Writing Sympathetic Villains: A List of Requirements
May 4, 2018
I LOVE a good villain. I always gravitate to the bad guys and gals, and adore writing sympathetic villains. Sometimes, I find the villain/antagonist more interesting than the protagonist because the protag is usually reacting to the things the villain is actively doing to them. Hence, the villain is creative, ambitious, and goal oriented. Those qualities leave so much room for complex development. But writing a good, well-rounded sympathetic villain can be challenging. It’s one of my favorite areas of the craft to play with, though, so I wanted to share a few tips I’ve picked up to write sympathetic villains readers will root for.
They need their own motivation aside from the story arc.
Beware of the trap of laziness. Creating a villain/antagonist just for the sake of advancing the plot and providing conflict for your protag is a cop-out. Being an obstacle isn’t very interesting in its own right, and like Vonegut said, “make every character want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” Give your villain a motivation that is understandable, if not relatable, and above all, make it interesting. Remember the villains in the old James Bond films? The all wanted world domination or ultimate power in some form. We never knew why they wanted to rule the world. If they were given a motivation, it usually related to financial gain. Money and power. How boring. This cliche works okay in action films, but will not work on the page. To keep readers engaged, you need a nemesis with depth and dimension.
Know their backstory.
I grew up in the 1980’s on a steady diet of Star Wars, and forever wondered why Darth Vader was the way he was. Why was he so evil, a Sith, and the Emperor’s lackey? How did he end up in that mechanical suit??? I had questions, darn it! Fast forward to the late ’90s and come to find out from the prequel films that Anakin had some severe anger, trust, and love issues. The newly knighted Lord Vader feels betrayed by the Jedi and everyone he’s trusted, and turns against the Jedi Order. He murders Padawans, fellow Jedi, he even thinks he killed Padme and his unborn children, albeit by accident.
No wonder he hates himself so much and is consumed by the Dark side! It all made sense once we knew his backstory, his scars, the lies he believed, and his sense of morality. By the end of Revenge of the Sith, I was feeling pretty badly for Ani, (but I didn’t forgive him for killing children, because no).
Give your villain a reason for why they are evil, and make that reason relatable to readers.
When I wrote Becoming Jane, I was inspired by what could make Jane of the Volturi so sadistic and vengeful. The question whether monsters are born or created drove the backstory I developed for her. After close readings of all the scenes where she appears in the Twilight Saga, I decided that she was born with some sadistic and murderous tendencies. I added another element; physical abuse she suffered at her father’s hands. This abuse forces her to commit murder in the name of self-preservation. Any reader can understand, if not relate to, the idea of being freed from an abusive tormentor.
When we identify with that desire, we begin to root for Jane to be so freed. We empathize with her. We want her to achieve her goals, even if the way she achieves them is morally questionable. You feel pity for her situation and want her to win. You actually want this depraved girl to get the revenge she harbors and plans for. This was powerful for my readers, and I received lots of feedback about how their perception of the Jane character changed after reading Becoming Jane. If you can make your readers empathize with your villain, you are winning at fiction writing, and a great way to do that is give them a backstory and motivation that readers can relate to and empathize with. This is the most effective way I’ve found to write sympathetic villains.
Show how they justify their actions within their moral compass.
Villains believe that their actions are correct, valid, and justified. They believe the punishment they wish to inflict matches the crime done against them. Give readers a glimpse into your villain’s thinking to show us how they’re justifying their motivation and/or actions. Helping readers understand how your villain chose her present course of action helps to create empathy from readers. It also reveals much about their character and perception of their world. Let’s look at Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Dolores wasn’t a Death Eater, she had no loyalty to the main antagonist, Voldemort, and her evil wasn’t sprung from his desire for dominion.
But some (like me) might say that she was more evil than Voldemort. She justified her ridiculous rules and harsh infringement of student freedoms by defaulting to her position with the Ministry of Magic and then as the Headmaster at Hogwarts. Her moral compass revolves around adherence to the laws and rules of the Ministry, and she uses those rules to feed her sadistic tendencies and to hurt those she deems as rule breakers or trouble makers. Her strict adherence to rules and law, regardless of whether the rules and laws were morally right or wrong, makes her one of the most hated villains in literature. I never developed empathy for Umbridge, but I sure loved to hate her; another tell of a fantastic villain!
What tips do you have for writing sympathetic villains? I’d love to hear them in the comments!