BaBW: Sympathetic Villains Follow-Up

Well readers, I made a mistake. Not a massive one, but a mistake nonetheless. Kind of a relieving one, too, since I’d been waiting for this shoe to drop for a while now (I had to screw up with one of these posts eventually). But I did screw up.

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.

I did not mean that your stories shouldn’t have characters—protagonists, antagonists, or otherwise—without grey areas. Grey areas can be wonderful places to explore as a point of conflict between characters. Sands, I use them in my own work; look no further than Colony to find a range of characters with goals and objectives that are all at odds with one another but very much riding the fine line of what is a gray area and what isn’t (also, if you haven’t yet, you really should read it).

I also wasn’t trying to say that a story had to have a hero-villain relationship. This one I just didn’t make clear enough … which is my fault, because several times I used protagonist-antagonist to break the monotony of repeating myself with hero-villain, without realizing I was leaving that open to be a tripping point.

Heroes and villains are types of protagonists and antagonists, but I was not trying to say that all protagonists or antagonists had to be heroes or villains. I’ve written to the contrary before. A hero is a type of protagonist, a very specific one. As is a villain. And you can have a story with one, the other, both, or neither.

So, what was the point of Monday’s too long post? A simple topic I made overly complex, so here goes: The term “sympathetic villain” is not the same as an empathetic villain, but far too many writers conflate the two and end up mistaking how a villain is supposed to be presented. Having an empathetic villain does not mean that the audience must agree with the villain, or that the villain is as “right” as the hero. Having an empathetic villain means that the audience simply understands and can follow what pushed the villain to where they are.

That’s it. I simply wanted to tackle a distressingly common misconception conflating sympathy with empathy. But I dropped the ball and ended up confusing quite a few readers, hence this clarification post.

Nothing is wrong with protagonist stories, or antagonist stories. Or grey areas. The only wrong I was trying to correct was to nudge young, new, and confused writers back on the right track with sympathetic versus empathetic.

And in the process, I ended confusing a bunch more. Whoops.

Hopefully this addendum has cleared up a few things. Again, apologies for the mistake with the Monday post. An error like that was bound to happen eventually, so I’m kind of glad to have gotten it out of the way, at least for another four or so years.

Speaking of which … I’d best get started on that. Until then!