Right now, my current WIP includes five main characters. One could argue that a different character is the villain, as he’s a huge douchebag and makes life difficult for the other four characters. However, I don’t particularly think of Kaizant as a villain, just a racist jerk. If asked, I’d say there aren’t any villains in Death’s Tear.
I’m hardly the only one to have ever written a book lacking a villain. Many of my writer friends tend more towards writing stories about jerks and bigger jerks – the main character is just as much of a not-that-great person as the next guy, although the antagonist might be a little more horrible. Or perhaps the protagonist IS more horrible, but since no one is really “right”, we still care about him. I’m certain that you could think of several stories lacking a distinct villain – as Man vs Nature comes to mind, so does Castaway. There’s not a villain there. There’s conflict, and vague Nature could be considered the antagonist, but Nature as a force doesn’t really have the ability to be evil because it lacks any morals whatsoever.
Remember that “villain” is an archetype so it’s possible to have a story with antagonists but no villains. The purpose a villain as an antagonist serves is one critical to a good book: conflict. Our lives as humans are rife with conflict and believe it or not, what makes a good story is a reflection of our lives. That’s why it’s so critical that your villain be a real, relatable person. So if a story isn’t rife with conflict, chances are good that it’s not an interesting story. The shorter the story, the more compact the conflict, but conflict has to emerge and be resolved during the course of the story. This, of course, could make things interesting if you introduce a villain for a reason other than causing conflict, although that would be a trick indeed – the easiest way to do this that I can think of off the top of my head is to make a villain the protagonist.
So what about when it’s not Man vs Man, but Man vs Society, Nature, or Self? Society actually still lends itself pretty well to villainhood so perhaps not so relevant to this discussion.
But we’ve already established that Nature can’t be a villain because Nature, lacking any sentience or morals or motivation, cannot choose what’s wrong or truly be evil. You can, of course, write Nature as if it was a villain, and therefore utilize a lot of the same villain-writing techniques. However, if you write Nature like a villain, you’ll lose a bit of the true organized chaos of Nature and personify it at least to some degree.
And what of Self? Self already requires one person to be, simultaneously, the protagonist and antagonist. This is not a super-complex idea as we do, after all, constantly make things difficult for ourselves. “I have class in the morning! Better stay up until 6am playing Minecraft.” Good times. But as most people are at least trying to be good, and as many people tend to think of themselves as the hero of the story, becoming one’s own villain makes the whole thing more diametric. The idea that one is a decent person and generally does what’s right comes into conflict with the idea that one is not a good person and often does what’s wrong. Of course, being one’s own villain is still hardly a novel idea.
Final Fantasy IV features just such a common example of defeating one’s inner demons as Cecil makes the transition from dark knight to paladin – but the thing about IV is that Cecil is not the only one who fights his inner demons. Most of the cast of IV make some sort of transformation, including the original villain! Side note, FFIV is my second-favorite….eh, game, probably, so if you haven’t played it, you should.
But all the same, it seems one cannot actually simultaneously be the villain and the hero. There’s You and then there’s The Literal Demon In Your Head, if you have two at once. Or there’s Bipolarish You, if the character oscillates. But even someone with a split personality only manifests one at once. So if your story is about a good guy whose own worst enemy is himself, and that guy isn’t evil, well, your story, provided it has no other antagonists, has no villain.
While it’s entirely possible to apply what you know about writing villains to writing a non-evil antagonist, you’ll most find that what I’ve offered as to writing a villain are pieces of advice you already knew for writing other things, like heroes, because you can boil down all my advice down to “Villains are people, too”. The REAL thing you have to remember when your story doesn’t have a villain is that probably the point of a villain is conflict, so when your story doesn’t have a villain, focus instead on what causes the conflict, WHY, and HOW, and it won’t matter there’s not a villain.