The Joys of Sympathetic Antagonists

One of the character archetypes I find most interesting is the sympathetic antagonist—that living obstacle to the primary characters, whether villain, antihero, or just inconveniently motivated, who through her characterization elicits some level of sympathy from the audience. But what makes these sorts of characters so nifty, useful, and all in all effective for us?

Sympathetic antagonists are more realistic. Yes, a one-note antagonist dedicated to the cause of evil and kicking his way through a line of puppies makes it pretty clear who the bad guy is and why he needs to be taken out, but people like that are relatively rare in the real world, particularly compared to the ones who do bad things but are convinced they are the heroes of their own stories, whether their reasons are actually justifiable or not.

Antagonist sympathy and moral ambiguity go hand in hand—and yes, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. It at least somewhat bypasses the auto-smite reflex, lets us play a bit with ethical dilemmas and moral conundra and just what actually constitutes “right”, or at least, “less wrong”. Let’s face it, most of the really interesting questions to play with don’t work near so well when you’ve got clearly delineated good and evil and people who consider themselves champions of both.

Sympathetic antagonists increase the level of uncertainty in the ending. This sounds odd, but look at it this way: imagine you’ve started a story by a relatively established writer—prone to first-person narration, reliably has her protagonists survive with comparatively little permanent damage. So that’s one thing that’s definite about the ending. On the other hand, she’s brought in this antagonist, one who isn’t irredeemable per se, is definitely interesting, and as it currently stands is likely to be his own ending if he keeps going in the way he’s been going. You may know for sure the hero’s going to make it through, but this character? It could go either way. It’s a different uncertainty, but it’s still uncertainty. Same goes for an RPG; if you get yourself into a situation where your PCs have decided the sympathetic antagonist needs to be saved from himself, that’s plenty of ground ripe for messing with their heads and forcing tough decisions.

Speaking of which, sympathetic antagonists are just plain interesting. One of the most important things about writing is being able to fascinate people with your characters, after all. And sympathetic antagonists get to balance the “villains are cool” effect with the kind of investment normally given to protagonists because one doesn’t have to feel as guilty about it—or because the protagonists are (somewhat) likelier to live to the end of the plot, and sympathetic antagonists are likelier to survive under most creators/at the hands of most game groups than their non-sympathetic counterparts.

And from a creator standpoint, it’s easier to live in their heads. I’ve found that I can’t run a character whom I can’t in some way identify with, or at least not for prolonged periods of time—I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. With a sympathetic antagonist, those things that make them less unpleasant to the audience also make them less unpleasant head-companions to us.

With all this going for them, it’s hardly surprising that sympathetic antagonists are as common as they are.


Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Hazards of Sympathetic Antagonists | Exchange of Realities
  2. Impractical Applications (Sympathy and Success—or Lack Thereof) | Exchange of Realities
  3. Hey, Weren’t You Supposed To Be Sympathetic? | Exchange of Realities

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