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Writing Sympathetic Villains

Write a villain readers both hate and love and you have alchemized gold! These days, traditional, one-dimensional villains portrayed as the embodiment of pure evil will not garner an author much recognition. Sympathetic, multi-layered villains, nearly as thoroughly crafted as your hero, evoke a unique blend of emotions audiences hunger for. To give your villain a backstory that elicits understanding and empathy adds complexities to your story that challenge conventional notions of good and evil, offering a more nuanced perspective on morality.


One key aspect of sympathetic villains is the exploration of their origins and experiences. Understanding the circumstances that shaped these characters helps audiences empathize with their choices, blurring the lines between right and wrong. For instance, a sympathetic villain might have endured a traumatic past, facing hardships that forced them into morally gray territory.


Severus Snape from the "Harry Potter" series is initially perceived as an antagonist. Snape's backstory gradually unfolds, revealing a troubled childhood, unrequited love, and internal conflicts. Learning about these aspects adds depth to his character, making audiences reconsider their initial judgment. Snape's journey epitomizes the power of sympathetic villains to challenge preconceptions and elicit empathy.

Another crucial element is the relatability of their motives. Sympathetic villains often pursue goals or ideals that, in isolation, might be considered noble. It's the means they employ or the sacrifices they make that push them into morally ambiguous territory. This complexity challenges audiences to question the traditional dichotomy of good versus evil.


Walter White from "Breaking Bad" transforms from a sympathetic character burdened by financial struggles into a ruthless drug lord. His initial motives—providing for his family's financial future in the face of a terminal illness—resonate with viewers. However, as Walter descends into criminality, the moral compass becomes increasingly blurred. This evolution highlights the precarious nature of sympathy for villains and the intricate interplay between circumstances and choices.

Sympathetic villains often grapple with internal conflicts that resonate with the audience's own struggles. This internal turmoil can manifest as ethical dilemmas, moral ambiguity, or a battle between conflicting desires. The tension between the character's internal strife and external actions contributes to their sympathetic portrayal.


The Joker of Batman fame exemplifies this internal conflict. Despite his chaotic and malevolent actions, the Joker's monologues hint at a deeper internal struggle. His chaotic worldview, born out of personal tragedy, challenges viewers to empathize with the pain that led to his descent into madness. This juxtaposition of sympathy and heinous acts generates a complex emotional response from the audience. The movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, does an outstanding job with the villain origin story of Jack Napier.


Furthermore, the portrayal of sympathetic villains often involves a critique of societal norms or systemic injustices. These characters may rebel against oppressive systems, exposing flaws in society that resonate with viewers. In doing so, sympathetic villains become a vehicle for social commentary, forcing audiences to reflect on the broader issues at play.


Erik Killmonger's motives, in "Black Panther," are rooted in a desire to rectify historical injustices faced by his community. Killmonger's radical methods for achieving justice force the audience to confront uncomfortable truths about systemic oppression. By presenting a villain whose motivations are grounded in real-world issues, the film prompts viewers to question their own stance on societal inequities.



If you think on the many stories you have loved, you may realize one related reason is they way the villain made you feel. These well known characters might support this idea:



When we relate to the humanity of a villain, their persona becomes more realistic. We form a love/hate bond with the villain because, although we hate what they are doing, we can understand their reasoning and have some compassion for them. When a writer pulls off such a feat, their well-written story is destined story success.


In conclusion, sympathetic villains challenge traditional storytelling norms by introducing characters whose complexities evoke empathy from audiences. Through exploring their origins, relatable motives, internal conflicts, and societal critiques, these villains disrupt simplistic notions of good and evil. The portrayal of sympathetic villains serves as a powerful tool for storytellers to engage viewers on a deeper emotional and moral level, prompting introspection and challenging societal norms.


Now, go get villainous!


Anne J. Sharp

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