We’ve gotten quite a few Asks regarding making a villain or antagonist a likable, sympathetic, or relatable character. So we’re making you a master post. Enjoy.
What makes readers feel sympathetic towards a character?
The best, most genuine way to write a character that people will sympathize with is to take the time and create a round, realistic character with motivations and feelings that are understandable to the audience. Because humans are naturally inclined to feel empathy for each other, they will sympathize with almost anyone who they can see themselves in. If at any point the reader is thinking something like ‘I could see myself feeling or acting this way’, you’ve got them. There is a difference between disagreeing with a characters’ actions and judging them- you want your audience to only disagree (if at all).
We’ve used ‘villain’ in the title, but it’s probably better to use the term ‘antagonist.’
1. a person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with another; opponent; adversary.
2. the adversary of the hero or protagonist of a drama orother literary work: Iago is the antagonist of Othello.
Actually, an antagonist doesn’t have to be a person, depending on what kind of conflict you are writing. You can have a story without an antagonist, or a story that lacks an overarching antagonist as well. However, for the purposes of this post, when we say ‘antagonist’, we mean any person who engages in a major conflict with the protagonist of the story.
(Put it together for) Sympathetic Antagonists:
What makes readers feel sympathetic towards the antagonist of a story?
Real people are often hard to pin down as ‘evil’ or ‘good’, rather, they do good or evil things. Though your antagonist might do things that the audience does not agree with, if the reader can understand your character’s motivations, they will have a harder time condemning them altogether. When I say ‘sympathetic’, I don’t mean that the reader has to agree with that character’s actions, or even like them- rather, the sense that the character is not so different from the reader is what makes an antagonist ‘sympathetic’. As C put it, “The reader can SEE that the villain has good qualities, but their actions work against the hero.”
A few methods:
Backstory: The scary thing about nature vs. nurture thinking is that we still don’t know how much of our actions are influenced by genes, and how much by our environment. Therefore, most people, when presented with an account of how someone was shaped into who they are today by circumstances beyond their control, most readers will think, ‘that could have been me’.
Logic: While characters that are mentally unhealthy are popular for a villain role these days, I love a villain who has an excellent reason for what s/he’s doing. Take the antagonists behind the scenes in Ender’s Game, Graff and Anderson. They emotionally destroyed many children (including the protagonist), allowed one to die on their watch, and committed xenocide by proxy. But it was their plan to save the world.
Motivation: People can do things when they are angry, or insecure, or fearful, that they wouldn’t under other conditions. For example, fear makes people irrational. Nearly everyone has experienced this. If you have ever frantically crushed a spider under a book (poor book), then you can sympathize, even just a bit, with someone hurting other people because they are afraid.
This has been FYCD
C is a bamf.
A few TV Tropes examples for inspiration: