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.”
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.