When most people hear ‘antagonist’, they think of a moustache-twirling megalomaniac who kicks puppies in their spare time. While there’s certainly a place for antagonists that are pure evil incarnate (Darth Vader in A New Hope is a great example), here are some compelling reasons to make your antagonist(s) a little more sympathetic:
‘Antagonist’ does not equal ‘bad guy’
A common misconception is that all antagonists must be villanous. This isn’t always true. An antagonist is merely a force that opposes your protagonist. Yes, this means it could be an uber-evil villain (like Darth Vader); but it could also be the hero’s parents, who don’t want him joining the army. In this example, the hero’s parents are not ‘evil’ – what they are doing, however, is opposing the protagonist, which makes them antagonists.
Antagonists don’t even have to be human. Non-human antagonists could be:
- A vicious guard dog that attacks your postal-worker protagonist.
- A thorny bush your detective-protagonist has to crawl through.
- A hail storm that damages your taxi-driver-hero’s car.
Antagonists are usually human (because this provides maximum opportunity for conflict). However, there are lots of stories where the primary antagonist is non-human. Castaway, with Tom Hanks, is a great example. Likewise, plenty of survival-style stories feature nature as the main antagonist.
2. It increases your story’s realism
No one sees themself as a bad person. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story. By crafting antagonists with ideas, goals and emotions that are somewhat justifiable, your story will feel more three-dimensional.
3. It creates layers of opposition
The richest, most complex and most enjoyable stories are often those with different layers of conflict. Take Harry Potter, for example. In this series, Harry faces different types of antagonists:
- Pure evil, life-threatening (Voldemort; Death Eaters);
- bureaucratic, infuriating but (mostly) not life-threatening (The Ministry; Fudge; Umbridge)
- Chaotic, non-intentional, ‘natural’ (adverse storms during Quidditch; Peeves);
- Misguided protectors (Molly Wesley when she tries to stop Harry setting out on his mission in book 7; Neville when he tried to stop Harry in book 1);
… and many other forms of antagonists. What’s crucial here is that not all of these antagonists are bad: Neville just wants to stop Harry losing points for Gryfindor, and Molly wants to keep Harry safe. The conflict created by these sympathetic antagonists adds different tension compared that created by pure evil antagonists. It thus adds something extra to your story that you couldn’t achieve with plain ultra-evil, cigar-munching bad guys.
4. It reduces the likelihood of Mary Suisms
If your protagonist is only challenged by nasty, angry, ugly antagonists – who are so obviously wrong to oppose your glorious, shining stalwart of valour that is your hero – you might have a Mary Sue on your hands.
A Mary Sue is an idealised, one-dimensionally perfect character, who is often an author substitute. (Side note: this free quiz helps you work out if your main character is a Mary Sue).
Why are blatantly evil antagonists a warning sign of a possible Mary Sue? The reason is this: if the main character is only challenged by obviously unlikable antagonists, your protagonist is probably too perfect, with no flaws. A realistically flawed character (like Harry Potter) should face opposition from other characters regarding these flaws (like how Neville challenges him at the end of book 1).
5. It strengthens your story’s theme
Theme is a crucial component of a good story. By having sympathetic antagonists, you give yourself greater opportunity to strengthen your thematic complexity. For example, a relatable antagonist could serve to argue against your protagonist’s beliefs, presenting two sides of an issue to readers. This is instantly more engaging than a one-sided sermon.
What are your thoughts on sympathetic antagonists? Do you have a favourite likeable antagonist? Have I left any important points off the list? I’d love to hear your ideas!