Who Are We Rooting For, Part 1: The Antagonist

One of the things I notice a lot, both in the chapter-by-chapter snarks I treat as a guilty pleasure, and in general reviews, are stories where the audience has a clear character to root for in mind, but for whatever reason, that character just isn’t the protagonist. For whatever reason, the antagonists are coming across as more reasonable (or at the very least, less unpleasant). It happens most often with sympathetic antagonists, since they’re meant to be at least somewhat relatable, or with gray and gray morality sorts of stories, but it still manages to be a legitimate risk even when you’ve got a clear gulf between prot and ant. There’s a lot we can do from either side to try to avoid it, though. I’m going to start with the antagonist, but note that every single one of these tactics requires the antagonist to be moreso than the protagonist; if they’re about the same, we’re getting into protagonist-centered morality, and that rarely ends well.

If the antagonist is well-intentioned, you’ll need to go with extreme methods—the kind of things that only work if one completely removes “How many people will get hurt?” from the equation (or redefines “people”, anyway—one of those times when Obligatory Evil Racism actually serves a useful purpose), has a rather idiosyncratic definition of the greater good, or otherwise is a little too far into “the ends justify the means”. Note that if you are doing this, you need to make sure that the protagonist either isn’t doing the same thing, or only does the same thing because it’s the front end of a character arc; otherwise, what’s the difference between the two?

The antagonist doesn’t consider unintended consequences. I’ll admit, when treated right in the narrative “not considering unintended consequences” is a good trait for protagonists as well, so let me rephrase this: the antagonist, for whatever reason, has completely missed an unintended consequence that in the narrative view is unacceptable.

Another trick is to just make the antagonist less likeable. A strong personality, yes; an air of “I can see how this set of problems leads to this solution even if it is abhorrent”, yes; but off-putting enough to make the audience more interested in the protagonist. (Note that this is one of those definite cases in which you’re going to need to keep a strong eye on the protagonist as well; one of the most common issues I’ve seen with protagonists in some of the more recent popular series is that they start coming off as self-centered bordering on outright sociopathic tendencies, notoriously bad at considering their impact on the world, or just remarkably passive for the role they’re supposed to be taking.)

One very useful trick for people who can’t avoid likeable antagonists is to make them self-defeating at best and downright self-destructive at worst. They’re all right, their conclusions are reasonable with the information they have, but for some reason they can’t figure out a way to get through it without screwing themselves over/kicking themselves past the Moral Event Horizon/otherwise engaging in behavior such that a side effect of the protagonist foiling their plans is the protagonist saving them from their own good intentions.

Using or even combining these may not guarantee that you aren’t going to get a misaimed fanbase, but they should at least ensure that the majority of your audience isn’t rooting for the wrong character.


  1. UZ says:

    There is one surefire way to make sure everyone hates your antagonist. You can’t use it in every story but in a CRPG it’s nearly a guarantee.

    Make sure that everyone knows that the antagonist is the inventor of the card game. You know, *that* one. It’ll be called “Creature Flip” or “Five Card Phlogiston” or something that makes it sound exciting and worthwhile, but the game itself will stink and also be a required part of the RPG as a whole. You’ll have to play it to find out how it’s played. You’ll have to play it again to get passage across the Eastern Sea. You’ll probably have to play it against the final boss.

    The only problem is that for this to work the author has to admit that their card game stinks. If Bioware thinks that Pazaak is a good game then I think that is basically impossible.

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