What 9/11 Taught Me About Antagonists & the Importance of Compassion

I was riding with my mom to school that day when we heard the emergency broadcast signal turn on…and then the reports started coming in. Students spent the morning watching the story unfold on the news. It was a surreal moment, knowing that people’s lives were in danger and the only thing you could do was sit there and listen about it.

Today, I was driving in my car with the radio on. The station I was listening to started playing a tribute with clips from the attacks and some music in the background. I thought about the videos we saw, how some people made the choice to jump from the towers rather than burn alive. Made me wonder how I would have reacted in that situation.

Of course, I’ll never know—and I hope I’ll never have to. Still, the thought alone was enough to make me cry.

I didn’t personally know anyone who was physically there at the Towers back when they were attacked on September 11th.  Still, I can’t say that the events which took place that day haven’t altered my life here in America. We’ve exchanged personal freedoms for an increased sense of security—an exchange I question as to its effectiveness at deterring terrorists, if I’m honest. Our security measures were a reaction, and it makes me wonder if we continue to remain a few steps “behind” those we call our enemies. (Say what you will about al-Qaeda and other terrorists we face today, but they’re certainly not stupid.)

Of course, these thoughts and events have inevitably influenced my writing.

What 9/11 Has Taught Me About Antagonists

Like with the Nazis, it’s so easy to paint those who’ve terrorized America in a purely evil light, but I think it’s much harder to remember that these are other human beings who happen to see things in a radically different light than we do. I’m not saying what these people did and continue to do isn’t evil; it just makes me wonder: how, exactly, does someone get to the point where they resort to what we consider terrorism? So when I started one of the later revised attempts of TEROH and was considering a new antagonistic force for my story, I didn’t want your typical black and white enemy. I ended up drawing inspiration from the events of 9/11 and also the Somali pirate incidents a la Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama back in 2009.

Again, with the latter situation, I asked my self: how did those pirates get to this point? To me, this was the more interesting story—not because I didn’t want to see Captain Phillips and his crew freed but because it is usually the less considered viewpoint when your people or allies are on the receiving end of the attack. (If you’ve never seen the movie or ever researched the history behind contemporary Somali piracy, it’s actually pretty interesting.)

Hopefully (assuming I’ve done things right), when my first beta readers take a crack at my novel next month, they’ll also find themselves asking this same question as they unfold the tale of my characters, all of which see themselves as the heroes rather than the antagonists. At least initially.

What 9/11 Has Taught Me About Compassion

The thing about writing antagonists is that to do them well, you really have to understand where they’re coming from; that requires a degree of empathy. If you want to write about a heroine who aspires to protect others who suffer by the hand of that same antagonist, then that requires compassion.

That means that not only do you actually need to like something about people in general but you also need to see a reason to risk your sense of ease or security—and sometimes even your life—for those same people.

Those who risked their lives to rescue victims of the September 11th attacks did so because they had compassion for others; the people who attacked America in the first place did so because they lacked that same compassion. If you were to pit two foes against each other and yet neither demonstrated a regard for the lives of others, racking up collateral damage as they went without a blink of an eye, then at the end of the day they’re just the same. The struggle between them has simply become a war of egos.

Funnily enough, I think a lot of my story has to do with these themes: heroism and terrorism, altruism and self-concern, freedom and security… Not to imply these things are complete opposites or one is better than the other (negating terrorism perhaps), just that they get considered alongside one another.  What differentiates a hero from a terrorist? At what point should altruism trump self-concern or vice versa? Is it possible to have complete freedom while ensuring a higher level of security; or can security be maintained when seeking a higher state of freedom?

These are some of the things my story considers and the things I find myself thinking about.

How has 9/11 impacted your life?

Did you know anyone who was at any of the attack scenes, someone who didn’t make it out alive? Where were you when you first heard the news? I think just about everyone can remember. If you’re a writer, has 9/11 influenced any of your writing?


6 thoughts on “What 9/11 Taught Me About Antagonists & the Importance of Compassion

  1. Although I’m German, I too remember exactly where I was at 9/11. I worked in a library at that time to earn a little extra money, and one of my colleagues came out of the back office and just said: “There is war in America.” She honestly believed that we saw the start of a ‘real’ war between states because she couldn’t believe that a group of terrorists could cause such harm.

    As for heroes and antagonists: The term ‘antagonist’ in itself tells us that this character is not necessarily evil (although they often are). They oppose the heroes for one reason or another. From their perspective, the heroes are the antagonists.
    In one of my stories I defined a hero that way: They are persons who know what is right, but also have the courage to stick to their believes even when the circumstances oppose them; be it physical danger or political climate.
    But for us writers things are always more complex. The definition given above can also perfectly fit an antagonist or anti-hero. Therefor the old saying ‘Everyone (character) is the hero in his own story.’ If you dive deeper into this you come to the question what is ‘right’ and who defines this. Often the root of it is a universal moral code, stating things that you ‘just do not do.’ Some of the most dangerous ideologies have successfully implemented their own code to free their followers from the old moral boundaries and replace them with (for us) horrible things that were suddenly ‘right.’
    For an author this topic can be dangerous if you either can’t pull it off to label some thoughts clearly as opinions of a character, or the plot is so sensitive that readers just don’t give it a chance. I once had a short story set in a fascist-based society, and some friends I showed it to were shocked. They did not get that the main CHARACTER was a fascist and thought HIS believes were mine as a real person.

    At last, I want to make a point when it comes to compassion. The antagonist can have compassion on his own, but directed to another person or entity than the hero or even perverted. I recently read a book about members of the Nazi killing squads in WWII. These people murdered hundreds and thousands of other human beings. Some of them were just killers and literally ‘evil’. Others acknowledged compassion for their victims, but talked themselves into believing they were doing this for their country and their children to create a better future.
    The even more horrifiying thing is: The Nazi organizations used and supported these believes, telling their killers that they were heroes because the dared to sacrifice their basic human nature for a greater good. That in my eyes is pure evil.

    I’m sorry, I really rambled on there for a while. It’s a very complex and fascinating topic, and I literally could talk for hours about it 🙂


    • Very complex, indeed!

      That’s a good point about compassion: sometimes people can be choosy about who they show it to–not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I mean obviously, if you feel someone is threatening your life, you’re most likely not apt to show that person any compassion. But things don’t have to be that dire for someone to choose not to show compassion to another person or group of people.

      “I once had a short story set in a fascist-based society, and some friends I showed it to were shocked. They did not get that the main CHARACTER was a fascist and thought HIS believes were mine as a real person.”

      Oh boy! Yeah, I think it takes a real open-minded person to look at a story like that the way the author intended.

      Also, your example with the Nazis reminds me of these suicide bombers in recent history–how ISIS can take an 18-year old and convince him that blowing himself up and killing others is a good thing and something worth doing. Really makes you wonder…

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts, Wrytar!


      • I find it useful to think of hero/villain and protagonist/antagonist as a Venn diagram. Not all protagonists are in any way heroic, and so on. This became clear to me when I saw the movie Prometheus. Dr. Shaw is clearly the protagonist — she’s the central character, her decisions drive the action, we see a lot of things from her point of view, etc. But there’s nothing heroic about her — because of her obsessions a lot of people die and pretty much nothing positive is accomplished. She’s Captain Ahab, basically. The heroes are the ship’s captain and the two pilots who save the Earth, but they’re secondary characters — neither protagonists nor antagonists


        • I like the Venn diagram idea. Kind of lets you play with the possibilities of different types of characters. That would make an interesting exercise–picking a random point on the diagram and then figuring out what kind of character that could be, how they would act, etc.

          Prometheus is a good example of unconventional character roles. Perhaps that’s part of why it’s so unsettling (besides the other obvious alien horror factors).


  2. I was there (across the street, actually) and I still remember seeing the second plane hit. (We heard about the first one on the radio — that’s why we left our windowless room and found a window.) We didn’t know planes were involved — at the time it was just explosions.

    I wrote a whole novel that was some sort of response to the events of that day, but I’ve shelved it, mostly for other reasons. It didn’t deal with antagonists at all — it was mostly about the struggles of the survivors, because that’s the main theme that ran through what I saw on that day. People helped each other, in all sorts of ways. All the background information about what had happened came to us much later.


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