7 Ways to Create an Empathetic Antagonist

Today’s guest post is by Sarah Tinsley.

“Complexity is an indispensable ingredient of life, and so it ought to be with the characters we create in our stories”— Stavros Halvatzis

Everyone loves a good antagonist. From the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood to Cersei in A Game of Thrones, there’s nothing more appealing than a baddie. When you’re writing, an antagonist is often a vital part of your story. They allow you to create tension, to give your main character someone to push or fight against, and are often the main driving point behind your plot.

But they need to be more than cartoon villains. It’s very rare that you will have an archetypal monster like the shark in Jaws. Most stories need subtle, nuanced antagonists. Getting your reader truly engaged with your story means finding points of empathy with all characters, no matter how reprehensible their actions.

In a wider sense, this is also the power of literature in general—to examine the darker side of human nature and to ask important questions about why bad things happen. It’s not for the writer to judge their characters but to present a real, rounded person that will raise debate and interest in their reader.

Here are some tips on how to create your own empathetic antagonist:

1. Humanity

There will always be a shred of humanity in the worst of us. Finding the thing that connects your character to the rest of the human race is a vital ingredient in making your reader care about them. Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a vicious, unfeeling character, but The Testaments show us how she came to work within the system. When we see her choice between death or joining the regime, it’s hard not to ask ourselves if we would have made the same decision to save our own skin.

You might show your antagonist’s humanity through a relatable emotion like ambition or insecurity. If it’s something we’ve all experienced, we’re more likely to care.
Exercise: Write an “I statement” from the point of view of the antagonist that explains the driving force behind their actions. Keep this in mind when writing their scenes.

2. Memories

An excellent way to reveal a softer side to your antagonist is to show part of their childhood or past experiences. In The Lord of the Rings series, we see that Smeagol was almost the same as a hobbit before he was taken over by the darkness of the ring. This makes the reader feel conflicted when Sam treats him badly.

You might do this through backstory, where a current event in the narrative of the story reminds the character of something. You could also use longer flashbacks to show a specific interaction, especially if it had a lasting effect on the character.

Exercise: Write an important scene in the past of your antagonist. Even if you don’t use it you’ll get a valuable insight into their motivations.

3. Use Yourself

You might feel uncomfortable pasting yourself onto a character that does horrible things, but one of the easiest ways to create empathy is to use your lived experience. Remember, everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story. Using an element of your own life in your character will allow you to see them in a different way.

In my own novel, I made my antagonist a teacher. It made writing that part of their life more sympathetic, as I had experienced the stresses and difficulties of this job. A small element of the character but a key ingredient in making them relatable.

Exercise: Take one thing you like about yourself and give it to your antagonist. It doesn’t have to be big—maybe a skill or an ability like cooking or dancing.

4. Redemption

To be clear, I don’t mean you need to turn your antagonist into your protagonist! But in the same way that your main character will get thwarted again and again in their ultimate goal, you can dangle the possibility of redemption within your antagonist’s grasp. Think of how many times Humbert almost returns the main character of Lolita to safety but decides not to do it.

Showing the possibility that they could do the right thing, if they wanted to, will not only make your story more compelling, it will also make your readers more likely to root for the character.

Exercise: What would “the right thing” be for your antagonist? Find ways of putting it within reach at a couple of points in your plot so the reader can experience the near-miss of them choosing the bad path.

5. Style

Often an overlooked point, but the way you write can have an influence on the way characters are perceived. The confessional style of We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver puts us in a sympathetic mind-set straightaway for the mother who will later do very unpleasant things to a small child. The opposite technique used by writers like A. M. Holmes is to write shocking things in a detached and manner-of-fact way.

Exercise: Take an important scene that features your antagonist. Try playing around with viewpoint, style, and tone and see how it affects the way the reader would see the actions of your character.

6. Escalation

If you start your story with someone doing something dreadful, the odds are your readers won’t be able to forgive them. If you show your antagonist getting worse over time, readers are more likely to forgive them and have some empathy for their actions.

In We Need to Talk about Kevin we see incremental moments in which the main character experiences more and more stress through her son’s behavior before later in the book, when she throws her young child across the room and breaks his arm.

Exercise: Make a “structure map” of your antagonist’s actions throughout the book. How can you escalate them throughout?

7. Structure

The way your entire book is put together can affect the way characters are viewed. Choosing what happens before or after your antagonist does something unpleasant can alter the way the reader perceives it. In Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam, the author puts in emotional backstory and positive actions before the character abducts a child, which somehow comes across as a positive thing.

Placing a particular memory or sympathetic scene before an antagonist does something dreadful can really shift the way your readers see them.

Exercise: Look at your overall plan for the novel. Think about ways you can balance the view of your character throughout the book.

From your choice of words to the way you put your whole book together, there are many elements that allow your readers to connect to your antagonist. As a result, they’ll be fully immersed in your story, thanks to the complex and rounded characters you’ve created. They also might find themselves with some lingering questions long after they’ve put your book down—and what writer doesn’t want that?

Sarah Tinsley is a writer and writing coach. Her forthcoming novel The Shadows We Cast shows the aftermath of a sexual assault from the point of view of both the victim and the perpetrator. Her short fiction has been published widely. You can order her book Shape Your Scribbles—A Practical Guide to Self-Editing Any Kind of Story on her website, as well as booking a slot on her fortnightly workshop Wednesday Scribbles. Her course Get Scribbling takes you all the way through the writing process and helps to embed creativity into your daily life. You can follow her @sarahtinsleyuk on Twitter and Instagram.

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