The Sympathy Vote

How to get your reader to identify with an unsympathetic character?

Getting the audience to sit in the cheering section for a hero is easy—all you need is a brave, idealistic, upstanding, and highly functional character as the star of your story. But getting them to identify with the antagonist, unlikeable protagonist or anti-hero takes a lot more skill. You want the audience to feel sad for this character, or empathy or even just pity.

Donald Maass, in his book “The Breakout Novelist” describes the mostly used “Mwoo-ha-ha Villains” as the cardboard variety who never work. He suggests making the antagonist multi-dimensional, so that the reader is swayed in unexpected directions and even accepts the antagonist’s point of view. 


How do we do this?

Show a single moment of contrast. If your character is a self-absorbed callous jerk, show that one moment where he helps another person who is suffering. The tyrant who shows a flash of his vulnerability. The narcissist who makes fun of their own vanities. Don’t show this moment too often—or you will dilute the character and confuse the reader. We like characters that surprise us in an expected way. Examples: Whit Whittaker in Flight, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.

Shine a light into our own dark side. If your character commits an immoral or illegal deed, show us how we could all be pushed to our limits. We don’t have to forgive it, but to find ourselves in the situation. The man who leaves his friend behind in the desert in order to survive himself. The woman who snaps and shoots her husband’s lover in a jealous rage. We are fascinated by these characters because they give us insight into the human condition. Examples: Anna Karenina from Tolstoy, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction.

Swing it around with redemption. If you character seems hopeless or without any agreeable traits towards others, have him save the day and the lives of others. The coward who throws himself on a bomb during battle. The liar who exposes the truth at great personal cost. We love a story that turns around and reaffirms our faith in our fellow man. Examples: Max in Elysium, Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series.

Show us why they’re the victim too. If you can show the bad guy’s vulnerability or his unbelievable back story, you can get sympathy from the reader. The person who was at the wrong place at the wrong time—and has never stopped paying the price. The mother replaying a circle of abuse in her own family. The greedy CEO who grew up on the streets. We like stories about people who are victim of their own natures or circumstance. Examples: Silva in Skyfall, the Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon.


When you’re creating a darker character, you must try to hint at the reason for their darkness, but it’s never a good idea to over explain it. If you can build a feeling of empathy for even your worst character, you will get a stronger emotional reaction for the reader or audience.

We must be able to imagine that if we were faced with a cross roads and went down the wrong path, we might have ended up just like this character. Even better, what if we didn’t have a choice? These are the leading questions to ask a writer and story teller.

Per instance, think about General Zod in “Man of Steel”. All he wanted was to protect his planet, Krypton, and his people. What would you do for your people’s survival? To what extent are you ready to go to achieve your goals?Image


Another interesting example is in “Once upon a time” on ABC. Regina was a normal girl before becoming the Evil Queen. She enjoyed the normal life with the man she loved, until her mom, a greed for power, murdered him and forced her to marry a man she had no feeling for (Snow White’s father) in order to become Queen. Regina blamed Snow White for all her torment.The grief then turned Regina into the Evil Queen. The bottom line of that character is even though she’s evil, kills and destroys, all she wants is to be truly loved. Image


In Gladiator, we see it in Proximo. He has enslaved Maximus and may look like the bad guy, but he shows in his actions that he is not “that bad of a man.” Image

Maximus: Are you in danger of becoming a good man, Proximo?

Proximo: Ha! 


In the same movie, we can feel sympathy for Commodus (not that his pain justified killing his own father!) as he learns from his father that he doesn’t want him to become Emperor and chose Maximus instead. We can feel the rejection from his own father and the pain Commodus feels.Image

Marcus Aurelius: Are you ready to do your duty for Rome?

Commodus: Yes, father.

Marcus Aurelius: You will not be emperor.

Commodus: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?

Marcus Aurelius: My powers will pass to Maximus, to hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a republic again.

Commodus: Maximus.

Marcus Aurelius: My decision disappoints you?

Commodus: You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness. Courage. Perhaps not on the battlefield, but … there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. [choking up] Even then it was as if you didn’t want me for your son.

Marcus Aurelius: Oh, Commodus. You go too far.

Commodus: I search the faces of the gods … for ways to please you, to make you proud. One kind word, one full hug … where you pressed me to your chest and held me tight … would have been like the sun on my heart for a thousand years. What is it in me that you hate so much?

Marcus Aurelius: Shh,

Commodus.Commodus: All I’ve ever wanted was to live up to you, Caesar, father.

Marcus Aurelius[gets down on his knees] Commodus, your faults as a son is my failure as a father. Come.[They hug]

Commodus[crying] Father. I would have butchered the whole world … if you would only love me! [presses Marcus against his breast and asphyxiates him]


What is your favorite book or movies where you saw sympathy in an antagonist?








About N. M. Thomas

I was born in the West of France, a region I like a lot. We moved around a lot with my parents and ended up in Paris area when I was five. I lived around Paris area until I was twenty one and decided to move to England to improve my English (yes, just like that!) It wasn't easy to be in a country and a part of Britain itself (East Yorkshire)where I could not understand people talking to me. The accent was so important that it took me about a year to become fluent. I stayed there for four years and decided to go back home to Paris. I met my husband, who is American, and finally, only stayed just over a year in France as we moved to the United States. I've always loved literature and foreign languages. I speak fluent French and English, and know some Russian, Italian, Spanish and German. I started to write poems when I was a teenager. My dad actually influenced me a lot, he used to write beautiful poems in French (and I keep telling him he should publish them!)So, I carried on writing poems until I decided to start writing books. I've got two amazing children who keep me on my toes all day long so I only get some time to write at night, but I would not change that for the whole world! And I find inspirations from the music I listen, Lifehouse, Casting Crows, Fireflight and others, but also and mainly from instrumental music, original movie soundtracks (those I love!)
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