The Scots poet Robert Burns wrote, famously, of being able to look at oneself as an outside observer:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion…
For writers seeking to create believable and well-rounded characters, however, another important question to ask is, how does a character see him-or-herself?
This question has more than one side to it. The more obvious side, perhaps, deals with a character’s secret self-doubts and hidden shames: the heroic leader who is inwardly convinced that he’s making a bombastic fool of himself every time he has to make an inspirational speech; the charitable volunteer who secretly hates the good works they do out of a sense of duty.
On beyond that, however, is another question: what is the character’s heroic self-image? That is, when they’re thinking of themselves in the best possible light, the one that they’d want to have shining on them in their most flattering biography, what do they see? This is especially helpful when creating good antagonists (since as I’ve probably said before, very few people actually think of themselves as deliberate, conscious villains.) The rapacious industrial robber baron may see himself as a captain of industry, risking his personal fortune on daring projects that will add to the wealth of the nation and an increase in the public weal; the usurper of the throne may see himself or herself as the only person bold enough to take decisive action before the current ruler drives the whole country off a cliff (and in some versions of the story, he or she might actually be right, and not be a villain at all.) And the world is chock-full of CEOs, generals, heads of state, and more petty tinpot bosses than you could shake a stick at, who look at themselves in the mirror every morning and see, not a heartless jerk and a menace to society, but the man (or woman) who can make the hard but necessary decisions.
If there’s a danger to this two-pronged approach to creating well-rounded and believable antagonists, it’s that you may well end up with an antagonist who’s sufficiently well-rounded and believable that some of your readers will end up liking them. Please don’t consider this a failure on your part; be flattered, instead.
After all, in the real world, even bad guys have friends. So if your fictional baddie garners a friend or two among your readers, then you’ve come just that little bit closer to creating an effective secondary reality in your story.