What’s better than a cruel, bloodthirsty villain? One we can’t help liking! This month is all about sympathetic antagonists and what makes them so compelling to us. Readers love to root for characters, so why not have them root for your antagonist (and feel oh-so conflicted about it)? It’s a great way to keep your story fresh and interesting, and leave your reader questioning their morals.
Some quick definitions
Protagonist: in order to understand your antagonist, you first need a protagonist. Protagonist literally means “first actor.” They’re the main character of the story, and usually (but not always) the main point of view. Generally, they’re the one the reader is meant to root for.
Antagonist: Who is the antagonist then? They’re just as necessary as the protagonist, if not more so. They work against the protagonist, the “opposing actor.” (See how we swap “pro-” for “ant-”). They can also act as a foil to the protagonist, highlighting their differences. A classic example of this is Batman and the Joker. The antagonist doesn’t have to be as obvious as the villain in a superhero story, though. An antagonist is simply there to be a roadblock or an obstacle in the protagonist’s way.
Anti-hero: Different from an antagonist, anti-heroes are the main characters of their stories, but lack typical hero characteristics. Even if they share certain villain characteristics, they’re still considered a protagonist, with an antagonist getting in their way. Keep this in mind when writing a sympathetic antagonist; it’s easy to get the two confused.
What’s the first thing you think of when it comes to stereotypical villains? For me, it’s the Tragic Backstory, complete with long-winded monologues and sepia-toned flashbacks. I’ll be blunt here: you can do better! While it might be understandable that your antagonist had a crappy childhood, try not to rely on this as the sole area of sympathy. This trope has been used countless times, making it cliche and overly obvious for most readers. They’ll see through it and view it as a copout if it seems like the writer just threw it in to garner pity for the antagonist. It’s not a crime if you include a tragic backstory, just make sure it’s relevant to the story.
Put the sympathy into your sympathetic antagonist!
No character is 100% good or 100% bad. Everyone has a mix of good and bad traits, and is capable of acting positively or negatively. Play with the dials of good and bad with your antagonists. What’s that one human characteristic that grounds them, or that one selfless act they do that we can respect?
Adding sympathetic traits makes antagonists more memorable as well. They’re not just a roadblock for the protagonist to deal with, which could be replaced by a literal roadblock. They’re more complex and fully formed, irreplaceable. Remember: an antagonist’s sympathetic quality doesn’t have to be directly related to their antagonistic actions. Readers might roll their eyes when the villain reveals that their dastardly plan to rid the world of sugary foods is because their dentist parents wouldn’t let them eat it as a kid. (This goes back to the “tragic backstory” trope). Their sympathetic quality could be as simple as a love of gardening, or their relationship with their sister.
Sympathy and empathy are often felt when a reader is able to identify with a character in some way, or is able to see that character’s point of view. If we don’t know why a character is doing what they’re doing, it’s easier to distance ourselves and look at their actions more objectively. But if we know their motives or reasoning, we get wrapped up in their perspective and see the situation more subjectively from their side. So even if we don’t approve of what they’re doing, we at least understand and sympathize with why they’re doing it.
Sometimes it’s hard to write a truly sympathetic antagonist without giving them main character or close-to-main character status. You may find that they take over the story and become more of an unreliable narrator or anti-hero of sorts. (I’ll stick with the superhero examples: Loki and Harley Quinn). Sympathetic antagonists are meant to create complexities and nuances within your story; try not to be too rigid with labels. See where the story takes you and follow your characters for the ride!
About the Author: Lindsey is currently working towards her BA in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University. She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. She is also an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, watching Marvel movies, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.