Being a Better Writer: Sympathetic Villains

URGENT: READ THIS FOLLOW-UP IF YOU READ THIS POST! It clarifies a few important things.

… are a mistaken understanding.

Okay, that’s a strong statement as a lead-in for today’s post, but it has merit! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer, the weekly writing guide post where we discuss, well, writing topics of all kind.

Today’s topic, Sympthetic Villains, is another request topic. It’s also a topic that I knew would inspire a bit of controversy when I tackled it, particularly among newer writers, because of the amount of misunderstanding I’ve seen concerning it. Misunderstanding that comes from, unfortunately, the name itself and the oft-mistaken misuse of two similar but different words: sympathy … and empathy.

See, a lot of people use the former when they mean the latter. And, to be fair, the two share similar meanings. Sympathy is defined firstly as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune,” and empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Pretty close, right? Well, you’d think so until you saw the second, third, or even fourth definitions (depending on the dictionary) of sympathy, which move from “feelings of” to “sharing understanding” or even “agreeing with.”

Uh-oh. Can you see where the the use of the wrong word can cause a problem for young, newbie writers yet? Or even for more experienced authors? The problem is that while empathy means understanding a character’s perspective, sympathy means agreeing with it.

This is a subtle distinction that, much like a few degrees of difference in the flight-path of an airplane, has a truly massive effect on how we approach our story. And it’s why I opened this post by saying that a sympathetic villain is a mistaken understanding of the term. Because, barring a few very specific subversions of the villain-hero relationship, we’re not supposed to have a sympathetic villain. We don’t want a sympathetic villain. We want an empathetic villain. And trying for one when we want the other can undercut our entire story.

Okay, let me back up here, because having browsed online before and seen writing forums, I can already see a number of younger writers (and maybe even a few somewhat experienced ones) raising their hands and saying “Yeah, but—!” So let me explain how this tiny difference changes so much.

Having an empathetic villain means that a creator has given the audience a villain that they understand the position or perspective of. It’s a character that the audience looks at and understands the motivation and reasoning of, thus making their actions understandable. This is something we desire in writing because not only does it make our villains more “human” and understandable, it also makes them more real. Audience’s have a hard time connecting with evil bad guy #23 who desires to conquer X small country, for example, if that’s all they’re given. Evil bad guy #23 is just the force moving against the protagonist to conquer a country because … they’re evil?

Crafting #23 into an empathetic character, on the other hand, gives the audience understanding over their motives, the reasoning behind their desire, etc etc. Whatever that may happen to be, #23 is still a villain, still the bad guy, but at least the audience understands a bit about their drive, and why they want to conquer said small country. Maybe their ancestor was a high-ranking member of the government and was kicked out for breaking the law, and #23 feels that they should be in control. Or maybe they feel that the current government doesn’t answer to what they feel is really “important.” Regardless, they have a cause past “Mwuah hahahaha! Watch me twirl my mustache!” and that the audience understands this cause as the reason for the villain’s actions.

Okay, now how is that different from sympathetic, and why does one serve the story while the other bring disaster? Well, let’s go back to our generic evil guy #23 and conquering this small country, and let’s make him a sympathetic villain in our story rather than an empathetic one. What changes?

Well, where with empathetic the audience understood the causes of #23’s behavior, the why of their actions, with sympathetic the audience is expected to agree with the villain. Conquering country X? The audience is supposed to agree with the villain’s plan, see the reasoning behind it, and admit “they have a good point, I think they’re right.”

See how this can wreck your story? It’s one thing to have the audience understand a villain or antagonist. Seeing their point of view helps flesh out their character and explain motive, personality, etc. But sympathize with them? That undermines the whole dichotomy of the story, as the audience now agrees with the antagonist, not the protagonist. Or at the very least, no longer understands who they’re supposed to be supporting … which in turn breaks the rest of the story, because what’s the point once both parties are equally right or wrong?

Now, yes, a clever author could, again, use this for a subversion, but we’re not talking abut that today. Instead, we’re talking about a story where the author tries to make the villain as sympathetic as the hero, to the point where the audience doesn’t know who to support or even what the point or difference is between one of the two sides coming out on top. And at that moment, they’re going to put the book down. Or at the very least, if they finish it, feel completely apathetic about the result, since it didn’t matter.

See, this in part comes back to something I’ve spoken of before when talking about heroes: this idea of “moral relativism” and how it’s incredibly damaging to our stories. Moral relativism is the idea that “no one is right or wrong, and everyone’s opinion is equally right, because everything is relative.” The problem is that once you subscribe to this idea, right and wrong lose all meaning. There’s no “right” and there’s no “wrong” because everything is “equal” and without merit. Meaning your protagonist may as well be your antagonist, and vice-versa … which in turn makes your story not very exciting.

The idea of a “sympathetic villain,” I’ve noticed, often goes hand in hand with this idea of moral relativism, that there’s no good, and no bad, that everything is “just shades of grey.” If not because those who buy into moral relativism by association buy into “the villain is just misunderstood,” then by the fact that both are equally frustrating to read and ultimately come with little payoff.

After all, what’s the drive for the audience if they aren’t invested for either side to win, or if the story adopts the mindset of “no matter what, everyone’s right, and no one loses or is wrong?” Where’s the tension there?

Look, it’s not that we don’t want to have sympathetic characters. As creators, we want the audience to agree with someone. But if you make that someone the villain? It creates problems from the basic (you’ve confused loyalties with the reader) all the way to the complex (Wait a minute, why is the book written this way? Was this set-up properly?). We want our readers to understand our antagonist, yes … but not to sympathize with them.

So, getting all the way back around to where this whole thing started, a sympathetic villain is a mistaken understanding. What we want to create is an empathetic villain. Not a sympathetic one. We don’t want the audience agreeing with the villain.

That established, then, how do we go about helping our audience understand our antagonists? How do we give them that sense of perspective?

Carefully. There are a number of classic ways to do this, of course. You can just jump to the villain’s perspective to give a momentary glimpse of the world from their eyes. You can have them monologue to the protagonist, which works, even if it’s a little ham-handed (having them explain their position and reasoning through subtle bits of natural dialogue and showing it through action is a much better route). You could even go for full “I really don’t care and just want this over with” and do a flashback … if you want to go for laziest possible cop-out you can.

But really, it helps if you think of an empathetic villain or antagonist as one who’s objectives and motivations are clearly understood by the audience, almost as clearly as the protagonist’s are, to the degree—and this is a really important part—that the audience can see the chain of decisions, thought, and logic, that brought them there. The audience does not agree with all of them—hopefully not, anyway—but at the same time, they understand and see the line of connecting thoughts.

Let me make a quick aside here on that last statement. The “all of them” part. An empathetic villain doesn’t need to be entirely off-base with every decision that they make. Their progression, that chain of decisions? It should make some sense.

For example, let’s look at the character of Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove as an empathetic villain. Is the audience given the line of logic behind her decision to do away with (read: kill) the emperor and take over the kingdom? Well, yes! For starters, the audience is shown that she already effectively manages the kingdom anyway, though in secret and with clear aspirations, as well as a callous hand. We also are shown that the emperor himself is effectively useless at running the place, caring more for his own interests than anything else. And we see the firing from her job that sets Yzma off. However, while the audience understands these events, and can see the reasoning Yzma has for wanting to off the emperor and take over … the audience also doesn’t agree with her, because it’s clear she’s only doing it out of personal self-interest and a desire for revenge escalated well past the line of good reason.

See the difference? The audience understands Yzma’s perspective, how she got there, and even agrees on some points (the emperor is a worthless layabout; it’s hard to disagree there). But at the same time, the direction she chooses to take things, as well as her personal greed? The audience isn’t quite so inclined to react so harshly.

Granted, in The Emperor’s New Groove this is all quite successfully played for laughs to hilarious success, but the point still stands: The audience empathizes with the villain, Yzma. Her boss is worthless! She was fired abruptly despite all those … those … many, many years of service! Oh, but she was also going behind her bosses back, and … oh, now she’s going to kill him and take over? Little extreme, you think?

See that? That’s an empathetic villain … but not a sympathetic one. Crafting our antagonists, we should be looking in a similar vein. We should show our audience the line of decisions that makes our villains who they are, decisions that are relatable and understandable, but at the same time our audience does not fully agree with. They’re shown the point where a “normal” individual would say “that’s crossing the line” that the villain chose to march past for one reason or another.

Granted, this does require a bit of work on your end. It’s not enough to simply say “here is my villain, so scary!” At least, not in a story that’s being driven by said villain, or one where they’ll be on display for more than a single line. You need to think of their backstory, their reasons. No one simply wakes up one morning and decides to burn a farm boy’s village to the ground. There’s a decision behind that moment, some chain of thought that, even if the audience doesn’t agree with it (and again, they probably shouldn’t), they can still see how our villain reached that conclusion.

Now, you don’t have to explain everything. Don’t go overboard. All you need to do is offer enough of a framework from point A to point E for the readers to go “Oh, so that’s why they did this” or “That’s why they act like that.” We want our readers to understand the villain. See the chain of decisions. Empathy.

We don’t want that empathy to turn to sympathy, however. We don’t want to cross the line from “I see how they got here” to “Wow, the villain is right!” Once we’ve done that, well … we’ve turned everything on its head and probably wrecked our story (again, barring subversion, which is another topic for another day).

Don’t write a sympathetic villain. Write an empathetic villain.

So, recap time. People say sympathetic villain when they often mean empathetic villain. One is a character the audience is supposed to agree with, the other, understand. We want our readers to understand our antagonist and see how they reached their point of view … but not agree with them.

We create an antagonist that is understandable by writing our story in such a way as to present their chain of thought or the sequence of events that led them to their current path, terrible as it may be. Like I said, the reader can clearly see the path right up to and past the line that the reader themselves would not cross. They know that’s the line, and they see how the antagonist crossed it … but it’s still the line. Understanding, not agreeing.

And once when our reader understands our villain, the why’s and what’s behind their reasoning,  then we’ve done our job, and done it well, and we’ve crafted a story where we can pit a hero against a villain, and create something special.

Got it? Good. Go get to it. Make an empathetic villain to stand opposite your hero.

Good luck. Now get writing. And read the follow-up!

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Sympathetic Villains

  1. Your hints about subversion made me think about the most obvious one. Making the villain into the hero over the course of the story, not by having him change but instead by changing the the reader’s perspective of him. Man, that sounds like an awesome book if it’s done right.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Monday’s Being a Better Writer post? The one on Sympathetic Villains? I overexplained it. I spent far too much time covering what was a relatively straightforward concept, and in the end, confused a few of my long-time readers quite spectacularly. It was my own fault; the post should have been about half the size. So this, right here? This is a correction, which will now be linked at the beginning of the aforementioned post. I overdid it, and I’m going to add some clarification, starting immediately. […]


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