Being a Better Writer: Considerations for a Villain Protagonist

Welcome back readers!

By now, unless something has gone desperately wrong, I’m well away from my desk, and this post was actually written back in April! So you’re getting this via the scheduler (which is also why some external links like Patreon or the Facebook page won’t have it until later). Me? I’m presumably experiencing salt air and endless rain. Because, you know, Southeast Alaska.

There’s a reason I live in a sunny location now, but it is nice to visit home every once in a while. I just need to make sure I return from there in a timely manner and have a few months to dry out.

So, what are we talking about today? Well, this post is a sort-of follow-up to our post a few weeks back about how to deliver an effective villain. A reader hit up the Topic Call post active around the same time asking after a villain protagonist.

See, as par for the course when discussing terms that are easily conflated, that prior post (as well as a few others) had discussed the differences between a villain and an antagonist, noting that they are not the same thing (and if you’re wondering how or why, hit that link up there, because this is a very important distinction to get right). Same with a hero and a protagonist: They’re not the same thing. They can overlap, but they’re two different roles that aren’t exclusively linked.

And today, we’re demonstrating that link by talking about one of the rarer combinations out there: a villain protagonist.

That’s right. When the villain is your primary character that the story revolves around.

Now, while I did say these are rarer, that’s not the same as nigh-impossible to find. Sands, I linked a video clip in our discussion on effective villains from Megamind, which is indeed a movie about a villain protagonist. There exists a Star Wars comic series that’s all about Darth Vader and has him as the protagonist killing jedi and wreaking havoc. There are even video games that explicitly put the player in the shoes of a villain protagonist.

So this isn’t rare on the level of say, naturally occurring nuclear reactors, but if you were to do a breakdown of all stories out there, villain protags would definitely be on a small end of that list. Especially if you took into consideration all the stories that claim to be about a villain, but really aren’t, and just paint them as the victim of a misunderstanding or the hero of another story (once again, as noted in our post on villains a few weeks ago, a villain by definition chooses evil actions, so a misunderstanding, accident, or “I’m really the hero” don’t count unless they truly are a villain, something most shy away from).

Then again, it’s not hard to see why most stories are reluctant to embrace a villainous protagonist: It’s hard to get a reader to root for a character doing morally repulsive things. AKA, the bread and butter of a villain.

Which again, isn’t to say that it can’t be done. Megamind for instance, paints its villain protagonist as perpetuating evil … but out of the belief that someone has to fill that narrative, and he might as well engage it if he’ll take blame for it anyway. He still openly admits he’s a villain and does immoral things … but at the same time is a very good example of “evil has standards” since he deliberately goes out of his way to keep bystanders from being harmed and the like. For the most part.

However, Megamind is comedic, and also follows its villain protagonist having a change of heart over the course of the film, switching from villain to hero. And again, he’s a villain with standards. So while he’s still “evil” the film is able to use laughter to mask some of the more despicable acts (like another villain-themed film released around the same time) and of course, he does end up good in the end.

But what about a darker villain? What about someone without those same standards against say, killing innocent bystanders? How can we get a reader to follow along with a character when they’re well, not good? When they’d rather kick the dog rather than pet it, or maybe just flat out incinerate it, listening to it howl in pain?

How can we make a villain protagonist work?

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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.

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