Evil Sympathy

Everyone likes the big bad villain.  Rather, everyone hates the big bad villain.  Darth Vader, Voldemort, Sauron– the Dark Lords of fantasy and science fiction have the coolest powers, and most often, the coolest backstories.  A normal person would have to go through a lot to become as evil as these people appear.  Unveiling that backstory can be more fun than the actual plot, yet accentuate the main character’s story along the way.  However, as we understand them, they inevitably become less scary.  Darth Vader is just a poor old single father, while Emperor Palpatine gets all the hatred.  Voldemort is just a regular guy missing his nose.  Sauron… well, he doesn’t have a nose either, but his backstory isn’t so well known.

Sympathetic means feeling the same emotions as the reader, but that has different connotations for villains.  It might mean having an understandable path from good to evil (Voldemort style).  It also might mean acting in a good way, even though they’re supposed to be evil (Darth Vader style).  If you choose not to make your villain sympathetic, they probably still have a backstory that made them that way but you choose not to show it (Sauron style).

All these are viable options, and it depends on the kind of arc you want your villain to have.  Do you want a tragic arc, like Voldemort?  Or you could have an evil arc that ends in good, like Darth Vader’s.  You could also have a slow reveal of backstory (like Voldemort) leading to a good act (like Vader).  Or you could have nothing at all, leaving your villain unsympathetic but awesome and terrible, like Sauron.

But that aura of evil is so useful– is it possible to have a sympathetic villain and that aura of evil at the same time?

By nature, the two styles of villain are contradictory.  Making the villain sympathetic reduces their aura of evil– the more evil they seem, the less sympathetic they are.  (This is, of course, assuming your reader isn’t a megalomaniac.)  But all the same, is it possible?  Could it be done?

The aura of evil is an emotional reaction to whatever the villain does.  If the villain kicks a puppy, the immediate reader reaction is of disgust (exaggerating reactions a little).  That reaction is very simple; the villain did this, I don’t like him.  The combination of those simple reactions creates the aura of evil.

The sympathy of a character, however, puts a different lens on that scene.  As the villain kicks the puppy and the reader realizes he’s had a morbid fear of dogs since his childhood, the simple reaction of disgust is changed to a reaction of pity, or even fear.  It becomes a complex reaction– your senses tell you to hate the villain for kicking that puppy, but the backstory puts a different slant on it, changing your reaction.  That reduces the aura of evil but strengthens the character in the reader’s eyes.

Essentially, the aura of evil is created by unexplained acts of maleficence; sympathy is created by explaining those acts.  The one undermines the other, putting a complex spin on the previously simple emotion.  As far as I can see, they cannot be mixed.  It’s your job to know which emotion you want most out of the reader.  Furthermore, it’s your job to make sure the reader is with you all along the ride– if readers love to hate a villain and all of a sudden, whoops, they were abducted by aliens when they were two, their emotions are wrenched in the opposite direction.  If you guide their emotions in the opposite direction slowly, you can create a sympathetic character without jerking their aura of evil away.

Unfortunately, sympathy and evil don’t mix too well.  It’s your decision which you value more.


45 thoughts on “Evil Sympathy

      1. I’ll figure it out eventually, though. Just like all of the other millions of things I’ll figure out eventually.

        Ha, see! Don’t need encouraging this time; I know I’ll do it. And I’m actually working on it this time!

  1. My villain was supposed to be manipulatively bad, but since I introduced him as an apparently kind old guy to my MC (even though her sidekick later enlightened her and she’s being held as his temporarily brainwashed prisoner currently) I can’t get him to seem threatening at all. Villains are definitely hard…I guess I should add some concrete examples of his past dastardly deeds. Great post!

    1. Instead of adding examples of his past to make him seem more evil, I’d say add examples in the present if possible. Referencing the past is fine for adding sympathy, but for the simple reaction needed for the aura of evil, you need something to happen in the present.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Oh yay! Thank you, thank you for writing this! 😀

    …Too bad that they don’t mix, though. This is what I was worried about. Oh well, I’ll figure something out 🙂

    1. Yep, sorry about that. There might be a way to mess with fear for the character seeming like fear of the character… but that’s pretty difficult to do right, if at all.

      1. If your villain is still spiraling downward, as you grow sympathy the fear of the character (“He’s going to kill the MC!”) becomes fear for the character (“He’s destroying himself!”). As sympathy grows, at some point the reader starts rooting for both the villain and the main character, wanting one to become good and the other to triumph. I was saying you could try spinning fear for the character as fear of the character, but on second thought that wouldn’t work. Sorry.

      2. Oh, I see. No, it wouldn’t work.

        My villain is going to get eviler and eviler as the story progresses. I want to show the dangers of obsessing over loss and the refusal to move on. As the protagonists rise up to face his challenge, he only becomes more determined, and more desperate, to revive his dead wife. In light of this, I need to reveal his backstory, yet making him seem utterly beyond redemption.

        Dad calls it the gradual progression of evil. In book 1, the villain is only lying in wait, watching his plans unfold. In book 2, he’s more active, killing and kidnapping characters. In book 3, he becomes irredeemable (spelling?), and I’m going to show the last part by *sniff sniff* making him kill his own beloved dog, because the dog is a liability.

        Which reminds me, I need to detail THAT relationship as well. Add that to my to-do list and just call this book Les Mis 2.

  3. Interesting post. I think this concept could be applied to other villains, not just all-powerful ones. For example, Professor Snape. He went through the same “wait here’s my backstory feel sorry for me” process without being a super villain. If I’m remembering Les Mis correctly, one could say the same about Javert.

    You mentioned considering what you want the reaction of the readers to be, and as I think about it there’s a bit of a continuum between “Oh, now I understand why he’s doing that but I still hate him” and “Oh. Oh. That’s why she did that. That makes sense and is completely understandable in a way that’s a little disconcerting because I could see myself doing that.” And there are probably a gazillion other types of reactions along those lines.

    1. Oh, of course. Any character can become more sympathetic, in fact– they don’t have to be evil.

      Indeed. That’s why it’s such a complex reaction– but by creating one of those reactions, you lose the absolute hatred reaction you might get from blatant kicking of puppies.

  4. In re. DV: just because you understand his motivations doesn’t mean you have to feel sympathy. I mean, if you count elements of tragedy known to the character to whom they happened, Obi-Wan had it very nearly as bad if not worse, yet he’s still good. So the viewer’s reaction can still be dislike/fear of DV, even though they know what happened to make him that way.

    1. I’m not talking about feeling sympathy for the character, as if pitying him– sympathy, in Vader’s case, is understanding a tiny part of his actions. When we see he’s Luke’s father, it makes sense how fixated Vader is on Luke, despite all the bad he’s done. You’re right, there’s still dislike and fear, but that little bit of sympathy (especially as it grows through Return of the Jedi) makes all the difference. I don’t care about elements of tragedy at this point. If you start with A New Hope, you don’t get that tragedy until you reach RotJ and turn back to Phantom Menace. Tragedy does not equal sympathy, when sympathy is defined by the reader feeling what the character feels.

  5. I have a tendency to create more evil-aura types than sympathetic ones. I’m writing a story with my first-ever female villain and her story is basically “corrupted by power that’s it” except for the death of her parents, which might’ve been the catalyst. Anyway, she’s also the woman the hero was sworn to protect–until she turned bad, which means that his oath binds him to put an end to her tyranny by whatever means necessary. Is that a good plot idea, do you think???

    1. It’s good, but you’re going to run into problems if you try to info-dump it, or even just reveal it slowly. You’re going to have to work really, really hard on that one.

  6. Ohh..so THAT’S why I never seem to be able to ‘make’ a good villain…I always want him to do both. But at the wrong time. But in the right way. All to make the plot twist…but the villain just ends up sounding like a psychopath.
    Which I guess could be a good thing, but I never want my villain to be sincerely crazy. Just mostly so.
    Nice post

      1. It isn’t a matter of finding a reason that isn’t overused, but making sure the reason is plausible. People eat all the time, and why? Because they’re hungry. Sometimes the reason itself isn’t the difficulty, but the way to portray the reason to make it seem plausible and poignant.

  7. Hmm, interesting. I’ve never been very good at villains, but this seems like it might help. Never thought of it this way before. Thanks!

      1. That’s one of the things about catch-up reading–you get the bigger picture better, and notice things like that. It’s fine! 🙂

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