selfish and powerful demon.
Yusuke kills Gouki, comes to an agreement with Kurama, and defeats Hiei out of pure dumb luck. Not one to be bested, Hiei vows revenge. But, the next time we see Hiei, he’s with Kurama aiding Team Urameshi in a quest to the Demon Plane. Hiei insists that after he’s paid his debt to the Underworld, he will turn on Yusuke, but the trials just make Hiei a more comfortable ally.
When push comes to shove, Hiei has honor, and helps when he’s needed—and even when he’s not. He even goes so far to risk his own life at the Dark Tournament by using the Dragon of the Darkness Flame, all in an effort to guarantee his team’s victory.
As the series continues, Hiei almost grows to care for someone other than himself and his sister. He’s loyal if nothing else, and he’s a critical addition to Yusuke’s team.
2. Sesshomaru, InuYasha (2000-2010)
Estranged half-brother of the half-demon protagonist, InuYasha, Sesshomaru antagonizes the heroes quite a bit in the beginning. Cold and collected Sesshomaru shows little emotion for anything. He is angry that his father left InuYasha the better weapon, but even then he’s calm.
Sesshomaru, while still vowing to kill InuYasha, turns into an ally when he finds a mutual enemy in Naraku, the series’ main antagonist. Still cold and neutral, Sesshomaru at least helps InuYasha when it’s convenient for him.
As much as he despises humans and half-demons, his heart softens when he meets Rin, a dead human girl he revives with his sword.
Though he doesn’t look like much, he’s strong and smart, and a valuable asset to InuYasha—even though neither of them would admit it. He even goes on to save InuYasha’s love interest, Kagome, once.
1. Piccolo, Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT (1986-2005)
Although most of the heroes of the Dragon Ball/Z/GT series originally played some sort of antagonistic role, I think Piccolo is the best example.
In order to become guardian of the Earth, Kami had to relinquish a darkness within him. That darkness became the Great Demon King Piccolo who was sealed in a rice cooker by a powerful warrior using the Evil Containment Wave, which ends the user’s life. In an attempt to defeat Goku, Emperor Pilaf releases Piccolo, and Piccolo immediately attempts to kill anyone who could be strong enough to seal him away again. Goku ends up killing him, but at the last minute, he spits up an egg.
That egg hatches into Piccolo Jr. who grows up and seeks revenge on Goku at one of the world tournaments. Goku defeats him, but heals him when he finds out that if Piccolo dies, Kami dies too. Piccolo flies off, not to be seen again until Dragon Ball Z.
Piccolo returns—to everyone’s dismay—to warn Goku of a powerful entity that just arrived on Earth. It turns out to be Goku’s brother, Raditz. Goku and Piccolo form a temporary alliance to defeat a threat to the planet. Piccolo kills both Raditz and Goku. Then, amazed at the latent power of Goku’s son, Gohan, Piccolo trains him to fight because they overhear a transmission that foretells of two more powerful beings coming to Earth.
Piccolo continues to fight for the greater good, sacrificing his own selfish nature to save the world. He and Kami again become one in order to fight Cell, a new villain.
Piccolo continues to battle for the world and the galaxy throughout Dragon Ball GT. He even goes to hell to rescue Goku. He then remains there to maintain order. Goku promises to return to break him out of hell, but as of the end of GT, that’s where he remains.
Without Piccolo, the Z-Fighters and the world would have been a lot worse off.
Each of these characters were relatively self-sufficient and originally self-serving until they found themselves and learned to become a part of something greater. Each of these characters is a well-developed villain who eventually turns to help the main protagonist overcome a greater evil or a mutual enemy.
Got any others?