Character & POV
3 min read

How to make your readers sympathise with your antagonist

An illustrated image of an antagonist character in a novel

Creating a story where readers hiss at the villain's every appearance is one thing. Making your audience feel a twinge of sympathy for the antagonist? Now, that's a compelling narrative! Cultivating a sympathetic antagonist can make your story more complex, stirring, and memorable.

What is a sympathetic antagonist?

A sympathetic antagonist isn't your run-of-the-mill 'baddie'. They're complex characters who, despite opposing the protagonist, evoke empathy among readers. Take, for instance, Severus Snape from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series – a character despised for his actions yet pitied for his unrequited love and tragic past.

Why create a sympathetic antagonist?

Sympathetic antagonists aren't just about adding a twist to the tale. They create more dynamic characters, deeply engage readers, and challenge moral beliefs:

  1. Unleashing character complexity: Sympathetic antagonists are a testament to the intricacies of human nature, showing that there's more to people than 'good' or 'bad'.
  2. Stirring emotional engagement: Sympathetic antagonists forge an emotional connection with the reader, adding layers to their reading experience.
  3. The moral compass twister: They challenge the reader's moral beliefs, urging them to question the dichotomy of right and wrong.

How to create a sympathetic antagonist

Crafting a sympathetic antagonist requires more than a mere tweak of their character arc. It's a careful blend of backstory, flaws, relatable qualities, and a well-justified worldview:

  1. Fleshing out the backstory and motivation: A compelling backstory and relatable motivation can provide context for the antagonist's actions, making them understandable, if not entirely agreeable.
  2. Showcasing flaws and vulnerabilities: Even antagonists have their insecurities. Displaying their vulnerabilities makes them appear more human and less invincible.
  3. The human touch: Show the antagonist engaged in acts of kindness or display admirable qualities to make them more relatable.
  4. The antagonist's perspective: Showcasing the antagonist's worldview can make readers understand why they believe they are right.
  5. A hint of goodness from others: Using secondary characters to highlight the antagonist's redeeming qualities can subtly induce sympathy without overtly 'telling' the readers to sympathise.

Pitfalls to sidestep when creating a sympathetic antagonist

While crafting a sympathetic antagonist can add depth to your story, beware of certain traps:

  1. Too much likability: Avoid making your antagonist overly likable, as it can dilute the conflict in your story.
  2. Excusing their actions: While providing reasons for your antagonist's actions is important, don't excuse their misdeeds. This can lead to moral ambiguity that can muddle your story's message.
  3. Undermining the protagonist’s arc: The protagonist's story matters too. Remember not to let your sympathetic antagonist overshadow your protagonist's arc.
  4. Stereotypes and clichés: Steer clear of clichés and stereotypes when crafting your antagonist's character. Unique and unexpected qualities will make your antagonist more engaging.

Embracing the sympathetic antagonist

Creating a sympathetic antagonist is like walking a narrative tightrope – it can be risky but rewarding. This character can create an emotional resonance that leaves a lasting impact on your reader. They epitomise the nuanced nature of humanity and the inherent struggle between good and evil. So go forth and let your antagonist win some sympathy. After all, a little bit of bad can make a whole lot of good in your story.