Is Your Villain Too Sympathetic?

At what point does a villain become too sympathetic?

Currently, I’m 85,000 into a YA fantasy book, and I’m worried that my villain will be too sympathetic. A sad back story coupled with a dash of empathy, and I’m stuck wondering if people are really going to hate me for it. I mean, everyone loves a good bad guy, and everyone loves a good twist. Every good villain needs a strong motivation for what they are doing. But what happens when we feel too bad for the villain?

This is the problem of the sympathetic villain.

It’s all well and good to have a villain who has a tragic backstory. We see that all the time in film and books. In real life, most people who do terrible things had awful histories and traumas. Damage breeds the damaged.

Not always, of course. Contrary to the darker statement above, damage can also breed healers.

Our heroes often come from damaged backgrounds as well. The one thing in common here is that a tragic back story (loss of a parent, witnessed/experienced violence, terrible parents, etc.) can lead to a heroic OR villainous future. It is up to each character to determine whether a tragic, painful history will lead to a heroism or villainy.

There is a fine line between making your villain relatable and making them too sympathetic. Give them a horrible tragedy to overcome, and see them twist and coil into a treacherous snake, and that’s OK. But if you focus too much on that empathetic background and readers sympathize too much, you could lose your readers’ faith.

Now, don’t confuse an anti-hero with a sympathetic villain. An anti-hero, full of flaws and questionable acts/motives, is oftentimes still the hero of the story. A sympathetic villain is still a bad guy doing bad things, but with more reasonable motives/flaws.

In the end, you’ll have to decide what kind of experience you want your reader to have. Do you want to surprise them with a twist villain? Do you want to make the villain the surprise hero?

Just be sure to let a beta reader give you an objective opinion. A beta reader can get a sense of the story and the characters, and let you know what is and isn’t working. It can’t much worse than if a reader reads your story and says, “I felt bad for the villain, and what you wrote wasn’t believable.”

Verdict?

If you’re worried that your villain is too sympathetic, just keep writing. When you’re done, have someone read it that you trust, and ask for their opinion. If they recoil in disgust or grip the pages in excitement, you pretty much have your answer.

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8 thoughts on “Is Your Villain Too Sympathetic?

  1. Pingback: A Damaged Past — in Real Life and Fiction | words — and other things
  2. Pingback: Having a Damaged Past | words — and other things
    • I think the perfect example of a villain that strides the line between empathetic and you-love-to-hate-him is Loki from the first Thor movie and then The Avengers. The writers did an excellent job of making us sympathize with the villain plight and then revel in the villain’s villainy. In the commentary on The Avengers (by Joss Whedon), he explains how he struggled with making Loki a good villain after he’d been so sympathetic in the Thor movie.

  3. This is an interesting conundrum and certainly one worth thinking about as we write our characters into existence. One could argue that it all stems from the cultural narrative that villians have terrible things happen to them and commit atrocities because they’re just “bad” people.

    We don’t like the idea that negative experiences could somehow culminate in an “innocent” committing a crime. Ultimately it would mean the world is unjust and anyone of us could do something evil given the right circumstances.

    You pose important questions, a lot of food for thought!

    • And not all villains have tragic histories either. There’s a wealth of villains that are simply overambitious, blinded by desire/greed/revenge. I think it’s important to have at least some level of sympathy or accessibility of villains. Some of the most powerful moments for characters is when you have hero or villain commit an atrocious act that they honestly thought was going to help.

      • It’s true that there are villains without tragic histories. In a way, I think that’s almost worse than a sympathetic villain.

        A truly evil person (without any reason to be so) causes almost as much cognitive dissonance as a good person tainted by circumstances. That’s part of the beauty of writing I think, you can pick and choose which type you’re most interested in.

        I too prefer some level of accessibility of villains. They’re more real (for me) that way.

        • That’s the best part about writing: getting a chance to explore other psychologies. I wouldn’t ever try to take over another country/kingdom, but I can imagine the circumstances where a character would.

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