Stories thrive off conflict and how you present you antagonist helps determine the type of tale you create. Sympathetic villains are a great way to engage your readers — I mean, emotional conflict is a pretty compelling reason to keep reading!
There’s a love-to-hate that we all enjoy with a good-bad-guy but if nobody knows why an antagonist acts a certain way, then that hate feels more obligatory than involved. But what goes into sympathetic villains and how do they fit into stories?
Sometimes antagonists are just deeply flawed good guys
Part of creating a nuanced antagonist is giving them real and relatable personality traits that they use in flawed ways. Protagonists should have these too, but readers can expect that most of the time, the good guys will do their best. With sympathetic villains, readers get to see all sides, good and bad. If you are writing about a corrupt politician who backs illegal organizations for personal gain, for example, he might also donate his own money anonymously to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. This way, he could be seen as both villainous and kind at once—especially when compared with someone else on the same side who may only stick up for right-thinking causes.
These can be small traits as well. Having an antagonist that loves peanut butter and is nervous about heights is realistic, and rather than taking away from how powerful they are, it actually enhances it. We’ve all been part of those various conversation starters: which are you more scared of? A decent boxing opponent or a mother who falsely but completely believes you have her child? Most people agree (often with a laugh) that the mother is scarier.
This isn’t just a joke though. There’s a reason that people pick the mom. We understand her. We understand caring about a family member, especially a young one. Being afraid for them, and acting with more courage than we might another time. All the little moments that she remembers that drive her. Real people evoke real fear, and that’s the goal for humanizing your antagonist.
Show readers what the have in common with the bad guys
Readers love a compelling antagonist, and they’ll remember yours longer by finding a way to relate on a more personal level. This could be anything from reminding the reader of a family or friend to finding the backstory to be familiar. An effective way is to let readers empathize with a good villain is through similar past experiences and choices that shaped their perspective on the world around them.
This can create empathy when readers realize they might have made similar decisions in previous moments. This makes it easier for them to understand why an otherwise evil character would take certain actions based on circumstances. When someone identifies and maybe even cares about an antagonist, it adds a human element that can be quite powerful.
Introduce sympathetic villains early in the story
The earlier you introduce your antagonists in the story, the longer you have to show your readers why there’s good reason to care. Having time to build a bond (good or bad) allows genuine emotional conflict to occur. There’s plenty of shows that offer the perfect example. The first few seasons had the same Big Bad. But eventually Big Bad got taken down, and ratings are high so… intro new one? But the next one doesn’t ever fit quite as right, do they? Readers need to feel the stakes are high, and not just for the protagonist.
Best part of sympathetic villains? They require strong protagonists
Readers don’t always want to read about a good guy beating a bad guy—sometimes they want to read about how both a protagonist and antagonist are flawed, damaged individuals fighting over one thing they can never have or one thing they can never agree on. Readers will be more likely to identify with both characters if you give them personal realism in common. But remember — you can make your antagonist sympathetic by giving them believable flaws, just make sure there’s a good reason for readers to choose to support the protagonist over them. Readers are more likely to care when you help them support a character because they agree with them as opposed to simply disliking the other guy.
Spencer Reaves grew up in a small town and her best friends were horror novels and an old typewriter. She knew in elementary school that she enjoyed writing – it took her until almost 30 to realize that she NEEDS to write too, and not just marketing content like she’s used to.
She is a story teller, coffee-drinker, and weirdo who still believes that her best friends are books. Her keyboard is a close second. Her heroic fantasy isn’t for the faint of heart. Neither is her horror. You can visit her website at spencermccoy.com.