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.
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.
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