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Sympathetic Antagonists by Levi

Is it okay to have an antagonist you can understand?

Those who have been reading the Footsteps of the Prophet story will have noticed that I have made a few unusual storytelling choices. One of them, and the one I want to talk about in this post, is my choice to make a couple of the TDO characters a little more complex than the average side character.

A little bit of backstory. Footsteps of the Prophet is a spinoff or fanfiction of sorts based in and around Poseidon Simons’ Dragon Isle universe. The TDO is the approximate equivalent of the Klan here in the States.

I’d written a couple other stories before this one, all following the same standard theme. Lacking any other strong villain or group, I allowed the TDO to serve as the primary villains, and they were more or less your standard fare. Evil, twisted, and willing to destroy a family. Not a group you wanted to support.

But for this story I did something a little bit different. FotP has some of the same characters as the first two stories, and their backstories and motives have not changed, but many years have passed. Life has become more complicated. The reader is allowed to learn why the characters made the bad choices they did. They don’t have to agree with them, but they are given the opportunity to see the characters as the individuals they are.

Then there is the character Ryan, introduced early on as an acquaintance of Judas. Now, Judas is supposed to be the object of Ryan’s hatred, but he can’t express those feelings, and he begins to question why he’s involved in that organization in the first place. He loses his friends, loses his family, and is taken in by a family he is supposed to dislike (and who does not necessarily trust him), and all this leads to his growth as a person.

And yet, he still does not want to leave the organization, even though it’s obvious he should, because he isn’t sure what to do.

Now, the story is not posted to the end yet, so I will not say how it is resolved. However, readers should have noticed a change in his character from the beginning.

What other examples of sympathetic antagonists have you come across in your reading? Do you write them? I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Sympathetic Antagonists


30 August 2015 at 19:59:40 MDT

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    Sympathetic antagonists are great. Villains have their place, but more nuanced characters tend to be more interesting to me. Take Frankenstein, for example. It's hard to even tell which one of them to root for. Or to pull in some film references, Roy Batty from Blade Runner, or just about any of the main characters from Breaking Bad. I'm sure there's better examples, but those come to mind.

    And I do write them, or try to. The main antagonist from my novel is on the same side in the war, and just takes a slightly different approach to the ethics of it all.

    Dunno if any of that is useful to your situation, but I'd say the concept at least is sound.

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      There have been books and movies I've come across where I didn't want to cheer for anyone because they all upset me in some way (Inception comes to mind).

      Otherwise, while characters that are obviously evil and fun to hate can be satisfying, I find this is rarely true in reality. People are complicated, and even the most brutal of individuals may have their fears, weaknesses, and tender moments.

      At least in this novel, the primary villain is a demon, so everyone else tends to look less bad in comparison.

      Although I'm pretty sure there is at least one minor bad guy who's "worse" than the demon in some respects.

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    My question is, do sympathetic antagonists in a story mirror real life sympathetic antagonists, or are the story versions just the result of projection by the writer? Naive narratives written for entertainment value but lacking in substance? Modern entertainment is rife with bizarre character narratives which when scrutinized against actual human behavior and history, burst into flames and flutter away in the wind. I don't think there is any general case for or against sympathetic antagonists, any more than there is a general case for or against having a 12mm socket wrench in your toolbox.

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      I'm terribly sorry, but I am having a hard time understanding your comment. Could you explain it again?


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        An example of projection would be a child who looks at a pet begging for food and thinks the pet must be lonely, scared, etc when the pet is just hungry. The child feels lonely, sad, etc. and doesn't think about how the pet has different circumstances, it's own life, etc. The child is projecting their own inner landscape onto the pet. Sociopaths tend to be very good at using this to their advantage - they will convince others they had a bad childhood, were abused, etc and therefore should have lenience when they abuse, rape, steal, etc. So then how many narratives around sympathetic antagonists are distorted by authors who tend to see through rose-tinted glasses? To say that sympathetic antagonists should be avoided or should be used generously is like saying apostrophes should be used more or less in a text. But how they are used is far more important.

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    Making an antagonist sympathetic IMO is a very good thing, because it draws a light beam into the reader's own mind, where he can find the same flaws in action in it's own being. Catharsis comes when reader realizes how these flaws made the antagonist a villain in the first place.

    One great example is Nessus from Larry Niven's Ringworld, and the human-race-betraying dolphins from David Brin's Startide Rising. I immediately fell in love with these creatures' characters and flaws, and that eventually brought me into the furry fandom two years later.