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Generating Empathy for a Malign Protagonist

Using a malign protagonist can broaden the possibilities for your story, avoid clich├ęs and allow a more dramatic character arc. But this choice comes with a cost. If your reader does not like your central character, the story of their travails will be less likely to interest them.

Love them by proxy

kind mother with malign protagonist
Kind mother with evil son. Picture of malign protagonist by Timothy Marsh

If someone else has a soft spot for the malign protagonist, your reader will wonder why and look for likeable, or even just forgiveable traits. Your supporting character can also point the traits out for you by the way they respond. Make sure that the supporting character has your reader’s empathy and respect. You can achieve this by having your character press the ‘integrity’ buttons, responding to things in a way the reader would, wanting things that are universally desired and showing character traits that role models have in common. Make your reader think, ‘If such a great person as that likes the evil hero, there must be something good in him.’

Generate enough empathy for your supporting character and your readers will want what they want, even if that means success for the malign protagonist. Keeping the supporting character’s hopes and fears for the protagonist clear and passionate will draw your reader into their plight.

We are sheep. By nature, we tend to follow the majority. So when other’s like our malign protagonist, we will move with them. If you have more than one adoring supporting character, this can lend weight to the sheep effect. Be careful not to spread the reader’s focus too thin by trying to get them to invest emotionally in many, unnecessary supporting characters.

He’s My Protagonist and I’ll Love Him if I Want to

You have the faulty human brain on your side. Use it to your advantage. Readers are easily coaxed into supporting and forgiving the actions of their protagonist, even when they are far more treacherous, vengeful, and violent than the antagonist. We are tribal creatures and our tribe is always right.

To keep the line between friend and foe in sharp relief, bring your point of view up close and personal with your protagonist and keep your antagonist at arm’s length. Also use language that forgives your protagonist, then use vilifying language for the antagonist. For example:

Our evil hero leant against the cold stone parapet and, using the eyeglass inherited from his ancestors, surveyed the enemy’s gleaming white tower. Little did he know, antagonist was at that very moment using his sneaky spyglass to leer into his personal living spaces.

Keeping home-team loyalties burning and fostering resentment towards the antagonists will give you a lot more scope to let your protagonist step outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour without losing your reader’s support. But be careful with this. Automatic forgiveness will weaken the evil portrait your are painting of your protagonist and undermine your efforts to dig a dramatic low point in your character arc.

Hate Who He is, Love What He Does

The reader does not always want to know what their protagonist is up to just because they love them. If your protagonist is skilled, resourceful and cunning, you can drag your reader along with pure fascination. This is not so easy to achieve, because you need to create real problems and solve them creatively. No short-cuts or easy-outs or you will lose your reader’s trust. But take heart, while your protagonist formulated the solution between when the gates burst open and the hoard poured in, you have the luxury of weeks on the Internet.

The line between admiration and love is thinner than a strand of silk. Not true for real love, but good enough for the reader’s love of their malign protagonist. Keep thrilling them with brilliant moves and eventually they will want him to prevail regardless of the atrocious personality the character has been burdened with.