The Hazards of Sympathetic Antagonists

I talked yesterday about all the cool features of sympathetic antagonists. It has to be admitted, though, that sympathetic antagonists come with their own set of inconveniences; you can’t have the good without the, well, bad. Mostly, these take the form of difficulties and complications for us; they may be cool dramatically, but they’re a pain in the neck to execute properly. Why is that?

Sympathetic antagonists require more effort to motivate. You can’t just fall back on “because I’m evil” with a hint of destiny (metaphysical, biological, whatever), or the old standby “I love your pain” (all right, it can be a secondary motivation, but not a primary, and it tends to ask for a bit more justification than straight-out simple sadism). Instead, you have to be able to balance their role as the biggest problem in the plot with their own objectives, dubiously implemented or otherwise; to make them seem as validly characterized as our protagonists.

They’re natural base-breakers. We’ve all seen the type—the characters who can’t seem to find a safe middle ground between the audience’s love and the audience’s loathing, the ones who can create a flame-war just by being mentioned. And if you think this is bad when you’re dealing with a story’s target audience and the vitriol they throw towards each other and the author, just imagine dealing with it in a game, particularly one where the group’s ability to stay cohesive is vital to getting anything done. Been there, done that. Wasn’t pretty.

They pose a greater risk for us creators, as well. Primary antagonists are by their very nature doomed characters; unless we want a villain-wins sort of story, they’re going to have to fail, and the more they’ve done, the less likely it is that they’re going to make it out of that fail intact. Granted, the sympathetic antagonist carries the possibility of rehabilitation, but… that gets complicated. Anyway, a sympathetic antagonist will at some point need to fall, and since they’re easier to identify with than the run of the mill evil talking head or dark overlord, those of us who already have trouble letting go of our characters are going to have a lot more trouble than we would have otherwise. Or they might cease to be antagonists, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

And then there’s the fact that making an antagonist sympathetic to the entire intended audience is just plain difficult. What one person sees as a tragic blind spot, someone else might see as outright stupidity; one person’s exploration of differences between the character and his or her peers is another’s badly beaten dead horse; one’s step onto the slippery slope is another’s belly-toboggan right the way down—and then we get into double standards due to people’s biases, and the potential for ugliness multiplies. Alternately, they end up with misaimed fandoms who feel they can do no wrong, which opens up a different can of worms.

But if we can get through all these challenges and make them work, sympathetic antagonists are amazing.

1 comment

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent pair of posts. I always enjoy working with sympathetic antagonists (to one degree or another, depending on the story). I don’t really have much to add, but there’s a lot to think about here :)

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