Love Thy Antagonist?


One of my students asked me recently if, in my story collection Delicate Men, I hated any of my characters. It’s a great question, and I didn’t have an immediate answer. All my antagonists came to mind, and why wouldn’t they? Without them it’s just chocolate waterfalls, warm hugs, and quiet rides into the rainbow sunset. Who wants to read those stories? But do I actually hate the characters bringing the tension to my work?

With the exception of Iago and a couple James Bond villains, I prefer antagonists who have an agenda that is more complicated than, “Because the devil [or plot] made me do it.”

Because of this, I’ve been learning to have empathy for my antagonists. I wouldn’t have used that exact word a few years ago, empathy. Then I heard Glen Retief use it at the 2011 Bluegrass Writers Studio Winter Residency. He spoke of rounding out your antagonists with, of all things, empathy. And he’s right. Empathy makes those antagonists so much more complex, so much more compelling, and so much more than villains with black hats and maniacal laughs.

And so in trying to answer my student’s question, I found myself realizing how much I cared for, even worried about, my antagonists in Delicate Men. Sure, some of them are jerks, but they’re all trying to get through their own world, in their own way, and sometimes mistakes are made.

But to be completely honest, there is one character I don’t like. I’m not naming names, not exactly (see below), for a couple reasons: First, he’s a pretty minor character, and I might even be able to make the case that he’s actually insecure and, well, there’s your empathy. Second, he’s not so much a character as he is a real person. I’d written a scene where I was in need of an annoying, unappealing but not awful, person. Then, someone I used to work with came to mind and suddenly there he was, transported from a past job and on to the page, fitting in like he’d always belonged in the story.

Many of my characters start with a strong likeness to people I know or have known, but they grow into their own fictional selves the more I write and revise. Not this guy. Sure, I made some cosmetic changes, but in revision the empathy I should have summoned for that character failed to show, probably because I’ve struggled to have it for his real-life counterpart. I didn’t even change his name.

I know I should be a bigger person about this, or at least be a better writer about it, but it was awfully satisfying to keep him, the real him, recognizable to me and perhaps a few old advertising friends. They’d have my back on this too, by the way. This guy really did work hard to be a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk. So, I kept him the shallow, annoying, unlikeable person he really is, or at least was back when I knew him. I suppose the devil made me do it.

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