When I was talking last week about sympathetic antagonists, one of the disadvantages I listed was that it was easy to slip somewhere and end up with an antagonist that just doesn’t come across as sympathetic. Let’s face it, when it comes to antagonist sympathy, subjectivity is a more dangerous opponent than the protagonists. But what exactly makes it so easy for them to end up coming across as non-sympathetic—or alternately, non-antagonistic?
One is that fictional worlds can be highly open to interpretation—which means that characters’ actions are equally open to interpretation. Say you’ve got a character whose path to antagonism comes from having made one decision that made sense given the information she had. It’s pretty likely, particularly as the number of people in your audience increases, that some portion of the audience is going to decide that it was a result of blatant stupidity, of cruelty, of some other quality that erases the character’s sympathy. And that’s before we get into the fact that things that are reasonable for one culture just plain don’t work for another, so we have characters who according to their own societies are doing the right thing, but who by modern standards really, really aren’t. A really good world-builder can get to where this is significantly less of an issue for the majority of the audience—but most of us aren’t really good, and there are a lot of people who form an impression and interpret everything to fit it. Can’t win.
Another is double standards: no matter how much we claim that our society is past biases, there are still things that people will view differently depending on the background, gender, appearance, whatever, of the character doing them. So you get cases like one of Seanan McGuire’s anecdotes, where one of her editing readers informed her that her character October “Toby” Daye was being “too bitchy” in one scene—until they were asked to find/replace Toby’s name with “Harry Dresden” and see if they still objected. (They didn’t.) Or you get discussions like the one on one of the webcomics I’ve been following (left anonymous for spoiler reasons), where a couple of the forumites were actively discussing the idea that what a certain surprise antagonist had done wouldn’t be such a big deal if she weren’t somewhere in the plain-to-ugly range appearance-wise.
Then there are people’s personal twitches—considerably more idiosyncratic than the double standard issue. It just boils down to the fact that there are some things that to some people just make tolerable “misguided antagonist” markers or signs of background, and that to others go straight to squick, not passing go or collecting audience sympathy. (This is also something to keep in mind when having characters react to other characters—it looks odd if a character who has a known squick in-character isn’t reacting to it when it takes the form of a certain person.) For instance, in one of my longer-running games, a character who was intended to be a sympathetic antagonist spent a good portion of her first scene treating one of the PCs as her personal property. From the evidence of later games, I think it’s safe to assume that this is one of my twitches, and it was certainly one of my character’s; were we separate entities, I imagine we would have exchanged glances, nodded, and chorused “End her.”
This doesn’t mean we can’t still create our sympathetic antagonists, but it does mean that if we do, we should take these factors into account, so as to minimize them.