A good story has an antagonist that is memorable. A great story derives an antagonist the reader not only remembers, but can’t forget. They feel either a deep hatred making them want to reach through the pages and slap this character around or revel in the mischief the antagonist creates with an evil laugh. How does the writer create a character so depraved that they become real, living and breathing to the immersed reader? For me, it begins and ends with achieving a profound empathy for the character in question. Many writers cite their characters as being some part of them. I certainly hope that isn’t the case when I am able to essentially become a psychic medium for the Michael Sunfields and the Will Harlows I build from the ground up. Empathy. Much like sympathy only you must feel (there’s that word again) their intent, their reasoning for all they do, their emotional damage that brings them to that point in their lives…
Which brings me to my point. And I do have one.
Yes, empathy is a feeling – an emotion, but it is also a skill. One that all of us should work each day to recognize as a necessity in life and hone regularly. Should we cut some slack for the person who controls his wife and regards her as a deserved possession (Michael Sunfield)? No, but understanding where he came from, where he is at and why he does what he does gives us insight and clarity. And that leads to inner peace on some level.
You guessed it. I’m no longer talking about a fictional character in a book, but those antagonists we’ve all come across in our own lives; the ones who unjustly wrong us and we don’t know why. “I feel sorry for them” is often heard in these situations by their victims. That’s sympathy.
Emphathize. No I don’t expect you to crawl around inside their heads and hearts (or lack thereof) like I must to adequately project a character’s motives. If someone maliciously and randomly attacks you physically or otherwise you may not want to peer behind the dark veil. You may feel that doing so is finding justification for what they did.
It isn’t. It is helping you heal.
People like the characters I create for you to hate don’t need your sympathy and I don’t write them as such. Finding the source of their voice, dissecting their motivation for what they’ve done is a launchpad for those spurned to find absolution with themselves – not their antagonist.