Hey, guys! Happy Tuesday! I hope everyone is doing awesome, and all your characters, too (or maybe they’re not enjoying themselves right now, LOL).
*Anybody else think I say LOL waaaay too much?*
Anyway, I decided to do another “writing tips” post. My last one was about symbolism in your novel – so if you haven’t checked it out yet and would like to, feel free to click on that link! LOL, I don’t know why I even think I’m qualified to give writing tips. The truth is, I consider my knowledge of writing very minimal, but I really enjoy writing these and sharing what I do know. It helps me a lot when other writers share their ideas and processes with me, so if I can help you guys in the same ways, why not try?
Today’s post is all about creating empathy for your antagonists. In a novel, one of the most important things is to create empathy for all your characters. But I feel that creating empathy for antagonists is the MOST CRUCIAL thing, perhaps even more crucial than empathy for the protagonist.
Why do I feel this way? Well, you’ll just have to keep reading to find out…
What is empathy and why is it so important?
Empathy is when readers feel such a strong connection with a character that they feel the character’s pain, triumph, grief, joy, etc. It’s when the readers commiserate with and relate to your character, and feel like they personally know him/her as they know themselves.
Why is this feeling of reader empathy so important? The thing is, if there is no empathy – readers feel nothing whether your character is sad or happy; they can’t commiserate with and feel close to your character; your character seems like a stranger, or even worse, a pawn you’re just moving around – the entire novel is dead. I know that sounds really dramatic, but it’s THAT important. Without empathy, your novel will not make an impact on readers. And that’s the worst thing that could possibly happen.
Why should readers feel empathy for an antagonist?
I feel like this is a question all Disney screenwriters ask, LOL. Because if you’ve ever seen a Disney movie, you know that all the villains are just that – villainous. The evil stepsisters are just that – evil stepsisters with no purpose in life but making Cinderella’s life miserable. They have no serious motive for sabotaging Cinderella. They just… do. Cruella de Ville is just that – an evil dog-murderer with a fondness for their fur. What’s her motivation? We don’t know.
The thing is, no one becomes vain and mean overnight. No one is cruel to animals just as an accident. It’s not enough to say, “Her stepsisters hated her because she was nice.” It’s not enough to say, “She killed dogs because she loved luxurious coats.” Nope, that won’t cut it.
No one is evil for no reason. We never want our characters to read like statues, especially the antagonists. If they do, something very powerful will be missing from the story, and it will fall flat. You can’t slap a “bad guy” label on someone and call it a day. You want readers to see what made them what they are. Empathy for antagonists, just like for protagonists, will make the battle all the more impactful and heart-shattering for readers. Antagonists must have their own motives, their own development, their own characters. The more you make your characters real, the more memorable your story will be to readers.
So, how do you create empathy for the protagonist’s worst enemies? I’m going to share the method I always use.
Something must have happened to make the antagonist who they are.
Your protagonist grows and develops during the novel – and not for no reason. Something happens to make them the person they are. They’re not the “good guy” just because you chose to label them as such. The events of their life have made them who they are, right? It’s the same with antagonists. Like I said before, no one is evil for no reason. You want readers to see what made them what they are.
In my novel, The Apostle’s Sister, obviously some of the worst antagonists are Paul’s Jewish enemies. You know, the people who are always scourging him in their synagogues and hunting him down desperately to accomplish his death. Now, it’s easy to hate those people. It’s easy for your blood to just boil when you read about them. But I want my readers to understand why the Jews acted the way they did. I want to build empathy.
There is one scene in The Apostle’s Sister where Paul’s nephew Seth is sitting outside, traumatized after seeing the entire city of Jerusalem torture Paul in front of the Temple until he almost died. Seth is still in shock at what happened, when some Jewish boys come along. The group torments Seth, telling him that his uncle is a disgrace to the Jews and deserves to die. Seth withstands the abuse until the biggest boy, who is a Pharisee’s son, mockingly informs him that his father was among the mob at the Temple who dragged Paul outside, beat him, and then screamed for his death. Understandably, this makes Seth furious, and he lunges at the boy.
Temira, who saw the whole thing from the window, rushes outside and separates the boys. She scolds Seth and makes him apologize to the boy and his father. Afterwards, Seth is angry at his mother for making him do so when he was only defending Paul.
Temira sits her son down and explains to him why she and Paul have love, rather than desire for revenge, for people like the bully and his father. I will share a snippet here (NOTE – I have omitted several sentences because they give away HUGE spoilers, and I’m selfish, LOL):
“Then why did you make me apologize?” Seth looked up at her with the tears streaming down his white cheeks. “That wasn’t fair.”
Temira uttered a short prayer, and suddenly knew exactly how to help him understand. She could not blame him his anger, but she could help him through it. The sight of the Pharisee had filled her with disturbing memories of her childhood she hadn’t resurrected in years, but now she could use that pain to help her son. “Little ahava, will you let me ask you something? Soon you will see what it has to do with your situation.”
“All right,” Seth agreed, sniffing and wiping away his tears.
Temira tenderly wiped his cheeks with her bare hands. Then she asked, “Have… have your uncle or I ever told you about our childhood?”
“No,” Seth answered immediately, as she had known he would. “You’ve never told me anything.”
“Well, perhaps it’s time one of us did.” She took Seth’s hand, and he clung tightly to hers. “We don’t like to speak of it, Sethy, because it was painful. It is hard for us to speak of it even to one another.”
“Why was it painful?” Seth’s attention was fixed on her, his eyes wide.
She took a deep breath, praying for strength, and began explaining everything to her son. She told him about their abusive Pharisee father; their uncaring, neglectful mother; how she and Paul had clung to each other, having only one another to love, until they had been separated at five and twelve when their parents sent Paul to study with Gamaliel.
“That boy who was saying such terrible things about your uncle – he is the one you should feel sorry for. That is why I had you apologize. Your Uncle Paul and I are filled with tender pity and understanding for parents and children like that bully and his father – because they remind us of ourselves, how we also had unloving parents. Seth, I want you to realize the Lord has blessed you by giving you parents who care. Our own parents were not like that. They did not love us the way we love you.”
She watched Seth’s face and saw that was sinking in. So she continued. “Uncle Paul and I wanted to give Reuben a happy childhood because we didn’t have that, and ever since God brought you into our family we have wanted the same for you. Our parents provided us with every material thing… wealth and comfort, food and clothes… but they never gave us what we really needed. They never gave us love – they never gave us the Lord, because he is love. That’s why we have always tried to instill in you how precious Christ is, and have always tried to make you feel our love. I hope you know how much we both love you.”
“I know,” Seth said, turning around and hugging her. “And I love you and Uncle Paul, too.”
Temira kissed her son’s head. “Seth, if we try to understand our enemies, we will succeed. And we will love them even more with a tender pity, because we will realize, as Christ did on the cross, that they know not what they do.”
In that scene I was creating reader empathy for the antagonists.
A childhood filled with abuse is a terrible thing. Temira immediately recognizes abused children because she and Paul were abused themselves. She immediately recognizes abusive parents because she and Paul had abusive parents themselves.
The Pharisee’s son learned abuse from his father, and that’s why he was so cruel to Seth. Likely the Pharisee was abused by his father before him, which is where he learned to be abusive both to Paul and to his son. Likely, his son, who already bullied Seth, will also grow up to be violent unless he receives enough compassion to turn him away from that path.
Childhood abuse was the reason the Pharisee and his son were cruel, and likewise the reason is the same for many of Paul’s enemies. Paul’s own abusive childhood fueled his own violence before Jesus’ love came into his life. He and Temira both know this all too well, and as a result, they don’t want anyone else to endure the same horror. As Temira tells Seth, this is what makes them such loving parents, because they know what it’s like not to be loved.
Readers see the terrible scars left from Temira and Paul’s painful childhood – I mean, it’s been years and they still have trouble facing it. And readers, in their love and empathy for my protagonists, feel Temira and Paul’s pain over their childhood. Pointing out that their enemies have the same horrifying experience will make readers also feel the enemies’ pain. Cue empathy for antagonists!
This scene is (I hope) a poignant moment when Seth finally realizes that it is not his uncle or himself he should be feeling sorry for, but their enemies. Seth’s heart is stirred with the same empathy Paul and Temira have, and in turn, the reader’s heart is stirred the same way.
I love Temira’s quote at the end – “If we try to understand our enemies, we will succeed.”
Now for some examples that aren’t from The Apostle’s Sister!
When I read Marjorie Holmes’ INCREDIBLE novel The Messiah, I was BLOWN AWAY by her portrayal of Judas Iscariot. I mean, if there’s any antagonist that would be SUPER easy to hate, it would be Judas. He betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and got him killed in exchange for thirty silver coins. How could you avoid hating him?
But as I read the book, I found myself softening toward Judas. I felt sorry for him. Actually, more than that… I wished with all my heart he had ended his story happily.
We know from the Bible that Judas stole from the moneybag (John 12:6). That’s just another reason to hate him. But Holmes created some serious empathy through Judas’ compelling reasons for his actions. In the novel, Judas grew up with a stepfather who hated him, and he didn’t have any friends. So he began stealing things to make himself feel better, and the habit stuck. That made me feel so sorry for Judas that I started to understand him and connect with him. I know what it’s like to do something wrong to make yourself feel better.
Judas’ awful childhood fueled him with a desperate desire to be liked. He felt Jesus and the disciples didn’t like him, so he took matters into his own hands. He figured that if he betrayed Jesus, Jesus would escape arrest and finally claim his right to be king. Then everyone would love him for making it happen.
Obviously, we all know that ended very badly for Judas. But by the time he hung himself, I had so much empathy for him that I felt as grieved over his death as I did over Jesus’ death. I have never had that feeling for an antagonist before, and it’s only one of the reasons Holmes is one of my favorite authors.
For a final example, I’ll use one of my other life-changing favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In the novel, a heroic Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, defends an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, from a rape charge. This accusation was made by a white family, which makes Tom’s situation all the more hopeless.
The woman Tom was accused of mistreating is Mayella Ewell, and her father, Bob Ewell, is a cruel racist. At the trial, we all know he’s lying. He knows Tom never raped his daughter – in fact, it is Bob Ewell himself who beat Mayella.
When giving her testimony, Mayella refuses to tell the court the truth: that her father beat her and Tom Robinson is innocent. Atticus Finch, our protagonist, asks her a series of questions about her home life. From Atticus’s questions, we learn that Bob Ewell is abusive and neglectful of his eight children, and is a lazy drunkard besides.
Atticus asks Mayella if she loves her father, if he is good to her. At first she refuses to answer, but Atticus’s urging is so gentle that she admits he is cruel when he is drinking. With compassion, Atticus pleads with her to tell the truth, but she refuses.
When I read that scene, I found myself, like Atticus, having compassion even for Mayella. She doesn’t tell the truth because she is terrified of her father’s abuse and wants to avoid it at all costs lest he beat her again. Mayella’s actions are abhorrent, but when we learn her motivation, we can’t help but feel that empathy for her.
I just realized that in all three examples – from The Apostle’s Sister, The Messiah, and To Kill a Mockingbird – our antagonists endured horrific childhood abuse. Childhood abuse is a horrible thing, and it’s impossible not to feel compassion for those who have experienced it. Giving your antagonists a legitimate reason to do what they do – even though it’s evil – will create some serious empathy.
So, what are your methods?
Now tell me! I’m so curious to hear from you guys. Do any of you have a method for creating reader empathy towards antagonists? Do you have any thoughts on my method? Do you think it’s important to create empathy for all characters, even the worst ones?
I really hope you enjoyed this post! Make sure to leave a comment.
And you know the drill – eat, pray, write, repeat!