A villain rounds out your story’s conflict by opposing the hero’s every move. But, like heroes, villains are busy people, and they have more purposes than wreaking havoc. You’ve probably heard that they need to be “sympathetic” and “relatable.” Maybe the source you visited helped you concoct such a villain, or maybe (probably) it didn’t.
How to create a sympathetic villain is commonly hashed out in the writer community. It’s a tricky concept to master, and a well-developed villain can make or break a story as much as a hero. In this article, I’d like to take a step back from the how-to and supply a new perspective by explaining how a sympathetic villain can enrich a story.
Sympathy, as defined by the very official Dictionary.com, is “the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another.” When you write a book, you are trying to generate this power of sharing feelings with readers. Though your hero is the strongest emotional connection between readers and the story, your villain has a role to play in the game too. But how? What does a sympathetic villain look like?
Simply stated, a sympathetic villain is one people identify with. As readers observe him, they recall something they’ve felt, experienced, thought, or said. Essentially they will feel like your villain.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it?
Maybe. But it’s an important part of storytelling, and below I’ll describe why.
When God created the world, he didn’t form man, woman, and villain. Villains, both in real life and fiction, are human. During our daily interactions with the antagonists in our own lives, we often don’t view them as people, but they are. Even militants on the front of our daily wars (literal or figurative) are people. They are defending their position (or attacking ours) for some reason that, though we don’t see it, is fundamental to humankind. They are influenced by their emotions, thoughts, and desires, which lead them to their decisions and actions. You know who else is affected by those factors? Every human on the face of the earth (or other fictional terrestrial surface).
I’m not implying that we should all gather around a campfire and sing “Kumbaya.” Humans can be wrong. Dead wrong. But even then they are driven by something human. God created humanity in His image. We all sense that, whether we comprehend it or not, and whether we accept it or not.
Without a sympathetic villain, your story will lose an opportunity to be real. And if it’s not real, it can’t reach real people or change real lives.
Sympathetic villains are realistic yet hard to create. Thus they are rare. Most books you grab off a shelf and (Marvel) movies you plop into your DVD player feature shallow villains who love being wicked and participate in evil monologue competitions whenever the hero is almost defeated.
Unfortunately, although everyone says you must create a sympathetic villain, few writers actually do. Because of that, you can set your story apart by giving your hero a villain worth fighting. A dynamic villain will incite conflict, emotions, and situations that most stories lack. He will make your story fresh and unpredictable.
A villain is integral to your story’s theme. His actions, beliefs, and demise shape the negative ideal your hero will clash against. A poorly developed, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil villain cheapens your theme by failing to explore the legitimate aspects of his position. Though a one-sided presentation is sometimes acceptable when you’re covering a non-controversial theme (a topic for another day), setting up a strawman for a viewpoint you’re biased against will cause you trouble.
And it should.
Your novel should be honest as it addresses touchy issues, and having a sympathetic villain represent the people you disagree with will advance that goal. Readers won’t feel slighted even though their viewpoint is vilified. Also, if they see themselves in your villain, and his weaknesses are exposed, they may (like your villain) realize the flaws in their viewpoint. None of that happens with a strawman villain whose strength is his evil laugh.
Words of Caution
Before I wrap this up, you need to be aware of two hazards as you set out to mold your villain.
Once readers connect emotionally with a character besides the hero, they will start to be pulled in two directions. That’s fantastic. That’s internal conflict. But you don’t want to rip them in two. If your villain gets away with understandable-but-still-wrong actions, readers might assume he wasn’t the villain at all. If he is brooding, mysterious, and secretly popular like an anti-hero, readers might side with him, not just sympathize.
Themes are taught in your novel’s cause/effect sequences. If your villain’s misdeeds (the cause) receive an ultimately positive result (the effect), you will slip into the realm of the anti-hero, where evil can be glorified unless you tread carefully. There is right and wrong in this world. Draw lines in the sand.
Think of Syndrome from The Incredibles. He is a relatable villain. We understand his motivation. His goal isn’t altogether evil: the elimination of a societal class system. However, his methods are far from justifiable. In the end, he gets busted. We relate to him, but we recognize his villainy, and that isn’t cool.
God is not mocked. What a villain sows, he will also reap.
Another way sympathetic villains can cause problems is their intimidation factor. A sympathetic villain that isn’t all powerful will be vulnerable. He’s human, and humans are vincible. But your hero must be threatened by him, so he can’t be too feeble. Don’t lessen conflict by weakening your villain.
A perfect example is the Leverage episode “The Cross My Heart Job,” which I watched on Netflix recently. The villain was an old, dying, stinking rich man who needed a heart transplant to live. Sympathetic? Yes. Vulnerable? Yes. He’s dying. However, he becomes a villain when he tries to steal a heart destined for a young boy. To pull this off, he spends some of his immense cash stash to hire thugs who kidnap the kid’s sister and force the victimized family to relinquish the heart their son desperately needs.
His weakness and loneliness (the only person ever shown with him is his grumpy nurse) make him vulnerable, but his money makes him mightier than the hero, leading to an engaging conflict.
Now that you fully understand why you should create a sympathetic villain, perhaps you can better apply the resources telling you how. Your story needs a real villain to have real conflict and represent the real world. Don’t cut corners.