First off - yes, I know the Rolling Stones song is called, "Sympathy for the Devil." My little play on this goes back to last week. As you may recall, last Friday's post, "Writing and Empathy" was all about getting richer, deeper characters by understanding and appreciating what it would be like to be them. I also made a quick reference that this would work for antagonists as well, so this bit shows how we can make our bad guys stand out not by doing bad things but by writing them with empathy. And what better way is there to do this than by showing it through the baddest of the bad guys himself - the Devil?
First off, we can offer some empathy through answering the basic journalistic questions that should always be asked: Who, what, where, when and why. We already know the who, what, where and when of our bad guy, so the real big one is why, and this is when it gets interesting. Why does the Devil come for peoples' souls? Well, the old routine says, "That's what he does." This is a cop-out, and we should go deeper. We should give the reader an idea of why this particular soul, this particular moment, is so important. Maybe even consider some background.
While there are many back stories about the Devil, they all center around him loving God unconditionally, but being cast out of Heaven because he could not accept God's eternal love for Man. Since that point, the Devil has tried to reclaim his seal at God's right hand by proving time and again how he was in fact better than Man, how Man was weak, fragile, corruptible, and ultimately unworthy of such love. Some stories argue that the Devil would gladly wipe out mankind so that God would have no other choice but to admit the Devil was right. All in the name of love.
It doesn't matter whether you buy into this story - make up your own backstory if you want. The point is that when we write about the Devil, we know where he is coming from and what motivates his action. By looking at his side of the story - by showing empathy - our Devil can have more dimension and depth. Of course, by no means does this mean you have to like him or give him the benefit of the doubt. He's the freaking Devil! But by connecting to what drives him, you answer the most important question about characters - Why? - and your story can be about the big follow-up to that - How?
Now that I have riled up more than a few people, I am going to sit back for a while and schedule some time to reply to the inevitable hate mail. However, I hope that, at its core, we realize that even antagonists come off better with that empathic perspective, and that filling in the blanks can also deepen the story. Even with the Devil.