“There’s always sadness in our lives. It’s that sad feeling that keeps us going.”

— Tsukino Usagi


How To Create Empathy For Your Antagonist

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Getting Out of the Sunken Place 


Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where you weren't sure who you really side with? We get this feeling that our protagonist and antagonist are along for the same ride, hand in hand, fighting the same fight. But then, the plot takes a hard turn, and then boom! The antagonist reveals themselves. But wait...there's still a glimmer in their eyes. They aren't purely evil. No one is. But the fact that they are capable of evil despite their goodness is what makes for the most terrifying...and the most worthy of empathy...antagonists in narrative. Get Out is exemplary of setting up the audience to question who we trust, making it one of the most unnerving psychological thrillers in the last few years.


Just a heads up, if you haven't seen the movie yet, spoilers will be plentiful here, and you might get more from this post by checking out the film. I highly recommend watching the movie before we dive in.  

Without further ado, let's talk about what makes Rose a brilliantly written antagonist, and how we can better understand what makes a great antagonist that we, the audience, can actually empathize with--despite what she stands for and her horrible actions therein.




...They ain't loyal.


We're brought up in school reading literature with clearly defined characters. We know what they want, we establish early how they are going to get it, we mull through the actions in the middle of the story, we get to know the main character's obstacle--the antagonist--and then, the conflict comes in and the main character has to make a move. The antagonist wants the exact opposite of the protagonist, but ultimately, the antagonist doesn't win. They've probably done something horrible, or they've committed a crime, or they've said something just plain mean without displaying any remorse. This technique is used to make it easy to empathize even more with our protagonist, and makes the trek towards her goals clear. But what happens when the antagonist plays on the protagonist's team? What happens when she has the same desires as her counterpart? 


Or at least, that's the way it seems.


Deception is a critical device in narrative. And Get Out lays it on thick without the protagonist, Chris, or you the audience, even noticing until the end of the second act of the film. Two-thirds of the film are done before we clearly see who our main antagonist is and what Rose really wants. And the whole time, Chris thought she's on his side. 


The opening scene is important. It establishes this character's fears, which exist in the setting—a quiet, white suburban—that Chris also fears, through another person's perspective. Someone who might share the same fears as Chris, and expresses so in the phone call that's being made by the character in the opening scene. As soon as the person on the other side of the phone reassures that he is safe, his guard drops, and then, he gets kidnapped. Set the tone early, way before we even meet our antagonist.


Let's not forget what our preconceived notions are about this film before we watched it. Get Out is a horror story, a thriller. We expect scares. And where do scares usually come from? The villain. But, not in this story. Not at first. Because we don’t even know who the villain or villains are. That is even more unnerving. The unknown. We’re left in the dark through the entire first act, but we’re given clues, and a little scare, to keep us on our anxious little toes.


Cue the deer smashing into the car window!


That scare is a diversion. Our first jump scare has nothing to do with the antagonist, but it does ultimately put the Chris in a position he doesn't want to be in, a place where Chris has previously embedded fears. This is a blessing in disguise--for Rose. It’s also a disguise with a uniform that has a socio-politically tense meaning for Chris, but is otherwise associated as a uniform referencing security, protection, service, and trust. She has a chance to generate trust, using Chris’ embedded fears. And we see he trusts her, and that she shares similar values.



Chris and Rose walk inside, and someone's watching them...


The film continues to use various techniques to sustain its deception and diversion. One example is the wide camera shot that establishes Chris in the greeting arms of Rose's family in the background with an ominous character we haven't met watching them from the distance in the foreground. This leads us to believe the family is okay, and whoever is watching them is, well, ominous. We don't know for sure. And uncertainty runs throughout this story thus far.


You don't need a camera to demonstrate this. You can get creative with your words to demonstrate space and setting and menace. Think about it: this scene must have been meticulously articulated in the script.  


When it comes to a story like this, an antagonist is going to need a symbiotic alliance. People on the same page as her. She can't build trust with the protagonist on her own. She needs the family to be in on what she's doing, including all the little details. Whether it's playing into banter, holding Chris' hand at the dinner table, or including him in their sharing of family memories, the bond has to feel universal. He has to feel welcome, and the family has to be in sync. 



She *seems* nice. 

When it comes to character building, building tension, patience is key. Compassion isn't compelling, it isn't genuine, if it doesn't occur over time. Rose, and her alliance, are very, very patient. It forces us to live with uneasiness alongside Chris for much longer.


Let's go back to that long shot. We've learned that the guy that was looming in the foreground was Walter. We've also met Georgina. They're servants at the Armitage's home. But scenarios with only small bits of information and context cues are used to continue to build on the uncertainty: are Georgina and Walter threats to Chris?


This gets contrasted when Rose's mother, Missy Armitage, offers comfort, and also a resolution for a deeply rooted and unresolved personal problem Chris has, through hypnosis. She wants to help him. Imagine, the thing that is supposed to help Chris is actually what will defeat Chris. The alliance has discovered Chris' vulnerability, his most critical weakness: the death of his mother.


Have you ever lost someone before? Someone close to you? You remember quite well where you were, right? You know what you felt? We can all relate to that. And despite the surreal, supernatural experience, the alliance exhibited empathy towards that experience. Empathy that is used in their favor, not his. So here's a revelation for you: empathy is not always meant to serve the other person's needs, but instead, is behavior exhibited to fulfill the giver's self-interest.

We're some selfish creatures, yo.



As someone in an interracial relationship, I ain't never been so scared in my life until this shot.


As we get further into the story, we learn the real history behind Walter and Georgina and also, Andre Hayworth, the character we empathized with in the very first scene--the guy who would carry the same sort of fears and uncertainties that Chris would. 


The way the story works here is that, in all the people they've "enslaved," their bodies are used as vessels by someone else in the Armitage family who was dying. There's still a glimmer of who the "enslaved" used to be left in the body. Georgina is still somewhere in there, not just the Armitage family member who's taken over her body. Georgina appears as an ally, but the sum of her parts dictate she isn't (which isn't even her fault but it's made to seem so). So, what happens when the same thing happens with Rose?


Rose sees these people as her grandparents. She courted Georgina and Walter and Andre romantically, just as she's doing with Chris. Rose sees family members she doesn't want to ever die. And she sees them in people who she may or may not have had true, genuine feelings for before any hypnosis or auction. Rose isn't entirely evil: she has love for her grandparents. There's a void in her world that she wants to fill. It's just that she'll have to sacrifice Chris in order to do so.


The glimmer of hope actually does exist, and it's Chris' saving grace, using the same tactic that Rose used.



It's a thin line, sure. But it's all so powerful.


Rose plays on that fear that she defended in the very early part of the film--Chris' reservations about police and law enforcement. But, in the end, it fails her. Chris' friend has come to rescue him from the Armitages. Rose is left to die after the violent conclusion (or so we think). On the ride back home, Chris experiences remorse and grief.


Grief is not the absence of love, it's not synonymous with sorrow. Grief is the love you can't give. This grief resonates because Chris loved Rose. But he knows he can't love her anymore. And since we don't know that she's actually dead, some glimmer of hope still exists for Chris. And so will his grief. He doesn't hate Rose. And we could go into looking at his emotions towards Rose at this point as being potentially Freudian, as an ego defense mechanism, but I've already gone on forever with this post.




Empathy is an emotion that can be used as leverage for wants and motives. Empathy is not always your friend, and the people who give you empathy aren’t always on your side. Deceit can find its way into empathy. When an antagonist uses both in her favor, the line gets blurred for who we’re supposed to be siding with. This sort of savvy makes for a dangerous antagonist, and if you're a storyteller, consider using this tactic if you can.


Patience is a vital element in building compassion, and forming an alliance that performs compassion and empathy just as its lead protagonist does makes for a successful scheme against the protagonist. Play on the protagonist's greatest emotional weakness, and the antagonist might stand a chance at achieving their desires.

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Kyle V. Hiller is a freelance editor, published author. To inquire about his editing services, visit the services page. To read his work, check out The Recital and Project Anjou If you're just hanging out, subscribe to his newsletter below, where you'll get posts like this delivered straight to your inbox! Stalk Kyle on Twitter and Instagram, too.

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