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Back to Basics: Sympathetic Antagonists

For this Back to Basics mini-course, we’re talking about sympathetic antagonists. Each Back to Basics course includes a video (linked at the bottom), a blog post, and a challenge to help you experiment. Let’s look at the basics.

Every hero needs a great villain. Great villains not only make the hero’s journey that much more dangerous, but also make your story more captivating to your audience. A great villain is one who not only is cruel, but who has a reason for that cruelty. They are the ones who believe that they’re the hero of their own story. A compelling villain is one the audience can feel sympathy for. So how do you do it?

1. Establish a backstory

Antagonists are a lot like protagonists in the sense that they should have a backstory established. Backstories work very well for establishing motives for any characters. Your backstory should show who your villain used to be. There’s also plenty of different ways backstories can be shown, such as with flashbacks for example. If you’d like more information on flashbacks, we have an entire video dedicated to just this topic.

2. Show how they were wronged

This may be the most important rule of thumb to follow for creating sympathetic villains and it ties back nicely to the first rule. You need to show the audience what happened to the villain to make them the way they are, and this is usually done during the backstory. What was their defining moment? What was the thing that wronged them and set them on their path?

Example: In an episode of Batman: The Animated Series titled "Heart of Ice", fans are introduced to Victor Fries, a scientist using company equipment and funds to try and find a cure for his dying wife Nora. Victor gets confronted by his boss who, when discovering this, kicks Victor into volatile chemicals causing his body to survive only in sub-zero temperatures. After this event he becomes the villain known as Mr. Freeze.

"Heart of Ice" not only firmly established Victor’s motives, but showed how he was wronged. He tried to do everything to save his wife and was punished for it. "Heart of Ice" is regarded as one of the best episodes of the series and won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in An Animated Program. Fries’ backstory used in the show was so well-received that it became the official origin for Mr. Freeze going forward. Great villains need to have reasons for why they do the things they do. Showing them wronged in some way is the biggest way to drum up sympathy for a villain because it lets audiences understand why they are the way they are.

#3. Draw the line: don’t let them compromise

I think this rule is important because too often writers fall into a redemption trap. Often when writers set out to make their villains sympathetic they hit many of the right steps: they give them a complex and intricate backstory, they show how terrible their lives were. They do everything right and get the audience to sympathize, but then a lot of times writers become tempted to try and redeem their villains. So make sure you know where to draw the line. While redeemed villains aren’t an inherently bad concept, I think it’s important to be able to firmly know where your villain stands. Villains who become completely redeemed by the end should be the exception rather than the rule. Sympathetic villains don’t need to be redeemed. They can toy with the idea of redemption, that maybe they can change, but ultimately they don’t. For them to truly be a villain, they need to be unwilling to compromise in their values. If anything, that’s the ultimate tragedy. We the audience may desperately want them to change for the better, but in the end they won’t, further solidifying who they are: villains. We can understand and sympathize with the events that happened to them, but we can’t support their current actions.

Now that you know a little bit more about creating sympathetic villains, try your hand at the challenge!

Challenge: Choose one of the following prompts and make a sympathetic villain. Remember to utilize the tips that were outlined above. The story should be anywhere from 700-3000 words.

  • This villain is someone who will go to unprecedented lengths to unravel the protagonist.

  • This villain is currently held in a maximum security prison for the murder of someone close to the protagonist.

  • This villain is a wealthy tycoon who is putting the protagonist out of business.

Thanks for joining us for this Back to Basics course. If you tried this month’s challenge, you can share it on our forum or on social media using hashtag #WWB2B. Better Writer subscribers can submit their challenge for feedback as soon as possible. Find past Back to Basics courses here.

If you liked this challenge and you want to see more, be sure to like, comment, and subscribe to our channel. Special thanks to our Back to Basics Coordinator, Izhan, for creating this course. We'll see you all next time!


About the Author: Izhan Arif is a Teaching of English major at UIC who loves to write in his spare time. Izhan is also a very big fan of comic books and comic book TV shows and movies, he hopes to write his own comic books at some point as well.


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