Identifying with the Antagonist of the Story

I recently saw the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I had seen the show before, but what stuck out to me the most this way was the character of Judas. He is portrayed as a complex figure, a man who thought he was doing what was right when he turned Jesus in to the authorities, and who was so distraught by what he had done that he felt he could no longer live. I felt bad for Judas. But it wasn’t only that I could sympathize with him; I could empathize with him as well. This realization cast the content of the musical in a new light for me. In the story about the time leading up to Jesus’s death I always identified with Jesus, the clear protagonist of the story. He gets betrayed by those he loves as well as strangers. But in reality I am much more like Judas, or any of the others who betray Jesus. We all are. Most of us think of ourselves as good people. We let little things slip by, like lying to someone, or cutting in line, because we are able to reassure ourselves that at least we are not hurting people or causing damage. We deceive ourselves into thinking we’re more moral than we actually are. And in this deception lies a problem that warps our perception not only of ourselves but also of how we experience the world.

I have yet to come across a film or book that is told from the antagonist’s point of view. As humans we want to identify with the “good guys” of any story because they're the people we want to emulate, regardless of how well we match their standard. But that identification is ultimately a delusion. If we focus only on how we can relate to the protagonist, we forget about how much more we can learn from focusing on the antagonist, particularly when the antagonist isn’t the stereotypical bad guy, but rather, is the individual who isn’t living up to his or her best self. It is in these overshadowed characters within stories that one can glean the most valuable lessons.

There aren’t many books or movies from the villain’s perspective. Even movies that privilege the villain’s perspective tend to have questionably moral main characters, such as Paul Baumer, the German soldier who is the main character of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Even in the film Captain America: Civil War, both Iron Man and Captain America, the two main superheroes of the film who see their roles as superheroes differently, are deeply complex, and neither of them fit neatly into the stereotypical villain mold. As a result of our discomfort from identifying with villains, these two opposing superheroes are represented in a balanced way so as to protect viewers from wanting the “bad guy” to be victorious. The scarcity of stories from the perspective of the antagonist suggests to me that humans have an innate desire to see everything work out in the end. For this to happen, the protagonist of a story must triumph. Part of what makes the Harry Potter series succeed is that the reader is rooting for Harry and his friends throughout the seven books. If it were from Voldemort’s perspective it would be all but impossible to cheer him on, given that he seeks out the deaths of many innocent people. Second, and most importantly, I would suggest that on a deeper level, we don’t want to empathize with the antagonist of a story because that would bring to light the flaws within ourselves.

Adam and Eve are the first indicators in the Bible that we should be shifting our focus to the morally ambiguous characters within it. It is easy to think, well, if I were in their situation, I would not have fallen for the serpent’s temptation. Yet, there is not one of us who hasn’t sinned, or, to put it in secular terms, who hasn’t done something that we regret later on. Their inability to resist doing something bad, detailed in the first book of the Bible, sets the precedent for the rest of human history.

The story of David and Goliath is another example in the Bible that showcases the need to look past the obvious protagonist. This episode occurs in 1 Samuel chapter 17. In it, the Israelites and Philistines, two ethnic groups in biblical times, are fighting each other. Goliath, a giant of a man, is a Philistine. David, who tends to sheep and is of normal height, is an Israelite. In chapter 14 it is written, “Whenever the Israelites saw the man [Goliath], they all fled from him in great fear.” Yet David is able to kill Goliath with a stone he finds inside his pocket. It is easy to want to identify with David, the underdog, who triumphs over the evil giant. In this interpretation, the Israelites are then overlooked. Yet, it is the Israelites and not David who represent us in the story. That’s not to say that when we’re threatened we just let someone else handle the threat. But it is very difficult to do what David does, to have the attitude that even though the odds are completely stacked against you, that through God (or by your own strength if you don’t believe in God) you will prevail. We are much more likely to show fear when confronted with a threat. This story needs to be re-centered around the Israelites in order to really learn anything from it. Yes, it is possible to learn to fight like David, but only first by acknowledging that we lack the courage he so easily possesses.

Jesus came in the first place because we aren’t the “good guys.” Even Jesus’s followers acted in ways more reminiscent of a storybook villain than a hero. Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples, denied Jesus, who had been taken away by the authorities for questioning, three times. Judas, another disciple, was the one who exposed Jesus to the authorities in the first place. Yet Jesus’s death restores the ending of our stories. Even though we deserve to lose, as any antagonist in a story does, we win through the redemption that Jesus’s death offers.

This redemption through Jesus is explicitly revealed in the Bible. Saul, later renamed Paul, is a main figure in the Bible. Saul rejected the teachings of Jesus, and as a result persecuted Christians. Yet through Jesus, Saul’s brokenness is transformed so that he is able to help complete Jesus’s work as Paul. 1 Timothy 1: 14-16 reads:

“And the grace of our Lord overflowed to me, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. But for this very reason I was shown mercy, so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His perfect patience, as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life."

By recognizing his sinfulness Paul, through Jesus, is able to triumph over it. Paul’s story can be a template for how we should approach our own lives.

Only once we begin to resituate ourselves into stories can we learn anything from them. This doesn’t mean that we’re all Voldemorts who are out to bring about the destruction of the world and everyone in it. What it does mean is that we’re a lot more immoral than we like to admit. It also means that we need to rethink the way we approach stories. Although we may be inclined to identify with the protagonist, and overlook other characters in the process, this only results in fooling ourselves and robbing us of the opportunity to learn how to overcome our own weaknesses. There can be a benefit to identifying with the antagonist of a story. We just have to look.

Emma Hetrick is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in English and history. As can be surmised by her examples in this article, she loves Harry Potter and superheroes.

Discussion

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